Along the Kamogawa (鴨川)


Our first encounter with the Kamo River in Kyoto was on honeymoon in 2009. On a hot, sunny day, we headed east from our apartment to visit some temples and wander round Gion. We walked along Marutamachi-dori, past the Imperial Palace gardens, until we reached the Kamogawa. Standing on Marutamachi-bashi, we watched a kettle of black kites swooping down to pick up food from the river, menacing passersby and a lone heron as they went. It was both beautiful and slightly frightening.

The picture above is the first one I took of the Kamogawa. We are looking north towards Kojin-bashi, one of twelve bridges that cross the river today.

As I understand it from this guide to the bridges across the Kamo, Marutamachi-bashi is the site of the first bridge built to cross the Kamo. Before its banks began to be reinforced by concrete, the river was prone to severe flooding, and a wooden bridge was constructed to enable people to cross over.

The kamo in Kamogawa is currently written with the kanji for wild duck (鴨), but the river is named for the Kamo clan that used to live in the area. They spelled their name 賀茂, and in older texts about the former Japanese capital, the same kanji is used in the name of the river. Two shrines close to the river also share the Kamo name – Kamigamo and Shimogamo-jinja. We’ve yet to visit these shrines, but with our next trip less than three weeks away, I might put them on the itinerary.

We’ve spent more time wandering along the Kamo on other trips to Japan. In 2013, we stayed near Toyokuni-jinja and joined the river at Shomen-bashi to walk north to Gojo-dori. We were there in April, and it was a perfect time to enjoy some late cherry blossom along the river.


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There’s also usually plenty of wildlife to see as you stroll along the river bank. In 2013, we saw some pretty birds, but in 2015 we saw a coypu close to Gojo Ohashi and a crane close to Kamo Ohashi.


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Later on the 2105 trip, we spent more time walking along a stretch of the river to the north of the city. We had been to a festival at Kami Goryo-jinja and walked north to find somewhere to eat. Kami Goryo-jinja is west of the Takano river, which we also walked along.


We ate at Mamezen and then rejoined the Kamogawa at Kita-Oji, walking south until we reached the point where the Kamogawa joins the Takanogawa close to Shimogamo-jinja. Here the rivers can be crossed by the Kamo Ohashi bridge or by using the turtle stepping stones.

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Further downtown, between Sanjo and Shijo-dori, there are clusters of restaurants that front onto the river. Some of them form part of Pontocho. In the summer, large wooden platforms called yuka are built to extend the restaurants out towards the river.

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It must be lovely to sit out in the evening, enjoying the cooling air coming up from the river, seeing the lights across the river in the hanamachi of Gion and Miyagawacho.

You never know what you might find when crossing one of the bridges over the Kamogawa, either. On our 2015 trip, we encountered a mikan leaning against one of the finials of the Shichijo Ohashi.


Back in 2013, at Shijo Ohashi, we came upon the statue of Izumo no Okuni, former shrine maiden and later influence on kabuki theatre.


I really want to walk more along the Kamo river. There’s a walk in the Deep Kyoto book that I fancy doing. Or maybe I should just go for a wander and look around at what goes on down by the river. Autumn might be an interesting time to do that.


Pontocho (先斗町)


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


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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.




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!







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.



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.



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


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.


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.





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.


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.


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.


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.


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!




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)


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.


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.




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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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).


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.



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!


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)


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.


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.


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.




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.


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


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!



I am still in contact with my first Japanese teacher, 中村りつこさん, and before we headed off on our sixth trip to Japan in 2015, she had put up on Facebook some photographs of a trip she took with her family to Kyoto. Among the places that she visited was Sanjusangendo. Her pictures looked amazing, and so I determined that this trip we would make time to visit. Especially since the machiya we were staying in was literally around the corner. There was no excuse not to!

Of course, in the same way that we rarely make time to visit the cultural attractions on our doorstep in Manchester, we behaved as though we lived in Kyoto and had all the time in the world to pop to the temple up the street from us. We finally visited on our last day in Kyoto.


It was a sunny day, hot but not as humid as the rest of the week had been, and a visit to a cool shady temple was just the ticket. Sanjusangendo roughly translates as Hall with 33 Intervals, which is an accurate description of this 120 metre long temple building. Its official name is Rengeo-in (蓮華王院), which means Temple of the Lotus King.

The outer walls and gates of the temple are stained a brilliant vermillion, and create an impressive barrier both to entry and to seeing the buildings inside. They’re quite forbidding from the inside as well.

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A school group had arrived at the temple at the same time as us, so we took some time to enjoy the gardens before we headed into the hall. The gardens are really beautiful, and include a couple of pools, a large bell, and a purifying fountain said to sound like a child crying in the night.


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Known as the Midnight Crying Stream (pictured above), the story goes that its location was revealed to a priest in a dream, and people believe that the water has the ability to stop children crying at night.

Photographs inside the hall aren’t permitted, so here are some more of its exterior.

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After our wander around the outside, we were feeling pretty warm and in need of some shade, so we headed into the hall. As with all Japanese buildings, we had to remove our shoes before entering. As photography isn’t allowed, we decided that we would also stash our bags in the lockers near the ticket gate. We left our shoes in the pigeonholes at the entrance to the hall, then followed the other visitors inside.

The temple was founded in 1164. It was destroyed by fire and had to be rebuilt around a hundred years later. As well as being Japan’s longest wooden building, it is also the only surviving example of a Sentai Kannon-dõ. This is the real attraction of Sanjusangendo, and the reason photography isn’t permitted inside. The hall is home to 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Ranked around the central Senju Kannon (1000 armed Kannon) are a further 1000 Kannons, arranged in 50 rows of 10 on either side of the central National Treasure. The 1000 Kannons are designated as Important Cultural Properties. 124 of the statues date from the founding of the temple in the 12th century, and the remaining 876 are from the period when the temple was rebuilt in the 13th century. The Kamakura Period sculptor Tankei carved a number of the statues, with the others completed by his apprentices and later craftsmen. Each statue is slightly different, depending on who carved it. Some are signed by Tankei.

The atmosphere inside the hall was quite special. Some of the doors between the 33 bays were open and a cool breeze wafted through, stirring up the smell of incense. The lighting was dim, to protect the statues, which are covered in gold leaf. The train of people making their way through the hall moved slowly, and it all combined to create a sense of reverie. Close to the central Kannon, visitors can pay for prayers to be written out by the priests and offered up to the Kannon in the daily ritual. Visitors can also offer up incense to the goddess.

In front of the Kannon statues are statues of Raijin, the god of thunder, and Fujin, the god of wind, who are imposing figures with faces contorted by wrath. They stand on cloud shaped pedestals. Alongside them are 28 other deities, whose role is to protect Kannon. The ferocity of their expressions is in stark contrast to the serenity seen on the face of Senju Kannon and her 1000 companions.

I’m glad that photography wasn’t allowed. It enabled me to spend more time actually looking at the statues and thinking about their significance to people who follow Buddhism, rather than thinking about angles and lighting and how to take the best shot. I have more of a sensory memory of the visit as a result.

Goryo Shrine, Kyoto (Kami Goryo Jinja/上御霊神社)


In May 2015, we were staying in a machiya in the East of Kyoto and were thinking of things we hadn’t done in Kyoto before. My husband has long wanted to visit a flea market at a temple. The only time we’ve sort of done this before is when we went to Kitano Tenmangu, where a very small flea market was being held among the food stalls and plastic tat aimed at children.

I read up on shrines in Kyoto that hold regular markets, and discovered that Kami Goryo Jinja in the north of the city had a monthly market that fell while we were in Kyoto. I wish that the information I’d found had included this site, because then I would have known that the flea market isn’t held in May!


Instead, the 18th May is the date of the shrine matsuri, which is one of the oldest continuously held matsuri in Japan. The shrine has a long history, dating back to 794. It was built on the site of a former Buddhist temple which had served the local population as a family temple until the imperial court moved from Nara to Kyoto and Emperor Kammu ordered that a Shinto shrine be established on the site. Kammu dedicated the shrine to eight spirits of people who had died violently, and Kami Goryo Jinja became the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace. The role of the shrine became one of protection, with the kami driving away vengeful spirits which threatened the safety of the capital.

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Things didn’t work out so well with the kami, as the 15th century Onin war started in the forest around the shrine, and the shrine itself was burned to the ground during the decade long battle. (We’d learnt a little about the Onin war as a result of our visit to Ginkakuji.)

A century later, the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi rebuilt the shrine. Under the Shogunate, Kami Goryo Jinja ceased to be the guardian shrine of the Imperial Palace and reverted to being a family shrine, protecting the local population.

The matsuri has been held at the shrine since 863, and features three mikoshi, a variety of ox carts, taiko drummers, dragon dancers and local children dressed in Heian era costume. The spectacle more than made up for the lack of a flea market!


We arrived just as things were getting started. Small trucks and wagons were parked up in the street in front of the shrine entrance. Among the wagons was a beautiful ox cart. A couple of men were inspecting the cart to make sure it was ready for the procession.


The man on the right noticed us taking photographs and walked over to chat. One thing we learned about the Kami Goryo Jinja matsuri is that the local people are incredibly proud of the festival, and were pleased to see tourists visiting. We had a short conversation in Japanese about what was going on, and he gave us some advice on where to stand to see the mikoshi pass by once they left the shrine precincts. We thanked him and then made our way into the shrine, because we could hear flutes and bells, so thought something must be happening.



How right we were! The purification ceremony was just beginning, and we joined the local people in watching as the shrine priests waved a willow wand over the mikoshi and then offered sake, mochi, fish, vegetables and fruit to the kami in their temporary homes.


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The ceremony was beautiful to watch, executed with solemnity and grace. It felt like a privilege to be there, witnessing it. We only saw three other Western visitors, which interested me because the shrine is located not far from Kyoto University. When we’ve wandered briefly around the Demachiyanaga area, we’ve noticed a reasonable number of Western students, but perhaps they don’t live in the area near the shrine.


After the blessings and offerings, the shrine carriers started to prepare. They were dressed in dazzling white happi coats. Among the crew for one of the mikoshi was a Western man. What an honour to have become such a part of the community around the shrine that he was part of a mikoshi crew! I think he’s on one of the videos I recorded, but I didn’t get a photograph of him, unfortunately.




Around the other side of the shrine to where we were standing, musicians sat and accompanied the ceremony.

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I always think that traditional Japanese music has an eerie melancholy about it. It fitted well with the ceremony, somehow.

Also standing around the shrine, watching the mikoshi crews get ready, were children dressed in Heian era costumes. The head priest passed through the crowd with his willow wand and blessed the children.

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Less benign were the dragon dancers who snapped their mouths and threatened to bit the heads off the children. One small boy burst into tears at their antics, but the two young ladies dressed in red took the abuse stoically!



At one point, while I was wandering around, I got a little too close to the ropes that would be used to tie the mikoshi to their carrying poles. One of the mikoshi crew warned me not to step too close. When I stepped back and said, “はい、わかりました,” (yes, I’ve understood what you’ve told me) he nodded back to me and gruffly said, “ごめん”. Judging by the expression on his face, I think he meant that he was sorry that he had scolded me!

Suddenly the mikoshi were ready, and with a lot of call and response, the mikoshi crews put on a great performance of bouncing the portable shrines off the main shrine platform and out into the street. The mikoshi are decorated with bells, so there was a lovely jingling to the movement, and this mixed with the shouts of the men as they bounced the shrines on their poles. It was amazing to see.


The mikoshi were carried out through the East gate, so we headed back through the South gate to the spot pointed out to us by the ox cart checker earlier that morning. He was right about it being a good place. We saw the ox arrive and be harnessed to the cart, then a parade of costumed people, followed by the first mikoshi, which was put onto its wagon right in front of us. That was a precision operation, getting it to sit right.


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I really loved this matsuri. It felt cosier than the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa that we stumbled upon during our honeymoon. As we left the streets around the shrine and started to walk towards the river, looking for the vegan restaurant Mamezen, we could hear the procession making its way along the streets that encircle the shrine. As we crossed a bridge over the river, a man cycling the opposite way shouted over his shoulder to us, “祭り、祭り!” (matsuri, matsuri!) and gestured at the parade behind us. “はい、見ました、凄いです!” I replied. (Yes, we saw it, it’s amazing!) He seemed to be satisfied with that response, and cycled on his way. How lovely, though, that he was so proud of his local festival that he stopped some random strangers he thought might be missing out and urged them to turn back.

If you’re in Kyoto on the 18th of May, any year, then this matsuri is definitely worth a look. We took the Karasuma line on the Kyoto subway to Kuramaguchi station, then walked through back streets to reach the shrine. The circular flat fare 201 bus will drop you off at the Karasuma Imadegawa subway station as well, and you walk north from there. 楽しんで下さいね! (Enjoy!)