Monthly Archive September 2017

ByJustin Hanus
Sep 14, 2017

Miso – The Story Behind Japan’s Condiment of Choice for 1000 Years

There was a time when miso was only eaten by nobility and monks. It was strictly forbidden for commoners to even eat the fermented condiment. What a difference a thousand years or so makes – today it is the cornerstone of traditional Japanese meals.

Miso was invented in China and first eaten over 2500 years ago. It was originally a paste made of cooked soybeans and fermented grains and spread directly on food. When the foodstuff arrived in Japan it was considered a food of the elite and given as gifts and even used as wages. The first specialty miso shops, decreed by Japanese law, eventually appeared in Kyoto.

Through the ages, the miso soybeans were mashed into a soup that became the go-to food for samurai warriors. Later, as the country dissolved into decades of civil war, the nutrient-rich miso paste was a critical battlefield ration. During the Edo Period from the 1600s to the 1800s experimenting with different methods of fermentation led to high-grade miso favored by the wealthy merchant class and everyday varieties for the masses. Miso shops with increasingly complex recipes sprang up across Japan to satisfy all these needs.

Ways of Making Miso

The art of creating miso involves a mastery of fermentation and aging. Fermentation of the soybean paste uses salt and takes place when the weather is hot. When the temperatures drop, the fermenting enzymes slow and undesirable bacteria die off. The miso is ready for market at this time but not all miso is consumed after this process. The fermentation cycle for some miso is repeated in the second year and even a third year. Repeat fermentation cycles result in richer flavors and thicker textures for these “two-year” misos and “three-year” misos.

All of the one-year miso is considered “light miso” which is also known on menus and store shelves as “sweet miso” or “mellow miso.” The single cycle of fermentation means less salt. The mild flavor is also exacerbated by an increase of cooked rice or grain in the mixture. “Dark miso” covers the miso made over multiple years and can include rice, barley, soybeans or buckwheat.

In Japanese culture the solid ingredients in miso soup are added based on the season. It is not unusual to find miso soup seasoned with kelp, shrimp, black clams, onions or mushrooms. A traditional Japanese breakfast is miso soup and white rice. The time-honored presentation is for the soup to be served in lacquer bowls, often with lids, and consumed by drinking directly from the bowl.

Popularity of Miso

In today’s healthy food movement, miso has been discovered to be packed with friendly probiotic bacteria. Those beneficial germs can help the body kickstart its immune system. Some studies have suggested that the consumption of miso soup can decrease the probability of contracting stomach cancer and breast cancer.

Those potential health benefits have caught the attention of the world. These days the traditional staple of Japanese diet for one thousand years is a popular export with the fermented mashed soybeans being shipped across the globe.

By Fooding Around, Crystal, pelican, Kari Sullivan [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Sep 14, 2017

Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens is a Celebration of Herbs and More

Herbs have a hallowed and honored position in Japanese culture dating back hundreds and hundreds of years. Chinese herbs first began appearing in Japan traditional folk medicines during cultural exchanges between the two ancient societies. Japanese sufferers became familiar with plants such as geranium herbs used as an anti-diarrheic and Mallotus bark that helped relieve stomach disorders.

The study and integration of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Japan came to be known as kampo. The first kampo medicines were approved for the National Health Insurance program in 1967. There were only four at the time but today there are nearly 150. Chinese liquorice is the herb used in most kampo medicines. Other common herbs are ginger and Chinese peony root.

Japanese cooks have also long relied on these tiny, seed-bearing non-woody plants for flavoring. The most favored spices used in Japanese cuisine are negi, shiso, and mitsuba. The negi plant features white parts that become sweet when cooked and the green part is used to garnish noodles, tofu, and miso soup. Shiso belongs to the mint family and is often fried as an ingredient in tempura dishes. When the seeds of shiso are dried they are used as a spice. Mitsuba is a stalk-like herb that is white and green that is a foundation of the Japanese steamed egg custard known as Chawanmushi.

More herbs than anywhere in Japan

Japan loves herbs and there is no better place to celebrate these versatile and beneficial plants than the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens. Nestled on the slopes of the Rokko mountains above the city, the park boasts 75,000 herbs and flowers comprising Japan’s largest herb garden. More than 200 species of plants are distributed across 14 themed garden plots.

Autumn is one of the best times to visit Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens as Garden Fest takes place from September through November 26. Strolling among the gardens is an ideal way to discover herbs, taking in the fragrances and learning the traditions of these useful plants. There are plenty of benches to relax in the colorful surroundings. The fall season immerses visitors in a feast of the senses. The park features a variety of restaurants and cafes that serve dishes prepared with the seasonal herbs.

Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens

650-0002 Hyogo Prefecture, Kobe, Chuo Ward, Kitanocho, 1-4-3 (map link)
www.kobeherb.com
078-271-1160

More to do

There is much more to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens than enjoy herbs. A walking path winds from the mountain’s base up and across Nunokibi Falls, a midstream plunge of the Ikuta River that is one of the country’s most revered hydro-spectaculars. The river is impounded by the Nunobiki Gohonmatsu Dam and produces “Kobe water,” celebrated for its purity and high quality. The hike takes about 40 minutes to complete. Another way to tame the mountainside is inside the ropeway gondola. Whether on foot or by ropeway car, the panoramic views of Kobe City and the Seto Inland Sea will be remembered long after the herbs are consumed.

The Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens are open daily and there is admission required for the herb garden and the ropeway.

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons  

ByJustin Hanus
Sep 14, 2017

All Aboard! Cruising in Kobe Harbor

Kobe is Japan’s fifth largest city and one of the best ways to appreciate its size and importance is to view it from the water. You do just that with harbor cruises that depart from the shore on a daily basis. The cruises typically last 90 minutes or two hours as they circle in front of Kobe’s doorstep. What can you expect to see on a Kobe harbor cruise?

Kobe is very much an industrial city and two artificial islands in the harbor emphasize the foundation of the local economy. Rokko Island is home base for the busy Kobe Airport and Port Island includes the city’s famous port. Kobe was an early keystone for foreign trade and remained prominent until the destructive 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. After that, the city slipped from being Japan’s busiest port to handling the fourth most tonnage but it is the still the country’s largest port for massive container ships.

Once the cruise ships motor beyond the islands into more open water and the Kobe Port Tower recedes from view, the entire cityscape spreads before you. To the east is Osaka Bay and framing the skyline are the stately 1000-meter Rokko Mountains. Landmarks that can be spotted on shore include the Noevir Stadium Kobe, Suma Aqualife Park and Marine Pia Kobe. Longer harbor cruises run parallel to the shore through the Akashi Strait and under the majestic Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, sailing past Awaji Island.

Cruise choices

Two of the most poplar harbor cruises are on the Luminous Kobe 2  that sets sail near Port Tower and the Concerto that departs from Harborland. Subway lines will bring cruisers to within a ten-minute walk of both loading docks. The Concerto is a 74-meter, four-deck cruiser and the Luminous Kobe 2 stretches to 106 meters. It is one of the largest day cruise ships in Japan.

Both are restaurant ships and offer lunch, tea, and dinner cruises. The Luminous Kobe 2 specializes in Mediterranean-style French cuisine but has several culinary options, including a steak buffet and a Kobe beef course. Chef’s creations are grilled right in the dining room. In addition to its standard menu, the Concerto also offers an all-you-can-eat feast of Chinese fare. The Concerto’s chef holds the highest rank in the art of Chinese cuisine.

Relaxing on ship

You can take in the sights of Kobe harbor from inside the cabin lounges or from the tables and chairs arranged on the spacious observation decks. Especially popular are the night cruises that combine dinner with the illuminated Kobe skyline and Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Twilight cruises bring sunsets dropping directly beyond the bridge. To enhance the mood, the Concerto also offers cruisers a grand piano lounge. This is an especially popular attraction for those who book shipboard weddings and parties in Kobe harbor.

You do not have to buy the full dining package to go cruising. There are also special rates for children. Cruises operate throughout the year but schedules are subject to the vagaries of the weather and vessel maintenance. Advance reservations are often required for dinner but can be made the same day.

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Sep 14, 2017

Japan’s Coffee Culture is Super Caffeinated – UCC Coffee Museum in Kobe

The image of Japan around the world is that of a country where the main beverages are green tea and sake. It can thus be a surprise to see the large number of coffee shops in Japanese cities. Hot and cold coffee in cans can also be grabbed from many of the nation’s ubiquitous vending machines.

Compared to its liquid cousins, coffee is a neophyte in Japanese culture. There was an occasional cup brewed by European visitors before Japan opened its doors to trade with the West in the mid-19th century but coffee was at best a novelty drink. It was not until the late 19th century that coffee beans were imported in bulk into Japan. The first record of a coffee shop in the country was in Tokyo in 1888.

Fast forward a century and the lifting of import restrictions following World War II. Coffee began making its way into more and more daily routines in Japan. In 1980, Toriba Hiromichi opened his first Doutor Coffee shop in the Harajuku district of Tokyo. The selling space was only nine square meters. From those extremely modest beginnings the coffee roaster and retailer has grown to over 1,300 shops and grows beans on its own plantations in Hawaii.

When American coffee shop standard bearer Starbucks decided in 1996 to expand outside of the United States, the first international store was built in Tokyo. Taking its cue from the Seattle-based retailer, Japanese coffee shops morphed from business hubs to hang-outs. Today, Japan is the third largest importer of coffee beans in the world.

The celebration of coffee in Japan begins in Kobe

You can learn about these fun facts of the world’s most popular beverage (400 billion cups consumed per year) and more at Japan’s only coffee museum, the UCC Coffee Museum. UCC was the first company to offer coffee in those vending machine cans, back in 1969. On October 1, 1987, UCC started its coffee museum to celebrate the allure of dark roasted beans. As the 30th anniversary approaches, October 1 has been declared “Coffee Day” in Kobe.

The museum’s exhibit room is conformed in a spiral that leads visitors along the beverage’s journey from raw green coffee beans in the plantation field to the caffeinated goodness in your cup. Along the way beans are strictly graded for size, defects, and taste. Beyond consumption the museum delves into the rich nooks and crannies of Japan’s coffee culture. The entire tour is self-guided and can be pulled in on your smartphone inside the museum. Test yourself on coffee fun facts and try to earn a coveted “Coffee Doctor Certificate,” complete with personal photo and suitable for framing.

A visit to the UCC Coffee Museum concludes with a Tasting Corner to sample the bounty of coffee available. There are four sessions per day and the theme of the Tasting Corner changes each month so you can become a regular in the UCC Coffee Museum. If you can’t get enough of the samples, stop in to the museum cafe, UCC Coffee Road. You can also purchase beans here without going to the museum. There is an admission charge for the museum and the doors are open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except on Mondays.

The UCC Coffee Museum

6 Chome-6-2 Minatojima Nakamachi, Chuo Ward, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture 650-0046 (map link)
www.ucc.co.jp
078-302-8880

By 663highland (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Sep 14, 2017

The Danjiri Matsuri in Osaka is a Multi-Generational Thrill Show

Autumn means the biggest event of the year for the southern Osaka city of Kishiwada – the Danjiri Matsuri. Danjiri are large wooden carts inside which religious tenets declare gods reside. The point of the festival is to honor the gods by having fleets of neighborhood men pull the carts – some of which can weigh four tonnes – through the city streets. The carts are ornately decorated, especially with elaborate wooden carvings, as neighborhood guilds compete for glory in their street performances. The festival is over 300 years old, having started by the lord of Kishiwada Castle, praying for an abundant harvest.

There are danjiri matsuri in towns across Japan but Kishiwada’s is the most famous as competing participants attempt to whip their carts through the city streets as fast as possible. The festival always kicks off in the early morning with a prayer for everyone’s safety as accidents happen if the massive carts tip over. The Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri is actually celebrated over two weekends: the weekend of the Respect for the Aged holiday in September and the Sports Day holiday weekend in October. For spectators, the second festival is larger but the first is considered more exciting.

Taking it to the streets

There are usually approximately 35 neighborhood teams that race their danjiris through Kishiwada in pursuit of burnishing the neighborhood reputation.The competing neighborhood guilds work all year in preparation for the festival, adorning the danjiris in local warehouses. The team leader is always a master carpenter as traditionally the competition was among the city’s carpenter’s guilds. The leader stands atop the danjiri floats, shouting directions and performing acrobatic – and dangerous – dances. The danjiri is pulled through the streets by team members handling heavy duty ropes.

In the danjiri’s wake are musicians on foot playing drums and bells. Each team has its own rallying chants and special songs are composed to honor the spirits of the danjiri. The procession lasts more than four hours and concludes with a nighttime group religious ceremony. The festival concludes as the rituals are turned over to the neighborhood children who learn to perpetuate the tradition of the danjiri.

Kishiwada Festival 2017

September 16, 2017
October 7,8,9 2017

Kishiwada Castle

596-0073 Osaka Prefecture, Kishiwada, Kishikicho, 9-1 (map link)
www.city.kishiwada.osaka.jp
072-431-3251

If you miss the spectacle

A short walk from the Kishiwada Castle stands a shrine to the festival at the Kishiwada Danjiri Hall. The multi-story museum features artwork created by festival fans dedicated to the racing in the streets. A second floor includes a film focused on the frenetic street scenes, a danjiri laced with red chochin lanterns that is hauled out during the night parade, and a recreation of a Kishiwada castle town neighborhood from the early days of the matsuri. The third floor is given over to exquisite miniature models of danjiri floats past and present. On the fourth floor visitors get a chance to board a danjiri or play some ceremonial instruments. Throughout the museum are videos, interactive quizzes, and selfie opportunities.

Kishiwada’s Danjiri Museum is a short walk from Takojizo Station on the Nankai Line. Hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and admission is charged.

By Hhaithait (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJade Brischke
Sep 13, 2017

Looking for a Good Time in Hiroshima?

If you want to have a good time having a drink and some quick and easy food to eat whilst chilling out in relaxed surroundings, head to Good Time.  According to Google maps it’s labelled as a, ‘hotdog restaurant,’ and one man from Chicago, which apparently is the ‘home of famous hotdogs,’ said the ones from Good Time are among the best he’s ever had. I found that titbit of information from their Facebook page and my friend who eats there all the time agrees with that statement.

Open from 12-11pm every day, it’s located in Funairi on a corner of the main streetcar line heading down to Eba. Yep, it gets double bonus points for not only being easy to get to, but also for having cheap transportation if you don’t have a bicycle or want to walk.

The menu is simple and being a hotdog joint it’s not extensive, but it’s nice to see something easy to navigate and eat. Standard hotdogs are small and most people would consider them to be a snack on the run; something to tide them over until their next meal. At 400 yen, you have the option of choosing soft or hard bread and your choice of smoked, garlic or spicy sausage. Add a drink for a 600 yen set. ‘Extra,’ hotdogs are a bit fancier (is it possible for a hotdog to be fancy?) with combinations such as bacon and eggs and avocado and smoked salmon. There are also various little snacks such as fried potato, ham salad and the bar favourite, kaki pii (カキピー), a combination of peanuts and tiny rice crackers.

I like hotdogs, but I like beer more, so I go simply to drink that. They have Heartland beer on tap as well as bottled beer such as Blue Moon. If you’re a fan of Kirin Hard Cidre, you can also find that here and from personal experience, it’s a great combination with the spicy, meaty flavours of the hotdogs. I guess that’s what they decided to open a hotdog and beer place!

Good Time has a Facebook page and Instagram account and is the perfect place for a casual outing with friends or a date for… well, a good time.

GOOD TIME (グッド タイム)

3-14 Funairi Nakamachi, Naka Ward, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture 730-0842 (map link)
www.instagram.com/goodtime_funairi
082-234-8128
www.facebook.com/goodtimefunairi

ByJade Brischke
Sep 13, 2017

Daisho-In Temple: the alternative to Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima

It may not be as famous as Itsukushima Shrine, but Daisho-In Temple on Miyajima is just as beautiful and to let you in on a secret, it’s actually my favourite. When I go to Miyajima, I bypass Itsukushima (and the crowds!) and head straight for Daisho-In.

Unlike shrines, which are Shinto, temples in Japan are Buddhist. Daisho-In Temple is part of the Shingon sect which was founded by Kobo Daishi. The temple is closely linked to Mt. Misen, the sacred mountain at the centre of Miyajima and is also where, in 806, Kobo Daishi underwent 100 days of ascetic practice. He lit a fire which has been burning for 1200 years and is also the fire that was used to light the Flame of Peace in the Peace Memorial Park.

The temple complex actually contains a collection of buildings which you enter via Niomon Gate. After washing your hands and mouth to purify yourself, you walk up a number of stairs where, on your right are the Dai-hannyakyo Scriptures. Tradition says that if you spin them as you go up and as you come down that you will receive great fortune.

The official map outlines 27 points of interest, but for this article’s sake, I’m going to give you a rundown on my favourite and a few tips you won’t find in guidebooks because people like to keep them to themselves!

For something visually spectacular and mind-blowingly impermanent, check out the sand mandala created by Buddhist priests from Tibet. It’s housed in the Kannon-do Hall which is also the hall with the underground passage. Yes, the underground passage which not everyone knows about and which isn’t always advertised.

Tip Number One: Go!

I was lucky enough to be by myself one day when an old Japanese man gestured to me to follow him into the depths below. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself plunged into complete darkness and having to rely on my faith and hands to guide me through. The illuminated pictures and small statues throughout were the only light and I emerged at the other end wondering what had happened. I know of only one other person who also knows about this…

Just next to the information office of the temple is also a place where you can taste the herbal tea comprised of 16 herbs for good health. You can drink as much as you want, but Tip Number Two: do not fill your tea bottle with it to take away!

If you enjoyed spinning the first lot of scriptures, head to the even longer Mani Wheel which leads up to Maniden Hall. By spinning these it is said that you are reading the equivalent of one volume of the Heart Sutra. The Hall itself is for those wishing to achieve contentment, good health and longevity. In other words, it’s the hall with something for everyone!

To be honest, the real reason I visit the temple each time I go to Miyajima is for the English omikuji (おみくじ) or fortune. For only 50 yen it’s well worth your money and every single time I’ve read my love/marriage section I’ve been told: he will be late. It’s very clear it’s a he and believe me, they don’t have to tell me he’s late! If you get a less than desirable one, tie it up outside with all the others.

My final favourite place within the temple complex is the Hen jyokutsu Cave of Buddhist icons which is said to grant you the equivalent blessings as those bestowed upon people who take part in the pilgrimage route of the 88 temples of Shikoku.

Daisho-In has a number of annual events including a fire walking ritual (April 15 and November 15) and a lantern ritual (September 9-11) and there are also small markets with various trinkets you can buy at any time you visit.

The road to the temple is lined with old houses and is particularly peaceful, and in autumn the temple comes alive with red, yellow and orange leaves which make for a spectacular backdrop for photographs.

I guarantee that one visit will enchant you and that you will return again and again to experience the wonder of Daisho-In Temple.

Daisho-In Temple

739-0524 Hiroshima-ken, Hatsukaichi-shi, Miyajimachō,  210 (map link)
www.galilei.ne.jp/daisyoin
0829-44-0111

Photo by Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJade Brischke
Sep 13, 2017

Import Stores in Hiroshima: The Solution to Your Cravings

If only the selection was this good!!

There are three kinds of people who come to Japan: the first who continues to eat their Western diet that they’re used to, the second who decides to abandon all Western foods and go totally Japanese and the third type of person who is a bit of both and swings between the two. Whichever type of person you are, at some point during your time here, you will be overcome with a craving for some kind of food from your native land. You will want something familiar, comforting and (usually) much, much more expensive than you would be able to buy it for back home. So, what do you do when this happens? What do you do when all you want are Tim Tams, Vegemite, Hershey’s chocolate, re-fried beans or proper Canadian maple syrup?

Easy. You go to an import store, and in Hiroshima you’re lucky to have a few to choose from.

If you’re downtown you can head to Shareo, the underground shopping mall to stock up on all your favourites from Jupiter. I find that this store has a number of products/brands you can’t find at the other stores and I believe they stock the best range of products like breakfast cereals, dried fruit and different brands of chocolate.

Jupiter

730-0051 Hiroshima-ken, Hiroshima-shi, Naka-ku, Ōtemachi, 1 Chome−1 (Shareo Underground Shopping Center) (map link)
082-242-7371
www.jupiter-coffee.com

One of the largest chain stores in Japan for imported foods is Yamaya and there are branches throughout the city and further afield in Hiroshima. Many people assume they only sell alcohol, but are pleasantly surprised when they discover there’s also food. Yamaya has a HUGE range of beer, wine and spirits both local and imported and if I can’t find what I’m looking for at the other import stores, I always head there.

Yamaya

Map Link (multiple locations)
yamaya.jp
Store List

The last import shop is Kaldi. Again, these are scattered throughout the city, but for convenience sake there is a small branch in Hiroshima Station and one in the Aeon Mall at Fuchu which you can get to by train (Tenjingawa Station, Sanyo Line; the stop after Hiroshima Station). For those fellow Aussies out there, it’s also the only place in the whole city you can buy Vegemite. I’m not a fan, but I know lots of people who are.

Kaldi Coffee

Map Link (multiple locations)
www.kaldi.co.jp
Store List

Of course, if you’re looking to buy in bulk, head straight to Costco and sign up to be a member. It’s located next to Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium near Hiroshima Station. They have everything you could want and more, but there are lots of obscure and cheap brands that you might not know and there’s no guarantee that you will find the brand you want. I rarely go, but I know some people who literally go every week to buy things they miss terribly from home. It’s worth a look whether you decide to go all out and buy anything and everything, or you just want to see what it’s all about.

Costco

2 Chome-3-4 Minamikaniya, Minami Ward, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture 732-0803 (map link)
costco.co.jp
082-890-0877

Overall, import shops and their products are more expensive than you would pay back home, but that’s to be expected since everything is imported (duh, hence the name!) I figure if you really want something you’ll be more than willing to pay whatever for it. It’s all up to you!

When the cravings strike, head to your favourite import shop in Hiroshima and go wild!

Itadakimasu! (いただきます!)

ByMark Guthrie
Sep 12, 2017

Hatchiman Matsuri, One of Japan’s Most Beautiful Festivals in Enchanting Takayama

Located in Gifu Prefecture, and surrounded by some of Japan’s richest natural areas  just below the famous Northern Alps, Takayama is some what isolated and distant.  This isolation allowed the city to develop its own distinct culture that combines that of nearby Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Kyoto’s into a new and interesting way.

It also has another connection to the aforementioned Kyoto, in that it is host to one of the three most beautiful festivals in the country, the Hachiman Festival

About the Hachiman Matsuri

The Hachiman Festival is believed to have started sometime between the 16th and 17th Century and is held annually on the 9th and 10th of October. Centered around Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine in the northern part of the old town, the festival signifies the coming of autumn after the heat of the long summer.

With some 1,000 people taking part in the featival’s parade, the beauty of the Hachiman Matsuri comes in the form of the stunning ‘yatai’ floats. Dating from the early days of the festival, these floats are each etched with elaborate carvings and are decorated by the dozen local areas that they represent, and with Takayama renowned for its highly skilled carpenters and craftsmen since ancient times, these talents have been passed down through the centuries and can be found in the intricacy and charm of the floats to this day

A karakuri marionette on top of a yatai float.

Not content with being gorgeous, these yatai are also amazingly entertaining, for sitting atop each float is a karakuri puppet. Karakuri is a traditional Japanese mechanized marionette or automaton, essentially Edo-era robots.

Developed in the 17th century they are powered by a whalebone spring and controlled by a series of wheels, cams and levers, and were often used at festivals to perform reenactments of popular myths. Many of the Karakuri at Hachiman Matsuri are unique to the area, and at various stages in the day will delight festival goers in turn with performances.

Following the performances, as the sun sets on the festival’s first evening, the floats are lined up and lit with ‘chochin’ lanterns. With the evening near its end, the many thousands of visitors wander the streets eating festival food, enjoying drinks, and basking in the ethereal beauty of the floats as they look forward to the coming autumn.

Hatchiman Matsuri Details

  • Where: Takayama city Gifu prefecture Sakuramachi 178, Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine (map)
  • When: October 9 and 10, 2017.
  • What’s On: Yatai display: 9:00 to 16:00; Karakuri performance: October 9 12:00 and 14:00 – October 10 11:00 and 13:00; Evening festival October 9 from around 18:00 to around 21:00

About Takayama City

Even if you are unable to attend the festival (or the spring festival on the 14th and 15th of April), you really should still make your way out to the city, as it is beautiful at any time of year.

Takayama has a very traditional feel to it, and offers a wide variety of ‘onsen’ spa hotels and guesthouses, restaurants whose dishes are distinctly local; featuring traditional regional recipes made with local ingredients. The famous beef is a must! While visiting  you can see many historic buildings, or shop for local handcrafted arts.

One thing not to miss is Shirakawago, a World Heritage Site located near Takayama.  Shirakawago Village is famous for traditional houses called A Gasshō-zukuri.  Some  of these traditional homes are hundreds of years old.  This is especially impressive when you consider that the distinctive shape of the dwellings, with roofs said to resemble hands clasped in prayer, was developed to withstand the substantial weight of the heavy snow falls that all but lock in the village in winter.  From Takayama, day trips to Shirakawago to see its main attraction, Ogimachi, are popular, but  according to Japan Guide, the best way to experience the town is to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses, many of which now serve as minshuku, or guest houses.

Takayama is particularly famous in the spring because the cherry blossoms really enhance the gorgeous old houses and small cobbled streets. You really need to book ahead if you are planning to travel around the busy times.

If you’re wanting to stay in a Japanese guest house (anywhere, not just in Takayama), you might find this link useful:    www.japaneseguesthouses.com

It takes a little more than two hours on the train from Nagoya, and about the same by car. It’s certainly a very beautiful trip as well. From Takayama, there are endless possibilities for hot springs, most featuring outdoor baths that look up into the mountains.

By Mark Guthrie and Ray Proper

Image by Jonathan Khoo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr.com (modified)

Image by Robert Young (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr.com (modified)

Image by Teruhide Tomori (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr.com (modified)

Image by Richard Cassan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via flickr.com (modified)

ByMark Guthrie
Sep 11, 2017

Yōkai, the Weird World of Japanese Spooks and Spectres

Halloween is all about spooky stuff, right? There are various bone-chilling tales coming out of medieval Europe for its origins – the dead returning, devils punishing Irishmen, ghosts, spooks, and witches.

But the west isn’t the only place with these traditions. Japan too has plenty of things that go bump in the night. ‘Yōkai’, a motley crew of phantoms, specters and supernatural beings, are spoken of in folklore from all over the country. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity;” and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”. Some are malevolent, some are naughty, some bring good luck, and some are just downright weird. Here are a few that you wouldn’t like to bump into in a dark alley at night.

Ushi-oni

One of the worst things that can happen when swimming in the late summer sea in Japan is coming face to face with a jellyfish. The absolute worst is coming face to face with Ushi-oni. Literally ‘cow demon’, the ushi-oni can take many forms depending on where in the country you are, but off the coast of Shimane Prefecture and other places in Western Japan it is a terrifying sea-creature with a spider- or crab-like body and the head of a cow that attacks fishermen. It is sometimes accompanied by ‘nure-onna’, a demon who appears before an ushi-oni attack and tricks the fisherman into holding her child, which then becomes stuck to the person’s hands and grows heavier in order to hinder escape. Worse than sunburn, being stung by a jellyfish, and getting sand in your kakigori combined.

Gashadokuro

If you thought that living in the Japanese countryside seemed an idyllic way of life, think again. Gashadokuro, immense skeletal beings who wander rural areas in the darkest hours of the night, are formed from the bodies of slain warriors or victims of famine who, having not been afforded proper funerary rites, rise up to wreak their revenge on a cruel world.  As skeletons are wont to do, their bones rattle with a “gachi gachi” sound, from where it gets its name. If they should happen upon a human out late on the roads, the gashadokuro will silently creep up and catch their victims, crushing them in their hands or biting off their head. I won’t be leaving my apartment in central Nagoya any time soon.

Kappa

When I was a kid my gran once told me to keep away from the edge of the river near her house “unless you want your backside slapped”. There are other reasons to be fearful of the water’s edge in Japan. Kappa are extremely popular in Japanese culture and are often depicted as being quite cute, but these amphibious creatures, with webbed fingers, red eyes and skin reeking of rotten fish, are known to pull people into the water where they drown them and drink their blood, eat their liver or remove their ‘shirodama’, the soul-containing mythical bowl that foind within the anus. As stinging as my gran’s spanks were, they weren’t as bad as all that.

Betobeto-san

Have you ever had the feeling you’re being followed but there’s no one around? It’s a good chance that you have come across Betobeto-san. Betobeto-san, or Mr Clacking Sandal (sounds spookier in Japanese, doesn’t it) is a specter of no discernible form, only recognizable by the sound of its wooden ‘geta’ sandles clacking on the road, beto beto beto beto… Betobeto-san is a benign spirit, though he is particularly unnerving for the unaccompanied travelers he follows down darkened, deserted pathways, synchronizing his footsteps with the walker, growing ever-closer with each step, following them wherever they go. Should you find Betobeto-san on your tail, simply step aside and say “after you Betobeto-san,” and he will pass by. Obviously he is a yōkai who believes in good manners.

Shiri-me

Shiri-me, like Betobeto-san is another yōkai that is more mischevious than it is malign, but if weirdness was up there with danger, the Shiri-me would give Gashadokuro a run for its money. For all intents and purposes, Shiri-me looks like a regular kimono-clad guy. You may not think anything of it as he calls out to you, asking if you have a moment to spare. If it is a dark evening, you probably wouldn’t even notice that his face is entirely featureless. However, you are likely to be a bit surprised as he hirriedly removes his clothes, bends over and pulls his buttocks apart to reveal a giant eye instead of an anus. As his name is literally Butt-eye, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I bet it would. Actually he’s not a bad guy, just a bit of a prankster getting off on shocking and sickening people. A bit like Jackass. But without the Jack.

 

By Mark Guthrie

Image  [Public Domain], via Wikipedia (modified)

Image by via http://s3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com/kakista/pictures/3734/original/ushioni.jpg?1318401411

Image by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (Own work) [Public Domain], via Wikipedia (modified)

Image  [Public Domain], via Wikipedia (modified)

Image via https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/yokai/images/9/99/Betobeto-san.png/revision/latest?cb=20150205213707 (modified)

Image via https://hyakumonogatari.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/shirime.png (modified)