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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Oversize garbage ("sodai-gomi") collection


'Sodai-gomi (oversize garbage) collection truck. Several times a day a small truck will slowly wend its way through the neighborhood, stopping every few score meters , playing a looped announcement. It is the 'sodai-gomi shushu', or 'oversize garbage collection' truck.

Municipal authorities charge a fee for the removal of anything other than regular household trash. You have to ring up a local ward council office number, describe what you want collected, receive a number and get told a fee and a collection date, go to a convenience store and buy special garbage collection tickets to the total sum specified, write the number on the ticket(s), affix them to the garbage, and - perhaps most difficult of all - remember to put the item(s) out on the specified day.

The oversize garbage collection service lets you sidestep the officialese and forking out of money by taking junk for free. Washing machines, computers, motorbikes, furniture, air conditioners, stereos, radio cassette players - anything big, just run outside and tell the driver and he'll come in and take it away.

There are a few things that even the oversize junk collector will charge for, however. I tried to pass off an old printer on to him the other day but was told it would cost me 500 yen - more than the municipal collection would cost.

Listen to a sound clip of the oversize garbage ('sodai-gomi' in Japanese) truck as it does its rounds through a neighborhood in Tokyo's Nakano ward:

"Color TVs, radio cassette players, stereo amps, mini stereos, desk top computers, laptops - we will take them off you for free. Also, please let us know if you have any motorbikes, refrigerators, washing machines, or air conditioners."

Eating & Drinking in Tokyo

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Street Campaigner


Street Campaigner Listen to a street campaigner from the New Socialist Party of Japan (NSPJ) haranguing the early morning suit-and-tie crowd on Shinjuku-dori avenue, where it passes through the business district of Yotsuya in Tokyo.

Candidates for political office and political campaigners in Japan are prohibited by law from knocking on people's doors and canvassing on the doorstep, so they set up megaphones on the street or parade in cars blasting out their message.

Listen to a short extract of the speech

Books on Japanese Politics & Society

Friday, April 28, 2006

Traffic accident


Traffic accident in Kojimachi, Tokyo.

On my lunchbreak today I came across this scene. A ‘Hinomaru’ (Rising Sun) taxi had just hit something, buckling its bumper. It speaks to a few different things: the domicility of Japanese authority – the cop having pedaled to the rescue on his bike; the bureaucratic element – both are carrying clipboards, and the policeman looks more like a parking warden than a policeman here; the Japanese love of pose and gesture: the taxi driver gesticulating with that distinctive delicate grandiosity and earth-bound flair. The only atypical thing about the scene is that the taxi is damaged. With the risks they take and the bottlenecks they squeeze through with only millimeters to spare, you’d expect the above to be a common sight; but, as far as I remember, this is the first instance I’ve seen. (Click on photo to expand.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Indoor Koinobori


Koinobori carp streamers are a common sight this time of year in Japan. Koinobori, literally "koi = carp" and "nobori = banner" are usually unfurled in April and May to celebrate "Boy's Day" on May 5th.

Indoor Koinobori

The seasonal festival (sekku) in May was originally an event for driving out evil spirits in China, which came to Japan in the Heian Period (794-1192). Since the Edo Period (1603-1867) this festival was consciously contrasted to the girls' (hina matsuri) festival on March 3 and so May 5 in Japan has become the boys' festival. People celebrate their children's birth and pray for their healthy growth by putting up carp-shaped banners in their gardens and on their roofs and balconies.

Indoor Koinobori showing balsa wood frame

Streamers were also flown by samurai in battle and are therefore associated with courage, strength and masculinity.

If you haven't got the outdoor space to fly koinobori you can buy indoor koinobori, which are made of cotton, rather than nylon and fit on to a lightweight wooden and plastic frame. The instructions are easy to follow and the balsa wood and plastic stand fits together in a few minutes - even if you can't read Japanese the diagrams guide you on the way.

Close-up of a cotton indoor carp streamer

These indoor koinobori are available from GoodsFromJapan.com and come in a variety of sizes, designs and colors.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Maiko: Internet Recruitment


The onslaught of technology has now reached even into the teahouses of Gion, the storied pleasure quarter of Kyoto where geisha ply their trade in the water world. According to a recent report in the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, the use of the Internet has helped in increasing the number of apprentice geisha--or maiko--who entered an okiya teahouse this spring.

Like most Japanese businesses, the teahouses in Gion and the other pleasure quarters hire their new employees once a year, in April, and the current number in the city totals 75, the most in a decade. Teenage apprentices enter a teahouse to begin arduous training. This training can take years--it involves lessons in dancing, singing, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, etc.--and only upon completion can young women gain independence from the house to begin their careers.

Since World War Two, however, the number of young women choosing to become a maiko has been decreasing. In the mid-1970s, there were only a total of 25 maiko in the five hanamachi--the geisha districts of Kyoto. That number increased to 78 by 1995, but has since fallen again, stalling at around 53 in 2003.

To counter another decline, local business leaders have formed a foundation to promote the houses and the districts. As part of this, a web site was created explaining how to become a maiko and the process of applying.

Books on Japanese Society

Monday, April 24, 2006

Nachi Falls


Nachi, in the south eastern corner of Wakayama Prefecture, is one of the highest waterfalls in Japan - just over 130m tall.

Nachi Waterfall - 133m high

The Nachi Taisha Shrine near the base of the falls is dedicated to the 12 kami (spirits) of the waters. An annual fire festival takes place at Nachi Falls in July, when twelve 50kg burning torches are waved in front of the waters.

Nearby is a 7th century Tendai sect temple – Seigantoji. The temple is the oldest wooden structure in the area.

It's quite a climb up to reach the temple so it's best to drive up if you don't fancy the hike, and thus avoid paying for parking down below.


The falls can be reached by bus from nearby Kii-Katsuura and Nachi stations. The Wakayama coastline around Katsuura is dotted with hot-springs including some on small islands offshore, reachable only by boat such as Urashima. Koshinoyu and Sotonoyu are particularly well-known.

Wakayama coastline

The area is part of the Kii Mountain Range World Heritage Site area, which also includes Yoshino-Omine, in Nara Prefecture and Koyasan, in Wakayama Prefecture.

Another more modern attraction farther round to the coast is the newly-remodeled Adventure World near the resort town of Shirahama: a Safari Park, Aquarium, Amusement Park all rolled into one.

There are dolphin shows, with Bottlenose dolphins and Commerson's dolphins on display as well as 2 Giant Pandas.

There is much debate outside Japan whether the demand for dolphins for the increasing number of dolphin aquariums that dot the country fuel the bloody dolphin and porpoise "drives" in Japanese waters in such places as Taiji, just south of Kii-Katsuura in Wakayama Prefecture.

The environmental activist Richard O'Barry has done much to publicize the annual autumn "dolphin drives" in Taiji.

Adventure World

Adventure World
2399 Katada, Shirahama-cho, Nishimuro-gun
Tel: 0739-43-3333

The southern part of Wakayama Prefecture can be reached by JR train from Shin-Osaka station in Osaka (about 4 hours) and from Nagoya station (3 hours 30 minutes).

Nachi Falls in the mist
Nachi Falls in the mist
Books on Japanese Nature

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Omuro Ninnaji


Omuro, an elegant area in northwest Kyoto, is a neighborhood that until recently was home to four groups of people: temple priests, the descendants of the former aristocracy, movie stars, and what for a better term could be called peasants. Today only the priests and a handful of older people who can trace their roots to the aristocracy remain. The film industry crowd either died out or left for Tokyo when the film studio in nearby Uzumasa closed in the early 1970s; the peasants have mostly become middle class.

Omuro Cherry TreesAside from a small train line--the Keifuku Line, which ferries tourists to Arashiyama--a lot of urban green, and one of the first public schools in Kyoto, what is most striking about the neighborhood is its largest temple: Ninnaji.

Ninnaji Temple was founded in 886 by the Emperor Uda. For decades prior to that, it had served as a summer home for the Imperial Family, which would use it to escape the brutal summer heat of the more centrally located Gosho Palace. Uda served as head priest for thirty years; he was then succeeded by his son. This practice of having an Emperor's son act as head priest at Ninnaji lasted until the Imperial Family left for Tokyo in 1869.

Today, in addition to one part of the temple that has been designated a World Heritage site, the Temple is best known for its omuro zakura, or Omuro Cherry tree. The species is small and late blooming. It is only after the Someyoshi and Mountain and Weeping Cherries have begun sprouting green leaves that the Omuro Cherry will burst into bloom.

Ninnaji TempleAside from the one World Heritage site temple, the rest of the Ninnaji grounds are free. You can walk in and stroll the vast complex without opening your wallet--except in April when the trees come in bloom. At that time, the Temple is flooded with tour groups from the provinces and costs 300 yen to enter.

Benches are set up under the low-hanging branches. Women come in kimono, people drink in midday, and there are many stalls selling local products. Two women--obviously tourists, large tourists--came dressed as maiko, apprentice geisha, and had a photographer in tow.

maiko at ninnanjiIn addition, restoration work on the 360-year-old Kusho Myojin Shrine--which is located in the back of the grounds and is pictured above right--has been completed.

The Shrine was built in the 1640's and is a National Cultural Property. The orange and blues were nearly blinding.

Kyoto Shrines and Temples Guide

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tokyo skateboard

東京 スケート

Tokyo skateboard blur.Skateboarding in Japan has been around for pretty much as it's been around anywhere. Skateboarding is a craze and if there were ever a land of crazes, Japan is it. Summer is full of surfers, mornings and evenings are full of joggers, fitness clubs are huge, manga devotees here are the hallmark of nerds anywhere, and even unicycles (monocycles) are big here with elementary school kids. Hula hoops? Sadly no, but they’re bound to catch on if someone sets the right example.

The skateboarding craze doesn't seem to have abated at all since it hit Japan in the 80s. It is still one of the heights of street cool and, as such, is not merely a way to get fit and skillful.

Skill in Japan is the one thing for which standing out from the rest of the crowd is more than forgiven, and once you've mastered something you have free rein to rub that mastery in. So skateboarding is a sure way to impress both yourself and others with not only with the clatterful skill of your jumps and the board-glued-to-your-shoes-look expertise of your twists, it's also a chance to get those tattooed biceps and smooth six-packs properly appreciated, or, if it’s still a bit chilly for that, show off that combo of bagginess, jangliness and logo - that carefully maintained 'streetkraft hip'.
Tokyo skateboard.
The southeast end of Shinjuku station in Tokyo is a renowned spot for skateboarding boys. I was there last night and took a few shots. Unfortunately, being dark, and skateboarding involving much motion, the shots aren't worth much, as you can see. These two were the only remotely salvageable ones. The other blurs didn't even pass the ‘we-e-e-ll, it's artistic’ test. Enjoy!

Books on Japanese Society

Friday, April 21, 2006

Manhole Covers Osaka

マンホールの蓋, 大阪

These photos kindly sent to us of manholes in the Osaka area show not only a fascination with Japanese manholes but also the area they occupy and how they blend into the sidewalk and surrounding streetscape.

Indeed, Japanese manholes are soon to go hi-tech, three Japanese companies - Bitcom, KDDI and Pasco are working together on a project to equip manhole covers in Japan with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags to monitor the status of underground gas and sewage utility pipes in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake, the so-called “Intelligent Manhole System”.

In China, the authorities will begin tagging up to 1,000 manholes in Beijing, as reportedly around 24,000 manholes in China disappear each year to be sold off as scrap.

Manhole Cover Osaka

Manhole cover, Osaka Castle, Osaka.

Manhole Cover Osaka

Manhole cover, Osaka.

Manhole Cover Osaka

Manhole cover, Osaka.

Manhole Cover Osaka

Manhole cover, Osaka.

Manhole Cover Osaka

Manhole cover, Osaka.

Manhole Covers in Japan

More Manhole Covers - Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Hiroshima

Yet More Manhole Covers - Kyoto, Shimane Prefectures

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Mitsubishi Fuso Escapes Justice

岡本紫穂 三菱ふそう

On January 10, 2002, the wheel came off a Mitsubishi Fuso truck, hitting from behind and killing,a 29-year-old pedestrian, Shiho Okamoto, and injuring her two sons, aged one and four. Okamoto's mother sued Mitsubishi Fuso for allegedly knowing that the possibility of such an accident existed, but having decided against a product recall because of the effect it would have on profits. She sued the government at the same time for failing to take the steps to bring about such a recall. She sued for a sum of 165,500,000 yen (USD 1.4 million).

Halfway through the case, Mitsubishi Fuso dropped its defense that the accident was due to insufficient maintenance and acknowledged that it was due to a design fault. Incredibly, in spite of effectively admitting their guilt, Mitsubishi appealed to the fact that similar suits demanding consolation money 'have been rejected by the high court', and that they should therefore be let off too.

Incredibly, the judge yesterday accepted their argument, ordering them to pay only 5.5 million yen (USD46,500), and no consolation money.

Incredibly, the government wriggled out of it by saying that 'because Mitsubishi filed a false statement, we cannot accept their [subsequent] admission of faulty design'. Faced with this out and out righteousness, the judge apparently had no choice but to let the government completely off the hook.

The incident in which Shiho Okamoto was killed is against a backdrop of constant cover-ups by Mitsubishi Fuso of mechanical problems, one of which was also responsible for the death of a truck driver in October 2002 because of a clutch-related problem in a "The Great" series truck - the same kind of truck involved in Okamoto's death.

Incidentally, the majority of Mitsubishi Fuso's shares are owned by DaimlerChrysler.

Books on Japanese Politics & Society

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Nijo Castle


Nijo CastleLocated just outside of the downtown area of Kyoto--a short walk from Nijo-Jo Mae subway stop or Nijo Station on the JR Sagano Line--Nijo Castle was completed in 1626 and served as the Kyoto residence for the Shoguns under Tokugawa Iemitsu. The Inner Castle was destroyed in 1788, during one of the Tenmei Period (1781-1788) fires that ravaged the mostly wooden city of Miyako (Kyoto). Nijo-jo remained unused from then until 1862. In 1939 the Imperial Family donated the site to the city of Kyoto; it was opened to the public the next year. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

More recently, it has been used as film location for both Japanese and foreign films, including Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai and works involving Beat Takeshi and Nagisa Oshima.

Nijo CastleOn a rainy spring Sunday, we took some friends to the Castle who were down from Tokyo. After lunch at nearby Cucina il Viale and a short stop at Mizuno's kimchi shop, we walked across the street and into the Castle. Perhaps because of the rain, there were fewer people than normal.

The weeping cherries were in all of their glory. The light rain if anything highlighted the colors in the gardens: the shades of green, the pinks of the cherries, and more.

Aside from noisy American high school students, a group of 30 Japanese all in white hats following a young woman with a flag, and a huge tour from China--all middle-aged men with identical brand belt buckles--most of the visitors were in pairs or small groups. It made for easy navigating. At the end we climbed up to one of the parapets, at the top of a stone wall. From there, Kyoto spread out in the distance with a view of weeping cherries below us.

Nijo CastleAt the end, announcements in Japanese and English told us it was time to leave. Just then the skies briefly cleared and the rain let up.

Gifts and Goods From Japan

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Kinase-san, ex-kamikaze now making peace.

木名瀬さん - 特攻隊から世界平和へ
I met an old ex-kamikaze pilot last week in Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. He was attending a meeting of surviving kamikaze pilots. He spoke impeccable English and engaged me in conversation for several minutes before he had to make his way to the function.

I had his namecard and contacted him a couple of days later. We got together in the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku on Sunday and I interviewed him. Read about it here.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Japanese loan sharks


The news today is that Japan's most profitable loan shark company, Aiful Corp, is to have its operations forcibly suspended for several days by the Financial Services Agency.

Some estimates are that up to a quarter of the Japanese population is in thrall to loan shark companies. They are ubiquitous, with branches everywhere (Aiful alone has 1,700: that's one for every 70,000 Japanese), billboards everywhere, and constant advertising on TV.

Japanese loan sharks' interest rates are phenomenal, and what proved to be Aiful's downfall was their excessive zeal in recovering their 'bad debts.' Visits to the workplace, calls late at night - outright harassment. Stories abound of similar tactics by other loan sharks in Japan leading to homelessness and suicide, the original loans often being relatively paltry sums that are rapidly inflated to overwhelming and often impossible proportions. Those sent out to collect them are usually gangsters who by definition operate not only outside, but out of reach, of the law.

Significantly, Aiful Corp has been consistently posting gargantuan profits for the past 5 years, the latest declared one being that for the 2004-5 business year of 75.7 billion yen (USD6.3 billion). That's Indonesia's annual defense budget! (And about 14% of Japan's).

It's amazing how they manage to keep a sugar coating on the extremely bitter pill that they peddle. The name "Aiful" is based on the Japanese word for love: 'ai'; the subtitle is 'With heartful communication'; and the homophonic 'Eiffel' is no doubt meant to carry overtones of chic and carefree Paree. The advertising is highly polished, brimming with breezy images of wholesome intelligent young women clearly "in control of their lives", the mood is chirpy and upbeat, and there is lots of clean white space and sanitariness.

However, it seems that government regulations make clear posting of the interest rates involved mandatory, and just before the 30 seconds is up, sure enough, the interest rates are prominently placed in the middle of the screen for a good few seconds. The top rate is nearly always over 25%. It's a grotesque disconnect that conjures up horror movie scenes of a howling long-toothed alien bursting out of a Pond's beauty queen, but with consummate skill the jingling sweetness and light is made to somehow smooth over it, and the ad ends on an upbeat cutesy high.

The same tone comes through on their webpages. Here's Aiful's fairy tale front door. Click on the young lady on the right-hand side sporting the medical outfit for samples of their screen ads.

Good luck Maneki-neko cat figurines

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Iran Embassy in Japan


The Islamic Republic of Iran has an embassy in Tokyo Japan.
Iran Embassy, Tokyo

3-13-9, Minami Azabu,
Tokyo 106-0047
Tel:(03) 3446-8011/15

Hiroo Station on the Hibiya Line (15 mins walk) or Shiroganetakanawa Station on the Nanboku Line (10 mins walk).

Embassies in Tokyo

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A night on Konpirasan near Kyoto


View from Mt. Konpira

For the second time this year I slept out at a mountain top shrine. This time I was on Mt. Konpira, near Ohara to the north east of Kyoto City. Ohara is easily reached by bus from Kyoto. The trail to the top of the mountain is part of the Kitayama Trail that runs across the mountains north of Kyoto. Its a steep trail, but the views over Ohara and Kyoto from the summit are worth the hike.

Shrine on Mt. Konpira

I reached the top at dusk and watched the lights of Kyoto come on and sparkle through the haze of the pollution.

View from Mt. Konpira

Dawn was damp and misty as I headed down the mountain. Just below the summit is a Kotohira shrine, a Meiji period creation that attempted to supplant the Indian roots of Konpira with a suitably imperial Japanese kami.

Behind the shrine is a small spring that is reputed to have water with healing qualities, so I filled a small bottle with some to take to my wife who was in hospital in Kyoto.

As I sat having a ciggy I heard the tinkling of a bell... a sure sign someone was coming up the mountain. A few minutes later a little old lady came huffing and puffing into the shrine. She had been lighting candles and incense at all the little altars on the trail up the mountain. We chatted for a while mostly about the shrines and their histories, and I mentioned that I was from Shimane but I was visiting Kyoto as my wife was in hospital there.

Shrine on Mt. Konpira

We said goodbye, I to carry on down the trail, she to sweep and tidy around the shrine. A few minutes later I heard her calling me. Uh oh! I thought, I must have left something behind. She caught up to me and pressed a tatty envelope into my hand. "This is for your wife" she said. As she scooted back up the trail I looked in the envelope and found 3,000 yen!!!

I have been the beneficiary of the kindness of strangers many times in my life. Here in Japan it has usually been in the mountains. Away from the towns and cities, I have always found the people kinder and friendlier. I wish more people took the opportunity to get away from the tourist sites to wander the hinterland of Japan.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Yasukuni Shrine Tokyo


Spring performance at Yasukuni ShrineTaking advantage of the mild spring temperatures and the blue spring skies I visited Yasukuni (or "Pacifying the Nation") Shrine (in Japanese "Jinja"). Yasukuni Shrine is best known as the shrine which the Prime Minister's visits to over the past few years have alienated Japan's mainland neighbors. Yasukuni Shrine is primarily a war memorial shrine and, as such, is a shrine to Japanese nationalism.

However, the word nationalism is too tight and dry a word to do the facility justice. It is to the people who visit it a reassuring symbol of what traditionally makes Japan Japanese, and one of the shrine's most famous institutions is its grove of cherry trees, considered nationally the 'First Ladies' of the cherry blossom season.

I entered by way of the South Gate, five minutes walk left out of exit A4 of Ichigaya Station on the Shinjuku subway line. The cherry blossom was in full bloom about three days ago, and the trees are now shedding their petals. On entering the gate I half thought winter had struck again. White petals were fluttering down all about in such profusion that it looked for all the world like snow: in people's hair and all over their clothes.

Yasukuni Shrine War Memorial MuseumThe first human activity I noticed was song and dance happening on a stage: all traditional, with a lot of enka singers singing karaoke style, the ends of each line finishing in the throat-catching, syrupy, almost comically exaggerated vibrato of the enka style. The audience was overwhelmingly old, of course, and after a minute or so of that I headed for the shrine war museum.

The Yasukuni Shrine War Museum (entry 800 yen) is a memorabilia and war data masterpiece. Intricately and thoughtfully laid out, it is exhaustive in its coverage of every aspect of the war except, strangely enough, the atomic bombings, on which – as far as I could see – there was nothing. However, to do the collection justice needed far longer than the meager hour I was able to spare it, so I may well have missed some small corner mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Early in my tour I stopped off at one of the two theaters in the complex to watch a documentary on the war. It gave an account of the war from a no holds barred Japanese perspective.

Hideki Tojo, Japan's military-man Prime Minister, was the maligned national hero served up victor's justice in the kangaroo court of the Allies, and the war itself was – if not ineluctable – an absolute necessity if the Japanese were to preserve their ‘national spirit’ or ‘essence’. The movie was expertly made and researched, but extremely emotive. The voice narrating was that of a middle aged Japanese woman fraught with pious grievance, accusation, controlled outrage, and even with the occasional quaver of almost tearful hysteria.

Yasukuni Shrine gardensI continued on my way around the rest of the exhibition feeling – after that performance – very much the ‘gaijin’ and, perhaps for that reason, wasn't in a frame of mind to inspect everything in as relaxed and inquisitive fashion as it all demanded.

Once back outside I wandered across the courtyard and, on a whim, into a building and up the stairs. It was milling with old people, one of whom called out to me in English ‘Can I help you?’. It was an old man wearing a Homburg and holding a cane. I replied, ‘Oh, I’m just looking’, but he began conversing. The old people there were all ex-Zero fighter pilots who were having their annual get together. He had been a Zero pilot too, but just before he was due to fly his, of necessity, fatal mission, the war had suddenly ended! I said ‘So you were a volunteer?’, to which he said ‘That is a very difficult question.’ He said that ‘social conditioning’ made the question of whether he had really volunteered or not a very difficult one to answer.

Main torii gate of Yasukuni JinjaThe more we talked, I found out that this gentleman who spoke impeccable sophisticated English was a retired junior college professor, 86 years old, who for the past twenty years has been taking groups of Japanese students to New Zealand. He was therefore overjoyed to find out that I was a New Zealander and bowled me over by telling me that not only did he know of my hometown in New Zealand – a rural dot on the map of no more than 20,000 people, but he had taken students there!

Interview with an ex-kamikaze pilot

I left him after at least 30 minutes of animated conversation, no longer feeling like an 'alien'. I walked around the shrine grounds some more, happening upon its pond and enclosed garden, complete with tea house. I walked past the inner shrine, thronged with spring crowds paying their respects, and then wandered towards the main gate at the other end of the walkway up to the inner shrine.

Performing monkey at Yasukuni JinjaI should really have come in through the main gate to begin with (accessible from Kudanshita station on the Hanzomon and Tozai lines). It is a majestic expanse of boulevard and shows just how modern a concept nationalism is, with its very twentieth-century portentous massiveness. Being cherry blossom season it was shored up tent-to-tent with stalls offering candy floss, octopus dumplings, goldfish-scooping, rising sun headbands, pancakes, choco-bananas … to name just a few. Just inside the main gate there was even a man with a performing monkey! Apart from a few fashion giveaways, I could imagine the scene as being identical to scenes there from fifty years ago.

Across the road is Kitamaru National Gardens, their most famous occupant being the Budokan. Again, being spring it was a scenic treat. Had I time I would have gone cherry blossom hunting in there too, but made do with this nonetheless dreamy vista looking into it.
Across from Yasukuni Jinja, looking into Kitamaru National Gardens

Happi coats from Japan

Rent A Cell Phone in Japan

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Traditional Japanese Wedding


Traditional Japanese WeddingOn a break from a job interpreting for a visiting American, I took her through Tokyo's Meiji Shrine. Located deep in Yoyogi Park, the Shrine is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor, who died in 1912. For 21st-century Japanese, however, it is better known as the site for New Year's celebrations and as a green oasis close to chic Harajuku and the 1964 Olympic facilities.

While strolling through the grounds of the Shrine itself, we noticed a silent procession wending its way through one of the outer recesses of the building. Led by a Shinto priest, the group consisted mainly of men in black formal wear, several women in pastel-colored kimono, a few more women in black kimono, two acolytes, and, smack in the middle, a bride clad all in white. Her wedding robes, the shiromaku ("pure white"), wrapped her frame and were topped off with tsuno kakushi, or "horn hiders." This is thought to control the envy represented by the metaphorical horns all women are said to possess.

These type of ceremonies are now rare as most young women prefer the fairytale ideal of a white dress and pseudo-chapel where a "Minister"--usually a native speaker of English who dons robes only on the weekends, reads from a Japanese text he may or may not understand, and pulls in a fat fee--leads the ceremony. A ceremony that takes place out of doors at Meiji Shrine is even more unusual.

The procession was immediately surrounded by foreign and Japanese tourists, who snapped pictures of the woman in particular. The wedding party moved on wordlessly, finally entering another part of the Shrine and disappearing from view.

Umbrellas from Japan

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Nagoya Cherry Blossoms


It's the cherry blossom viewing season (hanami) all over Japan. Here in and around Nagoya are some of the best places to catch the pale pink petals.

The Yamazaki River
An approximately 3km stretch of trees flanking the Yamazaki River, from the Ishikawabashi crossroads to the Mizuho Athletics Stadium. The trees are lit up at night and there is some access to the carp-filled river. A pleasant place to stroll or cycle.
Access: Mizuho Kuyakusho and Mizuho Undojo Stations; Sakura-dori subway line)

Cherry trees in full bloom along the Yamazaki River, Mizuho-ku, Nagoya

Tsurumai Park
Tsurumai Park offers plenty of trees in a downtown location. The sometimes raucous atmosphere, especially at night, is reminscent of the hanami scene in Maruyama Park in Kyoto. Groups of salarymen and students stake out spots for some often drunken partying after dark.
Access: Tsurumai Station; Tsurumai subway and JR Chuo lines.

Heiwa Park
Heiwa Park has the most trees in Nagoya and is a pleasant place to wander or picnic and admire the blossoms.
Access: Hoshigaoka Station (Higashiyama subway line) and Jiyugaoka Station (Meijo Subway line).

Nagoya Castle
Nagoya Castle Park is a very popular place for hanami with Nagoya castle providing an impressive backdrop and lots of space to spread out and find a fairly uncrowded spot. Companies lay out blue tarpaulins to reserve their party spaces.
Access: Meijokoen and Shiyakusho Stations (Meijo Subway line).

Reserved! Blue tarpaulins at Nagoya Castle Park

The Tenpaku River
The banks of the Tenpaku River in East Nagoya are a good place to walk or cycle, hanging lanterns are lit up at night along the river.
Access: Walk south west from Hara Station on the Tsurumai Line.

Tenpaku River with the Tenpaku Ward Office Tower

Okazaki Castle
40 km east of Nagoya, Okazaki Castle and the surrounding Okazaki Park is one of the most famous and lively spots for hanami in Aichi Prefecture and can get pretty crowded in the season. There are over 2,000 cherry trees, which are lit up at night, and lots of stalls to serve the thousands of hanami revellers. The town is well-known as the birthplace of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and for its large-scale production of fireworks!
Access: Meitetsu and Aichi Loop lines.

The Iwasaki River
Goshikien on the banks of the Iwasaki River in Nisshin is a pleasant place to picnic in semi-rural surroundings.
Access: About 3km north of Nisshin Station on the Meitetsu Toyota Line.


Tatami from Japan

Friday, April 07, 2006

Rolling Stones in Nagoya

The Rolling Stones played Nagoya Dome on Wednesday - the band are still going strong even though lead singer Mick Jagger is 63 and gave good value for money with a nearly 3-hour set.

The gig did not sell out and quite a few tickets were given away as freebies by the organizers - if you were lucky enough to see the gig, it was a blast and much better than the last Stones concert I saw - part of the Voodoo Lounge tour some years ago.

pre-concert at Nagoya Dome

Nagoya Dome pre-concert

performing live

The Stones Live

honky tonk woman

Honky Tonk Woman

Thursday, April 06, 2006



Omotesando from HarajukuRunning a straight line from Yoyogi Park to fashionable Aoyama Dori (street), Omotesando is the closest thing in Tokyo to Madison Avenue or Rodeo Boulevard or Oxford Street. Lined with zelkova trees, it is also one of the few streets in Tokyo that is pleasant to stroll along--a funky European boulevard plunked down in the middle of the mess that is the world's largest megalopolis.

Leaving Harajuku Station, there are still signs of the dress-up culture that made the area famous in years past. The Goth look is big; within that subculture something that could be described as Little Bo Peep in Black was seen at least twice. In addition, young women wearing low cut blouses, which managed to expose both cleavage and a flash of brown abdomen; mini-skirts; and stockings that reached to mid-thigh--what my companion Amy from the US called the "hooker look"--were well represented.

Omotesando BillboardPerhaps more interesting than the women, though, was the streetscape itself. Herzog & de Meuron's Prada store stands near Jun Aoki's Louis Vuitton boutique and, farther down, there is Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa's glass covered Christian Dior structure. Across the street is Kengo Kuma's One Omotesando. A bit farther afield stand buildings by Toyo Ito, Arata Isozaki, and Fumihiko Maki (most notably Spiral).

Omotesando HillsThe latest addition to the area is Tadao Ando's Omotesando Hills (pictured at left). Replacing the Dojunkai Aoyama Apartments that had survived the war and anchored the block since 1927--which is prehistoric in Tokyo building terms--Ando's work took the place of a beloved but well-worn housing project. The protests that followed the announcement that the building would meet the wrecking ball have become part urban legend, part fact, part of the fabric of the phoenix that is Tokyo. The new building is chic and cool, understated and heavy on ferro-concrete; in short, it is all Ando.

P1010026After passing hundreds of highly coiffed women and many brilliant post-modern buildings, we ended our tour at a glass subway entrance just south of Aoyama Dori. The glass itself is amazing enough; what is even more impressive is that it was clean.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006



Finally made it down the coast a few hours to the popular tourist town of Tsuwano. Nestled in the mountains near the border with Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the shadow of 900 metre Aomo Mountain, this castle town is often referred to as "Little Kyoto", but other than an "Olde Worlde" ambience, it really has nothing in common with Kyoto.

Taikodani Inari Shrine

Went first to Taikodani Inari Shrine, modelled on the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto, the hilltop shrine is approached through a stairway that passes through more than 1100 vermillion torii. The shrine itself is all vermillion and gold, in a style I call Pachinko Shinto, and there were throngs of visitors enjoying the view over the town below.

monster Carp

Back down in the old section of town along the old storm drain we found the towns second tourist attraction, huge monster carp. The river and drains were originally stocked with the carp as a food supply in case of siege, but now they just attract tourists.

Along the main street are numerous fine examples of Edo period architecture, but I found the side streets and back streets far more intriguing and atmospheric, possibly because of the lack of tourists.

We visited the towns Hokusai Museum which has a small but interesting collection of prints by the artist, though as usual none of his Shunga (erotic prints) were on display.

Hachiman shrine

Just outside of town, and completely devoid of visitors we found the most delightful Hachiman shrine I have ever seen. It has a thatched roof over the Honden, and the cherry trees were just begining to blossom. In front of the shrine is the only remaining Yabusame (horseback archery) grounds in Japan. With its natural weathered colors, and lacking in concrete and gravel, the shrine was a welcome respite from the tour groups.

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