Monthly Archive February 2018

ByMark Guthrie
Feb 26, 2018

Sake’ing it to ya, at the Nayabashi Sake Festival in Ngaoya

Forget Asahi, Kirin or Strong Zero, there can be no doubt that the national drink of Japan is sake. ‘Nihonshu’, to give it its proper title (with ‘sake’ being a term to cover all alcoholic drinks), has been the main tipple of choice in these parts since the Nara period (710 to 794), after which it became used for religious ceremonies, court festivals and drinking games.

Obviously, not much has changed, and today it is enjoyed all over the country with many breweries, or ‘kura’, around the country involved in its production (in 2007 there were approximately 1700 kura making around 10,000 different types of sake).

The problem that many foreigners find is that, much like with wine, if you don’t know what you are looking for, you can make some bad choices and end up picking up a jar of One Cup Sake from a convenience store. (Tip: never, ever pick up One Cup Sake. It is less a drink and more a punishment.)

If you want to learn how to tell your Asahi from your Ginjo, the best thing to do is head somewhere at which you can sample various stuff, with informative folks who can help you out. Which is where the Nayabashi Sake Festival comes in.

Nagoya’s Nayabashi Sake Festival

On the fourth Friday of every month the riverside promenade between Nayabashi and Nishikibashi bridges (a couple of minutes from the Hilton and near that inexplicably large mural of a dolphin) is the Nayabashi Night Market. Most months there is a different theme, and this month it is, of course, sake.

March 23 and 24 will see the return of the Nayabashi Sake Festival, at which you can wander along the canal, sampling many different types of nihonshu from around the country (although at time of us going to press there isn’t a whole lot of information on what types will be available). At a cost of 1,300 JPY – or 1,200 JPY if you purchase with your Manaca card – you can pick up five tickets, which are exchangeable for cups of sake at the various different stalls.

An additional cost is the 300 JPY that you may need to spend to purchase an ‘ochoko’ sake cup, although some sources claim that you can bring your own. Personally, I think the 300 yen is worth it for a cool little keepsake of the festival. However, if you want to save money, it is perhaps advisable to turn up on Saturday for ‘happy hour’ between 13:00 and 15:00 when you get six tickets for the same price as five.

Sake Festival Tips

  • Bring a notebook to jot down brands that you like and don’t like.
  • Ask for recommendations – do you like sweet, spicy or subtle flavors?
  • Sip the nihonshu and savor it. It is not a tequila slammer!
  • Eat something. Some nihonshu may not taste strong, but it can knock your head off, and you don’t want to fall in the canal!
  • Have fun, and if you don’t find something you like, keep trying!*

*JIS recommends responsible consumption of alcohol. Know your limits.

Nayabashi Festival Details

  • Where: Prefectural Route 60, 1 Chome-1 Meiekiminami, Nakamura-ku (map)
  • When: 16:00 – 21:00 Friday March 23, 2018; 13:00 – 21:00 Saturday March 24, 2018
  • Websitenatsu1yoichi.blog133.fc2.com

Sake bars around Nagoya

If the festival has ignited a passion for tasting sake, why not try out one of these interesting sake bars around Nagoya.

The below postings are all  recommendations from sake lovers that I know and trust, so are about personal taste. As such everything is for information only and Japan Info Swap does not endorse any of them.

Yata – Meieki

Specializing in nihonshu made from Junmai rice, Yata in Kitte Building is an extremely casual sake bar that sells sake by the wine glass, rather than an ochokko, so first timers may feel a little more comfortable. This is the ideal place for those of you who want to expand your knowledge. If you have sixty minutes and 2,000 JPY to spare, you can sample up to 40 different types of sake and learn exactly what your tastes and preferences are. Seeing as trying the lot would mean a different sake every one minute and thirty seconds, unless you are a particularly hardened drinker, you may want to go more than once. There used to be one in Fushimi, but I think it may now be used as an event space, so I’d head to the location in the Kitte Building to be sure.

Marutani – Nishi-ku

Sake Bar Marutani is exactly what you might think of when the words ‘sake bar’ come to mind. Once a rice granary during the Edo period and set on the Horikawa river, it is all hard wood and old world charm. They have a large range of sake and meals perfectly balanced to match what you drink. It is the ideal ambiance in which to sip nihonshu in a classical atmosphere. I have had many recommendations for this place – from both expats and Japanese – and it is of such a high quality that I plan on taking my brother-in-law – a sommelier by trade – to sample his first sake experience when he comes to visit.

Torikko – Imaike

Everyone needs a friend who is a sake expert and Torikko in Imaike is the recommendation of mine. Although he said that the best sake bar around is in his own home, unless you get an invite from him, he says that this is the next best thing. This is a bar in the traditional style, but the sake choices are top notch and the ‘master’ (the Japanese term for what we would probably call a landlord or bar owner back home) is as friendly and helpful as he is knowledgable about all things nihonshu.

Osake No Kami Sama – Endoji

This place should be on the list for its name alone – it translates to The God of Sake – but it is much more than a clever name. Osake No Kami Sama is a standing bar in the covered arcade of Endoji, and is my own recommendation, and somewhere you can find me most Friday evenings post-work. A majorly relaxed atmosphere, a knowledgeable master and a  foreigner-friendly mixed clientele of salarymen, local folks and nihonshu aficionados makes it a must visit bar, just as long as you have the legs to stand while you are drinking. They also have a great menu of Nagoya foods at unbeatable prices.

Yorozuya Kuranosuke – Meieki

This is a restaurant that focuses primarily on Kyoto cuisine. Some may consider Kyoto ‘meshi’ a little bland, but it does work perfectly with nihonshu. Because of that they have over 30 different brands to choose from. Ranging from 490-880 JPY per glass, it’s a pretty reasonable price to get sampling.

Hida Takayama Breweries – Takayama

If you want to go further afield to sample nihonshu where it’s made, you can do worse than head to Takayama. The Gifu city has plenty of local breweries, and you can easily spend the day getting lost (and perhaps a little tipsy) trying out the brews. Some of them have been going for around 200 hundred years, so you can probably equate that longevity with consistent quality.

Nagoya Breweries – Nagoya

There are also many breweries in the Nagoya and Aichi areas. Some of these offer sampling tours, but only on specific days. Check out the ever excellent kikuko-nagoya.com website for up-to-date details.

By Mark Guthrie

 

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

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

 

ByMatt Mangham
Feb 26, 2018

Hiroshima’s Shukkei-en, A Landscape in Miniature

Sometimes you just need to get out of the city for a little while, and sometimes you can’t. In Hiroshima, a nearly perfect solution to this common dilemma is a trip to Shukkei-en garden, just a ten to fifteen minute walk north of the Hondori shopping arcade.

Designed as the grounds for the second residence of the Asano family, Edo period lords of the Hiroshima domain. In 1620 Asano Nagaakira commissioned the construction of the garden, appointing as designer his Chief Retainer, the famed samurai, tea master and landscape gardener Ueda Soko.

Ueda’s design reflects the popularity at the time of what are called circular strolling gardens. With a large pond at the center of the garden (the daimyo Asano called it his “Lake Residence), paths lead a visitor through a series of scenes done in miniature, many intended to evoke classical features of an idealized Chinese landscape. You can easily spend an hour or more circling the pond, catching a flash of blue as kingfishers flit from one tiny island to another, or loitering in a thatched pavilion to watch children feed the koi and turtles as pigeons crowd round to snatch up any stray pellets. You may have to sidestep a bridal couple or two, having traditional wedding portraits done against one of the more dramatic backgrounds. Later, you can wander away from the pond loop, visiting tea houses, tiny shrines and bamboo forests. A small concession shop sells simple food and drinks along with local souvenirs, and many people bring picnics.

The garden was opened to the public in 1940, and nearly destroyed by the atomic bombing five years later. But it has been carefully restored, and is a favorite with many of Hiroshima’s residents, though not so many that you won’t feel like you’re making a getaway, especially on a quiet weekday afternoon.

Given its designer, and the presence of a several tea houses throughout the garden, it will come as no surprise that Shukkei-en is especially popular with aficionados of the Tea Ceremony. Indeed, Ueda founded his own school of tea, still popular in Hiroshima and currently under the leadership of his own 16th generation descendant. Visitors to the garden will often find a tea event being held, especially in the largest tea house just in front of the dramatically arched moon bridge that spans the lake at its midpoint.

Shukkei-en is also immediately adjacent to Hiroshima’s Prefectural Art Museum which, in addition to a constant round of visiting exhibits, is also home to an engaging permanent collection. At the museum’s main desk, you can buy a ticket that will allow access to both the museum and the garden, which makes for a wonderful way to while away a long afternoon.

Events in March 2018

Shukkei-en has plenty of charm without the added attraction of an event, and in fact you may prefer to visit when nothing is scheduled, since certain more popular events can add greatly to the number of people in the garden. But there are a couple of smaller events on in March which you may want to know about.

The Unwrapping of the Pines

March 6, 9:00-17:00

Among its many botanical treasures, Shukkei-en boasts nearly 400 pines, whose trunks are wrapped in straw mats for part of the year to help protect against both cold and certain insects. On March 6, the resident gardeners carefully remove the matting, and for a particular kind of garden fan this presents a spectacle sufficient to have become a minor event in its own right. Because it’s a Tuesday, you’re likely to escape any real crowds as well.

“Momo-mi” Peach Blossom Tea Ceremony

March 18, 10:00-15:00

Most people look forward to the cherry blossom season, but the peaches blossom even early, and their delicate pink blossoms are quite a sight. From ten in the morning until three in the afternoon, Shukkei-en’s main tea house will be the setting for a series of tea ceremonies. Get a ticket early to enjoy a truly memorable moment of elegance.

Shukkei-en Garden

Location: 2-11 Kamihatchobori-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima-shi, Hiroshima-ken, 730-0014.

A ten to fifteen minute walk north from Hondori along Chuo-dori. You can also take the Hakushima streetcar, getting off at the Prefectural Art Museum. The garden is located just east of the museum building.

Hours: April 1 through September 30, 9:00-18:00. October 1 through March 31, 9:00-17:00

Closed December 29 to January 1.

Admission: 260 JPY for adults, 150 for high school and college students, 100 for junior high and elementary school students. A museum ticket allowing entry to both Shukkei-en and the museum’s permanent collection is 610 JPY for adults and 350 for college students. Ask for additional possible discounts on the day of purchase.

Telephone: (082) 221-3620

Website: http://shukkeien.jp

Photo by Jakub Hałun (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by KimonBerlin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimon/4167263551/) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByMark Guthrie
Feb 26, 2018

Oagata Shrine Fertility Festival, Celebrating the Power of Femininity

If you have spent any time in Nagoya or its surrounds, then it is a good chance that you have heard of the Hōnen Matsuri harvest festival at Komaki. You, know that one. The one with the huge phallus that gets paraded around the city streets and everyone goes a bit willy-wild. Yeah, you know, a.k.a. ‘Penis Fest’.

I remember when I first came to Nagoya and read an article online about the Hōnen Matsuri, and below the line some commenter complained that, how like Japan it was, sexist beyond belief, celebrating the potency of the male parts, yet there was no festival celebrating the woman’s contribution to fertility. It was a good point. Or at least it would have been, had the commenter been right about there being no female celebration. Because there is, one stop down the train tracks, no less.

In fairness, its not surprising that the commentator didn’t know about the Hime-no-miya Honen Matsuri held in Inuyama’s Oagata Shrine, because not that many people do. However, to my mind, that’s one of the things that makes it a little bit special.

Held annually on the Sunday prior to March 15th (in 2018 that will be March 11th), the festival is held to pray for a good harvest and prosperity in the coming year. Oagata is said to have been a place of worship since the year 3 BCE, with the present shrine reconstructed in 1661 that has since been designated as one of the nation’s important cultural properties.

While Oagata shrine is devoted to a ‘kami’ god of the same name who is said to have founded the Owari region, within the connected sub-shrine Ninomiya is enshrined the goddess Himenomiya (also known as Tamahime-no-mikoto), the guardian deity of women, to whom prayers are offered for marriage, pregnancy, safe birth, happy conjugal life and matchmaking.

The festival that celebrates this guardian goddess of women begins at 9:00, with various shinto ceremonies taking place throughout the day, but the parade, the main attraction, begins at around 13:00, setting off from Morokuwa-jinja. The parade is led by Sarutahiko, a tengu kami of showing the way, and features unmarried women and a vaginal symbol made of pink rice.

The parade makes its way up the hill towards Oagata shrine, with various portable mikoshi shrines being carried, as well as a colection of elderly women dressed in flowing pink robes designed to look like walking vaginas.

As the parade reaches its conclusion at the shrine, for some reason (I can find no written explanation as to why) members of the parade carrying huge brightly colored bamboo poles race up the steep climb to the shrine to the cheers of the gathered locals.

With the parade completed there is a chance to wander around the ancient shrine. Behind the shrine you will find Musuhi Pond, where unmarried women (though nowadays it is acceptable for men too) can write their wish on a piece of paper, float it on the surface of the water and pray for a good match in marriage.

Also there are various vaginal-shaped rocks at which you can pray, and a tiny torii gate through which you can crawl and be ‘reborn’. But at the latter, be warned, if you are a non-Japanese, you can expect by performing this ritual you will garner quite a bit of attention from the camera-toting ojisans who are likely to be surprised to see a foreigner at the festival. Oh, and it’s certainly Japanese-sized. If you are an average-sized westerner, you may find it a bit of a squeeze.

The festival concludes at 16:00 with the traditional rice cake throwing ‘mochinage’ event. Until then there are plenty of food stalls at which to indulge in candies and cakes in the shape of female body parts, musical performances, and a beautiful garden filled with various shades of plum blossom trees.

The the Hime-no-miya Honen Matsuri is by no means the biggest of festivals in the area, and it is certainly not the most famous. However, with so much celebration of the fertility power of the male anatomy in Japan, it is perhaps quite an important one. Yes, it will not draw the huge crowds of foreigners that will be found at the associated festival down the road at Tagata Shrine, but this means that it is a great chance to see something that not many others will, while indulging in a bit of feminist pride.

Hime-no-miya Honen Matsuri Details

For a full schedule of the festival, go to the always excellent Kikuko-Nagoya.com website here.

By Mark Guthrie

Images by Mark Guthrie (own work)

ByJustin Hanus
Feb 26, 2018

Food & Drink Unique to the Kansai Region

Takoyaki

If you’re a foodie, a trip to the Kansai region is a must if you visit Japan. Kansai folk love their food and there are many regional specialities to savour. Osaka, sometimes called the ‘kitchen of the country’, is known for its street food. Two of its most popular dishes – Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki – are now widely enjoyed across Japan and beyond.

Here are a few slightly more localized Kansai delights…

Kobe beef

Whereas pork is more popular in many other Japanese regions, beef is the meat of choice in Kansai. None more so than that which comes from the Tajima black cattle raised in Kobe. The cows are raised and fed according to conditions laid out by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association and the meat is renowned for its taste and tenderness.

Kobe beef can be found in other regions of Japan, but to enjoy it in true Kansai style, try it as a freshly grilled steak or in shabu-shabu (hotpot with beef and vegetables).

Funazushi

Sushi fans will want to give this unique delicacy a sample. Funazushi is one of the oldest types of sushi in Japan, a fish sushi made using funa carp found in Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture. The fish is pickled with salt and rice and then fermented for several months. This process gives it a distinctive tangy sour taste. It can be enjoyed on its own or as a chazuke dish (with boiled rice). Funazushi is often referred to as the ‘Japanese cheese’ due to its rich taste and high nutritional content.

Tecchiri

This is a popular dish with Osaka locals but it’s not one for the faint-hearted. Tecchiri is a Japanese hotpot made with the poisonous fugu (pufferfish). There’s no need to worry, though, as tecchiri served in restaurants is prepared by skilled chefs licensed to handle the fish and remove the poison.

Traditionally, tecchiri is made with vegetables, mushrooms and seaweed as well as fugu and is popular for its chewy texture and rich taste. The name of the dish is influenced by the ‘chiri chiri’ sound the fugu makes when boiling in hot water.

Yudofu

Translating as ‘boiled tofu’, yudofu is much more appealing than it sounds and is a very popular winter dish with the residents of Kyoto, where it originates. The tofu is gently boiled in a dashi broth, removed before it loses its shape and eaten with a range of dips that compliment its smooth, creamy flavour. If you visit Kyoto in winter, eating yudofu is a great way to warm yourself up.

Yudofu was originally eaten by Buddhist priests in Kyoto as they were unable to consume meat or fish. Nowadays, it’s enjoyed by both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Uji green tea

Green tea is popular all over Japan, but the tea grown and made in Uji, on the outskirts of Kyoto, is widely considered to be among the best in the country. Uji was one of the first places in Japan to make green tea when it was imported from China in the 8th century. Back then, it was enjoyed only by elites. These days, Uji tea is served in tea shops and restaurants around Kyoto and you can find shops serving a variety of other products made from Uji green tea, including ice-cream, soba noodles and sweets.

Photo by Keith Pomakis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Feb 26, 2018

Kobe’s Nightlife

Are you ready to explore Kobe’s nightlife but are not sure where to go? I have got some great suggestions for you. Kobe has something for everyone in the Sannomiya area and even better, all of the bars are within walking distance from each other. You can easily change from a Japanese izakaya to a jazz club to a sports bar to an International bar with live events. Long story short, Sannomiya is an easy area for bar hopping.

Torikizoku

To start off your nightlife experience in Kobe, make sure you have a solid base of food to prevent you from getting drunk after the first drink and spending the rest of the night in the bathroom….

This Izakaya chain gives you the opportunity to munch on some nice grilled chicken skewers, delicious noodle dishes and a lot of other small dishes, while getting your first beer, chu-hai (a rather sweet fruity drink with Japanese liquor) or one of the other drinks on their broad menu. Japanese people, who go to an Izakaya with their friends or colleagues, often order a couple of different dishes and share them.

Address: 1 Chome-2-13 Kitanagasadori, Chuo Ward
Open: Everyday 5:00 p.m. – 5:00 a.m.

Sone

What many people still do not know is that Kobe is the hot spot of Japan’s jazz scene. One place in particular that you should definitely check out is the Sone bar. You will find four different stages where live bands play a variety of different jazz subgenres. The bar first opened in the late 1960s and is a great location to experience some jazz tunes while having a drink or two.

Address: 1 Chome-24-10 Nakayamatedori, Chuo Ward
Open: Monday – Saturday 5:00 p.m. – 12:30 a.m.; Sunday 5:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m.

Paradise Garden

If you are in a group with mixed music preferences then Paradise Garden is your place to be. You will find a variety of music styles like jazz, RnB and soul played by live bands and DJs day in and day out. This bar also has a dance floor and a pool table. I would say this bar is still more on the relaxed side and perfect for hanging out with friends, dancing a bit and having a nice game of pool in a candle lit atmosphere.

Address: 1 Chome-13-7 Nakayamatedori, Chuo Ward (basement of Kobe Yamashita Building)
Open: 7:00 p.m. – 03:00 a.m.

The Avery’s

A really nice Irish Pub/sports bar where you can drink a glass of the well-known Irish beer brands Guinness and Kilkenny (as well as others) while watching live football games and meeting fellow expats. Of course, also local people come here to enjoy the lively atmosphere. The pub is conveniently located right outside of Sannomiya station.

Address: 1-10-9 Kitanagasadori, Chuo Ward (1F)
Open: Everyday 5:00 p.m. – 4:00 a.m.

International Bar 3411

This place is like an all-in one bar and club. They serve delicious food from all around the world (including vegetarian options) and have English-speaking staff. On top they feature weekly live events every Friday and Saturday night so you can come here to enjoy a drink and dinner with friends or to party and dance until the morning. It’s up to you what you want to go for, but it’s surely a place to go for a fun time!

Address: 1 Chome-2-1 Nakayamatedori, Chuo Ward
Open: Sunday – Thursday 6:30 p.m. – 3:00 a.m.; Friday & Saturday 6:30 p.m. – 5:00 a.m.

This is just a very limited list of all the great nightlife locations in Kobe (there are lots and lots of bars, clubs and pubs within walking distance from Sannomiya station). Therefore I would suggest that you start your night at either of these locations and then move on to the next place that is most appealing to you.

Photo by Takeshi Kuboki from Amagasaki, Japan (Kobe Night) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Feb 26, 2018

8 Things to Do on Awaji Island near Kobe

Island life is always serene and stress free. There’s that come hither idea of jumping on a boat and going on an adventure in a place where time is barely moving and life is stripped to its bare essentials. What better way to spend a relaxing weekend on an island with that atmosphere not too far from the city yet having the most magical views and down to earth local charm.

Awaji Island is nestled between islands of Honshū and Shikoku and is the largest of the inland sea islands. It is connected to Kobe through the longest suspension bridge in the world, the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge. Since it is the transit to the two islands, Awaji means “road to Awa” which is a historic province along the border of the Shikoku side of the Naruto Strait. We want to help you make the most of your trip to this quiet but picturesque island, so here’s eight of the things we suggest that you do.

1. Indulge in the warmth of the Matsuho-no-yu hot springs

You can opt to soak after a long trip going to the island so you’re invigorated to explore it afterwards or afterwards when you want to relax after a day’s adventure… Or both. It’s totally up to you. Although there are several onsens in the area, nothing is as panoramic as this one perched on the hilltop overlooking the suspension bridge. If you plan to soak at dusk, you’ll enjoy the amazing light show where rainbow patterns reflect across the sky and on the water.

2. Get close to the Naruto whirlpools and be sure to take a picture

Hop on a guide boat and sail through the whirlpools which appear twice a day along the narrow strait connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Inland Seto Sea. The churning water can reach up to five feet and occurs because of the difference of the water levels from the ocean and adjoining sea.

3. Bask in the sunset on the sands of the Keino Matsubara Beach

Island vacations will never be complete without a trip to the beach. Although lounging on the beach isn’t popular in the country, you can always go barefoot and stroll along the shore while waiting for the pretty sunset to unfold. If you don’t want your toes to get wet, there’s the Sunset Boulevard that you stroll around, too.

4. Visit the historic Izanagi Shrine

Another must visit is a beautiful shrine that was built to honor the island’s or rather Japan’s founder. Students come here to pray for good grades and businessmen pray for success in their ventures. It wouldn’t hurt to pray for a peaceful and blessed life ahead when you come over to visit. Izanagi shrine is special because it is said to be the oldest in the country although there no specific date on record as most ancient structures’ origins can’t be traced. Enjoy the melding of its architectural and natural beauty as you stroll around while priests go on with their traditional Shinto ceremonies.

5. Hike or drive up Sumoto Castle

You can either take a 25-minute hike or if you want to save time to explore the rest of the island, you can take a 5-minute drive to visit this castle atop the mountain. It’s not as huge as other castles across the country but it has quite a charm to it as you can see across Osaka Bay and the three prefectures closest to the island. Stop by the base of the mountain before or after you go up and dip your feet in the castle’s hot spring foot bath to ease your tired veins.

6. Awajishima Monkey Center and Harmony Farm

If you love animals and you’d want to either be up close with monkeys or ride horses, Awaji island has both. If you want to visit all 250 of the monkeys, they’re on the mountains of Naha. You may take loads of photos but be sure not to look them in the eye. That might be a wee bit challenging. The horses are over at the Harmony Farm where you can sign up for horseback riding lessons or simply canter around the mountain passes and wading along the shoreline with your new friend.

7. Marvel at Tadao Ando’s Yumebutai Gardens and Shingonshu Honpukuji

Tadao Ando, a former boxer, is an architectural institution in the island as his creations have been popular and well visited over the years. Some of the most popular are the Yumebutai Gardens, a modern feeling garden with endless staircases carved around the hillside so you can walk up and down the expanse of it (don’t worry if you get too tired, there’s an elevator to the rescue) and the Shingonshu Honpukuji, an underground water temple where the magnificence of the pond, the water lilies and sacred lotuses are legendary. They are prettiest at certain months of the year.

8. Enjoy the Hansakiji Gardens, cool down with an ice cream and feast on juicy burgers

Known as the Thousand Flower Garden, the colorful blooms exuding with vibrance carpets the island’s northern hillsides. The view to Osaka Bay and even Osaka City is amazing here, too. Right at the gardens you can try their seasonal soft serve ice cream that is flavoured in biwa or loquat in autumn and sakura or cherry blossom during the spring. And if you’re hungrier and want a heavier meal, you must try out the burger over at Awaji Country Garden. Rest assured that the caramelized onions that are lathered atop the juicy patty are top quality since the island is famous for their onions.

Awaji island isn’t just any touristy island in Japan. With all the extraordinary structures and natural occurrences, the island is first and foremost a historical gem as it was told in folklores. One such being the drop of seawater fallen from the blade of Izanagi and Izanami’s spear after they stirred the waters. The droplet hardened on top of the waves, became this panoramic island and ultimately was developed to become the entire Land of the Rising Sun.

Photo by そらみみ (Soramimi) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Feb 26, 2018

8 Most Popular Samurai Castles in the Kansai Region

Fushimi Castle

The Shogunate has been the most influential and highly esteemed form of government that began in Medieval Japan when the Imperial Court announced its birth through Minamoto no Yoritomo. Although the Imperial Palace still existed and headed the religious and bureaucratic leadership, the Shogunate became the de facto form of government and maintained this military government up until 1868.

The country’s culture and history revolved around the families who ruled and fought for survival during these tumultuous but colorful times. It reflected their livelihood, their infrastructures, their artistry which was all in a grand scale. The affluence of these families was exhibited by how fortified and magnificent their castles were and that within their walls they lived and were willing to die to protect them.

We’ve seen most of these Samurai castles in movies and tv shows and stories about the Shogunate era have been quite popular even in the west because of its mystery, power and the exemplary way the samurai disciplines himself to achieve perfection. Seeing their magnificent fortresses up close would be an amazing experience so we’ve listed down some of them for you to check out and explore.

1. Himeji Castle

This UNESCO World Heritage and Special National Historic site is famous for not only its grandeur and beauty but for the complex maze-like paths that confused enemies so they could not reach the main tower and if they did they’d easily be under fire as they try to bypass every nook and cranny going up. Parts of the castle have National Treasure status like the main towers and turrets and other parts like gates and walls have been recognized as Important Cultural Properties. It is the largest original castle in Japan and is located in the city of Himeji, Hyōgo, Japan.

2. Hikone Castle

This castle associated with the Ii clan and used between 1603 to 1874 was built like a puzzle since some of its parts were from nearby castles to save up on time and further expenses. Some castles which contributed its parts to make it whole are the Otsu, Nagahama and Sawaguchi castles. Situated in Shiga Prefecture, the property still showcases some sections of the moat, old horse stable where you pass through upon entering and a wooden bridge which takes you to the castle that was rebuilt.

3. Osaka Castle

The Tokugawa clan is known to have made this fortress more magnificent and mightier after they destroyed the original grand structure that Toyotomi Hideyoshi built. They managed to make it so spectacular, it is now considered one of Japan’s famous landmarks and has parts that are now recognized as Important Cultural Properties. The site itself, all eight stories of it, and the moat is recognized as a Special National Historic Site.

4. Nijō Castle

With a long list of historical recognition for the site itself and several of its parts, this castle’s main attraction was the Ninomaru Palace that was owned by the Tokugawa clan. It was the symbol of the clan’s power and authority. Its walls had paintings of master painters and displayed luxury and extravagance around it. This majestic castle is located in Kyōto.

5. Azuchi Castle

Sadly, the most extravagant castle that Oda Nobunaga built only existed for 3 years after a fire burnt it down. Historians still consider it as incomparable due to the innovations on how it was made and what it was for. Other than building a fortress and a watch tower, it was a mansion built for him and his constituents to reside in as it was a part of a castle town with around 5,000 inhabitants. The castle itself was an abode of luxury and wealth as it had gold decorations and walls painted with tigers and dragons by master painters. It is situated in the shores of Lake Biwa, now in Shiga Prefecture.

6. Kannonji Castle

After it was built by the Sasaki clan, it has been known as one of the five greatest mountain castles for centuries. Today, ruins of this once strong fortress can still be viewed around the mountain including the walls of the compounds. It’s history of 230 years came to an end in 1568 when the infamous Oda Nobunaga seized the castle. It was named after a Buddhist temple called Kannonsho-ji. You can visit this National Historic Site in the town of Azuchi, Shiga Prefecture.

7. Fushimi Castle

This castle located in Kyoto was intended to be Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s retirement home. After an earthquake destroyed it, it was then rebuilt but its owner died before its completion. Some of its parts are now within the structures of other castles nearby and a third reconstruction took place in another location. Also known as Momoyama or Fushimi – Momoyama castle, the edifice became a museum of the life and campaigns of Hideyoshi with a small theme park named “Castle Land” as the main attraction. Unfortunately, the property has been closed to the public since 2003.

8. Akashi Castle

Like the other samurai castles across the Kansai area, this castle was passed on from one clan to another and was used to defend the ruling Shogunate, at that time the influential Tokugawa. Some parts of the castle were parts of other castles like the Fushimi and Funage castles. Its two towers, the Hitsujisaru Yagura and the Tatsumi Yagura, were chosen to be Important Cultural Properties by the government. The castle is located in Akashi, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.

Whether they be in ruins or decommissioned, these samurai castles tell a most intriguing tale of how Medieval Japan prospered and waned throughout those centuries of wars and victories. Their beauty exudes undoubtedly so much power and influence that up to this day, people from all over the world still marvel at their majesty and grace as they continue to stand despite natural calamities and signs of the times.

Photo by 投稿者が撮影 (ブレイズマン (talk) 07:48, 23 March 2009 (UTC)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ByJustin Hanus
Feb 26, 2018

8 Most Unique and Fun Themed Cafes and Restaurants in Tokyo

If you think it’s only in anime, manga, tv shows and movies that Japan can be unique and creative, think again. Their culture whether in the ancient times or today has been the most colorful and out of the box. It reflects in all aspects of their lives no matter where they are. There’s always something extraordinary, bizarre and totally imaginative that they can conjure and it never ceases to provide fun and enjoyment to everyone especially those with adventurous palates.

Themes include science fiction, horror, suspense, fantasy and many more. If you’re planning to visit the land of the Rising Sun and experience dining at its most exciting, go through the list we’ve come up with and check out those that suit your taste or fancy.

1. Vampire Cafe

It’s a little ironic to have a vampire cafe when according to legend, vampires only drink blood. But because of the popularity of vampire anime, novels and movies from Japan and in the west, this cafe was built out of those inspirations. It’s not really a cafe but a restaurant which only serves dinner and cocktails. The cuisine is predominantly European because that’s where the vampire legends originate. It’s spooky with all the blood smears and the coffin right in the middle of the restaurant but not too scary that you won’t be able to enjoy their sumptuous offerings.

2. Ninja Akasaka

For the ninja fans out there who’d love to be served by ninja waiters and eat shuriken crackers served with shuriken shaped foie gras this restaurant is for you. They serve Japanese full course meals with ninja inspired names for the food items that are written on dark scrolls. While feasting on your dishes, perhaps enjoying your hunk of wagyu, the staff keeps you entertained with their cool magic tricks and other table side demonstrations.

3. Robot Restaurant

Located right at Shinjuku, the neon district of Tokyo, is a restaurant that offers more on entertainment rather than just pure dining experience. According to some reviews, food is just an add on, the show is what you really pay for. Although robots, dinosaurs and everything out of a science fiction thriller that you can imagine is right on stage complete with dancers and psychedelic lighting, their shows are not really for kids, the area where the restaurant is at is also not kid-friendly. Reservations should be made even before you arrive in the country because their tickets sell like hotcakes.

4. Kichijoji Yurei Izakaya “Yurei”

“Yurei” is ghost in Japanese so this obviously is a haunted ghost restaurant that is not for the faint of heart. Ghost waiters role play while they serve you creepy inspired dishes and drinks. They pretend that they are already dead and are souls serving customers who are also already “dead”. Their washroom is not for those who jump out of their skin easily because all the bleeding and flesh looking decors will drive you out right away. Whether or not you are a fan of horror and haunted-related scenes, a visit here will be an experience that you will never forget.

5. Alcatraz E.R.

Known to be one of Japan’s oldest and scariest themed restaurants, this medical prison has everything from food, cocktails, handcuffs and some metal pipe banging when you need anything from the waiters. Guests are handcuffed when they arrive and are led to their respective prison cells to eat and drink. The dishes are not as fancy but the drinks are a bit adult themed so this restaurant is really not for kids. The scenario in the prison hospital is that some deranged patients are on the loose and are out there to get you.

6. Uobei

It’s a sushi restaurant that of course sells all sorts of sushi dishes. So what makes it fancy and appealing? Your sushi is delivered through high speed chutes providing the high tech futuristic experience that is so Japanese. You order through a fairly huge touch screen panel in front of you and when you press “Order”, your plate of delectable sushi zooms towards you out of nowhere. You return the empty plate from where you received it. All you need to do is press a button before you know it, it zooms back to where it came from. It’s indeed the kind of restaurant worth considering to visit.

7. Zauo

You catch a fish and they cook it for you. The fun part? It’s right under the same roof or make it, you drop your line right beside your table. Pretty challenging and of course exciting for families and groups so it’s a must visit if your folks love fish and are game to get wet and catch some. Prices vary on what you catch and if you caught it, it goes straight to the chefs for them to cook it for you. And when you do catch one, the restaurant will let out a chant and applaud you for your feat.

8. Kawaii Monster Cafe

It’s probably going to be the most colorful cafe you’ll visit ever in your life. Everything from unicorns, bunnies, huge desserts and everything kawaii or cute in Japanese is all there. Their menu focuses more on desserts like cakes and sodas that are of course in different colors. There’s Colorful Rainbow Pasta, Colorful Poison Cake among other rainbow colored treats. The show is kid-friendly despite the waitresses wearing anime like outfits. If you’re an anime fan and you love everything colorful then you’re in for a treat.

Japanese work hard and are disciplined in everything that they do. At the end of the day, they too enjoy eating out with family and friends and hang out at cafes or clubs to relax. Because they can be super creative, they’ve added twists and a bit more excitement to the usual dining and de-stressing activities that people are comfortable with. They’ve come up with various themes that would pique the imagination of their guests and afford them with an experience they’ll never forget for the rest of their lives.

Photo by Marco Verch [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By
Feb 23, 2018

White Day in Japan – Chocolate, Love and Obligation

In Japan, the “Craziness of Valentine’s Day” falls mainly on women.  In fact, unlike most countries of which I am aware, in Japan the tradition calls for women to give chocolate to the person they’re dating, want to date, or is their father…sometimes brothers, and to add insult to injury, co-workers and good friends.

All in, women must provide chocolate  to probably 30% of the men they know. Of course, not all chocolates are created equal, and those for co-workers and non-romantic friends are “courtesy chocolates”, or more bluntly “obligation chocolates,” that do not cost very much.  The more important the relationship, the better the chocolate given; culminating in the ultimate token of regard, the handmade chocolate.

Men, on the other hand, are required to simply receive chocolate and remember who gave it to them because while the burden of Valentines day falls on the women of Japan, the ladies get their payback on “White day.”

White Day in Japan – March 14

Men are required to remember every chocolate they received on Valentines day, and provide the woman who provided it an equal gift of chocolate on their own, second Valentines day, in March called “White Day.”   On White Day men are the obligated party, though men do get a slightly better deal as they are really only required to provide reciprocal gifts of  chocolate as a thank you to any one  that gave them chocolates on Valentines Day, plus their significant others, who will require an extra special chocolate to compete with that home made goodness received the month prior.

The history behind white day is as capitalist as it comes.  Chocolate makers in Japan simply invented the holiday out of whole cloth, to drum up business.  It seems to have been a good idea, as business is good! Makers bring in more than half of their annual chocolate sales in the week before Valentine’s Day, in a nearly endless string of varieties within the basic two categories of chocolates given for love, and chocolates given out of obligation.

And that is the intersection of chocolate, love, and obligation in Japan!

ByJason Gatewood
Feb 22, 2018

The Firewalkers Of Mount Takao

Japan is steeped in many a legendary tale filled with feats of wonder and tests of courage and wit. From the original Tales of Genji to real-life historical legend Ryoma Sakamoto, This place knows how to spin a yarn or two. A few years back, someone told me they went to a festival and saw people walking over hot coals. Not a circus act, but real, live hot coals… Oh and they were monks… And it was in a mountaintop temple. Normally that would sound like someone had watched way too many 1970’s Kung-Fu movies. But this is Japan and unlike many places in the world, the amount of naaaah, not a thing stories that turn out to be Yep, that’s a thing instances are extremely high. Remember, we have this, and this here every year too, right?

As the story goes, just hop on the Keio Line towards the very last stop, Takaosanguchi on the second Sunday in March every year. Go to the plaza at the base of Mt Takao, just footsteps from the station and you’ll find Shingon monks walking through path made of a sacred fire called goma flame that is the edification of the difficulties of life. Their goal is to walk over and through it in a test of their mettle and hearts, and into the gates of enlightenment.

The practice comes from times past where as part of their rigorous training, the yamabushi mountain monks would recite mantras under waterfalls along with walking through the fire to put mind over matter. These days, those tests are still performed in the same manner, but the general public is also invited to give it a whirl as well.

If you are a bit skittish about walking through the flames, don’t be – by the time the audience has a go, the path is just warm ashes and just a tad bit warmer than the surrounding pavement. Also, if you still are not with it, you can take solace in knowing just by being an onlooker at the procession, you will gain spirtual benefit. If you do decide to do it though, remember to bring a towel so you can clean the ashes from your feet when you’re done.

Hey, while you’re there why not go up Mt. Takao and check out the view from 600 meters up? There’s six trails along with a cable car and ropeway to get you up to the top no matter your condition. You can also check out Yakuo-in templewhere the monks actually practice and top it off with a dip in the hot springs or at one of the many good local restaurants near the train station when you come back down.

Head Temple Takao-san Yakuo-in
2177 Takao-machi, Hachioji City, Tokyo 193-8686
Nearest train station: Keio Takaosanguchi Station


– By Jason L. Gatewood
Images: 江戸村のとくぞう, Takaosan Yakuouin-1, CC BY-SA 4.0