Edo Period

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: 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: Nagasaki (Shinchi Chinatown)

Having previously covered Japan’s Chinatowns in Yokohama and Kobe, it is now time to focus on the third Chinatown located in Nagasaki City’s Shinchi District.  Shinchi Chinatown, is Japan’s oldest Chinatown, established during the 17th century. This was possible because even during the Edo Period (1603-1867), when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world, the port of Nagasaki remained open to foreign trade with China. It is estimated that there were 10,000 Chinese residents, mostly merchants from Fujian, residing in Nagasaki City during this period. These residents were restricted to living in the hills of Nagasaki and it wasn’t until 1859 when Japan opened its doors to foreigners that they transferred to the Shinichi District forming the Chinatown we know today.

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Today, Nagasaki’s Chinatown is a collection of over 40 restaurants serving the signature Nagasaki noodle dishes, champon and sara udon as well as confectionary shops and souvenir stores. The restaurants are typically open between 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM for lunch and from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM for dinner.

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There are four vermilion lacquered gates erected in each of the four corners of Chinatown.  They were constructed by craftsman from Fuzhou, China who wanted to develop Nagasaki’s Chinatown to rival those located in Yokohama and Kobe. Each gate is adorned with a sculpture of a god representing the four directions.  The Azure Dragon can be found on the east gate, the White Tiger on the west gate, the Vermilion Bird on the south gate and the Black Tortoise on the north gate.

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Shinchi Chinatown is a popular tourist attraction and particularly crowded during the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, the largest Chinese New Year celebration in Japan, held in February.   It is estimated that there are as many as 15,000 lanterns decorating the streets during the festival attracting tourists from all over Japan and abroad.

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The Chinese culture has also influenced other events held year round in Nagasaki. Among these is the Shoro Nagashi (the Spirit Boat Procession) which takes place on August 15th, during the Bon celebrations in Japan and the Nagasaki Peiron Championships (Dragon Boat Championship) which takes during the last weekend in July in the Nagasaki Harbor.

You can easily reach Shinchimachi Chinatown from JR Nagasaki Station by taking the No. 1 tram to Tsukimachi .  From that point Chinatown is merely 2 minutes on foot. Trams run every 10 minutes.

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Address:             12-7 Shinchimachi, Nagasaki 850-0842, Nagasaki Prefecture

Web Page:         http://www.nagasaki-chinatown.com/

 

Japan: Kyoto (Nijo Castle)

When visiting Kyoto, I highly recommend including a stop at the UNESCO World Heritage site known as Nijo jo (Nijo Castle). Constructed in 1603, it served as the residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period (1603-1867), when he visited Kyoto. When the Tokugawa Shogunate ended in 1867, the castle was used as an imperial palace until it was donated to the city in 1939. A year later it was opened to the public and earned its UNESCO designation in 1994.

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Nijo Castle is a superb example of feudal Japanese castle building and consists of two concentric rings of fortifications: The Honmaru which forms the main circle of defense and the Ninomaru which makes up the secondary circle of defense. Visitors to the castle enter the castle grounds through a large gate located to the east. Further in, you will find the Karamon Gate, the entrance to Ninomaru, where the Ninomaru Palace is located.

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The 3300 square meter Ninomaru Palace survives in its original form and consists of multiple buildings connected by corridors. The rooms have tatami covered floors and the ceilings are beautifully decorated with colorful paintings. It was here in 1867 where Tokugawa Yoshinobu made the declaration by which authority was transferred to the Imperial Court.

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One of the most striking features of the Ninomaru Palace are the “nightingale floors” used in the corridors. To protect the occupants from sneak attacks and assassins, the builders constructed the floors in such a way as to squeak like birds when anyone walked on them. Additionally, several rooms came equipped with special doors designed to be used by the shogun’s bodyguard when protecting him.

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Outside of the Ninomaru Palace you will find the Ninomaru Garden, a traditional landscape garden consisting of a large pond, ornamental stones and perfectly manicured matsu (pine trees).

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The Honmaru was once the site of a second palace complex and a five story castle keep. Unfortunately, both structures were destroyed by fires during the 18th century and never reconstructed. Today, the structure you see was what was originally known as Katsura Imperial Palace. It was relocated here in 1893 and renamed Honmaru Palace. The Palace served as the site for the enthronement banquet of Emperor Hirohito in 1928 (also known as the Showa Emperor).

The Honmaru Palace is not regularly open to the public however, visitors can stroll around the gardens and scale stone foundation of the former castle keep which affords magnificent views of the castle grounds.

There is a sakura (cherry) orchard with 400 late blooming sakura trees whose blooms last through the entire month of April and an ume (plum) orchard that is popular from late February to early March. You will also find a variety of maple, ginkgo and other trees that are ablaze with brilliant autumn colors during the second half of November.

So whether you are attracted to the historical significance of the castle or you simply want to take in the seasonal brilliance of its gardens, a visit to Nijo jo is a satisfying trip year round.

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The castle is easily accessible from Kyoto Station via the Karasuma Subway Line, exit at Karasuma-Oike Station. From there, transfer to the Tozai Line to Nijojo-mae Station. The entrance of Nijo Castle is just a short walk from Nijojo-mae Station.

Web Page: http://www2.city.kyoto.lg.jp/bunshi/nijojo/

 

JAPAN: Gifu (Gero Onsen)

Despite the fact that its name, which means lower bath, is pronounced the same as the slang word for “vomit,” Gero Onsen located in Gifu enjoys over one million visitors each year. It is no wonder as this hot springs was considered one of the top three onsens in Japan since the Edo Period!

As with most hot springs towns, Gero-shi is famous for its public bath houses and ryokans (inns) that cater to visitors year round. There is even a large open-air bath (rotenburo) located at the south end of Gero Bridge which can be used free of charge. But keep in mind, if you choose to bathe here, you are exposed to passersby on the bridge above. If you are shy about immersing your body in the hot spring baths, there are various foot baths scattered throughout the town where you can soak your feet free of charge.

But Gero-shi has much more to offer than just the hot springs. Onsenji Temple located atop a hill behind Gero Onsen Museum is a place of tranquility and incredible views of the valley below. There is no doubt that you will be rewarded for your efforts after climbing the 173 stone steps to the top.

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A quirky place to visit is the Kaeru Jinja or Frog Shrine. You will notice many references to frogs around Gero-shi because in Japanese the word “gero” is also the sound a frog makes, therefore it is a playful connection to the town. The shrine is filled with all kinds of frogs.

Just twenty minutes on foot, northeast of Gero-shi is Gero Onsen Gassho Village where ten thatched A-frame houses from the UNESCO World Heritage site of nearby Shirakawa-go have been re-assembled. Here you can view the houses, see performances and try your hand at traditional folk art. The village is open to the public between the hours of 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM and there is a nominal charge of ¥800 for adults and ¥400 for children.

Gero-shi also hosts a number of festivals throughout the year. On February 14th, a festival originates at the Mori Hachiman Shrine which involves young people dancing while wearing colorful paper hats. On August 1st, the Ryujin Fire Festival takes place. A five-headed dragon and Mikoshi (portable shrine) are paraded through the streets of Gero and men dressed in traditional clothes dance amongst firecrackers. On August 2nd, there is a parade of Geisha floats and Geisha dances are held. A music and fireworks festival takes place on the river bank on August 3rd.

Gero-shi is easily accessible from Nagoya via the JR Hida Limited Express and you can use your Japan Rail Pass!

Web page:         http://www.gero-spa.or.jp/english/

JAPAN: Saitama (Kawagoe)

If you think that in this day and age you would be hard pressed to find a place in Japan that still retains the ambiance of an old Edo period town, you may be mistaken. Located merely 30 minutes by train from Tokyo is the city of Kawagoe, often referred to as Little Edo or Koedo. Its old wooden houses along with the elegant examples of early twentieth century brick, cement and stone architecture inspired by Taisho Romanticism still draws tourists searching for a taste of old Japan.

Kawagoe prospered during the Edo period due to the over two hundred two-storied kurazukuri warehouses that were used to store goods on their way into Edo via the Kawagoe-Kaido highway. Today, approximately thirty of these ornate, earthen walled storehouses still survive. These historic buildings are conveniently grouped in an area about half a mile north of Kawagoe Station along Chuo-dori, the town’s main north-south street. Some of the kurazukuri were converted into small museums, such as the Kurazukuri Shiryokan, an old tobacco warehouse rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1893. Others serve as shops and restaurants.

Just 15 minutes away from the kurazukuri area are the ruins of Kawagoe Castle. Only one building, the Honmaru Goten, where the feudal lord dwelt, still remains and is open to visitors. The structure dates back to 1848 and contains amazing tatami rooms and a Chinese-style tiled roof.

Other famous landmarks include the Toki no Kane (Tower of Time), a 54-foot bell tower dating back to the 1890s, which was used to warn residents of a fire and the 1,200-year-old Kita-in Temple. The temple contains the only surviving structures from the original Edo Castle which were moved to Kawagoe along the Shingashi River. On the temple grounds you will find 540 statues of the disciples of Buddha and the Toshogu Shrine, dedicated to Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan. In January of each year, the temple hosts a Daruma Matsuri, during which time visitors purchase their daruma for good luck. Additionally, there is a Setsubun Matsuri (Bean Throwing Festival) and a Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival).

The Kawagoe Matsuri Kaikan or festival museum houses several ornate floats, some reaching as high as three stories, used in Kawagoe’s annual festival. Behind the museum you will find Kashiya Yokocho, a charming street with fourteen candy stores and children’s gift shops dating back to the early Showa era.

If you happen to work up an appetite after touring Kawagoe, try to sample some of the cuisine the city is famous for including sweet potatoes, unagi (eel) and various Japanese confections.

You can access Kawagoe from Tokyo via the Tobu Line from Ikebukuro Station to Kawagoe Station. Alternatively you can take the Seibu Shinjuku Line Koedo Limited Express train from Shinjuku to Hon-Kawagoe.

JAPAN: Ishikawa (Kanazawa: Nagamachi)

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The city of Kanazawa located in the Ishikawa Prefecture was once known as the city of canals. These canals served both to supply water and provide a means for transporting goods. Nestled between two canals (Onosho and Kuratsuki) that flow below Kanazawa Castle, you will find Nagamachi, the samurai district. It was once home to the samurai under the control of the Maeda clan who ruled the area.

The samurai that resided in this district were of the middle and upper classes. Their carefully preserved houses surrounded by earthen walls and the old stone pavements make you feel as if you have been transported to the Edo period. People still reside in these houses but some, such as the Nomura family house is open to the public. Visitors can also visit the Kaga Hanshi, a former stable with an adjacent garden and the Ashigaru Shiryokan, two reconstructed houses that are examples of the modest homes occupied by the foot soldiers or the lowest ranking samurai.

There are also several museums in the area worth visiting. Among them are:

Shinise Kinenkan Museum: a restored Edo period pharmacy, which houses local Kanazawa crafts.

Maeda Tosanokami-ke Shiryokan: a museum dedicated to the Maeda family, which features samurai armor and other relics.

If you visit Nagamachi during the winter months you will find that the mud walls are covered with rolls of straw to protect them from the harsh Kanazawa weather. This method is also used to protect the trees in the nearby Kenrokuen Park.

Nagamachi is the perfect destination for those who are passionate about Japan’s feudal past and the country’s samurai heritage. The district is relatively close to Kanazawa Castle and Myoryuji (Ninja Temple) so why not combine your visit and enjoy a full day in Kanazawa?

Nomura House

Nomura House