July in Japan: From Misery to Magic

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July in Japan: From Misery to Magic

Summer in Japan’s coastal and low-lying regions, including Tokyo and Kyoto, can be miserably hot and humid, but it is also an opportunity to experience the mind-over-matter tactics traditionally deployed by the Japanese to help make the season more bearable.

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Morioka's northern charm

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Morioka's northern charm

Morioka is one of the most appealing old castle towns in Japan. Though few buildings actually date to feudal times, Morioka's temples, merchant quarter, crafts, and traditions convey a powerful impression of the town's history. The people of Morioka have a flair for making the most of their town's provincial charm, turning old storehouses into restaurants and art galleries, and building lively, handsome museums, all of which make Morioka a good place for people who love traditional Japan. 

Photo credit: Jason Hill, Creative Commons 2.0

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Kite Fight!

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Kite Fight!

In the 16th century, the lord of Hamamatsu castle decided to celebrate the birth of a healthy son by staging a kite battle. This evolved into one of our favorite festivals in Japan, Tako-Gassen, a battle of gigantic kites waged on the sand dunes of Hamamatsu. This seaside city is bypassed by tourists at other times of the year (unless one has business with Yamaha Corporation or a taste for unagi eel, raised in Hamana-ko, a large lagoon), but fortunately, the city is easy to visit, less than two hours from Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train.

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Yoshino’s ambiguous cherry blossoms

This is the season when Japanese and Japanophiles wax rhapsodic about the frail beauty of sakura, the cherry blossom that heralds the arrival of spring with its translucent pale petals. You might be surprised to learn that this delicate flower is the symbol of the samurai, for reasons that are satisfyingly twisted. The sakura has a fleeting moment of glory before it falls to the ground, a life cut short at the height of its beauty.

Many are the places that claim to offer the best sakura viewing in Japan, but at the top of the heap is Yoshino, a remote mountain village whose slopes are covered with cherry trees. While the sight is glorious, Yoshino-zakura owe their fame as much to the melancholy legends associated with the place.

Yoshino History: Loyalty to the Emperor—But Which One?

There are certain events in a nation's history that penetrate to the core of its contradictions, that are still the subject of political debate centuries later. The French argue to this day about the Revolution of 1789; for Japan, the attempt of a fourteenth-century emperor to reestablish direct imperial rule was a topic of heated dispute until recent times.

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Naked adrenaline rush

Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri. Photo courtesy of Okayama Chamber of Commerce.

There’s something cathartic about abandoning convention and common sense, which is perhaps why the Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival) continues to entice nearly 10,000 enthusiasts some 500 years after the custom is said to have begun. On the third Saturday of every February, men and boys clad only in fundoshi (loincloths), douse themselves with icy water, and pile into the temple hall at a density that would make fire marshals weep.

At 10:00 pm, the lights are extinguished and a priest tosses a pair of sacred sticks (shingi) from a window high above the fray. Below in the dark, the men commence to struggle en masse for possession of the sticks. Just to keep things exciting, a hundred willow bundles are also tossed among the throng, perhaps to confuse or console those who fail to claim the ultimate prize. The men who are able to seize the shingi and thrust them into a cypress box filled with rice are blessed with good fortune for the coming year. Kind of like a Shinto version of the Super Bowl.

Which leads me to speculate on the origins and meaning of this rite. First, while it takes place in a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of mercy, the hadaka matsuri has all the trappings of a Shinto ritual: the nakedness, the maleness (although women have tried to join the festival), the purification by water, the oracular aspect of holding a contest of strength, the symbolism of men thrusting long sticks into a vessel filled with the grain representing fertility and life. It’s said that in ancient times, hadaka matsuri consisted of beating bad fortune into a hapless naked fellow who was then banished from the village.

Whatever the truth may be, the Hadaka Matsuri is a not-to-be-missed adrenaline rush. Spectators crowd the periphery to watch the action, but seating is also available. As with all such rites, it is preceded earlier in the day by parades, ablutions in the river, a junior version of the festival held of young boys, drumming, fireworks, and all the trappings of typical matsuri. The splendid garden and museums of Okayama nearby provide worthy diversions.

What: Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri,

When: 3rd Saturday in February. Date subject to change. Check website for updates.

Where: 10 minute walk from Saidai-ji station, on the JR Ako line from Okayama station.

Tickets: Y500-1,000 (standing) to Y5,000 (seats)

Join the fray: Males only. Fundoshi and white tabi socks can be purchased on site, and a changing area is provided. Please review the rules carefully here.

 

Instructions for those who would like to participate in the Hadaka Matsuri!

Instructions for those who would like to participate in the Hadaka Matsuri!

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Exploring the Japanese writing system

Japanese is a rich and fascinating language. Among its many extraordinary qualities is its uniquely complex script, which combines two parallel phonetic syllabaries (kana) with Roman letters (rômaji), Arabic numerals (Arabia sûji), and of course Chinese characters (kanji). With five scripts used simultaneously, Japanese is often called the world’s most difficult writing system. As the joke about the Japanese class goes, “OK class, now you’ve learned Chinese characters. On to page 2!”

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Dining out. Nabemono 101

Winter is prime time for nabemono, one-pot stews that are cooked at the table in a large, earthenware casserole over a gas flame. Everyone eats out of the communal pot, plucking out morsels and dipping them in sauce. This is one of the most popular ways to dine in cold weather.

The ingredients arrive at the table in their raw state, beautifully arranged on large platters for your visual enjoyment before being put into the boiling stock. The waitress will get things going, but then it becomes "self-service," so it's worth knowing the basic rules.

The first things to go in the pot are ingredients that give flavor to the stock: clams, chicken, fish, leeks and shiitake mushrooms. Next comes everything else, except for delicate greens, usually mitsuba (trefoil) and shungiku (chrysanthemum leaves), which are thrown in at the last minute. Often added at the end are udon noodles or mochi (rice cakes), or cold rice and egg, to make zōsui (rice porridge). If the flame is too high, ask the waitress, “hi wo sagete kudasai.

Sukiyaki is the most famous of Japan’s one-pot dishes. Less known but equally worthy is mizudaki (or mizutaki). This famous nabemono originated in Hakata, in northern Kyūshū, and is said to have been inspired by the Chinese. The broth used in mizudaki is a milky-white chicken stock. To it, one adds chunks of chicken on the bone (more flavorful), Chinese cabbage, carrot, tofu, leeks and fine "glass noodles" of bean protein. The cooked morsels are served with a tangy sauce of soy, citrus, grated radish and hot chili pepper.

Mizudaki is readily available throughout Japan. One of our favorites is Toriiwaro in the Nishijin district of Kyoto. It’s pricey, but you are paying for the splendid elegant Kyoto townhouse ambiance as well as for the delectable food. Do you have a favorite shop? Let us know!

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Tokyo's hippest neighborhood?

 CREDIT: KO SASAKI FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

 CREDIT: KO SASAKI FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

The New York Times recently noted that Shimokitazawa is considered by many to be Tokyo's "coolest neighborhood": "The low-key neighborhood of Shimokitazawa in western Tokyo is only one express-train stop from the sensory excesses of chaotic Shibuya — imagine Times Square, amplified — but it’s a world away in spirit. The area, locally called Shimokita, is populated by hip young Tokyoites drawn by the relaxed, small-town atmosphere that makes the neighborhood an anomaly in this bustling megalopolis. The narrow streets are easy to navigate and dense with local businesses, including a high concentration of vintage shops, unusual specialty stores and small boutiques stocked with wares from young artists and artisans." 

Do you love Shimokita? What other Tokyo neighborhoods have won your heart? Share your treasures in the Comments section!

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GATEWAY TO JAPAN, DIGITAL EDITION IS HERE!

IT'S HERE!

Gateway to Japan, Digital Edition

After 1.5 years of development, 750+ pages digitized and updated, and over 2600 Google Maps link added, Gateway to Japan, Digital Edition is finally here!

The legendary travel guide has been thoroughly updated and remastered, and is now available in a brand new eBook format. Embark on an adventure to the fascinating and wonderful land of sushi, karaoke, samurai and anime. There's never been a better time to visit Japan, and there's no better travel companion than Gateway to Japan, Digital Edition!

Get 10% with promo code: GATEWAY2016
Expires 12/9/2016

What people have said about the original Gateway to Japan:

"Most comprehensive guidebook on Japan"
       ~ Forbes

"Gateway is not simply the best guidebook to Japan - it is the best single guide to any country I've ever visited.”
       ~ Jeffrey Steingarten, The Man Who Ate Everything

"This is truly a comprehensive guide to read in advance, use during a trip, and to refer to back home."
       ~ The Explorers Journal

"Even if you're not inclined to travel, get the book for the front essays on art, castles, history, matsuri, and my favorite chapter title: 'One-hour Japanese.'"
       ~ Tokyo Journal

Get your copy today!

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On reigning empresses

When Emperor Akihito delivered a speech this past August hinting that he would like the Japanese parliament to change the law to allow him to retire, the New York Times noted that changing the law might re-open the sensitive topic of allowing a woman to be in line for the Chrysanthemum Throne. I've been proof-reading the Kyoto chapter of "Gateway to Japan" and came across of bit of history regarding the circumstances which led to an empress ascending to the throne in the 17th century:

“Iemitsu's sister [the Shogun's sister] had become Go-Mizuno'o's empress, reviving the classical tradition of powerful families marrying off their daughters to emperors. When a son was born, the Tokugawa pressured Go-Mizuno'o to abdicate in favor of the child. He resisted, however, and then the child died. In 1627, the emperor had another fight with the Tokugawa, over the assignment of "purple robes" to the abbots of Daitokuji and Myōshin-ji. Humiliated, Go-Mizuno'o abdicated in protest in 1629 and, breaking tradition, left his throne to a daughter, who became the first reigning empress in more than 850 years...” (Excerpt From: June Kinoshita. “Gateway to Japan, Digital Edition.”)

Freed from the restrictions the Tokugawa placed on reigning emperors, Go-MIzuno'o made the most of his retirement, designing masterpieces of Japanese architecture and gardens. 

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