Farming villages were part of the landscape appreciated by poets and artists of old Japan. The romance of the road, however, was not for the hapless farmers, who under the authoritarian edicts of the Tokugawa shogunate (1601-1857) were not normally allowed to leave their farms and villages. This oppressive law helped preserve Japan's many distinct provincial subcultures. One of the special pleasures of traveling in the remoter parts of Japan is that each few hours of travel will reveal new crafts, a different, delicious regional cuisine and, among the elderly, a yet more incomprehensible dialect.
In mid-August, Japanese head for their hometowns to observe O-Bon, the festival of the dead. During the evenings, softly glowing lanterns fill the cemeteries, and in some regions people leave their doors open and prepare a special feast of vegetables for the returning souls. Bon Odori, hypnotic outdoor dancing, is performed everywhere. On the last night, the souls of the dead are guided by fire back to their proper realm. Flames are lit—from oil lanterns and candles to raging bonfires—and in many areas lanterns are set adrift on a body of water to guide the spirits back across the sea, creating a poetically beautiful spectacle.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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!
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!