Posts Tagged ‘museums’

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.


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.

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!

Aomori City (青森市)

Each of our previous visits to Japan have focused on the stretch of Honshu that runs between Hiroshima and Tokyo. We have stayed in Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Kamakura, Kawaguchiko and Tokyo. We have visited Miyajima, Uji, Nara, Iga Ueno, Enoshima and various areas of Tokyo. This year we decided to do something different. We decided to head north. We chose the northernmost city on Honshu, Aomori.

My husband has a friend at work who is Japanese. He is from Tokyo, but his father is from Hokkaido and some of his family live in Akita. When we told him that we were going to Aomori he laughed. Then he asked why.

While we were in Tokyo, in the week before we took the train to Aomori, whenever we told people that we were going to Aomori from Tokyo they, too, laughed and asked us why.

Why not? For me, the choice was easy. Aomori is an area with a rich history. It is an area where there are Jomon era archaeological sites, where the influence of the Ainu people is still apparent. It is also the place that the best apples in the world are grown.

We stayed at the Richmond Hotel Aomori, which is a recently built business hotel a 15 minute walk from the train station. Its appeal was the presence of a bakery and a Lawson on the ground floor – information about vegetarian food in the city was sparse, and at least with access to bread products and a conbini we knew we’d be able to get something to eat. I can recommend this hotel wholeheartedly. The staff are helpful and friendly, the room was spacious and comfortable, and both the bakery and the Lawson came in very handy for us! On our way home via Narita airport, we stayed at the Narita Hilton and I really wished that we’d booked into the Narita branch of the Richmond Hotel instead, we had such a good time in Aomori.

We arrived late afternoon, after a very smooth journey on the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Shin Aomori. It was a very short hop on a local train from Shin Aomori to Aomori itself. So short that we had no sooner adjusted the seats to accommodate our luggage than the train was pulling into the station!

We’d bookmarked a couple of Indian restaurants that we’d found on Trip Advisor, but when we went out into the town to find them, they weren’t there. One of them, Akbar’s, was supposed to be just around the corner from the hotel. We found the building, but it was no longer Akbar’s and was very firmly closed. We wandered up and down Shinmachi Dori, the main shopping street, but drew a blank there. Understandably, Aomori being a port city, almost every restaurant was a fish restaurant. This restaurant/cocktail bar on the station approach kind of sums up Aomori’s food options.

We tried one place, Uotami, that seemed to offer a range of tapas style snacks on the laminated menu outside on the street, but stepping inside was such a surreal experience that we didn’t stay. Now I’ve found its website, I know it was an izakaya, not a restaurant, and we were bumbling fools.

It was dark when we went in. As we stepped through the automatic doors, a recorded voice repeatedly and loudly chanted “Arigatou gozaimashita”, as though we were leaving. We stood for a while, thinking that someone might come to greet us. “Arigatou gozaimashita” the voice chanted. Then suddenly it changed to “Irasshaimase”, which at least was a greeting of sorts. There were lots of lockers lining one wall, but it wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do. Just as we were thinking we would leave, a bored looking young woman appeared. She said something, but I couldn’t hear her over the squawking electronic cries of “Irasshaimase”, so I moved closer and said “Sumimasen. Sukoshi Nihongo o hanasemasu.” She repeated what she had said. I still didn’t understand, so tried, “Sumimasen, yukkuri hanashite kudasai.” She looked annoyed and muttered something while shrugging, so I said, “Wakarimasen, sumimasen,” and we left. She didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. I wish I had known it was an izakaya and that I had read this description of what to do in an izakaya before we got there. The surrealness would have made sense!

We went to a nearby Daily Yamazaki and bought make-your-own zaru soba, onigiri, egg sandwiches and beer. I also had a packet of aubergine miso soup that my husband had bought for me at Chabara in Akihabara. That was our first meal in Aomori!


The next day we went into the city to explore and see if we could pinpoint places that we could eat. It’s an odd city. I don’t think it helped that we arrived at the tail end of Golden Week and a lot of places were closed for an extended holiday. We wandered around the back streets and stumbled upon the Uto-jinja shrine. This was a pretty spot, with some late cherry blossom and a lily pond. It felt very tranquil. There was a man feeding the fish and the birds at the lily pond.




After this peaceful introduction to the city, we headed to the ASPAM building, where we picked up a tourist map, watched a koto performance, and bought a few souvenirs. The building is A shaped and very striking. Outside is a postbox with something that seems to be a feature of Aomori prefecture – a statue on the top of a local attraction.


As well as being famous for its apples, Aomori prefecture is known for its kokeshi dolls. In one of the ASPAM shops there was a display of kokeshi that weren’t for sale. They represented the staff who worked at ASPAM. Cute!

I love kokeshi dolls, so bought a couple to add to my small collection.

Once again, food was hard to find so we headed out for the A-Factory. This is a lovely space that opened in 2010 and aims to showcase the best in the prefecture’s produce, from food to crafts. It’s very light and airy, and we had a good look around, buying some beautiful wooden items carved from apple wood.

I’d read online that the food court included vegetarian options, but all we could find was a place to sample different apple-based alcoholic drinks, an egg tart shop, an ice cream shop, a handmade crisps shop and the cafe which only served fish or meat. Perhaps we were unlucky. Perhaps the internet sometimes lies.

We left and walked towards the station where we found an udon bar. Kitsune udon is our fallback option. Because it’s not obviously fishy, we push to the back of our minds that the broth is likely to be fish based. It’s a compromise we’ve had to come to terms with when travelling around Japan, because otherwise we’d struggle to eat healthily at times. I liked this particular udon bar. The staff were very efficient, and you could watch them prepare the udon noodles to order, dropping them by the basketful into the scalding water while someone else prepared the bowl of broth. They tasted good, as well.

After we’d filled our bellies with udon, we headed back towards the shopping area of the city. We went to Auga first, a department store that stylistically is stuck in the 1980s, but that contains a surprising array of funky shops. There were clothes shops, a branch of Village Vanguard and a lovely little shop specialising in antiques and quirky stationery. I could have spent a fortune in there, but managed to restrain myself.


We decided to scope out the Fresh Food Market, which Trip Advisor suggested was in the basement of Auga. According to what I’d read, you could buy a bowl of rice and a book of tickets and then wander among the stalls in the market using your tickets to buy food samples to put on top of your bowl of rice. We thought there was a chance we’d be able to find pickled vegetables and maybe some tamagoyaki. Down in the basement of Auga, though, the market seemed to be predominantly fish and we couldn’t find anywhere to buy a bowl of rice or a book of tickets.

We headed back out to the street and wandered around looking for another Indian restaurant I’d read about online, Ganesh. The Wiki Travel directions were vague in the extreme and of course we couldn’t find it! We did see some interesting buildings and a gang of cats, though.


As we were wandering, looking at the map and trying to locate NikoNiko Dori which our tourist map said was the location for the Fresh Food Market, a woman stopped to ask if we needed any help. I explained that we were trying to find the Fresh Food Market and she pointed us towards an anonymous looking low level building that reminded me of the covered market in my home town. We thanked her for her help and, as we walked up the street towards it, we also spotted an Indian restaurant called Taji’s. Success at last on the food front!


We ended up eating at Taji’s twice during our stay in Aomori. The food is amazingly good there, and amazingly cheap. I think we tried all of the vegetarian options on the menu. The restaurant is run by a young couple. The woman speaks Bengali and Japanese, while the man speaks Bengali and English. I tried to add it to Trip Advisor, but the site told me that its location doesn’t exist. If you’re in Aomori and want some tasty Indian food, it’s in the Maruyama building at 12-11 Shinmachi Itchome. The Japanese address is 030-0801 青森市新町一丁目12-11丸山ビル.

On our second day in Aomori we visited the Aomori Prefectural Folk Art Museum, which was a 10 minute walk from our hotel, tucked away in the back streets of the city. The building is very attractive, and the exhibits interesting and well put together. We ran out of time to visit the Jomon archaeological site, but the displays of Jomon pottery and the explanation of the Jomon era culture at this museum were plenty good enough. The collection includes some Prefectural Treasures, historically and culturally significant items like the pottery head below and a number of different Goggle figurines and earthenware jars.



The upstairs galleries take the visitor through the whole history of Aomori Prefecture, from prehistoric times to the mid 20th century. I found the displays about the Ainu very interesting, seeing reproductions of their housing and displays of Ainu art and textiles. There were a lot of documents and maps used in the displays which, as an archivist, I really enjoyed seeing.

There was a special exhibition of Japanese toys through the ages downstairs. It reminded me of the collection at the toy museum we visited in Kawaguchiko. We spent as long in this gallery as we did in the historic galleries upstairs!


Entry to the Prefectural Museum costs 310円 and we received an A4 sheet in English explaining briefly the main exhibitions. There was also a fun trail for children to follow where you could collect a stamp in each of the exhibition zones. Of course, this 40+ child followed the trail, and had a go on most of the interactives while I was at it!

We also visited Nebuta House Wa-Rasse, the museum that celebrates and documents the history of the annual Nebuta Festival in Aomori. The building is stunning, and only opened in 2011.


Inside, once you’ve paid your 600円 entry fee to access the Nebuta Hall, you experience an immersive trip through the history of the festival. You can even have a go at designing your own Nebuta face, which then displays on a mask above the screen.

In the main hall visitors can take an up close look at five of the floats that have appeared in the most recent festival and have their photograph taken alongside their favourite. There are sections of lanterns dotted around that you can touch, and areas where people are working on lantern sections, applying the papier mache layers and painting the designs onto the paper. Guides work the floor and take time to talk to visitors. The woman who spoke to us was thrilled that we had travelled so far. The people of Aomori are very proud of their festival and she seemed genuinely touched that foreign tourists were interested in its history.



After our visit to Wa-Rasse, we headed for the Fresh Food Market, which was one of the foodie highlights of the trip. If you’re in the city, you should definitely do it. It’s incredibly good value and an opportunity to talk to local people. We had an entertaining interaction with an obaachan (おばあちゃん) who took quite a shine to me. I wish I had taken her photograph.

But the food. The way the system works is, you find a stall with a brown Don (丼) symbol and buy yourself a book of tickets. We got books of six tickets for 540円. Two tickets bought a bowl of rice, which left four tickets to use for toppings. To find your toppings you walk up and down the stalls, looking for the blue Don symbol. Most of the stalls have fresh fish, either served raw as sashimi or grilled. Some of the stalls have pickled vegetables, tamagoyaki and stewed vegetables. We did very well, finding a burdock, bean, noodle & tofu mix as well as varieties of pickles and omelette. My obaachan encounter involved the selection of pickles. She wanted to feed me samples to help me choose. I kept trying to take the chopsticks off her, but she snatched them away each time, cackling her head off, until I gave in and let her put the food into my mouth for me. Hilarious. I could have brought her home with me!

Once you have your toppings, you can sit at a picnic table and help yourself to soy sauce, wasabi and free green tea.

Our next tourist stop was the Aomori Forestry Museum. This looked as though it might be an interesting experience. I got the impression that it would explore the history and management of forestation in the prefecture. We decided to walk, following our route on Google maps. This wasn’t a problem, except it started to rain heavily and we were soaked by the time we reached the museum. That I didn’t take a single photograph while we were there perhaps says something about how disappointing it was.

The building is early 20th century and could be beautiful if it were better maintained. When we went in, the staff in the office seemed surprised to have visitors. The man who sold us our tickets (only 240円) asked, in Japanese, how good our Japanese was. When I said that I spoke a little, he laughed and wished us luck.

As we went round, it became clear why. There was no English at all and the interpretation text was very detailed and technical. There were interactives that looked as though they’d been built in the 1970s, and some of the exhibition rooms were unlit. We followed the route set out in the leaflet. The first room was about how trees get energy to grow and how they reproduce. The next room was full of examples of what wood could be used for. The third room was about a local skier with some examples of his medals and quite a few sets of his skis. The fourth room was an exhibition of photographs of wild flowers through the seasons, while the fifth contained examples of wooden furniture. Room six was some kind of office, which I’m sure must have had some significance, but we couldn’t work out what it was. The seventh room was in near darkness and didn’t make any kind of sense. There was some kind of broken interactive and some other wooden structures. The last room was full of wooden toys, kitchen appliances (not wood), utensils (some wood, some not), clocks and cameras (not wood). On one of the sets of stairs we took there was an inexplicable bearskin with a rifle. There was also a room with Jomon era pottery and a Jomon era house made out of cardboard. Very, very strange.

On reflection, I wouldn’t recommend it. Even if you are fluent in Japanese, I don’t think there’s much to be gained from going there. I can’t imagine that visitors learn very much about forestry.

On a cheerier note, we did experience some of the Aomori nightlife. We also found an excellent Italian restaurant just up the street from the hotel, called Capricciosa. Here we had delicious veggie pasta on two different nights, apart from the night when I didn’t read the menu properly, ordered the aubergine spaghetti and didn’t realise that the aubergine came in a bolognaise sauce. I spent most of the meal trying to pick around the minced beef. (Moral: always read the menu properly!)

On our way back from Capricciosa to the hotel one night, we passed an intriguing sign.

How could we resist? We went up the narrow stairs and entered a low-lit emporium which had the promised dart board and a proprietor who looked like a Japanese Johnny Depp. He showed us to a table, then fiddled with his iPhone, speaking into it in Japanese. Siri must have translated, because he looked up and said in very correct English, “How may I help you?”

We ordered our cocktails. My Black Russian was pleasingly potent. Our cocktails came with bar snacks. There was a pleasant buzz, aided by the jazz playing in the background. We ordered a couple more.


Afterwards, we staggered back to the hotel. I’m sure we passed Mickey Mouse dressed in a Santa Suit on the way. He seemed to need the bathroom, from the way he was holding his knees together. We didn’t make eye contact. It was for the best. When we got to the hotel and looked back along the street, he had disappeared. Odd.

After initial doubts because of the struggle to find food on our first evening there, I really enjoyed our stay in Aomori. I would definitely go back again. There are plenty of places that we didn’t manage to see. I might be tempted to hire a car next time, as using public transport was difficult at times. We did side trips to Hirosaki and to see the Showa Daibutsu at Seiryou-ji, and we also popped up the coast to Asamushi Onsen, all of which I’ll cover in separate posts.

Going north presented a very different aspect to Japan. It’s perhaps not for everyone, but if you are interested in a country beyond what its major cities have on offer, why wouldn’t you explore as much of it as you can?

Miraikan (未来館)

Miraikan, or the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (日本科学未来館) is my new favourite Japanese museum. I work at a science and industry museum which tries to make Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths (STEM) subjects attractive, so I was curious to see how Japan, as a tech country, presents the latest in scientific research. I was blown away by how good it was at Miraikan. So much so that I happily agreed to give a short presentation on my visit to an all staff meeting at work!

Miraikan is located on Odaiba, the artificial group of islands in Tokyo Bay accessed across the Rainbow Bridge. We caught the Yurikamome from Shinbashi, which was very busy because we went on the Sunday during this year’s Golden Week, getting off at Fune no Kagakukan and walking the short distance to Miraikan.

The ticket office is outside the main building, in its own little row of booths. We bought our tickets that gave us access to the main exhibits but not to any special exhibits, and then we joined the throngs of families.

I think this is what excited me most about the place – the sheer number of families that were there, and the way they were completely involved in the exhibits. The first zone we went to was Tsunagari, where current research into our own environment on Earth is presented interactively. It was rammed, but more importantly everything worked.



In this zone, GEO-COSMOS (the big globe) is used to demonstrate what is going on with the Earth’s climate based on data from research scientists and the public, and GEO-SCOPE (the banks of interactive screens) is used to deliver additional research content on different aspects of the environment, such as bee migration, movement of tectonic plates and the effects of deforestation. Other interactives are used to gather data, such as the interactive where you could have a picture of your face taken and compared with the faces of other visitors to the museum.

Around the same area are more traditional displays with interpretation panels that begin with a question, what is this?, and move through an explanation to a panel giving examples of research carried out in the area under discussion and a quote from an expert in the field.

Miraikan interpretation

Milling around the exhibition floor are volunteer staff who spend time with visitors, often on a one-to-one basis, to explain the exhibits in more detail. Some of these volunteers are young people who want to break into the world of science interpretation. A volunteer position can lead to an internship which in turn can lead to employment within the science world, often through links with businesses and organisations who are Miraikan’s partners. It’s a very forward thinking way of doing things.

One of the volunteer science communicators at Miraikan is ASIMO. ASIMO does demonstrations twice a day, and we were lucky enough to get there in time to see his afternoon slot.

The show was entirely in Japanese but is aimed at children so if you have a decent grasp of the language, say to GCSE level, you stand a good chance of understanding what’s going on. The show that we saw looked at how robots can make life easier for humans, and how they help us around the house. ASIMO demonstrated his footballing skills with the help of one boy from the audience, and then led the rest of us in a Tai Chi session. ASIMO and the other robots on display in the museum is the result of research partnerships with universities and businesses, which is what Miraikan is all about – facilitating research for practical purposes and disseminating the results to the public.

ASIMO is part of the Create Your Future zone on the third floor. Here we also saw a working model of the internet, which used coloured balls to demonstrate the way binary messages are sent across the web. The model was demonstrated by one of the science communicators and again was surrounded by people while the demonstration was going on.


The other thing that interested me was the level of information that was being presented in the exhibits. There was some really high level stuff that in the UK wouldn’t get into the final interpretation because it would be seen as being too difficult to explain. I think that this is part of the problem we have with attracting people to take up science – it’s not just the way it is presented in schools, it’s the way public institutions strip away how relevant science and maths is to everyday life, dumbing down interpretation and so removing the challenge and excitement of the different science subjects. One of the exhibits we saw at Miraikan was about mathematical modelling, and how maths can be used to help us to understand and manage the climate, and to discover new chemical compounds to help fight disease. The zone was presented as a superhero challenge that visitors were encouraged to help out with. It was brilliant. Too busy for me to take many photos, but these are shots of the introductory panels.



Continuing the research theme, on the same floor as the Create Your Future zone are two research laboratories where children can learn different skills. On the day we were there, there was a session on how to make a robot. You have to book in advance, and there were a couple of disappointed children who wanted to take part but whose parents hadn’t made a booking.


On the fifth floor is the Explore The Frontiers zone, where our whole environment, from the biology of our bodies to the geology of our planet and the physics of the universe are explored. There was a lot going on in this zone. I had a look at the section on how scientists are learning about how the planet’s tectonic plates interact and beginning to be able to predict when an earthquake might strike. For Japan, this is very significant research and the display was very interesting.

A busy exhibit was the International Space Station capsule, for which a queue snaked along the side. The people waiting were assisted by volunteers who had put together a display of information for visitors to look at as they awaited their turn inside the capsule. THe volunteers also walked along the queue answering questions.

At the end of our visit, we went to the shop which was stocked with all sorts of science kits, very well integrated with what was on display in the exhibits.

Outside the shop is an area where visitors can relax beneath the GEO-COSMOS globe.

I am completely in love with Miraikan. I admire the Japanese government’s determination to take science seriously, to support an initiative like this and make it easy for universities and companies to work together to ensure that Japan’s economy benefits from the technological advances made in the research world. I wish that the government in the UK took STEM as seriously, instead of paying lip service to it as they have in the recent past.

I’d encourage anyone with even the vaguest interest in science, or even no interest in STEM subjects at all, to visit Miraikan. Those of you already engaged with science will be rewarded by the experience, and those of you without any interest might be pleasantly surprised at how accessible science can be.

Our Second Visit to Hiroshima (広島)

Last year we realised our wish to stay in Hiroshima for a few days, inspired by our day trip during our honeymoon. As I mentioned in my post about meeting a Hibakusha, we stayed at the World Friendship Center, west of the city centre, in a quiet residential area.

The Center is lovely, tucked away down a side street, next to the Tenmagawa river. Our room was simple, with two futon laid out on the floor and a small balcony. We were in the main building, where there was a lounge area for guests to read books about the effects of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima, or sit and chat with the volunteer Directors, Larry and Jo-Ann, or each other. After we had arrived and unpacked, we were invited by Larry to add a push pin to the map on the wall, to show where we had travelled from. The map was very full of pins and it was hard to squeeze ours on there. Larry talked about possibly getting another map, or a series of maps.

Breakfast is provided, but no other meals. Both Jo-Ann and Larry were very helpful in recommending places for us to eat. Larry had a passion for local delicacy okonomiyaki and recommended the bar on the corner up the street from the center as being vegetarian friendly.

We had most of the afternoon still ahead of us when we arrived, and Larry loaned us the Center’s copy of the guide book used by the organisation’s volunteer guides so that we could do a self-guided tour around the Peace Memorial Park. We had visited the park on our visit in 2009, but having the guide book made such a difference. The book provided lots of background information, and I wish that I’d been able to buy a copy.

As well as seeing familiar monuments such as the Memorial Cenotaph, where a register of names of everyone who has died as a result of the A-Bomb is kept, with new names added every year, the Peace Flame that will burn until all nuclear weapons have been destroyed, and the Children’s Memorial to Sadako Sasaki, we also found monuments that we had missed before.

Peace Flame

Memorial Cenotaph

Children’s Memorial

The most interesting one for me was the memorial to the children who had been mobilised to do war work, because there were not enough adults, and had been killed by the bomb while working. We hadn’t met Komeyoshi Kiyoko-san yet, but she was a mobilised student who survived. It was sobering to think that Japanese people’s loyalty to the Emperor and the cause of war was so strong that even their children played a direct part in the war effort. Another reminder of how Japanese culture and society differs from my own.


Hiroshima presents itself as a city of peace, and understandably you can’t avoid the reminders of the effects of the atomic bomb on the city. While we were out shopping the next day, we came upon the Hiroshima branch of the Bank of Japan. Its exterior had survived the bomb blast because of the thickness of its stone walls, but the heat from the blast destroyed its mainly wood interior and killed everyone who was inside the building. The exterior looks completely unscathed. I found it quite surreal, especially when I read on the information panel that only a few days after the bomb was dropped, the residents of the city set up a temporary banking facility inside the building so that life could continue as normally as possible.


I enjoyed shopping in the city. It feels more laid back than Tokyo, and funkier than Kyoto. It has its own style, and the residents are very friendly. We were looking for a new vegan café, Shanti, on one of our shopping trips, trying to make sense of yet another Japanese map that skimps on street names and sense of scale, when an older lady walking past stopped to ask if we needed help. I pointed to the name of the café on the map, and she said that we were on the right street. All three of us looked up and down the street, trying to spot the café. Eventually, she took the map from me, dashed into a nearby shop and returned with directions. We thanked her and she went on her way. Unfortunately for us, we still couldn’t find the café! Luck, or kindness, was on our side, though, because the shop assistant that the lady had asked was watching from the doorway and saw us walk past the entrance to the café. He ran out, calling to us and pointing at the doorway. I am often grateful for small kindnesses when we are travelling in Japan!

The food in Shanti was delicious. I had the deli set, which was two omusubi (おむすび) rice balls, soup, salad, three dishes from the deli counter and a drink, all for 1000円. I chose the tofu hamburg steak, the bean salad and the veggies in miso, with hibiscus tea. It felt so good to be eating so much veg! And all of the produce used in the café is locally grown. Highly recommended, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or a meat eater.


A new place we visited on this trip was Shukkeien Garden. We went there after we had listened to Kiyoko-san’s story, and it was lovely to be somewhere so tranquil. The garden is beautiful. Originally built in the 1600s, it was destroyed by the atomic bomb. Its importance to the people of Hiroshima, though, led to the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education restoring it to its original form in 1951. It is designed as a stroll garden, and the features represent natural forms and scenic views in miniature. We had an hour before it was due to close for the day, and I could have spent a lot longer strolling around, sitting and contemplating the views.


Someone was having their wedding photographs taken while we were strolling round, as well – what a perfect location!


This visit we also went to the Peace Memorial Museum. I found this a very moving experience. The ground floor of the entrance building sets the context of the war and explains the lead up to Japan’s involvement, and the decisions made by the Allied powers in deciding where to drop the first atomic bombs. It was quite chilling to read the matter of fact logic behind the choices of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It doesn’t shy away from Japan’s actions in the war, and doesn’t take a nationalistic, Japanese position. The first floor explores the development of nuclear weapons and their effects. I found the way information was delivered very factual and balanced, almost impersonal, in the entrance building. The main building was something else, though, something very important. It consists of a long room full of the personal possessions of people killed by the bomb, either directly or a couple of days or even years later. These possessions are interspersed with pieces of buildings damaged by the blast, melted household goods, charred lunch boxes and, finally, a display of some of the paper cranes folded by Sadako Sasaki along with some of her belongings.


As you exit the final room, you emerge onto a long corridor that overlooks the Peace Memorial Park. There are benches where you can sit and reflect on what you’ve just seen, so we did. I found the last section of the museum quite hard. It made me sad for the people who had been killed or had lost loved ones, and angry that people don’t really understand how personal nuclear weapons are. One thing that really made me angry, though, was the attitude of some of the other visitors to the museum. At one point, a man called back to others in his party to come and look at some of the human remains that are on display, so that they could laugh at how gruesome they were. It disgusted me that someone could be so unaffected by what was around them, and could behave so childishly.

A happier experience was Organza, a café recommended to me by my friend Chloe. She had described it as crackers, and she wasn’t wrong. It’s part music venue, part café run by someone at the heart of Hiroshima’s underground music scene, and it is utterly bonkers. There are odd things all over the place. We had a sort of afternoon tea in a booth underneath a balcony that felt like we were in a captain’s cabin on an old ship. Around us were curiosities such as a stuffed owl, a stag’s head and an angel, and strange paintings of fish drinking wine.


If you’re in Hiroshima and fancy somewhere a bit off the wall, where you’ll hear good music and maybe catch a local band, then Organza could be the place for you.

Of course, no trip to Hiroshima is complete without a boat ride across the bay to Miyajima, but I’m saving that for another post. I’m ending my whirlwind tour of Hiroshima here. We were there for four days and we certainly packed a lot in. There are still areas that I would like to explore, out to the west of the city and further up the coast, but four days felt about right for Hiroshima itself.

Kawaguchiko (河口湖) and Mount Fuji (富士山)

On our second trip to Japan in the autumn of 2010, we took a day trip from Tokyo (東京) to Kawaguchiko (河口湖) in the hope of seeing Mount Fuji (富士山).

We arrived on a wet and windy day, nowhere near early enough to see Fuji before the clouds had rolled in!

It being autumn (秋), there were plenty of trees with colourful leaves, but there wasn’t much going on attraction-wise. We used the Tourist Information Office at the station to arm ourselves with leaflets and guides to the area, and bought a one day pass for the Kawaguchiko Area Retro Bus, which travels along the eastern shore of Lake Kawaguchiko.

The end stop for the bus is the Kawaguchiko Natural Living Centre, which has one of the best viewing spots for seeing Fuji. When we arrived, the centre was closed, it was freezing cold in the wind blowing across the lake and there was absolutely no sign of Fuji at all.

Going off the sign in the picture above, Fuji should have been looming above the small island in the middle of the lake. There wasn’t even an outline of the biggest mountain in Japan – it was as though it didn’t exist!

We made the best of a bad job, and enjoyed the autumn leaves on the trees and as much of Kawaguchiko as was available to us!


We had time to visit the Herb Hall before the weather got the better of us and we decided to cut our losses and head back to Tokyo.

Our almost disastrous visit 18 months ago didn’t put us off, though. For our most recent trip, a month or so ago, we decided that we were going to stay somewhere where we would be able to see Fuji by getting up early. We looked into staying in Hakone, but our budget didn’t allow for the hotel prices in this popular resort, so we decided to go back to Kawaguchiko.

You reach Kawaguchiko by taking the JR Chuo line from Shinjuku station (新宿駅) to Otsuki (大月) and then transferring to the Fujikyu Railway for the trip up to Kawaguchiko. The train journey is beautiful, because you climb up into the mountains and see spectacular scenery. On our trip this time, we even got to see Fuji from the train, very faintly through the clouds. So the omens were good this time!

Fujikyu Railway is a private line, so if you are travelling in Japan using a JR Pass, your journey from Shinjuku is only covered until Otsuki. From Otsuki, you need to buy a ticket for the Fujikyu line (1,100円) plus an additional ticket for the special train that gives you panoramic views (and lots of leg/luggage room, if you’re travelling up there to stay a few days!).

We stayed at the Kawaguchiko Station Inn, which is just across the road from the station and we quickly discovered that it has a spectacular view of Fuji from right outside the front door.

The views from the roof of the hotel were even better!


Kawaguchiko Station Inn is a family run hotel with tatami rooms with futon, shared bathrooms, hot baths on the roof, internet access and a restaurant. Great value for money, and the staff are really helpful and friendly, offering advice on places to go. Ideal for anyone travelling on a budget, like we were.

Having been spoiled already by the presence of Fuji wherever we looked, on our first full day in Kawaguchiko we took the Retro Bus again up to the Natural Living Centre. The day had started with a few clouds lying across the mountain tops, and we had taken a lot of photos of Fuji from outside the hotel, but were hoping for better ones up at the lake. By the time we got there, though, the storm clouds were rolling in and it was a rush to get some pictures of the mountain before it did its vanishing trick again!

Once the mists had covered the mountain, we looked for something else to do until the Retro Bus returned. The Natural Living Centre was open this time, and we had a wander round the shop and bought some souvenirs.

There were more museums and attractions open on this visit, and we made a day of visiting as many as we could – partly to keep out of the torrential rain that had started to fall!

Our first stop was the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Ukai Museum, which is home to a collection of automated music boxes and instruments from around the world. We arrived in time for a demonstration of a pipe organ that was used in a dance hall in France in the 18th century, before looking around the various halls across the site and attending another demonstration of pianolas, music boxes and an adapted grand piano.


It was a little expensive to visit, but there was plenty to see on a wet day, and the demonstration staff were clearly proud of the collection and more than willing to demonstrate different music boxes to us and explain how they worked.

Our next place was the wonderful tin toy museum known as “Happy Days“, built around the collection of Kitahara Teruhisa. This was one of the highlights of our visit. There are two floors of exhibits, arranged into themes. Kitahara-san is an advertising illustrator who has drawn on his collection of toys, magazines and fashion from across his lifetime for inspiration. The exhibition rooms are packed with displays of tin toys and memorabilia, along with examples of Kitahara-san’s advertising artwork, and at the end is the most amazing shop, selling modern tin toys and souvenirs. We took literally hundreds of photographs!



After a happy couple of hours at the tin toy museum, we made the mistake of not waiting for the Retro Bus and walking in the pouring rain to the Kawaguchiko Muse Museum. I have never been so wet in all my life – not even when I’ve been in the shower or the bath, I think!

The Kawaguchiko Muse Museum was worth the drenching, though. The museum is home to a permanent display of dolls made by Atae Yuki. The museum doesn’t permit visitors to take photographs, so you will have to take my word for how beautiful and life-like they are. As well as the galleries displaying the dolls, there is a short DVD film playing in one of the offices, which shows the process undertaken by Atae-san when he is making a doll.

At the end of the museum is a subsidiary gallery where the works of other artists are displayed in temporary exhibitions. When we visited, the work of Gustavo Isoe was on display. This was a real delight – neither of us had heard of Isoe-san, and we have found it difficult to find much information about him online. His art is very realistic, and his ability to recreate the light and shade that plays across different types of material is astounding.

We bought more souvenirs from the Muse Museum shop and had a delicious snack in the coffee shop, before heading out into the rain again to wait for the Retro Bus to take us back to Kawaguchiko station.

There isn’t much nightlife in Kawaguchiko – a few pubs and restaurants about covers it – and the Station Inn has an 11 p.m. curfew, so we spent the evening watching Japanese tv in our room and drying our clothes.

The next day we set off for Tokyo and Fujisan followed us down the mountain. On the train down to Otsuki, there was a teenage boy in the same carriage as us. He seemed fascinated by the number of photographs we were taking while the train paused at Fujisan Station. When I sat down again, he leaned over the back of his seat and said “Beautiful!”. I had to agree. 富士山はとてもうつくしいです。