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/













JAPAN: The Capsule Hotel (カプセルホテル)

With the astronomical prices associated with lodging in many cities across the globe, Japan came up with a unique alternative that is slowly catching on in other cities outside of Japan in such countries as China, Belgium and the U.S.  What I am referring to is the capsule hotel (カプセルホテル) which originated in Osaka (Capsule Inn Osaka) in 1979 and has gained popularity all over Japan.

The standard capsule hotel features a collection of extremely small rooms or capsules (anywhere from 50 to 700 units) comprised of plastic or fiberglass and measuring roughly 6 feet 7 inches x 3 feet 3 inches x 4 feet 1 inch each. These hotels primarily cater to business men who require cheap overnight accommodation without the additional services offered by conventional hotels. They can be found near major train stations in large cities and usually charge ¥2,000 to ¥4,000 per night.  However, these days the demographics are changing. More and more capsule hotels now welcome female guests and offer gender segregated floors or buildings.  The hotels are also becoming popular among foreign travelers and a few “premium” or “themed” capsule hotels have emerged in such places as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka which charge a slightly higher rate.






The capsules are typically stacked two units high and are lined up side by side in a corridor.  In addition to the bedding, they are equipped with a light, alarm clock, TV and radio. Some even offer free Wi-Fi service.  There is a pull down shade or a door at the entrance of each capsule for privacy.  The hotels typically offer communal bathrooms and showers and more and more hotels are now adding such services as vending machines, laundry facilities, entertainment rooms, manga libraries, restaurants and lounges. The guests’ luggage and other personal belongings must be stored in an assigned locker and smoking and eating inside of the capsule is not permitted. Oftentimes, guests are provided with a yukata (cotton kimono) and slippers in exchange for their street clothes and shoes while they are staying at the capsule hotel.













The first capsule hotel opened in Xi’an China in 2012 followed by the first capsule hotel in Europe opening up in Belgium in 2014. On June 13, 2011, a capsule hotel called YOTEL officially opened in New York City Times Square.

In America where size does matter, Yotel offers what they call “cabin” rooms which measure approximately 129 square feet, significantly larger than their Japanese counterparts. There are 669 units packed into a futuristic tower in Times Square with each unit offering its own bathroom, shower, a tiny desk and a flat panel screen TV.  The beds are queen-sized and they sit up against the wall like a sofa during the day. These cabins go for anywhere between $195-$230 and VIP Suites boasting a fireplace, hot tub and terrace are available for $1,500!









Wherever your travels may take you, today you have the option of experiencing an authentic Japanese capsule hotel or upgrading to a more luxurious facility which employs the capsule hotel concept. There is something to satisfy every taste and budget!

Yotel Web Page:                            http://www.yotel.com/en

Capsule Hotels In Japan:             http://bit.ly/1pVBEsN




JAPAN: Fukushima (Higashiyama Hot Spring Town)

Located just east of downtown Aizu Wakamatsu in Fukushima is the small hot spring town of Higashiyama. The area is well known for its beautiful scenery year round and over the years many famous artists have stayed there. Inspired by the beauty surrounding them, they donated numerous paintings, poems and other works of art to the ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) where they stayed.

In fact, Higashiyama has twenty-eight different hotels which can satisfy every taste and budget. Whether you want a modern hotel or a traditional ryokan, you will find them here. If you do not want to stay in town, you can visit the hot springs on a day trip. Many of the hotels and ryokans allow visitors to use their facilities during the day at a set time period for a small fee.

If you simply want to wonder around town and enjoy the scenery, you will be rewarded by the beautiful pink cherry blossoms in the spring and the fiery reds, oranges and yellows of the turning leaves in the fall. Further up the valley is the Higashiyama Dam. The area around the dam is a popular spot for relaxation and picnics.

From August 13th through 18th, the town hosts a bon dance festival. During the festival, a large yagura (bandstand tower) is constructed in the center of town and hundreds of chochin (lanterns) illuminate the streets. Ladies wearing their yukatas (cotton summer kimono) and men in traditional dress dance around the yagura until late at night. The high energy atmosphere attracts both tourists and locals alike.

Whether you want to relax in the town’s hot springs, marvel at the beauty of the cherry blossoms, enjoy the changing leaves of autumn, soak up the high energy atmosphere of the bon dance festival or simply see for yourself that which inspired so many artists over the years, Higashiyama is the place to be.

The town is accessible during the morning and late afternoon hours by the Aizu Loop bus. The journey takes 35 minutes from the Aizu Wakamatsu Station. However, between the hours of 10:00 AM and   1:00 PM the bus only runs as far as Aizu Bukeyashiki. Higashiyama is only a 10-15 minute journey on foot from that point.

Web page: http://www.aizu-higashiyama.com/english/index.html

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:       http://www.hyogo-tourism.jp/english/whatsnew/index.php?id=149

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

Japan: Tokyo (Shibuya) Ohara Festival/ 渋谷鹿児島おはら祭

Summertime in Japan is a wonderful time in that it marks the start of many fun and interesting festivals. One such festival is the Shibuya Kagoshima Ohara Matsuri. This festival which began in Shibuya in 1996 is a friendship festival between Kagoshima and Shibuya. (The Kagoshima version dates back to 1949). Essentially it is one great dance festival/ parade with nine teams participating from Kagoshima and fifty teams participating from the Kanto Region.

The Ohara Matsuri in Kagoshima is celebrated in November. It is the largest festival of its kind in southern Kyushu featuring 20,000 dancers. Teams of dancers dance in unison to traditional folk music like Ohara Bushi wearing traditional yukata (summer cotton kimono), festive Happi coats and some even employ home-made costumes. The event draws in upwards of over 20,000 spectators to Tenmonkan in downtown Kagoshima each year.













The Shibuya version of this festival takes place in May on Bunkamura Street and Dougenzaka Street. The festival’s main purpose is to promote tourism in Kagoshima and enforce the city’s cultural ties to Tokyo. Since Kagoshima has a rich food culture, there is a food festival on Saturday and Sunday as well. The parade begins on Sunday at 12:50 PM and concludes at 4:00 PM. Naturally, there is no admission fee applicable.

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


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: http://www8.city.toyama.toyama.jp/kanko/english/e_event/e_07.html


Japan: Summer Fireworks Displays

Now that the biggest summer fireworks show in Japan has come and gone, I thought it would be a good time to itemize the other major fireworks festivals that are about to take place. There are several scheduled in and around Tokyo, as a matter of fact, with events ranging in scale from less than 2,000 shells all the way up to over 10,000 shells being utilized! The Japanese fireworks (hanabi) are highly regarded as the most beautiful in the world with colorful vibrant colors, a wide variety of shapes and techniques accented by a dynamic but delicate sense of art.

As I mentioned, the Sumida River Fireworks Festival took place this past Saturday, July 26th at 7:00 PM over the Sumida River near Asakusa. Typically this festival is held on the last Saturday in July and is a revival of celebrations held during the Edo period. This is not a mere fireworks display but a fierce competition between rival pyrotechnics groups which produces some of the most amazing displays that can be seen over the skies of Tokyo. This year, it was said that 20,000 shells were used during the event. The event is so popular, it draws close to a million people annually. (Information: http://gotokyo.org/en/kanko/taito/event/sumidahanabi.html)

Sumida River fireworks

Sumida River fireworks

Sumida River with Tokyo Skytree in the background

Sumida River with Tokyo Skytree in the background

Spectators gathering to watch the fireworks show along Sumida River

Spectators gathering to watch the fireworks show along Sumida River

If you missed the Sumida River show, you can still catch another nice fireworks display on August 2nd. Edogawa Fireworks Festival is the oldest fireworks festival in Tokyo, marking its 39th year this year! Taking place on the banks of the Edo River, the event utilizes some 14,000 shells during a show which is divided into eight sections, each section based on a different theme. The venue is just a 25 minute walk from the JR Koiwa Station and a 15 minute walk from Shinozaki Station on the Toei Shinjuku Line. (Information: (Japanese only)http://www.city.edogawa.tokyo.jp/hanabi/index.html)

Edogawa Fireworks Festival

Edogawa Fireworks Festival

Edo river


Also on August 2nd, you can watch 11,000 fireworks launched from the banks of the Arakawa River in the Itabashi ward, one of 23 special wards in Tokyo. The Arakawa River forms part of the boundary with Saitama Prefecture. The Itabashi Fireworks Festival lasts and hour and 40 minutes and reserved seating is available, if you so choose. You can reach the venue via the Toei Mita Line, just exit at the Nishidai station. (Information: (Japanese only) http://itabashihanabi.jp/)

Itabashi Fireworks Festival

Itabashi Fireworks Festival

If you happen to be in Yokohama, the capital of Kanagawa, on August 5th, make sure not to miss the Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival. Here 15,000 fireworks will be launched from boats in front of Rinko Park. Sponsored by the Kanagawa newspaper (Kangawa Shimbun) this is Yokohama’s signature summer event! This year will be the 29th year for this event which will be highlighted by fireworks synchronized with music and laser beams. (Information: http://www.yokohamajapan.com/things-to-do/events/29th-kanagawa-shimbun-fireworks-festival-2014/)

Kanagawa Fireworks Festival

Kanagawa Fireworks Festival


Festival vendor

Festival vendor

Last but not least on August 10th, the Tokyo Bay Grand Fireworks Competition will take place. This event will be utilizing 12,000 shells which will light up the sky of Tokyo Bay including the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower. Two leading pyrotechnics companies, Marutamaya and Hosoya, compete to show off the most spectacular display of fireworks. The Tokyo Bay Grand Fireworks Festival has become one of the biggest and well known fireworks festivals in Tokyo along with Sumida River Fireworks Festival, drawing over 650,000 visitors each year. The main viewing area is the Harumi wharf, but it is limited to only those who have tickets. Visitors to Odaiba’s Decks Tokyo Beach can also view the fireworks display. The hanabi show is scheduled to start at 6:50 PM, concluding at 8:10 PM. (Information: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/tourists/attractions/fourseasons/hanabitaikai.html)

Tokyo Bay Fireworks Competition with the Rainbow Bridge in the background

Tokyo Bay Fireworks Competition with the Rainbow Bridge in the background


Of course, this is not a complete list but it will give you an idea of what is available during the month of August. Summer in Japan is not complete until you have had an opportunity to view the fireworks, so plan on it!