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Japan: Tokyo (Shinjuku Gyoen/ 新宿御苑)

Once having served as a feudal lord’s residence, Shinjuku Gyoen is one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks.  It is home to more than 20,000 trees, including approximately 1,500 cherry trees, which make it a popular hanami (cherry blossom viewing) destination from late March to late April. The park is also nice to visit during autumn when the leaves change. The spectacular fall colors typically appear from mid-November to mid-December.

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Shinjuku Gyoen, which spans 58.3 hectares is comprised of three different types of gardens. The oldest is a traditional Japanese landscape garden, which features the Taiwan Pavilion, constructed on the occasion of the Showa Emperor’s wedding.  During the first two weeks in November, a chrysanthemum exhibit is held here with beautiful floral displays and temporary pavilions erected around the park’s grounds. You can also find a traditional Japanese tea house here.

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The park’s other main gardens include a formal French garden and an English landscape garden. The remainder of the park consists of forested areas, lawns and several structures including a restaurant, an information center and an art gallery. There is also a beautiful greenhouse with numerous tropical and subtropical flowers on display. The park was almost completely destroyed during World War II, but it was eventually rebuilt and reopened to the public in 1949. It is not uncommon to walk around the park and find various artists creating beautiful water color images of the scenery.

Shinjuku Gyoen also has three gates. The Shinjuku Gate and the Okido Gate are both just a five-minute walk from the Shinjukugyoenmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line. The third gate, the Sendagaya Gate, is located five minutes on foot from the JR Sendagaya Station on the local Chuo/Sobu Line.

The park is open from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM Tuesday through Sunday, except during cherry blossom season and chrysanthemum season, when the park is open seven days a week.

Web page:         http://www.env.go.jp/garden/shinjukugyoen/english/

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Japan: Ueda City (Bessho Onsen Resort Town / Nanakusa No Yu Onsen)

Located in the basin of eastern Nagano, you will find the former castle town of Ueda. The town was built around Ueda Castle, which was constructed in the 16th century by Masayuki Sanada, a Japanese Sengoku period lord and daimyo. The town prospered from the silk industry in the 1910s and is renowned for a traditional fabric called Ueda Tsumugi.  Visitors to the area get a sense of having traveled several hundred years back in time as the town still retains its historical look with the white walled merchant houses and walls covered with square tiles arranged in a lattice pattern known as “namako.”

Just southeast of the basin is the hot spring resort town of Bessho Onsen.  It was discovered over 1,000 years ago and consists of several hot springs, each with its own individual charm. There are several historic cultural monuments in the area also including, the three-tiered pagoda of Zenzan-ji Temple, the Kitamuki-kannon Temple and the Anraku-ji Temple. Because of this collection of cultural assets, the area is called the “Kamakura of Nagano”.

During my recent visit to Japan, I had the pleasure of spending the weekend at one of the popular ryokans in Bessho Onsen known as Nanakusa No Yu.  It is a small but elegant ryokan consisting of 16 rooms.  The room rates range anywhere from $190 – $440 including tax/ per night. The higher rate applies to peak periods.

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Upon arrival, you are greeted by hotel staff who will park your car for you as parking is very limited and carry your luggage up to your room.  The staff is very pleasant and well educated in concept of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of hospitality and service.  Once you reach your room, a staff member will familiarize you with your room’s amenities, explain the dinning plan and answer any questions you may have.  You will also be served tea and sweets upon your arrival, to help you relax and feel welcomed.

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The room I was staying in came with a rotenburo , an outdoor onsen tub constructed of Japanese cypress. Everything I needed was available in my room including yukatas of various sizes to choose from, tabi socks, towels, hair dryer, tooth brushes, shampoo, bath gel ,etc.  Anything and everything that a traveler may need was accounted for and provided in abundance.

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The room itself was large and well-appointed.  Two comfortable beds, a couch and separate seating area, dining table, flat screen TV, lounge chair out on the patio and a large rotenburo surrounded by privacy screens.  For those who wish to sleep Japanese style, futons are provided upon request.

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The meals are served in your room by a staff member who is both knowledgeable and hospitable.  My staff member was prompt when serving my meals based on the times I had agreed upon during my check in orientation.  Dinner was served at 6:30 PM and included several courses.  Each dish was beautifully arranged and amazingly flavorful and fresh.  Breakfast was served the following morning at 7:00 AM and included several dishes consisting of local ingredients. In between, if you wished to order beverages, even alcohol, the staff was quick to accommodate your request.

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Hand Printed Menu

 

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One advantage to staying in a smaller ryokan as opposed to a large resort type of onsen hotel is that the owner visits each room making the guests feel welcome.  Dressed in a traditional kimono, the owner of Nanakusa No Yu onsen spent nearly 20 minutes in my room ensuring that my needs were met, I was comfortable and enjoying my stay.

Upon checkout, the owner was present to send me off as a staff member delivered my car to the front door as another carried my luggage to the car.  I was also given several parting gifts as I left this wonderful ryokan.

The room rates may seem a little pricey for some but rest assured that the level of service, relaxation and satisfaction you will gain from staying at Nanakusa No Yu is well worth it.

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Address:           1620 Besshoonsen, Ueda 386-1431 , Nagano Prefecture (Bessyo Onsen)

 

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Japan: Tokyo (Madame Tussauds Wax Museum)

In an earlier blog post, I had written about Madame Tussauds Wax Museum located in Hollywood, California. (https://wordpress.com/stats/insights/traveldreamscapes.wordpress.com )  During my recent visit to Japan, I had the opportunity to visit Madame Tussauds in Tokyo.

Madame Tussaud or Marie Tussaud was born as Marie Grosholtz in 1761 in Strasbourg, France.  She eventually settled in London and by 1825, opened the first wax museum on Baker Street. Today, the museum is a major tourist attraction in London, displaying life-size waxworks of royalty, historical figures, film and sport stars and famous murderers. The wax figures were once roped off from visitors but today the public can get up close and personal with the celebrities, dress up in costumes and take pictures!

If you are unable to visit the original London attraction, do not worry, Madame Tussauds has opened up branches in various countries including China, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Australia, the United States and Japan.

The Japanese museum opened on March 15, 2013.  It is located at DECKS Tokyo Beach in Odaiba, approximately 32 minutes by train from Tokyo Station. The museum has over sixty wax figures of world leaders, celebrities, music stars and other television and news personalities on display. You can mingle and have your photo taken with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, President Barack Obama, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, you name it.  The museum also features various Japanese personalities such as Prime Minister Abe, skater Mao Asada, television personality Matsuko Deluxe and the famous rock band, XJapan, just to name a few.

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Duke & Duchess of Cambridge

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Lady Gaga

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Audrey Hepburn

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Meryl Streep

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Michael Jackson

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Yu Darvish

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Matsuko Deluxe

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Akiko Wada

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Yuko Oshima (AKB48)

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Becky

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Odaiba is accessible via the Yurikamome Line from Tokyo Station, exit at the Odaiba Kaihin Koen stop. DECKS is just a short walk from the station.

 

Web page:         https://www.madametussauds.jp/tokyo/en/

Location:            3F Decks Tokyo Beach Island Mall, 1-6-1 Daiba, Minato-ku, Tokyo

 

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Japan: Tokyo (Yasukuni Shrine / 靖国神社)

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During my most recent visit to Japan in early September of 2016, I had the honor of visiting the most controversial Shinto shrine in the Asia-Pacific region. Located in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo, the Yasukuni Shrine was founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869 and commemorates those who lost their lives fighting for their country.  Whenever a Japanese leader visits the shrine, it provokes protests across the region as well as public controversy in global media.

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Statue dedicated to a war lord

In the Shinto religion, the souls of the deceased become kami (deities) and there are over 2 million kami listed in the Yasukuni Symbolic Registry of Divinities.  Most of the names on the list are those of soldiers. However, the list also includes the names of women and students who worked in factories for the war effort and were involved in relief operations in the battlefield. Further, the list is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent. Yasukuni Shrine also honors the souls of 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  What creates controversy is the fact that the list also includes the names of 1,068 war criminals, 14 of whom are considered A-Class.

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Memorial to Patrol Boat Crew Members

The shrine sits on 6.25 hectares and includes several structures. Among these is the Haiden (the main prayer hall where worshipers come to pray) and the Honden (the main shrine where Yasukuni’s enshrined deities reside). The Honden is also the building where Shinto rituals are performed and it is generally closed to the public. The building located on the right side of the Haiden is the Sanshuden (Assembly Hall). Located directly behind the Sanshuden is the Tochakuden (Reception Hall). The Symbolic Registry of Divinities is stored in the Reijibo Hoanden, which is located directly behind the Honden.

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There are several different gates (torii) located on both the causeway and shrine grounds. When moving through the grounds from east to west, the first torii visitors encounter is the Daiichi Torii. This large steel structure was the largest torii in Japan when it was first erected in 1921. It marks the main entrance to the shrine and measures approximately 25 meters tall and 34 meters wide.

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Daini Torii

The second gate is The Daini Torii. It was erected in 1887 and is the largest bronze torii in Japan. Immediately following the Daini Torii is the Shinmon. This 6-meter tall hinoki cypress gate was first built in 1934 and restored in 1994. Each of its two doors bears a Chrysanthemum Crest measuring 1.5 meters in diameter.

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Shinmon

Lastly there is the The Yushukan Museum. It contains various artifacts and documents relating to Japanese war casualties and military activity. The museum was established in 1882, and is considered to be the first and oldest war and military museum in Japan.

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Memorial to Tokko Pilots

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Memorial for War Widows and their Children

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150 lb. Bronze Cannon from Fort Tenpozan in Kagoshima

Controversial or not, the shrine is a wonderful, tranquil place to visit despite its association with wars.

 

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My Amulet Purchased at the Shrine

Web Page:                    http://www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/

Address:                       3-1-1 Kudan-kita,Tokyo,Japan

 

Japan: Hachioji Geisha

Even if you have never visited Japan, you must be familiar with Japan’s geisha culture. With their distinctive white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyle, the geisha remain an enduring symbol of Japan. The word geisha means performance person.  The geisha are the entertainers of Japan and their existence can be traced back to the 1600s (Edo period).  To become a geisha, it takes years of training. Geisha typically begin their training as early as sixteen years of age and are called maiko (geisha in training). The maiko receive extensive coaching in singing, dancing and playing traditional Japanese instruments as well as the use of proper customs and social skills.

It was estimated that Japan had over 80,000 geisha at one time, today that number has dwindled down to 1,000 – 2,000.  The geisha can primarily be found in Japan’s cultural capital of Kyoto.  They continue to work in traditional teahouses as they have always done, entertaining and charming their clientele with their highly cultivated skills. But you do not have to travel to Kyoto to see the geisha.  Hachioji, in western Tokyo, also has its own geisha culture.

Hachioji City is often overlooked by many people living in central Tokyo, but it is more densely populated than central London and has a vibrant city center.  Easily accessible by the central JR Chuo Line from Tokyo or Shinjuku stations, the city is renowned for its traditional Japanese festival, the Hachioji Matsuri (八王子まつり).

The three-day festival is held in the beginning of August and includes a parade of mikoshi (portable shrines) and nineteen dashi (floats), music and dance performances and over three hundred food and gift stands. It is the largest festival in Hachioji.  The festival also features performances by Hachioji’s geisha.

The geisha culture at its peak had 200-300 geisha working in over 30 restaurants in Hachioji, which was a busy transportation route to Edo (Tokyo). Today, there are less than 20 geisha working in the city. The geisha house in Hachioji is known as Yukinoe okiya, where 54-year-old geisha, Megumi is the okaasan (mother).

The geisha also participate in a series of geisha parades held in September.  The women, dressed in their traditional kimonos, dance and play music as they weave through the streets just north of Hachioji Station.  The parades are usually held between 6:00 to 9:00 PM and last 30 minutes.

So whether you are interested in learning more about the geisha culture or if you want to experience a traditional Japanese summer festival, take a quick trip to Hachioji.  Hachioji Station is just 51 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Chuo Line.

Web page:         http://www.hachiojimatsuri.jp/

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Hachioji Matsuri

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Megumisan helping a young geisha get ready

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JAPAN: Traditions/ Customs (Amasan)

Japan has an extremely rich and unique culture that is worth exploring further and today I want to introduce you to an almost 2,000 year old tradition of the Ama (海女),Sea Women. These women are renowned for free-diving to depths of up to 100 feet in search of oysters, octopus, abalone, seaweed and pearls wearing nothing but a fundoshi (loincloth) and a pair of goggles traditionally. Although modern times have obliged the Ama to incorporate such things as scuba masks, fins and wet suits, these women continue to exhibit extraordinary physical feats in their ability to dive continually for up to four hours a day and do so until they reach a ripe old age, some until they reach their eighties!

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It is said that women made better divers than men because the thicker layer of fat in their bodies enabled them to endure the cold water during long periods of diving. Another reason is the self-supporting nature of the profession, allowing women to live independently and foster strong communities. Perhaps most surprisingly however, is the old age to which these women are able to keep diving. Most Ama are elderly women who have practiced the art for many years.  In modern Japan, there is a lack of young women to succeed their elders and this ancient practice of free-diving is dwindling. Numbers have dropped to just 1/8th of what they once were. In 1956 there were 17,611 Ama in Japan but as of 2010 only 2,174 remained.

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It is also important to note that this culture of female divers is not unique to Japan. Since 2007 Korea has been presenting its case to have the Haenyo divers of Jeju Island listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Ama have been featured in the artwork of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi in the 18th century and captured in the photographs of Yoshiyuki Iwase in modern times. Iwase was born in Onjuku, a fishing village on Pacific side of the Chiba peninsula, which encloses Tokyo Bay on the northeast. After graduating from Meiji University Law School in 1924, he took up his lifelong pursuits, heading the family sake distillery and documenting the receding traditions of coastal Japan.

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Although the scantily-clad, romanticized image of the Ama is a thing of the past, there’s still a rich history and culture that needs to be conveyed. Today, Mikimoto Pearl, who once used the Ama to harvest its pearls, helps preserve that memory. Visitors to Mikimoto Pearl Island in Mie Prefecture can experience first-hand the thrill of watching the Ama dressed in white diving outfits plunge to the waters and emerge bearing the famous Akoya oysters from which Mikimoto’s pearls come from.

Video link:

Japan: Osaka (Glico Museum)

Those who enjoy and are familiar with Japanese sweets should be familiar with Glico, the producer of such popular delights are Pocky, Pretz, etc.  The company is headquartered in Nishiyodogawa-ku, Osaka and their illuminated sign of the running man is a famous landmark in Osaka’s downtown Dotonbori District.  But did you know that Glico also has a museum? Known as the Ezaki Memorial Hall, the museum opened in 1970 and features exhibits highlighting the history of Glico and the various Glico give-away toys from the Taisho Period.

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Ezaki Glico Co., Ltd. was founded by Riichi Ezaki (1882-1980) in 1921 after the launch of Glico Caramel at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Osaka. Glico is short for glycogen, a nutrient that stores energy. This nutrient was used in the manufacture of the caramel candies.  In 1927, the company began giving away free toys including medals placed in a small box attached to the distinctive red running man packages.  The first electric signboard was erected in Dotonbori in 1935 and was 1.5 times the size of the current illuminated sign (six generation sign). The production of Glico Caramels was halted in 1942 as the company was unable to procure materials to produce the confections as Japan became more deeply embroiled in WWII.  The original signboard was dismantled in 1943 and used for scrap metal in the war effort.

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Following the war, the Glico product was fully revived in 1949.  The company developed over 30,000 kinds of give-away gifts, including miniature dolls, vehicles and household appliances, 4,000 of which it displays in the museum at its head office in Osaka. Today, the company’s Pocky product is sold in over 30 countries and the company hopes to expand further to rival Nestle’s Kit Kat product which brings in $1 billion on sales annually.

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The museum is limited to the second floor of the Utajima location and admission is free of charge. (Please note that advance reservations are required which can be made via the web page or by phone.) Upon entering the museum, visitors are obliged to watch a 12-minute founder’s video. After the video, there are various exhibits highlighting the company’s history and the history of its trademark.  The museum also has various examples of machines that were used in the manufacturing process of the confections, vending machines and even the original delivery cart for the product. Lastly, there is a display of the company’s myriad of products including curry, ice cream and yogurt, just to name a few.

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Ezaki Memorial Hall is just 16 minutes of foot from the Tsukamoto Station of the JR Kobe line or 18 minutes on foot from the Mitejima Station of JR Tozai line. It does not take long to tour the museum (approximately 30 minutes) so do plan to combine your visit with other activities in Osaka.

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Address:             4-6-5 Utajima, Nishiyodogawa-ku, Osaka 555-0021

Web Page:         https://www.glico.com/jp/enjoy/experience/ezakikinenkan