Pontocho (先斗町)

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We’re heading back to Japan in October, and one of the places I want to explore more thoroughly is Pontocho in Kyoto.

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We’ve wandered along its narrow alley on a couple of visits, usually at the end of a long day of sight seeing, but never really paid much attention to it as a destination. It’s often been an afterthought. A place we’ve slipped into as we were passing along Shijo-dori on our way somewhere else, or on our way home. It’s usually crowded with people and we haven’t eaten at any of the restaurants or tried to go into any of the bars that line it. We did once see a small Tetsujin 28-go sitting in a basket of charcoal, though, which was cute.

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Pontocho is one of Kyoto’s Hanamachi, but we’ve never timed it quite right to see a Geiko or a Maiko making her way to an appointment at one of the exclusive tea houses in the area. The Pontocho tea houses are beautiful from the outside, but without an introduction we know we’ll never get to see inside one.

We’ve admired the exterior of the restaurant Takara (多から) a couple of times, but haven’t ventured inside there, either. Mainly because we’re vegetarian and traditional Japanese restaurants are generally off limits to us.

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Peering down the alleyways that run off at tangents to the main street is intriguing. I usually feel too gauche and lacking in adequate Japanese to venture down them and see where we end up. They are pretty to look at, though, and I think that is part of the charm of Pontocho. You don’t have to spend money and visit the bars and restaurants to feel like you’ve spent time there.

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I do fancy popping into the Hello Dolly Jazz & Whisky Bar, mainly because of the Doris Day picture in the window, but also because other people’s photos on Trip Advisor make it look great.

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I want to try Vodka Bar Nakanishi as well, since vodka is one of my favourite things in life, and it has a corking display of matryoshka dolls in the window. Maybe this year will be the year we pass through its doors.

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I also like looking at the signs outside the restaurants and bars that try to tempt passersby with their creativity. I only eat fish in extreme circumstances and Mr Hicks doesn’t eat it at all, but I love the hand drawn images that we saw outside one sushi restaurant we passed.

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Almost everywhere you look there are traditional lanterns featuring the chidori, or plover, which is the symbol of Pontocho.

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Perhaps this year will be the year we make time to visit Pontocho on purpose and have a few drinks alongside the Kamogawa.

If you’ve been to Pontocho and have any hints and tips, please make suggestions for where we might go in the comments!

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is located in the old Shitamachi (下町) area of Tokyo, along with Asakusa. We have visited the area a couple of times on our trips to Japan, but have only scratched the surface of what the district has to offer.

The most famous part of Ueno is, of course, Ueno Park (上野公園), located alongside Ueno Station and famous for its cherry blossom in Spring.

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Our first visit to Ueno was in October 2010 when, on a particularly rainy day, we decided to follow our visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa with a trip to the National Museum of Nature and Science.

I work in a science and industry museum and I’m always interested to see how other countries approach science in their museums. By far my favourite science museum is Miraikan, which seems to get the balance between learning and fun just right. The National Museum of Nature and Science is a mix of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. It’s an integrated museum with a satellite site out at the Tsukuba Research Centre. We only visited the main museum building in Ueno Park, but I want to visit the Centre for the History of Japanese Industrial Technology as well, one day.

The main museum is split into two galleries. The Japan Gallery presents the natural history of the Japanese islands, as well as an introduction to the scientific instruments used to observe nature in Japan. The Global Gallery presents natural history across the planet, mixed in with a celebration of Japanese scientists and an exploration of how science and technology has progressed in Japan, compared with other nations.

We mainly explored the Japan Gallery on our trip. It was interesting to learn how people have adapted to the environment in Japan over the centuries, and how they have used science to understand the nature of Japan. I particularly liked the chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs, one of which preserves a recording of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

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The natural history displays were interesting, particularly the displays of flowers, fossilised plants and insects.

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The museum is pretty big, and we were running out of time, so our visit to the Global Gallery focused on the Science and Innovation display. This featured similar objects to those collected and displayed at the museum where I work. The space seemed a little stark, and a lot of the interactives were broken. It was interesting to see the industrial machinery, aviation and computing displays, though, and particularly nice to see the Manchester Mark I computer given a name check!

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There was also a display of dinosaurs that we visited at the end. It was in a really small room, but the curators had done their best with the space. The path through brought you up close to the skeletons and replicas, so you got a sense of scale. It did feel cramped and jumbled, though.

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There are other museums in Ueno Park, including Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, neither of which we have visited yet. There’s a zoo in the park as well, if captive animals float your boat.

We did a bit of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, in April 2012, and had a wander around Shinobazu Pond. The Park is beautiful and very busy in cherry blossom season. The April day we visited was a sunny one, but not particularly warm. The park was filling up with people by the time we arrived. At the southern entrance to the park, close to Ueno Station, there is a cherry tree with a large inscribed rock sitting under it. It seems to be something to do with a Rotary Club.

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We took the tree lined path north from this stone, past a display of lanterns for the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Ueno Cherry Festival).

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We somehow missed the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Ueno which destroyed most of the buildings previously on the site the park now occupies. The Battle of Ueno was part of the brief civil war that followed the Meiji Restoration. Supporters of the overthrown Shogun fought the army of the restored Emperor in the grounds of Kaneiji Temple, which was a family shrine for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the temple was destroyed, and the land became the property of the city of Tokyo. Ueno Park was established in 1873 and was gifted to the people in 1924 in celebration of Prince Hirohito’s marriage. The park’s official name is Ueno Onshi Koen (上野恩賜公園), or Ueno Imperial Gift Park.

The walk up through the cherry trees was very pretty, and full of Tokyoites and other tourists taking photographs. I particularly liked the starkness of the branches against the froth of the cherry blossom, and the way the branches seem to have been trained to give a zigzag effect.

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There were plenty of people having blossom viewing picnics, and tarpaulins were laid out and marked with names ready for evening picnics. On group of people had an enormous banquet – plate upon plate of food, arranged in the middle of the tarp, with the people sitting in a ring around it. I would like to be more organised and have a picnic under the cherry blossom in Ueno Park!

After we’d walked the length of the avenue, we turned back and headed for Shinobazu Pond. Kaneiji Temple was modelled on Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, which overlooks lake Biwako, which Shinobazu Pond is said to represent. An island in the middle of the pond is home to the Bentendo, or Hall of the goddess Benten. It’s the green-roofed structure in the picture below.

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Part of the pond is reserved for the preservation of wildlife, but most of it is used as a boating lake, with swan shaped pedalos for hire. It being cherry blossom season, there were plenty of food stalls around, so we treated ourselves to a cup of salted sweet potato chips, which were delicious.

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On our walk around the pond, one of the nicest sights we saw was a man feeding the birds from the nature reserve. Some of the birds were bold enough to eat straight from his hand, and he was whistling to them to bring them to him. We stood and watched him for a while, and he happily let me take a photograph of him.

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On our trip to Ueno Park in 2010, we paid a short visit to the Ameya Yokocho shopping street. It was disappointingly like Oldham Tommyfield market. I was expecting something more vibrant from the descriptions I’d read, but it was quite grey and drab. Perhaps because it was a wet day. I didn’t take any photographs because of the weather.

Our most recent visit to Ueno was on our walk from Akihabara over to the Sky Tree in May 2015. We decided to go to Asakusa via Iriya so that we could make a reservation for dinner at Bon. This walk brought us up alongside Ueno Station, across a pavement in the sky. It was another aspect of Ueno to what we had seen before, and we discovered a chiming piece of public sculpture.

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There is still lots for us to see and do in Ueno, and it is one of my favourite parts of Tokyo. I’m sure we’ll head back there one day and take in some of the other museums in Ueno Park, and explore more of the other sights the area has to offer.

Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリー)

On our autumn trip to Japan in October 2010, we arrived at Narita airport and took the train to Kyoto via Tokyo. On our train journey, we noticed a half formed tower being built on the east of Tokyo. We stayed in Asakusa for the second half of our trip that year, and saw the incomplete tower in the distance as we wandered around Nakamise market.

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In 2012, we noticed that the tower was complete. We discovered that it is called the Sky Tree and was due to open the following month. Built mainly as a broadcasting tower to replace Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree also has two observation decks and a restaurant. At its foot is Sky Tree Town, a shopping complex and entertainment district.

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At 634m high, it is the tallest tower in the world, and only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a taller structure. Ever with the eye for detail, the reason the tower is 634m tall is because the number can be pronounced “musashi”. Musashi is the old name for the historic province within which Tokyo falls, and it is that expanse of land that can be seen from the observation decks.

We took the chance to visit the Sky Tree on our May 2014 trip. We were staying in Akihabara, and I decided it would be a great idea to walk to Asakusa and then on to the Sky Tree. That’s a lot of walking. I find translating distances from how they appear on Japanese maps into how they actually are on planet Earth difficult. I pretty much always get it wrong.

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When we arrived, we went straight up to the 4th floor to buy our tickets for the Tembo Deck, but were advised that there was a half hour wait. After all the walking we’d done, I was too hungry to hang around in a ticket queue, so we headed back down to the restaurants and tried to find the Moomin themed café that I’d read about. I was keen to sit at a table with a giant Moomin stuffed toy, so it was disappointing to discover that there was no vegetarian food on offer. There were three dishes on the menu – beef curry, salmon, or chicken cutlet. No Moomin repast for us, then.

Across the way was an Italian restaurant. I asked for (thought I’d asked for) the tomato and mozarella spaghetti, but what arrived was the spaghetti pomodoro with egg and bacon. Ah, the joys of trying to find vegetarian food in a touristy part of Tokyo! At least it was easy to pick the bacon off the top of the pasta, and there wasn’t much. If I’d done a bit more research before heading over there, instead of being fixated on Moomin cuteness, I would have known that there are restaurants on the upper floors of Solamachi that have vegetarian options. D’oh!

After eating, we headed back to the 4th floor of the Sky Tree, where we had only a 20 minute wait for tickets. We travelled up to the Tembo Deck in a space-age lift that travelled at 10m per second. We only felt it as the lift slowed back down and our ears popped. Otherwise, it didn’t feel like we were moving at all. It was a strange sensation.

Tembo Deck is 350m from the ground and the views across Tokyo are spectacular.

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Tokyo really is a huge city. At ground level, you don’t really get a sense of how immense it is. Seeing it stretch away from you in all directions from 350m above ground really brings it home to you.

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We spent about an hour wandering around the observation deck, taking pictures from every angle, including down through a section of glass floor that my husband was happy to stand on but that my vertigo wouldn’t let me try!

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We found the café on our photo tour of the observation deck and made sure we fitted in a portion of Sky Tree ice cream with fruit vinegar. I had the apple vinegar on mine, which was pleasingly sweet and then pleasingly sour. At the bottom of the ice cream was a sprinkling of cornflakes, as well. Yum!

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It was great up the Sky Tree looking out over Tokyo and worth the 2,060円 entry fee. If you speak good enough Japanese, it’s possible to book timed tickets online in advance of your visit, so that you can avoid the queues, but we had no problems buying day tickets. The waiting time was fine for us. We went on a Thursday, though. I’d imagine it gets a lot busier at the weekend.

We decided not to buy the second ticket up to the Tembo Gallery, which is the observation deck at 450m. The additional ticket can only be bought on the day while you are on the Tembo Deck. It costs an extra 1,030円.

We visited the shop on the Tembo Deck, but weren’t grabbed by any of the souvenirs. We like a bit of tat, but the gifts were too kitsch even for our taste!

We were tired from me forcing us to march around east Tokyo, so couldn’t find the energy to mooch around the four floors of shops at the base of the tower. Not even for the Medicom store.

Exhibition: When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー)

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During our April 2015 visit to Matsuyama on Shikoku, there was an exhibition of dioramas based on the Studio Ghibli film When Marnie Was There at the Ehime Museum of Art (website in Japanese).

Both my husband and I are Studio Ghibli fans. Neither of us had seen the film, or even read the book by Joan G Robinson, but we both wanted to see the exhibition. It was a really rainy day, so perfect for visiting the museum, which is located within the bounds of the Matsuyama Castle moat.

Although it was only a short walk from our hotel to the museum, by the time we got there we were drenched. We left our dripping coats and bags in a coin locker and paused in front of the exhibition information panels in the foyer to take photographs, before heading up to the exhibition floor to buy our tickets.

The exhibition was great, full of animation cels, preparatory sketches, storyboards and a reconstruction of the production designer Yohei Taneda’s studio. Because I’m an archivist working in a museum, I’m always interested in the way paper based objects are displayed in exhibitions so, although photography of the original artworks wasn’t allowed, I sneaked a shot of one of the fixings for a sketch book.

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Such a museum nerd. But look at how neat that is.

Anyway. The full scale dioramas of scenes from the film were stunning. They really made me feel as though I was in the scene. There wasn’t any English interpretation available, so I wasn’t able to glean much about how the dioramas had been put together, or how much involvement Yohei Taneda had had in putting the exhibition together.

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I was very taken with the life sized reconstruction of Marnie’s bedroom. The attention to detail was astounding. I would like to have known whether the exhibition team made all the “antique” items, or whether they were items that Yohei Taneda had collected as inspiration for his production design and had then given them to be used in the exhibition.

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It interested me that 3D models of sets for a 2D film had been made. Again, I wasn’t sure whether they had been made by the production team behind the film to aid with creating the animation cels, or whether they were something made for the exhibition. The work that had gone into them was immense. Some of the dioramas had video projections of scenes from the film embedded in them.

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It was a lovely way to spend the morning. If we’d had time, it would have been good to look around the rest of the museum, but we spent too much time in the shop afterwards and also wanted to go to Dogo Onsen in the afternoon. Next time we are in Matsuyama, we will make time to look at the other exhibits in this museum, and maybe visit some more of the museums Matsuyama has to offer.

Dogo Onsen (道後温泉) Matsuyama

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Ever since I first read Soseki’s Botchan, I have wanted to visit Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama. I did a lot of research into bathing at the famous Dogo Onsen Honkan, but not, as it turned out, quite enough.

My husband and I are very, very British. We don’t like taking our clothes off in public. As I was researching a trip to the Honkan, I became convinced that there was a private bath option available.

Come enjoy the public bathhouse atmosphere of the “Kami-no-yu”. Upstairs, you’ll find a large, open area made for onsen-goers to change into a “yukata” cotton bathrobe and relax while sipping tea and eating sweet cakes. The “Tama-no-yu”, on the other hand, is an elegant facility featuring private hot baths and famous for its Botchan Dango rice dumplings and chic atmosphere. (Rates for private baths vary.)

So said the official tourism website for Matsuyama City. I double checked on the Honkan’s own website, where I think I misunderstood “Private Room” to mean private bath. The consequences of all this turned out to be quite stressful!

Dogo Onsen is a hot spring resort to the east of central Matsuyama. It is thought to be the oldest hot spring in Japan, being referred to in the Nihon Shoki Chronicles. The symbol of the town is the Dogo Onsen Honkan, which was built in 1894. At the top of the three story building is a small tower with a white heron on top. This is the shinrakukan. The tower is glazed in red, and a lamp is lit inside in the evening to guide customers to the spring. Inside there is also a drum called Toki-Daiko (time drum). Every day at 6 a.m., the drum is beaten to announce that the Honkan is open. It is also beaten at noon and at 6 p.m.

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There is a legend about the heron that links to the discovery of the healing properties of the hot spring. The heron is said to have had an injured leg and was seen splashing about in a spring in an area called Sagitani, close to Dogo Onsen, on a daily basis. After a few days of this behaviour, the heron flew away and the local people saw that its leg had been completely healed. They started to bathe in the waters as well, and found them to be very relaxing. People with ailments also found the waters restorative, and so the onsen was born.

As well as the Honkan, there are plenty of other things to see and do in the small town. On the day we decided to visit, it was raining. We’d spent the morning at the Ehime Museum of Art looking around the Studio Ghibli exhibition about the making of When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー). We hopped on a tram that took us out to Dogo Onsen, which was a pleasantly winding journey on an old fashioned street car.

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We arrived at a charming period-style station that evoked the era of Botchan. There was something Ghibli about it, in its clapboard styling and muted colours. Despite the rain, it was a pretty sight.

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On our walk from the station to the Honkan, we passed the famous Botchan Karakuri clock, alongside a public foot spa in Hojoen Square. The clock is automated and “performs” every hour. We made a plan to come back later to watch the show.

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To the side of the clock is a covered arcade that leads up the hill to the Honkan, passing Tsubaki no Yu, the secondary bath house in the town. At the end of the arcade was a plaza and the Honkan.

As well as featuring in Botchan, the Honkan is also famous for being the inspiration for the bath house in Spirited Away. It is a beautiful building. It was smaller than I was expecting, but perfectly proportioned.

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There were plenty of people around, some of them in matching yukata with matching jackets over the top and towels around their shoulders, ready to strip off and slide into the hot spring. We went to the ticket counter and asked to buy two tickets for the Tama-no-Yu private bathing. Unfortunately for us, there is limited availability for this private bathing experience, and we were told that we would need to try again later.

We spent a little time wandering around the shops in the arcade, where we met a ginger cat who wanted to be our friend. Perhaps he was drawn to my akage-no-otto (赤毛の夫).

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We bought a few bits and pieces as souvenirs and looked at the Botchan train. We also found a statue of the writer Masaoka Shiki, who was born in Matsuyama.

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Back at the Honkan, we purchased our tickets, left our footwear in the lockers, and were shown up to the third floor. The building is amazing inside, a warren of corridors and steep staircases, with people bustling around. The private rooms are on the third floor. We were given yukata decorated with white herons and hired some lovely thick towels, then we were shown to our private room. We changed into our yukata and locked our belongings in the cupboard, then rang the bell for our assistant to collect us.

She showed us down to the second floor, and this is where it got messy. As I mentioned above, I had become convinced that there was going to be a private bath that my husband and I could share. When the attendant showed us the laminated explanation sheets and instructed us to go separately to the men’s and women’s private baths, I asked where our private bath was. He didn’t understand me, and told me again to go to the women’s bath, the private one, and then down to the lower women’s bath afterwards, the public bath. I tried to say to my husband that I didn’t understand the attendant and he didn’t understand me and we were going to have to go with the flow, but we were busily being ushered to our respective baths, so I think my message across the room got lost. I headed to the women’s Tama-no-Yu and assumed that my husband had headed to the men’s bath.

I am very short sighted, so I told myself that this would be an experience, and if people decided to stare at me because I am Western, I wouldn’t be able to see without my glasses on, and then I got on with it.

It was quiet in the Tama-no-Yu bath. I had read up on onsen etiquette on a couple of sites, and there were also instructions on a travel blog about visiting Dogo Onsen Honkan. There were further instructions in the changing room, too. I took off my yukata and put it with my glasses into the locker, then slipped the locker key onto my wrist. I sat on a small wooden stool in the shower area and rinsed my body, then used the deliciously fragrant orange blossom soap to wash myself before rinsing again.

I made my way to the bath. There were three women already in there, and they made space for me to slide into the bath. I dropped my towel and made it sopping wet, so one of the women indicated that I should place it onto the window ledge. That was all the interaction I experienced.

The water in the Tama-no-Yu bath was hot but not scalding. I sat on a small ledge initially, to get my body used to the heat. The water felt like silk. Gradually I immersed myself fully and bobbed about a bit close to the edge. The other women were crouching in the water, walking around a little. I copied one of them and got out of the bath partway through to shower and soap again, then got back into the bath after rinsing myself off. I struggled with the showers, which were on a timer tap, so I couldn’t rinse off as quickly as I wanted to. I felt pretty exposed, crouching and waiting for the water pressure to build again for the shower.

I managed a few more minutes in the bath, and eventually there was only me and another woman, so I was able to move next to the open window to cool down a little. Then I dried off and put my yukata back on, using the hairdryer in the changing room to try to get my hair under control. It didn’t work, and I became the frizz queen as I usually do when I don’t have access to conditioner and hair straighteners!

I made my way up to the second floor and tried to get up the stairs to the third floor to meet up again with my husband and find out how he had got on. I wasn’t allowed to return to the private room, though. The attendants were very insistent that I should also enjoy the larger public bath, the Kami-no-Yu. I really didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I headed off down the stairs and across the corridor to a large public changing room.

Fortunately, there weren’t many people in there, and I found a quiet corner to slip out of my yukata, trying to cover my modesty with my towel. I went through the sliding door into the steamy large public bath. I repeated the rinse, soap, rinse ritual and then got into the bath. It was incredibly hot. So much hotter than the water in Tama-no-Yu. I didn’t last very long, sitting by myself, feeling as though I was slowly being boiled alive. I started to feel light headed and decided that enough was enough.

I found the experience in the public bath a lot more difficult than that in the smaller bath upstairs. I think the fact that only a handful of people could use Tama-no-Yu at one time made me feel less like I was having the experience alone. Surrounded by families and groups of friends enjoying the hot spring water together, chatting and having a laugh, made me very aware that I was in there on my own and I had nothing to do. While I like my own company, I’m not very good at solitary pursuits where I can’t read or write or listen to music. Sitting in boiling water, unable to focus on anything, trying not to gaze at the blurry forms around me, made me feel oddly lonely.

I returned to the changing room, dried off and put my yukata back on, then headed back upstairs. My poor husband was sitting in the room, very dry, and not looking too happy. He hadn’t gone through to the bath and had been sitting in the room, waiting for me to return. It was a sad end to what should have been a lovely experience that we shared together. Talking to our friend who is Japanese when we returned home, he told us that there are places where you can have a private bath, where couples can share the bathing experience, and asked us to let him know next time we would be in Japan so that he could help us to find somewhere.

We had our green tea and ate our Botchan Dango dumplings, but didn’t linger in the room. Outside later on, we saw that people opened up their shutters and stood out on the balconies enjoying the view as they sipped their tea. I wish that we had done that, but we were both too stressed by the unexpected turn our visit to the onsen had taken. We even left without taking the tour of the Emperor’s private bathing rooms, we were so shellshocked!

We cheered ourselves up with a slice of Matsuyama Tart and made our way back to the Botchan Karakuri clock. The show is quite something. The clock expands upwards and outwards to display different scenes from the novel, and it plays music and dialogue. I was transfixed, pointing out the different scenes to my husband. It was the perfect end to a strange afternoon!

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In putting together this post, I found a question that someone else asked on the Trip Advisor forum, about whether there are private baths at Dogo Onsen Honkan. I wish I’d found it before we went there. But then again, I wouldn’t have had the experience that I did have, and I enjoyed relaxing in the smaller, quieter bath. I also liked how soft my skin felt after the bath, and the smell of the soap. It was a good experience, just not the one I was expecting.

If you’re brave and don’t mind getting your kit off in front of strangers and then getting into a bath with them, I’d say do it. If you’re a little shy in the public nakedness stakes, then maybe give it a miss. But if you do decide to visit Dogo Onsen Honkan, I really recommend the private room experience if only for the tea and dumplings at the end, and the chance to lounge around in a tatami room with sliding shutters, imagining you’re in a scene from Botchan or Spirited Away.

Kanda Myojin (神田明神)

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I recently read Marcus Jansen’s history of modern Japan and learned that Kanda used to be a mountain, but it was levelled by Ieyasu in order to provide the earth needed to infill Tokyo Bay to create the modern port. We’ve wandered around Kanda and Jimbocho a couple of times on previous visits to Tokyo, and in 2014 our Akihabara apartment was a short walk from Kanda Myojin. The hill that the shrine stands on is still pretty steep.

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We visited the shrine on a sunny Sunday during Golden Week. Before we headed up the steps in the photo above, we watched two lads race each other to the top. We walked up after them, and I think we were more out of breath when we got to the top than they were!

Kanda Shrine started its existence in the Otemachi area of Tokyo. It was originally built in 730AD, but ended up in the path of Ieyasu’s planned expansion of Edo Castle. So, in 1603, the shrine was moved to the Kanda ward. It moved again 13 years later to the top of the hill where it still resides. The current structures on the site aren’t original. It suffered extensive fire damage in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake and was reconstructed in 1934.

I thought the shrine was beautiful, with its bright vermillion woodwork and its lion dogs, nestling on the hilltop amidst the urban sprawl.

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The frieze pictured above is on the Zuishin Mon, the copper-roofed main gate to the shrine. It depicts a blue dragon and a black turtle-snake, which are two of the four Shijin (Taoist gods) alongside the red phoenix and white tiger.

The shrine is home to three kami – Daikokuten and Ebisu, who are both members of the 7 Lucky Gods crew and considered to be particularly lucky for business people, and Taira no Masakado, a Heian-era samurai who led a rebellion against the government in Kyoto and whose head was brought to Tokyo. Local residents in the Shibaraki area, the destination for Masakado’s head, respected his defiance so much that they enshrined him at Kanda Myojin.

There is an incredible statue of Ebisu at the shrine.

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Instead of Ebisu being depicted in his usual form as a fisherman, this statue refers to Ebisu’s childhood. Ebisu was the son of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the many islands that make up Japan. He was born without bones and, unable to walk, he was put into a boat of reeds and cast adrift on the sea. The statue shows Ebisu in his boat riding on the crest of a wave, surrounded by turtles and fish. He washed ashore in Hokkaido and was adopted by an Ainu fisherman. His bones grew and, aged three years old, he became a god. I didn’t know that story before I visited Kanda Myojin.

The shrine, perhaps because of its proximity to Akihabara, is also associated with IT and with manga. We saw a couple of lucky charms in sticker form on sale that you could affix to the back of your tech to ward off system failures, data loss and identity theft.

More spectacularly, though, the shrine is full of ema plaques decorated with manga.

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In 2012, an anime/manga/idol project started, called Love Live! which is set around Akihabara and features Kanda Myojin as one of the key locations. It’s quite something to walk through the stands of ema and see the creativity of visitors to the shrine. Some of the ema are pre-printed, but the vast majority look hand drawn and coloured. It was one of my favourite things about the shrine.

My most favourite thing, though, was the miniature pony.

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Because we love Parks and Recreation, we named this pony L’il Sebastian. It turns out she’s a girl pony called Akari, and she is the shrine’s sacred horse. She’s there to carry the gods if they want a trot out. I expect that Baby Ebisu is fine riding a miniature pony, but I’m concerned about Daikokuten. Let’s not even think about how the severed head of Taira no Masakado gets on the back of a miniature pony. Akari can’t be expected to carry him in a mikoshi, surely?

I bet she takes part in the Kanda Matsuri every May, though. We were in the wrong year for the big festival and also too early in the month. The big festival, which is one of the biggest shrine festivals in Japan, takes place in odd years, with a smaller festival in the even years. In the big festival, 100 mikoshi and 300 people parade through the streets of Tokyo, around Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Marunouchi.

I would love to see it. Maybe one day!

Taikokan (太鼓館) the Drum Museum in Asakusa

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On our second trip to Japan, in October 2010, we spent the second week of the holiday in Tokyo. The week was a pretty wet one. One day in particular, it was raining pretty hard when we got up, so we decided to swap our day-trip to Kawaguchiko to see Fuji-san for a day of popping in and out of museums.

We were staying in Asakusa, and not far from Ryokan Toukaisou there was a drum museum. The Taikokan is located on an upper floor of the Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten Co headquarters in Asakusa. The building isn’t very obvious, but we knew from the local map that it was on a street corner two blocks down the main street from where we were staying.

We went into the building. It was very confusing. The ground floor is a souvenir shop and salesroom for drums and drumming accessories. There were all kinds of things on display, from hachimaki and happi coats worn by the mikoshi teams during the Sanja Matsuri, to drumsticks and all shapes and sizes of drum.

We went to the sales counter and negotiated ourselves a ticket to the museum. We were directed towards the lift and told to get off at the third floor, where someone would meet us and we could look around the collection of over 300 drums from around the world.

On exiting the lift, we found ourselves alone. We gazed around, reading the various signs telling us which drums we could hit, and that we couldn’t take photographs, and then a very flustered woman appeared (as if from nowhere, but in exactly the opposite state of composure to Mr Ben’s shopkeeper). She apologised profusely, and then launched into a bossy run through of all the things we’d just read on the signs. Then she said, “You have a camera? I can take one picture – ONE PICTURE!” We nodded, and she said something half in English and half in Japanese, neither of which was comprehensible to either of us, so we just said, “あー、そうです。” This seemed to satisfy her, and she left us to wander around at our leisure.

The first thing we noted was that there were a LOT of drums. The museum occupies a single floor, and the drums are crammed in, arranged in a higgledy piggledy fashion. It was hard to take it all in, and we wandered around in a sort of a daze. We were a bit tentative about hitting any of the drums at first, but once we’d done a few and the tiny woman hadn’t rematerialised to scold us, we grew bolder.

There was some interesting information on the labels about the rituals associated with the drums from African and Asian countries, where drums have more meaning in social events than they do in Europe. I liked the water drums, which are hollow tubes taken into rivers and pounded through the water so that they make a glooping sound. There was also a drum carved to look like an alligator, which was used in a coming of age ritual where 17 year old boys receive tattoos and carvings all over their bodies to show that they have become men. Ouch!

After a good long while wandering around, having a go on some drums, learning about others, we prepared to leave. At the door, the tiny woman pounced on us again. In spite of what she had said earlier, she insisted on us having TWO photographs taken of us pretending to play the largest Japanese taiko drums. At the top of this post is the best of her two efforts. And that one has been run through Photoshop to try to take some of the grain out and reduce the motion blur.

We thanked her for taking the photos and tried to leave again, but she stopped us with a display of postcards and told us to pick ONLY ONE each as a souvenir. It was a lot of pressure. Then she told us to go downstairs in the elevator and then back up to the second floor by the stairs, so that we could look at the drums shown on our postcards in the showroom. We tried to, but somehow we ended up in a storage area rather than the showroom, so we scuttled back downstairs to the ground floor and bought some souvenirs instead.

It was definitely an experience. If you’re interested in drums, it’s worth a visit, and if you are on holiday with young children it’s a definite. The entry fee was 300円 for an adult when we visited, although a comment from a couple of years ago on Trip Advisor suggests that it has gone up to 500円 now. I’d say it was worth the money. The tiny scolding woman was good entertainment, too!

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