Kyoto

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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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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New Book: A Blogger’s Guide to JAPAN

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Friends, good news! My book is now available to purchase online. Please note that if you purchase the book from the CreateSpace eStore, you can use the discount code (YVW7YCQG) to receive $3 off the list price. Worldwide shipment is available.

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Japan: Kyoto (Kyoto Railway Museum/ 京都鉄道博物館)

Earlier, I had written about the Tetsudo Hakubutsukan (鉄道博物館)/ The Railway Museum) located in Saitama City.  Operated by the East Japan Railway Culture Foundation, it is the largest railway museum in Japan. Today, I would like to introduce you to another amazing railway museum. It is one of Japan’s three great railway museums alongside The Railway Museum in Saitama and JR Central’s SCMAGLEV and Railway Park in Nagoya.

Located in Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, the Kyoto Tetsudo Hakubutsukan (京都鉄道博物館/Kyoto Railway Museum) opened to the public on April 29, 2016. It sits on the former site of the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum, which came into existence in 1972.  The museum is owned by West Japan Railway Company (JR West) and is operated by the Transportation Culture Promotion Foundation.

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Covering an area of 30,000 square meters, the museum is divided into several exhibition areas, including a 20-track roundhouse built in 1914 and the Nijo Station Building, relocated from the nearby Nijo Station in 1997. The exhibits include 53 retired trains, ranging from early steam locomotives to more recent electric trains and a shinkansen (bullet train).  Many of the exhibits were inherited from the Modern Transportation Museum in Osaka which has since closed. Visitors will also find displays with railway uniforms, tools and other railway related items from the past.  The museum is home to one of the largest railway dioramas found in Japan.  It contains miniature trains which crisscross an intricately detailed landscape , all operated by a single skilled machinist. There are also a variety of interactive exhibits enabling visitors to drive a train via a simulator or perform the duties of a train conductor. The museum even has a restaurant located on the second floor where patrons can glimpse nice views of the passing trains along the JR Kyoto Line and the Tokaido Shinkansen.  For an additional fee of ¥300, visitors can take a one kilometer journey on a train powered by a steam locomotive.  The typical journey lasts approximately ten minutes.

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Located only 20 minutes on foot from Kyoto Station, the Kyoto Railway Museum affords the ideal opportunity for visitors to appreciate Japan’s steps toward modernization through its railway history.

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The museum is open daily between the hours of 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM. (Closed on Wednesdays and from December 30 to January 1.)

Web page:         http://www.kyotorailwaymuseum.jp/en/

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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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Megumisan helping a young geisha get ready

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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/