Posts Tagged ‘shinto’

Kanda Myojin (神田明神)


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


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

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

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

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

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

There is an incredible statue of Ebisu at the shrine.


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

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

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




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

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


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

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

I would love to see it. Maybe one day!

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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



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


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


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




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

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

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

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



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

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


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


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

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

Kiyomizudera (清水寺)

Kiyomizudera (きよみずでら/清水寺) is a Buddhist temple in Eastern Kyoto. Those are the basic facts. Kiyomizudera is also a magnet for tourists because of its setting and the charm of seeing it at cherry blossom time or during the autumn colours season.

We first visited Kiyomizudera in late March 2012. We had been hoping for some early cherry blossom, but the winter had been so cold that the blossoms were late opening and the branches of the trees were mostly bare.

It was also pretty cold halfway up Otawayama. We enjoyed looking around the temple grounds, though. Our second visit, in April 2013, was warmer and we caught the tail end of that year’s cherry blossom.

As well as the main hall, shown in the two pictures above, there are plenty of other buildings to visit in the temple precincts. On our first visit, we approached Kiyomizudera via Matsubara-dori.

Matsubara-dori is a crowded shopping street lined with souvenir shops, pottery shops and food retailers. It can be quite a crush to make your way through the crowds, but at the top you emerge into a wide plaza in front of the Deva Gate.

This is a spot for photo opportunities, although with the number of people all trying to get their Kiyomizu Moment captured on camera, it’s hard to see how anyone can get a good selfie or portrait shot!

Up the steps past the Deva Gate are the ticket booths where you pay your entrance fee to the temple. It’s only 300円 to go in, which is a bargain for what’s on offer. On both our visits, the area in front of the ticket booths has been crowded with people who weren’t really queuing for tickets, making it seem as though there would be quite a wait for entry. A lot of the people are part of organised tours, waiting for their guides to sort out their tickets, so we have learned to just walk past them up to the ticket booths.

Through the ticket barrier, you pass the three storey pagoda.

This is currently wrapped up ready for renovation, as the whole temple site is in the process of being renovated in stages. The original temple was built in the 8th century, and rebuilt during the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo era. Most of these buildings have survived and are presumably in need of some TLC after 370 years. In 2012, the Okunoin Hall, the Amitabha or Amida Hall and the Gautama Buddha or Shaka Hall at the back of the site were all being renovated, and were still off limits the following year. In 2012, there were men working on the roof of the Okunoin Hall, apparently without safety harnesses. This wouldn’t happen in the UK!

The Main Hall is the main draw, though. The platform that juts out across the valley is supported by 12-metre long zelkova tree trunks and the floor of the platform is made from cypress boards. The Main Hall and its platform were famously constructed without the use of any nails – quite something!

People lean out from the balcony to get a better look at the view across the city of Kyoto. I’m scared of heights, so I didn’t lean at all, preferring to stay safely behind the sturdy wooden barrier!



Looking down from the platform, you can often see other visitors taking pictures of each other. In April, our visit coincided with graduation from high school, and there were plenty of young ladies dressed up in kimono taking photographs of each other underneath the cherry trees.

Across the valley from the platform is another pagoda, the Koyasu Pagoda, which nestles among the thick forest of trees on the mountainside, its vermilion tower peeping above the canopy of leaves. It’s apparently the place to visit if you want an easy time giving birth.

Kiyomizudera is a working temple, and there are often people praying before the statue of Buddha in the main hall, although more often the view is obscured by other tourists!


Behind the Main Hall is a Shinto shrine, the Jishu Shrine.

Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the Japanese equivalent of Cupid. He is Okuninushi no Mikoto, who has quite a piquant story associated with him at this shrine. Okuninushi was travelling to Inaba province in order to woo a comely maiden. On his way, he encountered the Hare of Inaba. This hare had a habit of tricking people into giving it what it wanted, but every time it resorted to deception, it had to peel off its own skin (some legends say that it tricked a shark and it was the shark who peeled off the hare’s skin). Nice. Okuninushi was a kindly god, and healed the rabbit, and taught it less deceitful ways to get what it wanted. There’s a statue of the hare at the entrance to the shrine.


Okuninushi and the hare also feature on the ema plaques that people write their prayers on at this shrine.

The shrine is popular with young ladies looking for love, and with newly weds hoping to guarantee a long and happy marriage. In front of the main shrine building is a pair of stones set about 10 metres apart. Legend has it that if you can walk with your eyes closed in a straight line between the two stones, then your love will be realised. There were plenty of school girls giving it a go when we visited in 2012. We didn’t take our turn, because we are already married, but we did pay 1,000円 for a Good Marriage charm from the shrine.

Heading back towards the Main Hall, the path takes you past the shrouded Ontokuin Hall. This is apparently a smaller scale version of the Main Hall, with its own platform, but on neither of our visits could we enjoy its pleasures. Along with everyone else, we made our way along the pathway running alongside the hall, and paused to take photographs of each other with the Main Hall in the background.

Past the Ontokuin Hall lies the Otowa Waterfall, from which the temple gets its name. Kiyomizudera means Pure Water Temple. The purity of the water from the waterfall is celebrated by visitors who drink from one of the three streams falling in front of a small platform. Each stream has a different property, and you’re only supposed to drink from one during your visit. You may choose to benefit from success in exams, a good love life, or a long life.


Close to the Otowa Waterfall is a small restaurant that serves up noodle dishes. We’ve eaten there on both visits, and the food is really good. I’ve tried both the kitsune udon and the zaru soba.

At the end of the path that leads past the Otowa Waterfall is an area with other, smaller temple buildings, statues of Jizo nestling on the banks that flank the pathway, and a pond where turtles live.


The path leads round eventually to a plaza close to the Deva Gate, where there are sacred stones and cherry trees.

Kiyomizudera is a beautiful place to visit. It’s prettiest when the cherry blossom is out, or there are leaves on the maple trees. It is a very busy place to visit, though, so be prepared for others jostling you to take their turn at each photo opportunity along the way. Give yourself a couple of hours at least, and maybe combine it with a wander around Matsubara-dori, Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka, where you can pick up some really lovely pottery and other souvenirs of your visit. There are other shops and cafes on Chawanzaka, a narrow street that leads up to Kiyomizudera from the pottery area of Gojozaka. You can get to Chawanzaka from Kiyomizudera by walking down the steps to the left of the plaza in front of the Deva Gate, instead of heading down Matsubara-dori.

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?

Walking Teramachi

At the end of the 16th century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi reorganised Kyoto’s streets. During the earlier Heian era, there was a wide street in the east of the city, known as Higashikyogoku-oji. It was a place where the well-off lived. Hideyoshi, while remodelling the city, moved most of the temples east to this area and renamed the street Teramachi, which translates as Temple Town. When the area was revitalised as a shopping area in the Meiji period, two shopping streets were created with the eastern side of Teramachi becoming Shinkyogoku Dori between Sanjo Dori and Shijo Dori.

In October 2010, we decided to explore the Temple Town area of Kyoto, following a walk in Judith Clancy‘s book Exploring Kyoto. We took a subway train north from the station close to our apartment and got off at Kuramaguchi station. It’s a short walk east from the station along Kuramaguchi Dori  to the first temple on the walk, Kanga’an. Kanga’an means Restful Retreat and is built in a style similar to the architecture of Ming dynasty China. The small entrance gate is lovely, and peeping inside we saw a group of statues in a gravelled courtyard.

Kanga-an Teramachi dori

Further along the road was the next temple, one of those moved during Hideyoshi’s remodelling of Kyoto. We found this temple, Jozenji, to be a very restful place.

Jozenji main hall Jozenji tree

Jozenji stands at the top of Teramachi Dori. This was the beginning of our long walk.


We popped into Tenneiji to see the view of Mount Hiei.

Mt Hiei from Tenneiji


Also in the temple grounds is a small Inari shrine, illustrating the mix of Buddhism and Shinto in the lives of Japanese people.

Tenneiji Inari shrine

The next temple that we recognised from the walk in Judith Clancy’s book was Amidaiji. As promised in the book, it looked closed! There was a 7-Eleven across the street, so we popped in for some refreshment (plum onigiri – yum!) before continuing on our way.

I was taken by the architecture of Junenji, which looked a lot like the churches that were built in the UK during the late 50s and early 60s. I particularly like the circular main hall, with its splash of red door, and the very serene statue of Ojizo sitting in front.

Just after the next temple, opposite a sushi shop that looked very nice but that we didn’t risk, being vegetarians, we took a right turn along a long street that led to the huge temple complex of Shokokuji. We tried to go into the Hatto to see the ceiling painting of the dragon, but we couldn’t because the monks had their best robes on and were clearly in the middle of something important.

Shokokuji Hatto

Instead we wandered around the grounds, which used to contain forty six buildings, many of which were destroyed in fires shortly after the temple complex was completed. New buildings were added, but lots of these, too, were destroyed in the great Tenmei fire in 1788. Only a few buildings remain.

Shokokuji big hall

Shokokuji small hall

We headed back to the sushi restaurant on Teramachi Dori. We were hungry by this point, but still not hungry enough to eat fish, so we continued on our way. We made a detour along a covered shopping arcade, but this also was all about the fish. We couldn’t see anything resembling a cafe or udon bar.

Teramachi arcade

Our aching feet drove us down to the junction with Imadegawa Dori, past the stone post marking the north eastern corner of ancient Kyoto, further down Teramachi Dori. We weren’t really looking at the temples mentioned in the book by this point, because they were mainly closed to the public.

We were headed for Rozanji, which I wanted to see because I was reading The Tale of Genji. This temple is built on the site of Lady Murasaki’s father’s Kyoto residence and includes a roof tile from the house as well as a display of reproductions of the Genji chapter that Murasaki might have written at the house. When we got there, it was closed for building work. We hadn’t thought to check beforehand whether it would be open or not. We sat on a wall opposite the very closed doors and I had a little think about what we should do next. Disappointment and hunger are not happy bedfellows!

At the next available gateway, we turned into the Imperial Palace grounds. On our very first day in Kyoto, when our jet lag had rendered us incapable of rational thought, we had meandered around the grounds and eaten a fine bowl of kitsune udon at the visitor centre near the Palace. Our legs must have had some kind of muscle memory, because they marched us past teenagers playing softball, along gravel paths lined with trees in autumn foliage, back to the visitor centre.

Imperial Palace trees

After our steaming hot bowls of udon, we kind of abandoned the walk. We caught the subway south and made our way to Nishiki market to pick up ingredients for our evening meal. Maybe one day we’ll go back to Rozanji and pick up the walk again. There are lots of interesting places mentioned in the book that we haven’t really noticed on our shopping mooches up and down the covered arcades. One such is the memorial to another Heian era poet Izumi Shikibu.

We did wander up Teramachi Dori towards Oike Dori after we’d done our shopping, and saw the statue of Nichiren outside Honnoji temple, which was closed.

Honnoji Nichiren statue

Honnoji temple

We wandered back down to Shinkyogoku Dori, over the slope created by the mounds of earth left behind when Sanjo bridge was constructed, and past the temples we had intended to investigate if only we hadn’t grown so tired!

We passed Nishiki Tenmangu, of course. We’ve visited this shrine on a few occasions, always pausing to pat the bronze bull on our way in. Sometimes it is open later than other shrines or temples, but this time we were out of luck. This picture is from another visit.

The walk is one that I think we should finish. Judith Clancy’s background information is interesting. Most of the snippets in this post are gleaned from her more in depth descriptions. I think we bit off more than we could chew in trying to walk the whole length in half a day. At least without preparing a bento to take with us.

Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮)

One of the highlights of our 2012 trip was the morning we spent at Kitano Tenmangu. We visited in late March, hoping to see some cherry blossom and then realising that the shrine is famous for its plum orchard!

We went on a day when the monthly flea market was being held, so the shrine was very busy. It was great to wander among the stalls. We even made a purchase of a pretty ceramic plate showing a bamboo grove. I don’t think it was particularly old, but it caught our eye and now sits in our little Japanese ‘beauty alcove’ at home. I took this picture of it in the living room of the machiya we were staying in, alongside the origami cranes our hosts had made for us.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The day started with a plan. We intended to walk from the machiya to Horikawa Dori, close to Nijo Castle, where we would catch the 101 bus north. Of course, it was a Sunday and it was flea market day, so the queue for the bus was pretty big. One bus approached and sailed past, crammed to bursting with passengers. Another bus arrived and a few people managed to get on board, but not many. A third bus approached and it, too, was much too full. We decided that a 40 minute walk would be better than waiting until a bus arrived that might have enough room for us. As well as being the healthier option, both in terms of exercise and not being exposed to germs, it was the better choice for seeing a side of Kyoto we hadn’t seen before and taking photographs.

We walked towards Nijo Castle and passed a shop selling samurai swords, which were cruelly beautiful. Lots of people carrying picnic bags were heading in the same direction as us, perhaps to do some hanami in the castle grounds. We had already decided to go there for the night blossom viewing instead. Along Horikawa Dori, we passed a variety of shops. One sold nothing but old cameras, and I was tempted, but not enough to pay the prices on the labels! Another shop managed to lure us inside to look more closely at its fabrics, bento boxes and clothes. I came away with a tenugui in bright yellow calico decorated with giraffes, a gift from my husband. Further up the street there was some eye-catching architecture, perhaps dictated by land prices, perhaps by space. The pair of buildings made me think of Dutch houses, which are equally tall and narrow because of the frontage tax residents and shop owners were once forced to pay.

The most striking thing about the building on the left was the huge plate glass window on the second (or is it third) floor. Almost the width of the building and a third of its height, I would have been paranoid about it shattering if I were the owner. As we paused to take photographs, we drew curious looks from local people, for whom the building must be an everyday sight.

As we turned to continue on our way, I spied a gathering in the window of another building.

Are they kami? I don’t know, but they make me think of nativity scenes at home. I couldn’t tell whether the building was a shop or someone’s home. The figures made me smile, though.

Our next photo opportunity was a tree in bloom on a bridge that crossed the Horikawa river. The petals seemed too dark a pink to be cherry blossom, but the tips of the petals had the notches that I associate with cherry. I decided to count it as my first legitimate bit of hanami!

The area seemed pleasant for a stroll or to sit beside the river on a sunnier day than the one we had, but we needed to press on for Kitano Tenmangu, so we didn’t linger. As we crossed onto Imadagawa Dori, we realised we must be getting closer to the shrine. The shops were more touristy and lots of people were marching in groups in the same direction as us. We got caught up in a gaggle of teenage girls who eventually crossed the road to join a gaggle of teenage boys outside a Lawson, where much giggling ensued. Outside one of the Imadagawa buildings I spied this shiny building mascot.

The sun came out to make him shine even more.

A little further along the road and we finally reached the shrine. The flea market was in full swing. Most of it seemed to be food stalls, which smelled delicious but were largely pork or octopus based. Street food in this kind of environment is more risky for a pair of vegetarians.


Instead of joining the crush among the stalls, we indulged with others in a little hanami. These frothy blossoms were definitely plum blossom, but we didn’t work it out until later when we read up on the history of the shrine!


The shrine commemorates Michizane Sugawara, who is venerated for his scholastic ability. The shrine attracts lots of teenagers around the time of exams, hoping to be blessed by Michizane so that they achieve success in their studies. The reason there are so many plum trees at the shrine is because Michizane is believed to have loved them. One legend says that when he was exiled by his political rivals, a flying plum tree followed him from Kyoto to Kyushu. Michizane died in exile and his spirit is said to have been so vengeful that lots of Tenmangu shrines were built to appease it. A plum tree stands in front of the offering hall at each Tenmangu shrine.

At Kitano Tenmangu there is a plum orchard, as well as plum trees planted around the shrine precincts. We made our way through the crush of people at the flea market, past arcade games and food stalls, an experience that reminded me of the Easter fairs at Daisy Nook Farm when I was a child. At the top of the street leading to the shrine, we paid the entrance fee for the orchard and joined the other strollers admiring the blossom. Another visitor kindly took our photograph together (using my husband’s camera!) and then offered us a ginger flavoured throat sweet which was delicious. She was as taken with them as we were, so delighted in her discovery of them that she wanted to share them with us. This is one of the things I love about Japan – for all that the Japanese are supposed to be reserved and hard to get to know, they are contagious in their enthusiasm for the little things in life and we have always found people to be surprisingly open and willing to chat.

After the plum orchard, we bought green-tea filled doriyaki to stave off our hunger,  then headed into the shrine precincts. People were offering up prayers with a clatter of five yen coins and clapping hands in front of most of the small shrine buildings as well as the main building. At one side shrine, a shrine maiden was performing with a silver fan to the beat of a taiko drum.

The shrine grounds were full of plum trees, many a delicate shade of white, others the more familiar hot pink.


Cows also dot the shrine precincts. These stone representations of the sacred beast are considered to be messengers who carry students’ prayers for exam success to Michizane. We saw people queuing up to stroke and be photographed with one cow in particular.

Another cow was less inundated. She seemed unbothered by this state of affairs!


The weather took a turn for the worse, so we decided to head back to the centre of Kyoto to pay a visit to Nishiki Market. The 101 bus was as full heading away from Kitano Tenmangu as it had been on the way there, so we took a 59 instead and got off at Kawaramachi Dori. Regular visitors to this blog will know that this bus journey led directly to my encounter with Japanese cold remedies!

We had a great time at Kitano Tenmangu. I’d like to go back on a quieter day, and maybe have a look round nearby Kamishichiken hanamachi.


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.

Fushimi Inari Shrine/伏見稲荷大社 (Fushimi Inari-Taisha)

I have a day off! While rooting around the internet for things to do on our next trip (April/May next year), I also discovered a new blog about Japanese culture which has inspired me to use today to update my blog.

On our next trip, we’re not going back to our beloved Kansai region. Even though there is still so much that we haven’t done in and around Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Next time, we are spending a week getting to know Tokyo, followed by five nights in Aomori City at the northern tip of Honshu, and then a final night in Narita. Japan is huge and it will take a lifetime to visit all the places we want to see, so we decided this time was the time we would head north.

I bought a book of walks through the Shitamachi area of Tokyo, that picks out the history of Edo, glimpses of which can still be found in the modern city. I wish I had bought the book sooner, because I think I would have appreciated Tokyo more than I have done so far. I’m really looking forward to exploring the city and absorbing some of its history this time. The book is called Old Tokyo: Walks in the City of the Shogun, by Sumiko Enbutsu. I bought the 1993 edition second hand.

But this post is called Fushimi Inari Shrine, so I’d better tell you about our visit there in Autumn 2010. It might be helpful for travellers who want to avoid the misakes we made on our trip!

Fushimi Inari Taisha is considered the most important of all Shinto shrines dedicated to the god Inari. Inari is the god of rice and he protects the yearly crop from damage. Because rice was such an important part of Japanese life, it was used in the past as currency. The local landowners would take rice from their peasants as payment of taxes and also use it to pay the wages of their servants. A good rice harvest every year therefore ensured a landowner’s wealth. As Japan industrialised, wealth became associated with being good in business. As a result, Inari was worshipped by merchants and businessmen as well as rice farmers.

We set off from Kyoto on the JR Nara line from platform 10. It took us a while to find platform 10. We got as far as platform 9 and the trail went cold. Just as my husband was about to bound off to find assistance, I spotted a set of stairs leading up from the platform, so I went up them. Platform 10 was there, off at a tangent from the other platforms, sneaky and unsignposted. We boarded the train along with what seemed like an entire high school sports team. This was a Sunday morning. The boys seemed really happy to be sitting on a train, off to play some sport.

Fushimi Inari is just two stops along from Kyoto station. We got off the train to discover that the station was undergoing some kind of repair work. We navigated our way across a temporary bridge and exited the station. A pair of policemen funnelled us across the road and up to the shrine entrance. The shrine seemed busy. I don’t know whether this was normal for a Sunday, or whether there was something specific going on, but people were queuing up to enter the shrine.

Inside the grounds we found shops and stalls selling fox-related wares. Foxes (kitsune) are thought to be messengers of the god Inari. I had heard that along the mountain trail there were stalls that sold inarizushi (稲荷寿司), which is a favourite food of the foxes. It’s also my favourite kind of sushi. Every shrine dedicated to Inari is guarded by a pair of foxes. One holds a cylindrical key that represents the rice granaries where this precious crop was traditionally stored, the other holds a sacred jewel that symbolises the spirit of the gods. There is a legend that the fox messengers helped Inari, in female form, to forge the legendary sword kogitsune-maru, which perhaps explains why Inari has also been the patron god of swordsmiths in Japan.

While we were milling around, we heard a lot of bell clanking which caused us to turn to look at the shrine. What a treat! We witnessed a parade of shinto priests emerge from the shrine and walk down the slope.

We concluded that the morning ceremony must have finished, and we headed closer to the shrine. At the top of the steps, we saw a beautiful woman wearing a stunning kimono and obi. All the tourists wanted to take her picture. I liked her obi, so took one from behind.

There were plenty of women at the shrine who were wearing simple kimono, or maybe yukata, but this one was the most stunning, with its long sleeves and beautiful pattern. And the obi knot was bewildering!

As we walked up to the tunnels of torii that lead visitors up the mountain, I spied a a small stand carrying torii-shaped ema, or votive plaques, with pens for visitors to write their wishes on. These torii are an offering to the guardians of the rice granary.

I thought they were very cute, but we didn’t pause to buy one to write a message to Inari on. Instead we headed for the torii tunnels.


Anyone who has seen the film version of Arthur Golden’s book Memoirs of a Geisha will recognise the scene in the first photograph above. In the film, the young Chiyo runs through the tunnels of torii (Senbon Torii) that lead visitors up the mountain away from the main shrine. The writing up the posts of the torii in the second image are the names of the businesses and people who have sponsored the torii. Inari is still worshipped as the patron of merchants who brings prosperity. As we walked up through the right hand tunnel, we noticed that some of the torii were very new while others were weathered by age.

We entered the tunnel of torii without a thought of trying to find a map of the route up the mountain, because we were using Judith Clancy’s Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital as a guide. There is a map in the section about Fushimi Inari, and we decided to trust it. This was our big mistake.

We exited the tunnel and arrived at one of the sub shrines where, for 500円, we bought kitsune-shaped ema to decorate and write a wish on.


I decorated mine (that’s it on the left above) and added it to the throngs festooning the sub shrine, then threw some 5円 coins into the coffer, rang the bell, bowed and clapped, said a prayer, then bowed and clapped again.

Then we set off up the mountain, merrily following a mum and her three children and thinking we were following the route in Judith Clancy’s book. Perhaps we should have taken the hint when the family turned back partway through the bamboo forest, but we carried on past more sub-shrines crammed with torii, kitsune and other sacred markers.


At some of the sub shrines, services were being held and we paused to listen to the ritual chanting and singing. It was very atmospheric.

We climbed higher and higher, spurred on by people coming down from the mountain, taking this as a sign that we were headed the right way. We didn’t pass either of the junctions mentioned in Judith Clancy’s book, though, and the climb grew steeper and steeper. Because the map in the book no longer made any sense, my husband took a photograph of a map on a board by the side of the path, but that didn’t really help either. We passed some interesting sights, though – hidden shrines, bamboo groves and graveyards.

Eventually the path started to descend and we passed other people climbing up the way we had just come. This made me think we were on our way back down to Fushimi Inari shrine. How wrong I was. We ended up going deeper into the forest, along paths that were barely trodden and in places quite dangerous to the casually shod. It was a little scary because we were unable to get our bearings and didn’t have Japanese phones or even know how to get help if we came to a sticky end.

We emerged from the forest in small residential area behind a school. There was a map on a board that suggested we were in Tofukuji. Tofukuji is a town between Fushimi Inari and Kyoto. It turned out that our inadvertent trek across the mountain really had taken us across the mountain.

We absorbed as much as we could from the map on the board and walked down through the residential area, emerging onto a broad road that took us past a temple. I think it was Tofukuji temple. We were tired and a little shell shocked from our adventure, so we didn’t go in to ask. As we walked past the entrance, a stream of business suited men came out and we got mixed up in their procession down the road. As if things couldn’t get any more surreal, one of them was casually carrying a very shiny chrome kettle.

We made it to the train station and hopped on a train back to Kyoto where, tired and hungry, we ate in a noodle restaurant in Porta, beneath the station. It felt like we had been away all day, but it was still only early afternoon. Which meant there was time for us to visit Kinkakuji!

I feel as though we didn’t really have the proper Fushimi Inari experience because of our accidental adventure. I’d like to follow the proper trail up the mountain and take in the view from the summit, or at least from the junction halfway up! We haven’t made it back the couple of times we’ve visited Kyoto again since our 2010 trip, but maybe we will try again on another trip.

A piece of Japan in a corner of England


Japanese people living in the North West of England might like to visit the Japanese Garden at Tatton Park.

Of course, you don’t have to be Japanese to appreciate the beauty of the garden! It’s a real treat for anyone to visit inside the bamboo fence and see the garden in all its splendour.

We have visited the garden before, but only been able to view it from the outside of the perimeter fence. Last weekend, because it was a big birthday for my husband, we decided to go on one of the hour long tours that run on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. The tour is only an extra £1.50 on top of the £5.00 entrance fee to the main gardens, and it’s well worth it. The lushness of the greenery was very calming, and it was almost like being in Japan. The only thing that was missing was the scent of Japan!


There were so many of us booked onto the tour last Saturday afternoon that the guides had to split us into two groups. We were shown round by a Scottish woman called Helen. She really knew her stuff, and was obviously proud of the garden and the work that has been done on it recently, helped by Professor Masao Fukuhara of Osaka University. Professor Fukuhara is an expert on the history of Japanese gardens and was instrumental in restoring the garden to its original state in 2000/1. He also gave talks and ran workshops for the 100th anniversary last year.

The garden was created between 1911 and 1913. Lord Egerton, the owner of Tatton Hall, visited the Anglo-Japanese Expo (日英博覧会 Nichi-Ei Hakuran kai) in London in 1910. The Expo was part of an effort by the Meiji government to improve relations between Britain and Japan, and to build Japan’s profile in the West. To ensure authenticity, the Japanese gardens at the Expo were created using  trees, shrubs, wooden buildings, bridges, and stones brought from Japan.

Lord Egerton bought many of the items on display at the Expo to create his own Japanese garden at Tatton, and employed Japanese gardeners and builders to construct it. The structures in the garden at Tatton include a Shinto shrine, a torii gate, a shepherd’s hut (which is used to represent a teahouse) and a Chinese style stone bridge. There are also two stone foxes, a range of lanterns and various stones positioned throughout the garden, which is in the stroll garden style.


On the tour, we learned that some of the Japanese workmen involved in creating the garden at Tatton stayed on in the village and married local women, ensuring that there would be Japanese workers to maintain the garden. Because Japanese garden design is about reflecting nature, it is believed that the Japanese gardeners took some influences from the other gardens at Tatton to inject a British feel to Lord Egerton’s Japanese garden.


As the garden is a stroll garden, there are various viewing points along the path, marked by two stones set side by side to enable a woman in a kimono to stand and look across at the view. At these points, it is possible to see structures such as the Flying Geese Bridge, which is made up of a series of stones laid in the same V formation that geese make when flying. The legend behind the design is that the bridge is crooked in order to allow the person crossing to escape the devil, since the devil can only travel in straight lines. Other structures include two metal cranes, which represent longevity, a stone turtle swimming against the stream of life, and a large stone which represents the female bodhisattva Kwannon.

After the end of the Second World War, the garden fell into disrepair. In the late 1990s, the National Trust (which now owns Tatton Park) decided to try to restore it. The Japanese government at the time was keen to help to restore representations of Japanese culture overseas and saw the garden at Tatton as a good example of Japanese garden architecture from the early 20th century. They provided a grant of £100,000, which the National Trust matched, and a team of people headed by Professor Fukuhara came to Tatton to begin the process of restoration in 2000.

An anonymous donor sent a package to the head gardener at the time, containing a series of photographic glass plate negatives which documented the construction of the garden in 1910-1913. Professor Fukuhara was able to use these images to restore the garden to its original design. Some of the elements in the garden go against traditional Japanese garden design, such as the two Inari foxes being separated (one outside the shrine and one facing the teahouse) and a stone duck decoy table which Lord Egerton had installed to enable his guests to hunt ducks using bows and arrows, but they are seen as representing the British influence on the garden’s layout.

During the tour, at key points within the garden, our guide told us snippets of information about why the garden was set out the way it was. She explained that the three pine trees behind the shrine represent the Buddhist trinity, and they are pruned to create a natural ladder to and from heaven to allow the gods to visit the earth. The word torii comes from the Japanese for bird (tori とり 鳥) – it can be translated as “bird perch”. The guide explained that this was because of the legend of the Sun Goddess who fell out with her brother and sealed herself up inside her sacred cave. When her brother tricked her into coming out, the ray of sunlight that came out first woke up the rooster who began to crow. The rooster was then seen as a sacred bird who greeted the Sun Goddess and the torii gate was created as a place for him to roost. Other theories are that the word comes from the Japanese for passing through and entering (touri iru/とうりいる/通り入る),since torii gates represent the passage from the secular world to the sacred.

It was lovely to have a reminder of our visits to shrines and teahouses in Japan, and it was interesting to learn new things. It has inspired me to try to find out more about Japanese garden design, and I think we’ll definitely be going again!

Japanese weddings (日本の結婚式)

Both times that we have visited Japan in the spring, we have seen Japanese weddings taking place. The first time was when we were visiting Hiroshima (広島) and saw a ceremony taking place inside the shrine within the castle grounds. I didn’t take any photographs, because it felt rude to act like a tourist while a serious ceremony was taking place. The bride was dressed head to toe in white and had on the traditional head-dress that is more hood-like than hat-like, called a wataboshi (綿帽子). It was a scorchingly hot day and her shiromuku robes (白無垢 – literally white kimono) looked very heavy. She must have been grateful for the cool and the shade inside the shrine. Listening to the intonations of the priests as the couple sat very still before the shrine altar made the ceremony seem much more grave and dignified than the ceremonies we have in the West.

The second Japanese wedding we saw was this year as we were visiting Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. We were milling around with all the other tourists, when one of the guards came alongside me. He said something in Japanese to me, from which I picked out the words kekkon (結婚 – wedding), ima (今 – now), koko (ここ – here) and gofungoro (五分ごろ – about 5 minutes). I gathered that there was to be a wedding here now in about 5 minutes. Clever me! The guard then indicated the route the wedding party would take, and told me that if I stood in a particular spot, I would be okay (大丈夫/だいじょうぶ). We had a short conversation, which involved him telling me things half in broken English, half in Japanese with me nodding and saying “Soudesuka” at regular intervals. I caught “イギリスには、ちがいですね” (in England it’s different isn’t it?) and then something about a car and a cushion, at which point I was completely lost.

Moments later, the wedding party came through. The bride was stunning in her shiromuku which was covered by an elaborately embroidered over gown, the uchikake (打掛). Her head-dress was the hat-like tsunokakushi (角隠し) which has peaks said to hide the bride’s horns of jealousy, and which is a symbol of the bride’s intention to be a gentle and obedient wife.

The couple was sheltered from the sun by a large parasol, carried by one of the shrine staff, and the bride’s mother tenderly held her daughter by her hand as they processed through the shrine grounds. The two young women walking in front of them are miko (巫女) or shrine-maidens. The groom looked handsome in his montsuki (紋付 – formal kimono), haori (羽織 – kimono jacket) and hakama (袴 – divided skirt/kimono trousers), and very pleased with himself!

Witnessing these strangers’ first steps out into the world as a married couple was a privilege and something really beautiful to behold. It interested me how similar and yet how different it was to the weddings we have in Britain. My wedding was a civil ceremony and not at all traditional – I didn’t wear white, I didn’t have bridesmaids and my dad didn’t walk me down the aisle. Friends have had civil ceremonies with the traditional white dress, bridesmaids in matching outfits and the symbolic act of a father giving a daughter away. Others have had a church wedding, with all the religious paraphernalia that goes with that, and yet these religious and civil ceremonies to me seemed much less formal than the brief glimpse I had of a Shinto wedding.

I’ve read a little bit about Shinto weddings and learnt that they are attended by family and close friends only, and the ceremony that most people follow has only been formalised since Crown Prince Yoshihito married Princess Sado in 1900. Before that, you could apparently pretty much do what you wanted. Similarly to the communion administered at some Christian weddings, at a Shinto wedding the couple is purified in a ritual followed by the drinking of sake poured by the miko. Only the groom says the words of commitment, though, unlike in a Western wedding where the vows of commitment are shared. At many Shinto weddings, rings are exchanged, as in the West, followed by a sacred dance from the miko, more sake drinking and the offering of a sacred branch. Rarely does the bride have bridesmaids or the groom a best man. The ceremony itself isn’t legally binding. It isn’t even obligatory. To be legally married, a Japanese couple must first file for the marriage at their local government office (the equivalent of having your banns read in a church, or posting a notice at your local registry office in the UK), and must produce the official documentation in order for the ceremony to be held. Unlike the signing of the register at the end of a wedding ceremony in the UK, in Japan the couple only become officially married if they then go to the city hall registrar and file their documents to change their status in their family registries.

I also learnt that up until the 14th century, marriage in Japan was based around the groom marrying into his bride’s family, and not the other way around. The bride would remain in her family home, being visited by her husband, until either a baby was born or the groom’s parents died, and then the couple could live together in the groom’s home. I’d picked up on this a little bit while reading the Tale of Genji, but hadn’t realised that it went across the social spectrum.

From the 14th century, the situation was reversed and the bride married into her groom’s family and marriages were arranged by a go-between, or marriage broker, in order to strengthen alliances and bring peace between feudal lords. With the Meiji restoration and the Domestic Relations and Inheritance Law passed in 1898, women’s rights in marriage were withdrawn and the groom held all of her rights and property, similar to the situation in the UK up until female emancipation began in the 1900s. It took Japan until the end of the Second World War to begin to restore women’s rights to them within marriage. It interests me that marriage has been used by such different cultures (albeit that the Meiji era was influenced by the Emperor’s wish to modernise Japan in a more Western direction) to control women and deny them their rights as individuals.

Western style marriage ceremonies are becoming more popular in Japan, partly because Shinto ceremonies are so expensive to arrange. I think that’s a shame. It was so lovely to see even a small part of a Shinto wedding and learn a little about a different tradition to my own.