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:

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
















Japan: Nagasaki (Lantern Festival) 長崎ランタンフェスティバル

Nagasaki City (長崎市) was home to Chinese sailors and traders during the 15th – 19th centuries and today boasts having the oldest Chinatown in Japan.  Known as Shinchi Chinatown, Nagasaki’s Chinatown exhibits a Chinese flair not felt in any of Japan’s other major cities.   Shinchi Chinatown with its 40 plus restaurants serving the signature Nagasaki noodle dishes, champon and sara udon, confectionary shops and souvenir stores, draws visitors from all over Japan. However, each year more people flock to Chinatown for one event in particular.  This event is the Nagasaki Lantern Festival (長崎ランタンフェスティバル).

The Nagasaki Lantern Festival was originally organized by the Chinese residents of Nagasaki to welcome the Chinese New Year. Arguably the largest Chinese festival in Japan, it takes place on the first day of January on the Lunar Calendar and continues for 15 days (With additional days added in February). Spread out across several city blocks and with seven different venues for viewing various performances throughout the day, the festival draws over one million visitors to the port city. Approximately 15,000 Chinese lanterns decorate Shinchi Chinatown and the surrounding areas and there are various events scheduled throughout the festival which should not be missed. These events include the Chinese Lantern Ornaments, the Mazu Procession, the Emperor’s Parade, the Dragon Dance, the Chinese Lion Dance, the Chinese Acrobatics and the Erhu Event. If you plan to arrive by train be sure to pick up a copy of the Nagasaki Lantern Festival program at the station!

There are various locations for viewing the lanterns but if you are pressed for time, try visiting the top venues: Chuo-koen, Minato-koen and Shinchi Chinatown. By far, these locations have the most elaborate displays of lanterns.

Do dress warmly for the event as the cold breezes off the ocean can chill you to the bone.

Location(s):                      Shinchi Chinatown, Chuo Koen, Tojin Yashiki, Kofukuji, Kaji-ichi, Haman-machi Arcade, Koushi-byou (Confucian Shrine)

Web Page:              










JAPAN: Kobe (Nanjing town / Chinatown)

Located just south of Motomachi Station in Kobe is one of only three designated Chinatowns in Japan known as Nankinmachi (Nanjing town). Originated in 1868, the area is home to over one hundred Chinese restaurants, shops and a temple dedicated to Guan Yu.


When Kobe’s port was opened to foreigners after Japan’s isolation period, Chinese merchants from Guangdong and Fujian flocked in and settled in the western end of what was known as Kobe’s foreign district.  At that time, Chinese people were referred to as “people from Nanking,” therefore the settlement came to be known as Nankinmachi. The area flourished in the early 1920s but that all changed during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II when many of the settlers returned to China.  Further, the town was destroyed after the allied bombings and had to be rebuilt after the war by the Chinese who remained behind.  In 1995, Nankinmachi was damaged once again due to the Great Hanshin earthquake and quickly rebuilt where today it remains a thriving center of Chinese culture in the Kansai region and is home to 10,000 residents.


A popular tourist attraction, Nankinmachi has three gates: Chang’an Gate (長安門), Xi’an Gate (西安門) and Nanlou Gate (南樓門). Two main streets run through the district, intersecting at a small plaza in the center. They are packed with shops, restaurants and food stands that sell items such as steamed buns (manju), ramen, tapioca drinks and various other Chinese dishes, many of which have been altered for the Japanese palate. The plaza is decorated with stone carvings of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs is a well-liked spot for photographs.




Several events take place during the year, with Chinese New Year or Shunsetu Sai, being the most attended. The brilliant fireworks and dancing lions/ dragons are quite spectacular and attract thousands of visitors to the district.












The Motomachi Station is 3 minutes from Sannomiya Station, 25 minutes from Osaka Station on the JR Kobe Line and 30 minutes from Umeda Station on the Hanshin Main Line making it an easy stop over when visiting Kobe.








Nagasaki City became the center of foreign influence in the 16th through the 19th centuries. It is home to one of Japan’s three Chinatowns and Portuguese and Dutch influences can still be seen throughout the town.

Today, visitors to Nagasaki can witness a 400-year-old festival, which incorporates different aspects of both the Chinese and Dutch cultures.  The three-day event is known as the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival and was originally a celebration of the autumn harvest in the late 16th century. Later on, the festival was associated with the Suwa Jinja.

The Kunchi Matsuri features dance performances known as Hono-Odori. These dances are performed by various groups, each representing a specific Odori-cho (district) within the city. There are fifty-nine groups who perform on a rotation basis once every seven years. In addition to the dances, the festival includes floats shaped like boats, gorgeous costumes and a fireworks display. One of the boat shaped floats features a boy who represents the son of merchant, Araki Sotaro.

Sotaro was a samurai who relocated to Nagasaki from Kumamoto in 1588.  He sailed to distant places like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, eventually returning to Japan with a Vietnamese wife.  Sotaro and his wife later established a trading emporium in Nagasaki. The couple are buried in Nagasaki at the Daion-ji temple and their gravesite has been designated as a City Cultural Property.

The focal point of the festival is the Chinese Dragon Dance. It was originally performed on New Year’s Eve by Nagasaki’s Chinese residents and today maintains all the mesmerizing movements and energy from the past, which brings the dragon to life. The festival music known as Shagiri is played on traditional Chinese musical instruments.

Four venues play host to the festival including: Suwa Jinja, Otabisho, Yasaka Shrine and Kokaido.  The event is free of charge however paid seating can be secured at each of the event venues. Be sure to get there early as tickets sell out quickly and the venues get very crowded.

Reaching Nagasaki from Tokyo is relatively easy via the JR Tokaido/ Sanyo Shinkansen, exit at Hakata Station in Fukuoka.  From there, transfer to the JR Kamome Limited Express train to Nagasaki.


Float featuring Araki Sotaro's son

Float featuring Araki Sotaro’s son


Web page:

Japan: Kanagawa/ Yokohama Silk Museum (横浜 シルク博物館)

Many people have heard about the Silk Road, an ancient trade route between Rome and China, but few realize that the port of Yokohama in Japan also played an important role in the silk trade.

After closing its doors to foreigners for nearly three centuries (with the exception of the Chinese and the Dutch), Japan once again welcomed foreign trade in the mid 1800s. The port of Yokohama opened in 1859 as a modern trading town engaged in exporting Japanese silk, tea, rice and seafood with raw silk comprising 25-40% of total Japanese exports. Today, the city is recognized as the birthplace of Japan’s modern culture.

Raw silk was produced primarily in the northern Kanto region and sent to Hachioji, which is part of the Greater Tokyo Area. From there it was transported to Yokohama on horseback and later by railway. Today, Japan is ranked fifth in the world after China, India, Brazil and Uzbekistan in the production of raw silk.

Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that there is a museum dedicated to the silk industry in Naka-ku, Yokohama. It opened in March of 1959 in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of the opening of the port of Yokohama. The two story museum housed in the Silk Center International Trade and Sightseeing Building illustrates the history of silk, displays silk garments from Japan and around the world and introduces visitors to silk producing technologies which include live silkworms.

The first floor of the museum is divided into several zones consisting of: the Wonder Farm (which illustrates the life cycle of the silkworm), Hall and Library. The library contains over 5,000 books on the subject of raw silk, weaving and dyeing, designs, colors, accessories, manners and customs of people, statistics, etc. ( The books are in Japanese only.) There is a gift shop which offers numerous silk related products for purchase including silk scarves and other silk products, books and foods containing silk. The gift shop is located near the entrance of the building therefore visitors can shop there without actually having to pay an admission to the museum.

The second floor of the museum is devoted to the history of silk in Japan and displays several garments which were reproduced to represent the use of silk during various points in history. You will also find a range of modern kimonos and displays on how silk is woven and died.

The museum is open daily (except Mondays) from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM. It is closed on National Holidays and between December 28th -January 4th.   Admission is ¥500 for adults, ¥200 for students and ¥100 for young children.

The Yokohama Silk Museum is relatively close to the Yokohama Doll Museum (10 minutes on foot) making it easy to combine a visit to both locations during a day visit to Yokohama. To access the Silk Museum, use the Minatomirai Line (exit Nihon-odori Station). From that point, your destination is merely 5 minutes on foot.

Address:             Silk Center, 1, Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama, 231-0023

Web page:

Japan: Nagasaki Prefecture (Nagasaki Peiron Boat Races)

Nagasaki City

Nagasaki City

One event where you can clearly see the influence of Chinese culture in Nagasaki City is during the annual Nagasaki Peiron Boat Races. The 359-year-old event was started by the Chinese people residing in the city as a way of offering prayers to the sea god.

In 1655, a severe storm struck Nagasaki Harbor sinking the Chinese vessels that were docked there. The Chinese locals borrowed boats and began racing them to appease the angry sea god. The boat races reached their pinnacle between 1603 and 1868. During that time, the race boats ranged in size from 65 feet to 148 feet. Today, the race boats are only 46 feet long and carry a team of 33 rowers.

Spurred on by taiko drums and gongs, the rowers propel the boats using 3 foot oars along a course that measures approximately 3,773 feet roundtrip. The Peiron Boat Races are held every year on the last weekend in July at the Matsugae Kokusai Kanko Futo Pier of Nagasaki Port. Various teams assemble from all over Japan to compete and include middle school students, workplace teams and even all girl teams.

As with all festivals in Japan, an array of food vendors are available and at the end of each day, there is a fireworks display.

The Matsugae Kokusai Kanko Futo Pier of Nagasaki Port is accessible via the JR Nagasaki Line. Exit at Nagasaki Station and take the municipal streetcar to Oura Tenshudo. The port is just 2 minutes away on foot from that point.

Nagasaki Chinatown

Nagasaki Chinatown





For additional information contact: Tourist Information Center of the Japan National Tourist Organization. (10th floor, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan Bldg., 2-10-1, Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo; (03) 3201-3331).

California: San Francisco (Chinatown)

Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia, covering 24 square blocks in downtown San Francisco.  It is also the oldest Chinatown in North America and one of the top tourist attractions in the city, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.




Since its establishment in 1848, it has played an important role in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is a microcosmic Asian world, filled with herbal shops, temples, social clubs, and restaurants. It provides affordable housing for recent immigrants and the elderly and is considered the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan.




Chinatown was the port of entry for Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province of southern China during the 1850s to the 1900s. Many found jobs working for large companies seeking cheap labor such as the Central Pacific Railroad. Other early immigrants worked as mine workers or independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich during the 1849 Gold Rush. During the 1960s , a large number of  working-class immigrants began to arrive from Hong Kong.  Despite their status and professions in Hong Kong, they were forced to find low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown due to their limited language skills. The end of the Vietnam War brought a wave of Vietnamese refugees of Chinese descent, who put their own stamp on San Francisco’s Chinatown.



It is said that Chinatown restaurants were the birthplace of Westernized Chinese cuisine such as Chop Suey.  They also were instrumental in introducing and popularizing Dim Sum to Western and American tastes, and today its Dim Sum tea houses are a major tourist attractions.



Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including The Maltese Falcon, Big Trouble in Little China, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song and The Dead Pool.

Bruce Lee was born at the San Francisco Chinese Hospital located at 845 Jackson Street in Chinatown.  His family moved back to Hong Kong when he was  three months old but he managed to return to the U.S. when he was eighteen years old, taking up residence in Chinatown for the first few months before moving to Seattle.


You can walk to Chinatown from Union Square by taking Geary, Maiden Lane or Post east one block to Grant Avenue and turning north to the Chinatown gate. If you’re coming from North Beach, just cross Columbus onto Grant and you’re there.



You can also get to Chinatown on the cable car. The California line stops at California and Grant, or you can get off the Powell line at California and walk three blocks to Grant.


Parking isn’t just scarce in Chinatown, it’s almost non-existent. The Portsmouth Square Garage on Kearny is hard to get to, you have to drive all the way around the block, often waiting in a slow-moving line, so the St. Mary’s Square Garage on California may be a better option.

Remember, there are three annual festivals that draw street-clogging crowds to Chinatown. These are the Chinese New Year,  the Autumn Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival.  Chinese New Year usually takes place between late January and early February. The Autumn Moon Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival take place in September.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the most exotic-feeling parts of San Francisco. It is an interesting mix of tourist attraction and ethnic enclave and small enough to see in just a couple of hours.