Japan

JAPAN: Kyoto (Gion Matsuri / 祇園祭)

If your travel itinerary to Kyoto was not already bursting at the seams with things to and places to see, there is one more item which merits consideration.  It is the Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival/祇園祭) which takes place during the entire month of July and is punctuated by two float processions, (Yamaboko Junko/ 山鉾巡行), held on July 17 and July 24.  It is the largest and most famous festival in Japan.

The festival originated in 869 when the Japanese people will suffering from plague and pestilence. The Emperor Seiwa ordered the people to pray to the god of Yasaka Shrine to deliver them from all that ailed them and the practice was repeated whenever there was an outbreak. In 970 it became an annual event that eventually evolved into a huge celebration of Kyoto culture. During the Edo period, the wealthy merchant class used the festival/ parade to brandish their wealth and thus it grew into a more elaborate event.

Although the Gion Matsuri is centered on a collection of magnificent parade floats known as “yamaboko,” the events preceding the float processions known as “yoiyama” also draw huge crowds to what seems like an colossal summer block party.  People happily stroll through Kyoto’s downtown area, which during the three nights leading up to the parade(s), is reserved for pedestrian only traffic. They don their summer yukatas and partake of the street food and beer offered at the various food stalls lining the streets. These events are called Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama, Yoi-yoi-yama and Yoi-yama, respectively.

Yoi-yama (宵山) takes place on July 16 and July 23, Yoi-yoi-yama (宵々山) on July 15 and July 22, and Yoi-yoi-yoi-yama (宵々々山) on July 14 and July 21. Some of the oldest families in the area open the front of their traditional machiya houses or shops to display their treasures to the public during this time. This tradition is known as Byobu Matsuri. (Byobu is a traditional Japanese folding screen.) You cannot enter the houses, but you can admire the treasures from outside.

Also prior to the parade(s), the yamaboko are brought out of their warehouses and assembled in designated spots on the major downtown streets of Kyoto (the main area is Shijo-dori between the Kamo-gawa River and Horikawa-dori). Yamaboko refers to the two types of floats used in the procession: the 23 yama and 10 hoko. The yama floats are enormous in size, some weighing as much as 12 tons and towering 25 meters in height.  The hoko floats are smaller but still an example of Kyoto’s finest craftsmanship and artistry.

The procession takes place between 9:00 and 11:30 and follows a three kilometer route.  Paid seating is available in front of the city hall but good viewing spots along the parade route are abundant.

So, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Kyoto in July, put on your summer yukata and come see what all the fun is about.

Web page:         http://gionfestival.org/

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JAPAN: Kyoto (Seimei Shrine / 晴明神社)

The city of Kyoto was the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years and is perhaps one of the best places to get a flavor of old Japan.  In preserving Japan’s old traditions, Kyoto is the city of quiet temples, sublime gardens, colorful shrines and geiko. But, perhaps the most interesting temple among Kyoto’s vast collection is the one that deals with the darker elements of Japanese culture.

The Seimei Shrine, founded in 1007 is dedicated to the onmyoji, Abe no Seimei. It is said that the shrine was constructed on the site of his house just two years after his death. An onmyoji is a person who practices the traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology known as onmyodo (陰陽道) or “The Way of the Yin and Yang.” Based on the Chinese philosophies of Wu Xing (Five elements) and Yin and Yang, it is a mixture of natural science and occultism.

Onmyodo was introduced to Japan during the early 6th century and was accepted as a practical system of divination.  It came under the control of the Imperial government and later the Tsuchimikado family where elements of Taoism, Buddhism and Shintoism were incorporated.  Onmyodo was practiced until the middle of the 19th century after which point it was classified as superstition and its practice prohibited. Interestingly, the mid-19th century was also the time when Admiral Perry came to Japan demanding that Japan open its ports to foreign trade and when the Meiji Restoration came into existence.

Abe no Seimei was a Heian era (794-1185) astronomer who served the Emperor by performing divination and various ceremonies.  To his contemporaries Seimei was a genius with second sight, able to perceive an invisible world of demons and spirits.  He could also see star constellations others could not. He continues to be the subject of a variety of colorful legends including one which claims that he was able to instantaneously cure the Emperor of an illness. Further, Seimei himself enjoyed a long and healthy life which led people to believe that he actually possessed magical powers. Although Seimei’s life is well documented, his lineage remains unclear. Abe no Seimei’s two sons,  Yoshihira and Yoshimasa were also onmyoji, like their father.

It is said that the famous well (Seimei-i) located on the Seimei Shrine grounds were Abe no Seimei was buried retains Seimei’s divine power.  Anyone who partakes of its water will receive a blessing for good health.  The well is in the shape of a 5-pointed star known as the Seimei star (Pentacle in the Western world) and one of its vertices acts like a water intake.  This water intake points in a lucky direction and each year during the beginning of spring (February 4th), the orientation of the well is changed. Abe no Seimei reputedly designed the star in the 10th century to symbolize the Chinese Five Elements. You will find its image throughout the shrine.

There are two gates (torii) which lead up to the relatively small shrine.  The main building (honden) was restored in 1925. Within the shrine grounds, you will find pictures and text relating the legend of Seimei. There is a bronze statue of a peach which visitors are invited to stroke to ward off evil. The ancient Chinese believed that peaches were talismans to guard against evil. Today, many Japanese people know the story of Momotaro (A boy born from a peach who conquered the land of demons.) which was derived from this belief. There is a small bridge said to be a replica of the original Ichijo Modori Bashi.  The actual bridge located just south of the shrine is said to be a gateway between the human and the spiritual realms.

The shrine draws many visitors who view it as a potent “power spot.” Each year during fall, there is a Seimei Matsuri.

So the next time you are in Kyoto, why not include the Seimei Shrine as a potential stopover and get to know Japan’s Merlin!

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

Address:             806 Horikawadori Ichijo agaru Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-8222, Kyoto

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JAPANESE CUISINE: DAM CURRY

Curry rice is one of Japan’s most popular and beloved dishes. Spicy, sweet, and hearty, curry rice is Japanese comfort food.  The basic recipe utilizes potatoes, carrots, onions, and beef.  The curry is typically served alongside rice although you will also find it served with udon noodles (curry udon).  Some recipes substitute pork or chicken for the meat component.  You will also find curry dishes known as katsu kare which is a curry recipe utilizing a breaded deep-fried cutlet, either pork or chicken.

Curry was introduced in Japan during the Meiji era by the British.  Curry gained popularity in the 1960s as it became available to purchase in supermarkets and was offered on restaurant menus.  It has  been adapted since its introduction and consumed so widely that it has become Japan’s national dish.

The latest trend in Japanese curry is what is known as “damukare” or dam curry.  It is a special type of curry dish popularized in 2007, where the rice is shaped into the structure of a dam.  Damukare is found at restaurants near major Japanese dams which also serve as tourist attractions. According to the Japan Commission on Large Dams there are 136 major dams in Japan with hundreds more comprising the lesser or smaller dams.

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Some of the major dams include:

Kurobe Dam

Kurobe Dam (Toyama): Japan’s largest arch dam, completed in 1963. With a height of 186m, it remains the tallest dam in Japan. The dam serves as a tourist attraction between late June and mid-October.

Okutadami Dam

Okutadami Dam (Niigata):  Stands at 157 m tall and has a storage capacity of 600 million tons of water used to support the largest hydroelectric power station in Japan. Completed in 1960, the station supplies electricity to the Kanto and Tohoku regions. The dam created a lake called Okutadami Lake or Ginzan (silver mine) Lake because there was a silver mine there during the Edo period. A pleasure cruise is operated on the lake from May to November.

Hoheikyo Dam

Hoheikyo Dam (Hokkaido):  Was constructed in 1972 and is one of the only two dams in Japan built in the Arch-type style. In a conservation effort, only electric buses operate in the area. Tourists are encouraged to leave their cars in the parking lot and utilize one of these buses to reach the dam or go on foot. In autumn, the area is an excellent spot to view the changing of the leaves.

Hakusui Dam

Hakusui Dam (Oita):  Was constructed in 1938 and has been frequently featured in television and print ads.  The dam was designated as a national cultural important property.

So there you have it, a brief introduction to Japan’s major sightseeing dams and to damukare.  Be daring, take the dam journey and try the dam curry, you will agree that it is dam good!

Japan: Tokyo Le Salon du Chocolat – A Chocolate Lover’s Paradise

If you love chocolate then you do not want to miss the chocolate extravaganza known as Le Salon du Chocolat!  Begun in Paris in 1994 and supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Le Salon du Chocolat is an annual trade show for the international chocolate industry.  The event has been hosted internationally in such cities as New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Zürich, Beijing and Shanghai and its popularity continues to grow each year.

With over 500 participants from 60 countries, including over 200 renowned chefs and pastry chefs, Le Salon du Chocolat offers a unique and fun opportunity to sample and learn about chocolates from around the world. Here you will find some of the most exclusive high-end chocolates from renowned companies like Jean-Paul Hevin, Michel Richart, Pierre Marcolini, Boissier and Valrhona. You will also find a mix of non-chocolate treats like macaroons and spice laden pain d’épices (spice cake).

The event was so popular in Tokyo that in 2017 it was moved from its previous venue at the Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku to the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho, Tokyo, expanding floor space by 5,000 square meters! The event has been held at the Shinjuku location for over 14 years!

Salon du Chocolat Tokyo as it is called, brought together fifty of the top chocolate companies from Japan and around the world to show off and sell their confections. In addition, the top chocolatiers participated in daily talk shows and held meet and greets for their Japanese customers.  There was even a “chocolate inspired” fashion show.

Next stop for Le Salon du Chocolate in Japan will be Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Nagoya and Sendai.

Web Page:                        http://www.salon-du-chocolat.com/?lang=en

(Photos courtesy of Salon du Chocolat)

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JAPAN: Oita Prefecture, Beppu (African Safari Wildlife Park/ アフリカンサファリ)

Having written about the Fuji Safari Park in Shizuoka earlier, I would like to introduce you to yet another safari park in Japan that is popular with both adults and children.  Located about an hour from Beppu Station is The African Safari Wildlife Park (アフリカンサファリ). Situated on the island of Kyushu, Beppu City in Oita Prefecture is popular with tourists because of its many onsens (hot spring baths). The sprawling African Safari Wildlife Park is just a few miles outside of Beppu City on the Tsukahara Plain (Tsukahara Kogen) and is equally popular.

Open year round, the park affords visitors the opportunity to view the animals either from the safety and comfort of their own vehicles or from within a safari park bus. Unlike other zoos, the animals of the safari park roam freely and it is the humans who are restricted.

The safari park buses are designed to look like enormous exotic animals. Their large windows are protected by heavy gauge wire and visitors can feed the animals through the bus windows. If you drive your own car through the park you are  not permitted to roll down your car windows or get out of your car under any circumstances.

The safari park is divided into multiple zones because while some animals are allowed to mix freely, others have to be kept separate from each other. It is easy to understand because lions, for instance, are the natural predators of gazelles and cheetahs may not get along with the tigers, etc. There are “neutral zones” in between the various habitats.  This design enables the park rangers to send back any animals who may have followed the cars or park buses and may potentially end up in a different zone.

The cost of your admission includes a food tray with various treats for the animals roaming the park.  Instructions on how to feed the animals is in Japanese however, the animals themselves will clue you in on what treats they will accept as they are known to refuse something that is out of their ordinary selection of food items. You will be given a pair of long-handled tongs to pass out the treats with.  Understandable, as you will be feeding carnivorous animals in the park who may confuse your hand as part of their treat!

There is a petting zoo area within the park as well with the typical creatures you will find in other petting zoos.

The safari park is open from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (March 1 to October 31) and from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM (November 1 to February 28).  There is a night safari offered on a limited basis from 5:00 PM – 7:20 PM. Admission is ¥2,500 for adults and ¥1,400 for children. Please note that there is an additional charge for the safari buses. The rate is ¥1,100 for adults and ¥900 for children.

 

Location:            2-1755-1 Ajimumachi Minamihata, Usa-shi, Oita, JAPAN

Web page:         http://www.africansafari.co.jp/english/

Please visit Amazon.com to purchase my book, “A Blogger’s Guide To Japan,” where you can read about the Fuji Safari Park and many other interesting destinations in Japan.  The book is available in print and electronic format.

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JAPAN: Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture (Spa Resort Hawaiians/ Joban Hawaiian Center)

Joban is one of thirteen zones within Iwaki City located in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. The area was renowned for coal mining which began near the foot of the Abukuma mountains in 1883. By 1944, the Joban Mine was the largest mine in Japan and utilized Allied POWs as laborers. As the coal industry declined in the 1960s, the mine’s vice president, Yutaka Nakamura conceived of an idea to open up a resort taking advantage of the area’s hot springs in an effort to generate income from tourism for the city.

On January 15, 1966, the Joban Hawaiian Center was opened becoming Japan’s first theme park. Over the years, the theme park was upgraded and became a full scale resort. Resultantly, the name was changed to Spa Resort Hawaiians (スパリゾートハワイアンズ) in 1990.   Park attendance reached its peak in the early 1970s where attendance exceeded 1.5 million visitors annually.  Today, it still enjoys a steady influx of visitors and is considered among the top ten most popular “theme parks” in Japan.

The Spa Resort Hawaiians is divided into five areas consisting of: The Water Park, The Spring Park, The Spa Garden Pareo, Edo Jowa Yoichi and Vir Port.

The Water Park comprises the main area of the resort where you will find various indoor pools, water slides and the dance stage. A Hawaiian atmosphere is recreated throughout with pineapple plants and other tropical vegetation. The Spring Park is one of two hot spring areas that is fed by spring water from the Yumoto Onsen. Here you will find co-ed lukewarm indoor pools as well as regular, gender separated hot spring baths where swimsuits are not allowed. The Spa Garden Pareo is a water playground with outdoor pools, deckchairs, Jacuzzis and a sauna (please note that this section is closed during the winter months). Edo Jowa Yoichi is a gender separated, large outdoor bath with an Edo period theme. It is said that this is the largest single outdoor bath in Japan. Finally, Vir Port is where guests can partake in Hawaiian dance lessons, enjoy a massage or facial, or take part in water exercises. The resort also has various restaurants and two hotels: Hotel Hawaiians and Monolith Tower.

However, the park’s most popular attraction is its dance troupe known as the Hula Girls. They were the subject of a 2006 film with the same name.  The film was directed by Sang-il Lee and grossed $9.4 million at the box office!

In March of 2011, the resort sustained heavy damage by the East Japan Earthquake and was forced to close. During the closure, the Hula Girls troupe toured Japan performing at earthquake refugee shelters and other venues. The resort reopened on February 8, 2012 with a much larger stage for the Hula Girls show.

Accessing the resort is relatively easy. There are free hourly shuttle buses to/from Yumoto Station. In addition, the resort provides bus service for its staying guests to/from Tokyo (3 hours) and Yokohama (3.5 hours), free of charge. Please note that advance reservations are required for the latter.

Web page:

http://www.hawaiians.co.jp/english/

Location:

50, Warabidaira, Fujiwaramachi,

Joban, Iwaki-shi,

Fukushima, 972-8326, Japan

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How The Allied Occupation Helped Promote The Popularity Of Tokyo Style Nigiri Sushi

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When the Allied forces arrived in Japan in 1945 for what was to be the seven year military occupation, there was little doubt that the country would be changed forever. However, some traditions were retained in an effort to maintain Japanese culture.  One of these traditions was sushi.

The earliest form of sushi in Japan was called narezushi (salted fish).  Fish was stored in fermented rice for long periods of time without spoiling and provided an important source of protein in the Japanese diet. The sushi we are familiar with today is called nigiri sushi.  It had its origins in Edo (Tokyo). A restaurant owner named Hanaya Yohei is credited with having invented this type of sushi during the 19th century.  The Edo people were known for their busy lifestyle and lack of patience, therefore many fast food businesses began cropping up. Nigiri sushi, which was known as Edomaezushi at the time, was a type of fast food, conveniently shaped to be eaten by hand and no longer reliant on the fermentation process utilized by narezushi.

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While nigiri quickly became the most popular style of sushi in Edo, it did not immediately dominate the sushi landscape as it does today. There were two events which aided the popularity of nigiri sushi outside of Tokyo: one was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the other was the military occupation of Japan in 1945.  The earthquake caused many people to leave Tokyo and return to their hometowns.  Among these were the various sushi chefs who opened restaurants upon returning home and served Edomaezushi to their clientele. In post-war Japan, many sushi shops were forced to close due to the rice rationing at the time and not allowed to reopen.

Eventually it was impressed upon the American Forces General Headquarters that the sushi restaurants should be allowed to reopen as sushi was an important part of Japanese culture.  When the restaurants reopened however, they had to adhere to one strict rule.  That rule was that the patrons were to bring in their own rice rations for the sushi.  One cup of rice was to be used to make ten pieces of sushi hence the nigiri sushi shrunk in size.  In pre-war Japan, nigiri sushi was three times larger.

Eventually the same system was implemented throughout Japan and Tokyo style nigiri became Japan’s predominant form of sushi.

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