Archive for the ‘festivals’ Category

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.

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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!

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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!)

Mifune Matsuri/三船祭

Whenever we head to Japan, we always check to see whether there will be any festivals on local to where we’re staying. In 2015, we discovered that we would be in Kyoto at the right time to see the Mifune Matsuri in Arashiyama. We love Arashiyama and have visited it a couple of times.

We caught the train from Kyoto station to Saga-Arashiyama on the JR line. The train was already at the platform when we reached Kyoto station, and was pretty crowded. We’d read that somewhere in the region of 100,000 people visit Arashiyama to watch the festival each year, so we were expecting the train to be full. We managed to get seats, then more people piled on until it was standing room only. It turned out that we were on a local train and not everyone was heading out to the festival.

We arrived at Saga station around lunch time. It was pretty quiet. We guessed that most people must already be at Kurumazaki shrine, getting ready for the procession to the Togetsukyo bridge. As we walked down into town, we passed a sign for a vegan café called Prunus.

It was lunchtime, we were hungry, and an opportunity to eat healthily instead of scavenging for onigiri in a combini had presented itself to us. So we climbed the stairs to the empty café. We sat at a table in the window and ordered from the extensive menu. Gradually the café began to fill up with customers, and I started to worry that we had missed the festival. We shared a plate of vegan gyoza and a salad, both of which were delicious. The salad was particularly good. I could almost feel the nutrients adding benefit to my body! I don’t know if there was an offer on, but we also got a free slice of savoury pound cake. Savoury cake, you might ask, what the heck is that about? It was surprisingly delicious.

We paid up and headed back out into the sunshine. The route into town still seemed quiet to me, further adding to my worries that we’d missed the show. It was around 1 p.m., and the procession from the shrine should have reached the river. Fortunately, when we got to Togetsukyo bridge, we found plenty of people lining the banks of the river, and plenty more rowing around in small blue boats. Huge boats were ferrying camera crews up and down the river as well, and covered boats were carrying groups of tourists along the river.

 

We crossed the bridge and wandered up the river bank. The narrow path was pressed with people, but we found a spot beneath some trees that gave us a good view across the river to the landing stage where the festival boats were gathering. Some kind of ceremony seemed to be happening in an area alongside the landing stage, and costumed people were starting to get into the boats.

 

We watched and waited for around half an hour, and then the action started. Boats started to leave the landing stage and were propelled up river by oarsmen in the prows. We could hear ghostly court music in the distance, and then the first of the festival boats started to move back down river along our bank towards us.

First a group of women in Heian-era court dress.

 

Then a wide open bird-prowed barge with women dancers in priestly dress.

 

The women performed a fan dance, accompanied by flautists and drummers.

 

A dragon-prowed barge followed on their heels, containing warrior-like young women who danced forcefully with extravagant arm gestures.

 

It was a serious business.

The Heian Court ladies returned and began the tradition of floating colourful fans on the surface of the river.

People who had hired the blue rowing boats jostled for position, as close to the barge as they could safely get, ready to swoop in as the barge moved off to claim a memento of the day.

 

Somehow, as we’d been focusing on the fan activity, another open barge of men in colourful costume had made its way past us and was crossing in front of the bridge down river from us.

With that, the festival seemed to be over, and people started to make their way off the river bank and back over the bridge into town.

As we crossed the bridge, we could see that there was still some activity up near the landing stage, so we headed up along the opposite bank of the river to stand behind the landing stage with other, more elegant hangers on.

We were rewarded with a clearer view of the Heian Court ladies, still floating their fans on the river, and smiling graciously at the spectators.

 

Further up the bank was a man with a set of carp streamers (koinobori/鯉幟), enjoying the spectacle as much as we were.

 

A few moments later, the barge that we had missed on the other side of the river made its way towards us. Two young men in bright orange costumes were performing an elegant dance.

The whole thing was a wonderful spectacle. The festival itself has an interesting story. Some websites describe it as a re-enactment of an Imperial boating party that happened on the Oi river in the Heian period, but an article on the Matsuri Times website remembers that there is a spiritual element to the festival as well. The soul of the 12th century scholar Kiyohara Yorinari is enshrined at Kurumazaki-jinja and every May is taken out in a mikoshi shrine to tour the neighbourhood. The mikoshi is transferred to a boat which then sits in the middle of the river, while the other boats travel around it, carrying the performers who pay their respects to the soul of Kiyohara Yorinori through song, poetry and dance. Mifune refers to the three main boats that feature in the festival (the Gozabune carrying the mikoshi, the dragon-prowed Ryutosen and the bird-prowed Gekisusen), but it also refers to the three performance arts of music, poetry and dance. I wish I had known this before we went, because I would have looked harder for the Gozabune. It must have been further up the river from where we were standing.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Arashiyama, making a return visit to the bamboo groves, and popping in to look at Tenryu-ji, of which more later.

I always enjoy visiting Arashiyama, but seeing the Mifune Matsuri made our 2015 visit even more special. One of the better festivals we’ve visited in the Kyoto area.

Kyoto’s Festival of the Ages/時代祭り

I meant to post about this earlier last month, in case anyone was planning to be in Kyoto for the annual Jidai Matsuri on 22 October. I had too much going on, though, so I’m blogging it now. Then I can’t forget to do it next year!

We were in Kyoto in October 2010, to celebrate my 40th birthday. As part of our trip, we decided to go to the fire festival at Kurama. Before we headed off to catch the train up into the mountains, though, we took a stroll along Karasuma Dori from our apartment so that we could see some of the Jidai Matsuri.

The parade starts at the Imperial Palace in the Gosho and makes its way through town to Heian Shrine. October 22 is the anniversary of the founding of Kyoto in 794. Around 2000 people take part in the parade, dressed in costume and grouped into various eras from Kyoto’s history. Each era is further separated into themes. The parade starts with the Meiji Restoration and works backwards to the Heian Era. It apparently takes the entire parade of people 1 hour to pass through a static spot along the route. I don’t know if this is true, because we were there for around 90 minutes and it was still going strong when we left. I think that we saw the end of the section depicting the Edo era, as there were a number of samurai and shogun in the parade, and part of the Muromachi period, as we definitely saw Oda Nobunaga.

We didn’t think we would be disciplined enough to get out of the apartment and to the Gosho to find a good vantage point to see the parade set off, though, so we decided to try to view the parade from the side of the road and watch as the costumed citizens of Kyoto strolled past in the sunshine, so that we would be close to Imadegawa Dori, to get to Demachiyanagi station for our trip to Kurama.

At first we were on the wrong side of the road, and had to take our chances taking photographs across the traffic. We saw men in court costume on horseback, followed by more men on foot, either in robes and straw hats like advisors, or carrying banners and tokens on long poles.

We also saw women dressed up in Heian Court costume. It was quite a warm day, and they must have felt very warm under all their layers of clothing, not to mention the wigs and the makeup. Some had to walk, while others were carried on palanquins. None of them smiled, so we couldn’t see whether they had also blackened their teeth in the style of the time.

 

My husband had bought me a woodblock print for our wedding anniversary that year, and the people in the parade made me think of that. Particularly the men carrying the tokens on poles.

Another thing we saw was a highly decorated wagon. It didn’t seem to be a mikoshi, so perhaps it was a wagon carrying rice.

After a short time trying to time the click of the shutter with the movement of the traffic, we realised that we could cross Karasuma Dori at Ebisugawa Dori. The view on the other side of the road was much better. On this side of the road, we mostly saw samurai and shoguns, fully armoured up on horseback and accompanied by foot soldiers with bows and arrows, rifles and swords.

There were a few fancy helmets on display, but these were my favourites (that’s Oda Nobunaga in the second picture below – he seemed too cheery to have made as many enemies as history tells us he had).

 

 

One of the attendants was a very cute little boy. Everybody wanted to take his photograph, and there was much cooing from the obaasan at the side of the road as he paused in front of us.

Lots of people were watching on this side of the road, mostly older people but also some school groups. Some of the men on foot in the parade were teasing the schoolgirls, who screamed and giggled to the delight of their tormentors! The main tormentors were the men in grey in the photograph below.

 

There was one young man carrying an ornate token on a pole, made up of lots of golden spheres. I captured the moment when a bus passed by on the other side of the road and he wistfully watched its progress. Perhaps his arms and legs had had enough already and he was wishing he could take the bus to Heian Shrine!

It was a fun thing to do, on our way to our evening of terror on Kurama mountain. I’d also like to see the Hollyhock festival, Aoi Matsuri, which is a quarter of the size. We meant to see it on our honeymoon, but it was on the day we had to leave the apartment for Tokyo, so we missed out. Maybe next time.

If you’re ever in Kyoto on 22 October, make time for the Jidai Matsuri.

Miyajima (宮島)

Oh, Miyajima! What can I say that hasn’t been said about this wonderful island before? All I can do is describe our visit in 2013, which will be a personal perspective on one of Japan’s three most scenic places (Nihon Sankei). The only one on the list that we haven’t yet seen is Matsushima.

But Miyajima…

We took a tram through Western Hiroshima to the Nishi Hiroshima JR station. Travelling through the streets away from the city made me want to hop off the tram and explore. There wasn’t time this trip, but it’s something I’d like to do if we go again.

From Nishi Hiroshima station we took a local train to Miyajimaguchi. I enjoyed seeing the changing landscape through the train window and looking at the different sized towns that we passed through. At Miyajimaguchi we took the underpass beneath the road to the JR Ferry. At the Ferry terminus is a statue of a Noh actor. As we would discover, Noh is regularly performed at the Itsukushimajinja shrine and the stage there is an important one. The statue was very imposing.

Unsure of what we would find to eat on the island, we popped into a 7&i before catching the ferry, to stock up on onigiri, peanuts and bottled water. I was served by an American who was surprised by my ability to read the kanji on the onigiri packets. He seemed very chilled out, working in a 7&i near Miyajima. I envied the life I imagined him having ever so slightly.

I’m not a fan of boats, but I coped okay with the ferry crossing. The boat was quite big and the sea was calm, so I even braved standing at the rail to take pictures of the scenery.

The famous torii seemed small from a distance, but still very pretty. The island itself also looked very beautiful and inviting as we approached. I was excited to see the shrine as we pulled into the harbour.

After we disembarked, we walked towards the covered shopping street, Omotesando, buying ice creams on the way. The island was busy, with school groups and other tourists, but strolling under the awnings out of the sun was fun. We spotted something that we wanted to buy as a gift for Russell’s mum but didn’t want to carry around with us all day, so I asked the shop keeper what time her store would be closing. She explained that it was the Toka-sai, or peach blossom festival, and most of the shops would be open late until 8 p.m., so we carried on wandering, passing Hello Kitty in a shrine and a giant wooden rice paddle.

 

We also passed a couple of shops where momiji were being made. Momiji are maple leaf shaped cakes filled with bean paste, custard, fruit, all sort of fillings. Larry, one of the volunteer directors at World Friendship Center where we were staying in Hiroshima, had told us about the machines that make the momiji being on display in the windows of the stores and how interesting it was to watch the process before buying one (or two, or three) of the tasty treats. He wasn’t wrong, either!

 

Of course, we bought some momiji – I had a green tea custard filled one and a peach purée filled one. They were both delicious.

From Omotesando, we joined the crowds making their way to Itsukushimajinja. As we passed through stone torii, we were overtaken by a bride and groom in a rickshaw, followed by their wedding guests. They all looked lovely, and we followed in their wake, making our way between deer who were being fed by school children towards the torii in the bay.

We took a lot of photographs of the vermilion torii in the sunshine.

 

It was hard to take a bad photograph, really. We moved on to the shrine and encountered the bride from the wedding party that had swished past us in the rickshaw, having her photograph taken. She looked beautiful. Her proud father told the interpreter with a group of Australian tourists that it would be okay if anybody wanted to have their photograph taken with his daughter. Nobody took him up on his offer, but plenty of people, including me, took the opportunity to snap a portrait of the beautiful bride.

I’ve posted before about Japanese weddings, so won’t go into the details of the traditions and what the hats mean here. Instead I’ll move on to another tradition – Noh theatre.

During Toka-sai, free performances of Noh plays are put on within the shrine. There is a special Noh stage which is part of the shrine precincts. A leaflet I picked up at the ferry terminus explained a lot about the Itsukushimajinja stage, which is designated as a National Treasure. It was constructed to maintain a link with its environment, in that the stage is separated from the audience by a virtual moat of white pebbles. At high tide, this virtual moat becomes a real one, as the water floods into the shrine grounds. We joined other spectators on the covered walkway to watch a couple of the performances. We didn’t have a clue what was going on, but it was very dramatic!

 

We wandered around the rest of the shrine for a while, taking more photographs, before heading back onto the island.

 

After exiting the shrine, we got some kitsune udon for our lunch at a nearby oyster restaurant. It was hot and spicy and delicious, just what we needed to restore ourselves from the heat outside.

We walked up through Momijidani Park to the Ropeway up Mount Misen. It was a lovely walk up through the trees, with the sun shining through the leaves and creating dappled shade on the ground. After we had been walking for a while, we came upon this sign, letting us know how much further it was to the the Ropeway station:

I didn’t much fancying running, even a little, it was so hot, so we carried on strolling, taking in the sights.

 

Eventually we reached the Ropeway Station. I have quite a fear of heights. I have been known to think I was going to fall off the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales while standing on the very broad flat plateau at the top, just because my brain knew I was very high up indeed. I feel like I’m falling when my husband is playing a game on the XBox that involves narrow ledges and long drops. So a Ropeway probably wasn’t the best idea. I wanted to go up the mountain, though, and my fitness levels weren’t up to the walk. I kept my eyes shut for most of the ride up the mountain, suspended 500m above the forest, and thought we had reached the summit when we disembarked, only to discover that we were changing cars to another section of the ropeway. Fortunately, we were packed into the second car with a lot of other people, so I weirdly felt more secure.

We made it to the top station, and looked across the misty view of the islands in the Inland Sea. Then we walked halfway to the summit, which was really difficult given the heat and our general lack of fitness. We made it to the Kiezu no Reikado Hall, though, and got to see the Eternal Flame where Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon sect in Buddhism, did his training. The flame in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima was lit from this flame.

We lit incense sticks at the Eternal Flame, then started to walk back down to Daisho-in Temple – a distance of almost 2km down the mountain through the forest. It was very up-and-downy, but mostly downy, which played havoc with my knees! We saw a couple of lizards and a snake, and heard lots of bird calls. Deer were dotted around, too, grazing or dozing. They seemed very docile, and not the menaces we had been warned about. We didn’t see any monkeys, though.

We passed many interesting sights, including bodhisattva statues, a massive gate that housed a pair of scary oni that both of us tried to out-oni, and a hidden collection of carved stones nestling under a rocky outcrop. The view across the bay as we descended was quite spectacular.

   

Our descent of the mountain had taken us quite a while, so by the time we reached Daisho-in it was closed, and all we could see was the roof of its Hondo across the treetops. Perhaps Daisho-in is our Chion-in on Miyajima?

We carried on walking back down towards Itsukushimajinja and paused to take more photographs of the torii as the sun was setting.

 

Then we headed back to Omotesando, where we returned to the shop to buy the gift for Russell’s mum, then we caught the ferry back to Miyajimaguchi. We took the train to Hiroshima station and ended our day with an Indian meal at a cosy little restaurant called Namaste in the ASSE building at the station.

Our Miyajima trip was on our last day in Hiroshima, and it was the perfect end to our four day sojourn.

Machiya Living/Maiko Spotting around Miyagawacho

こんにちは!戻ってきました。忙しかったです。すみません!

I’ve had a lot on my plate lately, with studying and work, so I haven’t had much time to update this blog. I do apologise! But now I’m back, and I have plenty to write about following the trip my husband and I took in April this year.

We stayed in another machiya, this time close to Higashiyama, just off Gojo-dori. It was a very quiet, residential neighbourhood. We had walked through it before, on our way to find the Hill of Ears (Mimizuka/耳塚) and Toyokuni Shrine (Toyokuni-jinja/豊国神社), so we knew that it was an area where older people live.

Silver Zone

I found the machiya on the Home Away site, as I had the house we stayed in last year. This one was called Ojizoya and is managed by the Windows to Japan company. The name comes from the fact that there is a small shrine to Ojizo in the alleyway.

From the website, it looked ideal – really convenient for Higashiyama, Ninenzaka, Sannenzaka, Kiyomizudera and Gion, and with good transport links. Booking was easy and the staff were helpful. We’d originally asked to rent another of their houses, but when they found out that we like to cook for ourselves while on holiday, they suggested this house as it has a full kitchen and is more suited to self-catering.

We flew to Kansai International via Amsterdam on KLM this time, and took the express train to Kyoto. We were early, so hung around Kyoto Station for a while, where we saw an impressive Lego model of the station.

 

Then we took a taxi to the machiya because our cases were heavy and we didn’t want the hassle of trying to lift them on and off a bus! I handed the taxi driver the map in Japanese provided by Windows to Japan and said in my best Japanese “この住所までおねがいします”. He made a performance of studying the map and then took us east of the station through quite heavy traffic, muttering and consulting the map as he drove. It was a very similar experience to taking a taxi in the UK!

We arrived safely, though, and the house was lovely. My husband had the usual trouble with the low doorways and I don’t think he was as enamoured of the house as I was as a result, but I thought it was charming.

 

Best of all, though, was that we were a short walk from one of the three hanamachi (花街) or Flower Towns of Kyoto, Miyagawa-cho (宮川町). Miyagawa-cho is a quieter area than Gion, not as packed with tourists, tucked away as it is beside the Kamo River. In our three previous visits to Japan, we had never seen a Maiko or a Geiko while walking around Gion. We had seen plenty of people dressed up as Maiko, but not the real deal. This visit, things were different.

On our first full day, we headed over to Higashiyama to see Kiyomizudera with the cherry blossoms out. On our way up Gojozaka (the pottery slope), I spied a couple of Maiko visiting a temple across the road from a shop we were in.

It was Kyo Odori time, with the Maiko of the different hanamachi performing a series of dances in their local theatres. Because we were only a stroll away from Miyagawa-cho, we decided that we would go to watch one of the Odori performances. First we needed to find the Miyagawa-cho Kaburenjo theatre, so we took a walk through the area, heading south from Shijo-dori.

First we passed a really old looking wooden building, and then we found a shrine dedicated to Ebisu, the god of fishermen.

 

It was a peaceful shrine, with a display of bonsai trees as well. Local residents came in and out to make their prayers, and the atmosphere was very tranquil. Until the sound of drumming reached our ears, coming from the Kaburenjo theatre. Then we heard Japanese flutes and voices singing, so we knew we were close. We headed around the block, passing a curious street corner and a sign warning against allowing your pets to foul the street (oddly it shows cats being instructed by a dog – a bit like former smokers taking the moral high ground with those who continue to smoke, perhaps…?)

 

We turned the corner again, walked down a short alley that was home to a rabbit café and an Okiya with a lantern bearing the symbol of Miyagawa-cho, and then emerged close to the theatre.

 

It was the end of the final performance of the day, and when I made my way against the flow of departing guests to ask the staff how to buy tickets, I was given literature and shown where the booking office was at the foot of the steps. I needed to return the next day to buy tickets there. As I walked back down the steps to my waiting husband, a couple of Maiko who had been performing in the Odori arrived outside their Okiya with their House Mother. One of them was introduced to some acquaintances of the House Mother, so I had the chance to quickly take some photographs of them. They were beautiful.

 

 

From putting these pictures up on Flickr I discovered that these were Maiko Korin (小凛) in peach and Maiko Miena (美恵菜) in yellow.

We returned to watch the Kyo Odori a couple of days later. It was amazing. We paid for the tea ceremony as well, and joined a queue of people who slowly made their way into a room on an upper floor of the theatre. We were seated towards the front of the room on a bench with a low table in front of us, along with another couple, and had the perfect view of the two Maiko who were responsible for making the matcha tea and distributing it to honoured guests along with the accompanying mochi. Those of us who weren’t honoured guests were served by older Geisha. The tea was deliciously bitter and the mochi very light. When we had finished, a Geisha came back to our table and carefully wrapped our plates in paper, then handed them to us as a souvenir. When I looked at the plates later, they have Kyo Odori painted on the underside.

After the performance, we took photographs of each other on the steps. Here is my husband, with a small crowd of other departing guests:

 

We went out for a meal afterwards, and walked home past the theatre again in the dark, taking photographs of the lanterns outside the tea houses.

Our luck was in again as we went past the theatre – two Maiko emerged from an Okiya and headed off to work. My “sumimasen” fell on deaf ears. They moved away from me incredibly quickly on those high geta, but I managed to get a photograph that wasn’t too blurred!

 

On our last day in Kyoto we took another walk around Miyagawa-cho and found a tiny torii gate resting against the fence of another wooden building.

 

It’s details like this that I love about Japan. I also love things like the next photo…

 

Maiko Betty Boo tucked away above the rarified calm of Miyagawa-cho!

Once again, we were lucky enough to encounter more Maiko going about their business. One in particular impressed me with her haughty demeanour and ability to really move atop her geta, the likes of which I have never seen before, in terms of height!

Maiko Koyoshi (小よし)

 

Maiko Fukucho (ふく兆)

And then, just as we were leaving, having seen a Maiko get into a taxi but not drive off, this young lady came rushing up, all smiles and apologies for keeping her sister waiting.

Maiko Fukumari (ふく真莉)

I feel very privileged to have seen these young women going about their daily business. I hope I wasn’t too intrusive in taking photographs of them. I’m sure they know that they are a big draw for tourists in Kyoto, but I was conscious of the fact that they are people, too. They have chosen to enter into a traditional career and have duties and obligations as part of their work, so I can understand that it might be frustrating for them to be stopped or photographed every time they step out of the Okiya to go to work. A tricky line to walk, I’d imagine. The women I saw on this holiday were nothing but gracious, though. As is to be expected!

I loved staying where we stayed this year and can wholeheartedly recommend it for being convenient for the tourist spots, while still being far enough away to feel that you’re really coming ‘home’ after a day’s sight-seeing.