New Book: A Blogger’s Guide to JAPAN


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Further, is offering a special limited time holiday discount.  Use the following code to receive $10 off the list price at check out:  HOLIDAYBOOK

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Japan: Hyogo / Himeji (Yukata Festival / 姫路ゆかたまつり )

Most visitors to Himeji City are drawn there because of the beautiful Himeji Castle and Engyoji Temple on Mount Shosha, but did you know there is another attraction Himeji is known for, which draws over 200,000 visitors to Hyogo’s second largest city?  It is the Himeji Yukata Matsuri, which takes place in late June. The tradition goes back to a ceremony that took place about 260 years ago when the lord of Himeji Castle moved the Osakabe Shrine to downtown Himeji. Himeji Castle was built on the former grounds of the shrine, therefore, common folks could not visit or pray at the shrine. Moving the shrine to downtown Himeji meant that everyone could easily have access to the shrine and a celebration ensued.  However, the ceremony took place on such short notice that the citizens of Himeji did not have enough time or money to prepare their formal kimonos.  Instead, they were permitted to wear their summer yukatas and thus the Yukata Festival began.

In the beginning, the event was simply referred to as the Yukata Matsuri but since more and more yukata festivals were popping up across Japan, it was eventually renamed the Himeji Yukata Matsuri. The event runs three days and consists of a yukata parade, a yukata fashion show and various live dance and musical performances. It is considered the oldest and largest festival of its type in Japan with over 800 vendors. You can even gain free access to Himeji Castle if you are dressed in a yukata!

The yukata differs from the kimono in that it is made from a light cotton material with bright colors and patterns and is typically worn during the summer months. Although it is common to see men and women wearing yukatas during the summer festivals, the garment represents the main component of this particular festival and it is estimated that 70% of all festival goers at the Himeji Yukata Matsuri attend wearing their yukatas. Of course, if you do not own a yukata, you can rent one at the Jokamachi Style shop near Himeji Castle as well as other places around town.

The festival runs from 4:30 PM to 9:30 PM and is free to attend. Access to the festival is relatively easy as the city lies along the Sanyo Shinkansen line.  The destination is approximately 40 minutes from Kobe and 3 hours away from Tokyo.

Osakabe shrine

Osakabe shrine


Men's Yukata

Men’s Yukata

Women's Yukata

Women’s Yukata

Wed page:

Address:          33 Tatemachi, Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture 670-0903

WASHINGTON DC : National Cherry Blossom Festival

Japan’s cherry blossom trees are coveted worldwide and many tourists flock to the country to witness these magnificent blooms first hand. But for those that are unable to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season you need only travel as far as Washington D.C. to enjoy the same sakura trees found in Japan.

In March of 1912, 3,020 cherry trees arrived in Washington D.C. from Tokyo. These trees were replacements for the 2,000 cherry trees that were sent to Washington in January of 1910 which had fallen victim to disease during the journey. The original trees were a gift from Mayor Yukio Ozaki as a gesture to enhance the growing friendship between the United States and Japan. The first two trees from the 3,020 were planted along the Potomac River in a formal ceremony with first lady, Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador. The remainder of the trees were planted along the river basin, in East Potomac Park and on the grounds of the White House.

Yukio Ozaki and wife

Yukio Ozaki and wife










300-year old stone lantern to commemorate the signing of the 1854 Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Friendship by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. For a number of years, the lighting of this lantern formally opened the Festival.

300-year old stone lantern to commemorate the signing of the 1854 Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Friendship by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. For a number of years, the lighting of this lantern formally opened the Festival.



The trees became so popular with visitors to Washington that a three-day celebration was held in 1934 which eventually grew into the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival (全米桜祭り Zenbei Sakura Matsuri). After the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan, the festival was suspended and remained suspended for the duration of World War II. It was resumed in 1947 and today attracts more than 700,000 visitors to Washington each year during late March. In 1994, the festival was expanded to two weeks to accommodate the many activities in the area that correspond to the blooming of the cherry trees.

The two week festival begins on the last Saturday in March with a Family Day and an official opening ceremony in the National Building Museum. Other activities include The Blossom Kite Festival, a sushi and sake celebration, a parade, art exhibits, cultural performances, rakugo (a 400-year-old tradition of comic storytelling in Japan), kimono fashion shows, martial arts demonstrations and various merchant-sponsored events. A fireworks show on the nearby Washington Channel marks the end of the festival.











It is interesting to note that after World War II, cuttings from Washington’s cherry trees were sent back to Japan to restore the Tokyo collection that was decimated by American bombing attacks during the war.

National Cherry Blossom Festival
Web page:

HEADQUARTERS: 50 Massachusetts Avenue, NE

Japan: Hanamachi

In Japan, a geisha district is referred to as “hanamachi” where hana means flower and machi means town. There were several of these districts situated in Tokyo, Osaka, Kanazawa and Kyoto.

Hanamachi were preceded by and should not be confused with traditional prostitution districts known as yukaku. Established in the early 1600s in Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo (now Tokyo) they consisted of Shimabara (Kyoto), Shinmachi (Osaka) and Yoshiwara (Edo). You may have heard of Yoshiwara, as it has been incorrectly featured in several geisha themed films including “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Geisha actually developed about a century later, in the mid-1700s.

The popular misconception is that geisha are prostitutes. Geisha in fact, are highly valued entertainers not prostitutes. The confusion probably arises from the name given to prostitute hostesses, called “makura geisha” (pillow geisha) and “onsen geisha” a prostitute working in the hot spring resorts. Early on, the maiko (apprentice geisha) had their virginity auctioned off between potential patrons. However, the winning patron was not permitted to have further relations with the maiko afterwards. This practice was abolished in 1959.

In the 1920s, there were over 80,000 geisha in Japan, but today they number less than 2,000. Gion, a district in Kyoto, Japan is the most famous hanamachi. The geisha in the Gion district (and Kyoto generally) do not refer to themselves as geisha; instead, Gion geisha use the term geiko. While the term geisha means “artist” or “person of the arts,” the more direct term, geiko, means “a child of the arts” or “a woman of arts.” The Kyoto geiko are the most renowned in Japan.

There are currently five active hanamachi in Kyoto. There were six previously, but Shimabara is now defunct and serves only as a tourist attraction.


Gion Kobu

Gion Higashi (East) 




Gion Hanamachi Shirakawa Tatsumi Bridge

Gion Hanamachi Shirakawa Tatsumi Bridge







Gion came into existence during the Middle Ages and is situated in front of the Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved to become one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. Today, Gion remains dotted with old-style Japanese houses called machiya, which translated means “townhouse.” Some of these townhouses are actually ochaya or “tea houses.” These are the traditional establishments where the patrons of the geiko, ranging from the samurai of old to modern day businessmen, have been entertained by them for centuries.

Gion Kobu and Gion Higashi split many years ago. Kobu is larger, occupying most of the district, while Higashi is smaller and occupies the northeast corner.


Ochiya (Geiko house)

Okiya (Geiko house)

Okiya (Geiko house)


Entertainment inside of an ochaya


Ochaya (tea house)

Tea house

Tea house

Inside the ochaya is a private and closed world where the evening’s entertainment may include cocktails, conversation and games as well as traditional Japanese music, singing and dancing. To this day, geiko and maiko can be seen moving about through the streets of Gion in the evenings. But beware, not everyone dressed in an elaborate kimono, wearing white makeup is a geiko or a maiko. It is very popular for women visiting Gion to dress up as geiko for the day. There are various kimono rental shops scattered around the district who also offer hair and makeup services as well as photo sessions.






The kimono, a major element of geisha attire, has changed very little since the seventeenth century. Over time, the obi (sash) evolved from a narrow belt to a long, wide, stiff cloth. Courtesans/ prostitutes were required to wear heavy brocaded obis tied in front with a large knot resembling a pillow to distinguish themselves from the geisha and other women who tied their obis in the back.

Another characteristic element of a geisha is the elaborate coiffure. By the 18th century, Japanese women’s hairstyles, not only the geisha but also the courtesans and nobles, became so complex that women could not style their own hair but had to rely on professional hairdressers who went from house to house. They used various ornaments for decorative purposes which ranged from combs to hairpins made from different materials. Today, geisha/ geiko wear such hairstyles on the most formal of occasions, although almost all now rely on wigs.




The geisha/geiko are also strongly associated with white facial makeup, which allows them to be more visible and expressive in low lighting conditions. This is the same reason was Kabuki actors use this type of makeup.



It takes many years of apprenticeship to become a skilled geiko. The apprentices are trained in such skills as dance, music, tea ceremony, and ikebana. They acquire skills in conversation and gaming from their okaasan (“mother”/ tea house owner) or their oneesan (“older sister”/ the geisha that will be their mentor). As often seen in other Japanese traditional arts, the apprentices first learn by observing.

So if you happen to be visiting Kyoto, take a moment away from the temples and gardens and wonder into the historical Gion district. It will present you with yet another opportunity to step back in time and experience Japan of a bygone era.

Japan: Toyama (Owara Kaze no Bon)

In the rustic town of Yatsuo nestled in the southern mountain range of Toyama City, an annual festival, which has been in existence for over 300 years takes place from September 1 to September 3 and draws over 250,000 visitors.

The festival is called Owara Kaze no Bon, which literally translates to Bon Dance of the Wind. It was originally held in order to pray for protection from the typhoons and allow for a bountiful rice crop. It corresponds to the 210th day from the first day of spring according to the traditional Japanese calendar and is considered a day often beset by calamities.

What makes this festival so unique is that it is held at night. The streets are decorated with paper lanterns and long rows of young men and women, their faces covered by low-brimmed straw hats, dance simultaneously to mournful music. Unique to the region, this particular style of music utilizes the kokyu, a rare bowed string instrument, and a traditional shamisen, a three-stringed instrument played with a plectrum called a bachi.

The dancers wear matching kimonos (women) and short jackets (men) along with straw hats covering their faces. It is said that they do this in order to hide themselves from the wrath of the god they hope to appease.

Another rare feature is that the dancers are all unmarried and they participate in the dance to show off and meet other young unmarried people.

The song that the dancers dance to is called Ecchu Owara Bushi. The dance is performed in an area extending about 2 miles and carries with it a dark atmosphere that many describe as creepy. As with any festival there are games, traditional foods and the opportunity to pick up unique trinkets at the shops lining the streets. Ecchu washi (Japanese paper) is a popular souvenir for visitors to Owara Kaze no Bon.

The festival site is 40 minutes on foot from the Ecchu Yatsuo Station on the JR Takayama Honsen Line.


















Ecchu Washi

Ecchu Washi

For more information, visit the Toyama events page at: