A Walk Around Old Tokyo

An old corner building has been renovated and repurposed into a small shop and workshop.

I’ve always felt that any time you go out in Tokyo you can expect an adventure. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve walked to your neighborhood station, or over to the supermarket, or to work or wherever. There is always something new to discover or learn. Turn down a new street and who knows what you’ll find?

This old building now houses the Yanaka Brewing Company.
The Yanaka’s former neighborhood bathhouse is now an art gallery.
Old doors bearing the family or business crest.

It was with much anticipation that Brett and I visited the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo last week. Yanaka was brand new territory for us, which guaranteed an adventure.

The Tsukiji-bei Wall. Made from stacked mud and roof tiles, the wall is over 200 years old, and often used as a backdrop in period movies and television shows.
Detail of the wall’s roof design.

The Yanaka neighborhood did not disappoint.

The massive Himalayan cedar was originally brought in a pot by the grandfather of the current owner of the tiny Mikado Bread Shop. It burst from its pot back before WWII and rooted itself into the corner and has continued to grow, grow, grow.
The full size of the cedar can only be appreciated from a distance. The tree has also been featured as a backdrop in television shows and movies.

Yanaka is unique because not only did the neighborhood survive the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the subsequent fire that destroyed most of Tokyo, it was also spared during the Allied firebombing of Tokyo during WWII. Brett and I marveled at the many old, original buildings we came across, and were impressed with how many had been preserved, renovated and repurposed. There were plenty of new buildings and modern architecture too, but the neighborhood seemed to have maintained the feel and spirit of old Tokyo – there were no high-rise apartments or office buildings, and newer buildings blended in well with the old. We were especially awed by the large, old trees seen everywhere we walked, including several huge cherry trees that must have been magnificent in bloom, and one massive Himalayan cedar tree.

The Yanaka Cemetery is filled with lovely, large old cherry trees. It is a popular spot for hanami (flower viewing) picnics.
The grave of a notable someone stood out from all the others.

Yanaka is also the sight of the largest cemetery in Japan. Established in 1874, the cemetery covers over 1,000 acres and many artists and feudal leaders (including the last shogun of Japan) are interred there. A large street bisects the cemetery and is lined with huge cherry trees. One of the most famous places to see in the park is the foundation of a former five-story pagoda. Built in 1791, the pagoda stood in the center of the cemetery until 1957, when a pair of lovers committed suicide by burning down the pagoda with themselves inside. Their ghosts are said to wander the area near the foundation.

Yanaka was also originally a temple town on the outskirts of Tokyo (temples could also be used as forts in case of attack), and the neighborhood was absolutely filled with temples and shrines, more than we could count, and we eventually gave up trying to keep track of them all.

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We had originally wanted to do the pilgrimage to the seven temples of Japan’s seven lucky gods, but learned that pilgrimage is only done during the first 10 days of a new year. The pilgrimage route also had us missing several other things we wanted to see such as the Tsukiji-bei Wall and the giant Himalayan cedar so we ended up using a map we found online along with a paper map of the neighborhood we picked up while we were there.

The old Yoshidaya Sake Store is now the Shitamachi Museum annex.
. . . and contains many sake-related artifacts from the old store.

In spite of the heat we encountered that day we both felt it was one of the most interesting places we had visited, and perhaps the ultimate Tokyo adventure. We will definitely be returning as our walkabout only scratched the surface. There are lots of arts and crafts shops we would love to investigate more, more temples to investigate, and other lanes we would like to turn down just to see what’s there.

An old Yanaka home, lovingly renovated to maintain its character.

The Most Beautiful Museum

The entrance gate to the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum.

Even in the rain, the Itchiku Kubota Museum in Kawaguchiko was the most beautiful I have ever visited.

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The museum grounds were equally as beautiful as what was displayed within.

Itchiku Kubota (1917-2003) was a fabric artist and dying expert who created deeply gorgeous, beautiful kimono, each one a work of art in its own right. Inspired by the lost Japanese dying art of tsujigahana seen on a visit to the Tokyo National Museum when he was 20 years old, Kubota studied and worked to figure out how it was accomplished, and then created a contemporary style of the technique now known as Itchiku Tsujihanan. Along with other dying techniques such as shibori (tie dye), resist dying, and layered dying along with embroidery and other fabric techniques, each one of the kimono he created is a unique work of art. It took nearly a year to make each kimono (with the help of assistants), and while almost all are individual works, some are parts of a larger work when placed together.

Mt. Fuji was a frequent theme in Kubota’s art. (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)
Thousands of tiny knots were made in the plain white silk fabric he used for all kimono, then dyed to create intricate patterns and intense depths of color. (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)

Kubota designed the museum himself, and set up his studio there. Located on a forested hillside just outside of the city of Kawaguchiko in the Fuji Five Lakes district, the museum experience begins at the front steps where visitors pass through a large wooden gate surrounded by a swirling bronze sculpture. A path leads visitors up through a large garden filled with ponds, waterfalls, benches and seats where visitors are invited to stop and reflect. The museum building itself is very organic, constructed of chalk and covered with limestone, and built partially into the hillside. The actual kimono gallery is a large pyramid, built from over 1,000 ancient cedar trees chosen by Kubota. The pyramid allows light to stream in (even on a rainy day) making it possible to view the kimono in natural light.

Entrance to the museum building
A large pyramid created from cedar beams forms the kimono gallery (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)
The kimono gallery (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)
The kimono gallery (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)
Natural light streams through the top of the pyramid into the kimono gallery. (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)
Detail of the above kimono (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)

None of the kimono on display are behind glass; visitors are encouraged to get as close as they’d like to inspect the kimono (without touching, of course) and see how the different techniques come together to create the larger images on the kimono. Visitors are also shown a short video about Kubota before entering the gallery to understand some of his technique (some of it remains unknown) how the kimono are made.

Museum interior leading to the kimono gallery (photo credit: Is Japan Cool? https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/yamanashi/itchikukubotaartmuseum)
Kubota’s former studio is now a tea room.
This large circular design is etched into the wall of the former studio.

The entire experience left Brett and I speechless and filled with wonder, and we both agreed that it was the most beautiful of any museum we had ever visited, both inside and out. Whether you are interested in fabric art or not, the experience of seeing Kubota’s work and visiting his museum is worth the effort. To reach the museum from Tokyo, take the JR Chuo line limited express train from Shinjuku station to Otsuki station; change to the Fujikyuko line to Kawaguchiko Station. The museum is a 10-minute taxi ride from the station. The entrance fee is currently ¥1300 per person.

Closing Out the Books on April

We’ve set aside all of our 1¥ and 5¥ coins while we’ve been in Japan for our granddaughter – we jokingly call is “K’s trust fund.” I think there’s over 300¥ in there now – around $3.00 (but I also spy a 50¥ coin right on top in the center).

After a couple of months of being slightly over-budget, we made up for it in April and came in well under our daily goal – yeah us! Brett totaled up everything for the month, and our daily spending average for April was just $38.56! Our 74-day average daily spend for the time we’ve been in Japan also came to $46.65. These really are amounts I wasn’t sure we’d be able to achieve.

Our son’s generosity has helped us immensely, especially this past month – besides covering all transportation expenses involved in picking up our grandson, in return for our time watching the grands they covered everything except souvenirs on our getaway last weekend, and also for meals out together this past month. We have offered to pay for things, or at least for our expenses, but they have refused.

We have 11 more days left in Japan beginning Friday. We are eating down our food supplies, and are for the most part done with sightseeing (we’re visiting the Yanaka neighborhood on Friday, but that’s the last outing). We plan to make one last trip into Yokohama to pick up a couple of food items at the Sogo department store (bird cookies!), but other than that we’re done with spending except for transportation and items that are absolutely necessary.

Tokyo (and Japan) has a reputation for being expensive, and definitely can be if you’re not careful, or like me want to buy everything because it’s Japanese and cool and/or beautiful. Still, I’m very happy and satisfied that we’ve been able to spend three months living here for less than we thought was possible, and without sacrificing anything.

Golden Week Getaway: Part Two

The Sunday morning view from our cabin.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep at the cabin, we woke up Sunday morning to sunshine and the most amazing view of Mt. Fuji imaginable from our living room window. I almost didn’t want to go anywhere just so I could look at it all day, but we were all ready to go by 9:00.

Rabbits and badgers were tied into the ropeway experience, and there was a small rabbit shrine at the top.
Ready to board our gondola! We appreciated that passengers were not stuffed into the car – everyone got a view.
Up we go! I rode with our granddaughter at the front.

Our first activity of the day was the Mt.Fuji Panoramic Ropeway, which goes up to the top of Mt. Tenjō, across the valley from Mt. Fuji. It took us a couple of tries to find a parking spot somewhat near to the entrance as things had already begun to get crowded at 9:00 a.m., but we eventually found one not too far away. Even in spite of all the people the line for the ropeway wasn’t too long, and we were on our way up the mountain after only a short wait.

The view of Mt. Fuji from the top of Mt. Tenjō
Looking out over Lake Kawaguchi, the city of Kawaguchiko, and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

The view from the station at the top was spectacular. Besides the breathtaking view of Mt. Fuji, we could also take in all of the city of Kawaguchiko, Lake Kawaguchi, the Fuji-Q Highlands amusement park, and snow-capped mountains off in the distance. We hiked around the top for a while, took lots of pictures, and thought about hiking up to a torii at the top of the next mountain, but when we saw the sign that the hike would take an additional 40 minutes one way we decided not to go.

When we came back down from the mountain we could not believe the length of the line, almost four times if not longer than it was when we had arrived! Before going to our car we first stopped at the Fujiyama Cookie shop, located at the bottom of the hill, and bought ourselves several flavors of their famous cookies which are shaped like Mt. Fuji (Later in the afternoon when we drove back past the cookie shop, the line was out the door and down the street! We were glad we went early.).

The forest on the way to the Wind Cave entrance was like something out of Harry Potter – we thought we might come across Aragog the spider!
Down we go into the Wind Cave – only 46 steps! The difference in temperature from the top of the stairs to the bottom was quite shocking.
Part of the large ice formation in the cave.

From the ropeway we headed to see two of the Fuji Caves, created when hot air was trapped in lava during the Mt. Fuji eruptions. There are two caves, the Ice Cave and the Wind Cave, but the Ice Cave required a descent of 92 steps and 102 steps on the way up. and there was no way that was going to happen with a toddler and my knees. We instead walked to the Wind Cave which took us through a forest straight out of Harry Potter, with a thick tree canopy and amazing tangle of roots as well as small caves, burrows, and natural tunnels. The cave itself was quite cold and had its own wonderful ice formations along with other features. We had to duck down quite a bit to get to the end of the cave, and saw where the cave had been used in the past as natural refrigerated storage for seeds for reforestation and for silkworm cocoons. By keeping the cocoons in the cold hatching was delayed and allowed farmers and merchants to get two extra cycles for silk making.

Iyashi-no Sato: The Healing Village

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Our last stop of the day was Iyashi-no-Sato, also known as “the healing village.” Located near Lake Saiko, the village stands on the site of a former fishing and farming village that was destroyed by a typhoon in 1966. The village now holds 20 reconstructed thatched-roof farmhouses in the kabuto-zukkuri (samurai helmet) style and serves as an open-air museum where visitors can experience traditional Japanese arts and crafts and local food specialities. Several of the houses contain shops and workshops, while others hold museums, restaurants and gift shops. Walking through the village is like being transported back in time to the early 20th century. Just outside the village there were once again farmers selling fruits and vegetables, and we finally bought a bag of apples.

Our souvenirs for the day: wasabi crackers, sesame sticks, assorted Fujiyama cookies, and locally grown Fuji apples.

Back at the cabin our DIL prepared a wonderful dinner of yakiniku with pork, beef and sausages, noodles, and a variety of vegetables that we grilled at the table and enjoyed with some rice.

These giant gold maneki nekko seemed to say “Welcome . . . and good luck!”
Neither good luck nor lots of money could ever get me to attempt this.

We were up early Monday morning as we had to check out of the cabin by 10:00. Once again the sky had clouded over and obscured Mt. Fuji, making us extra grateful for the beautiful day we had on Sunday. After getting the cabin clean and the car loaded we drove to the Fuji-Q Highland amusement park so our grandson and granddaughter could spend some time at Thomas Land (Thomas the Tank Engine). In spite of the crowds and long lines for rides they had a wonderful time. Brett and I, on the other hand, mostly stood around and tried to stay warm (the temperature dropped to where we thought it might snow) while we gawked at the roller coasters in the main park. There were five of them, two with straight vertical drops, one that shot the cars from a catapult into a giant loop, one that sent riders down a giant couple of waterfalls, and the highest coaster I have ever seen, called Fujiyama, King of the Coasters. I love roller coasters but there was absolutely No. Way. I would have gotten on any one of those.

The Thomas Land section of the Fuji-Q park was more our family’s speed.

I will never be able to thank our son and DIL enough for including us in the weekend getaway. They spoiled us the entire time and picked up the tab for all admissions and meals. What a great time we had!

Golden Week Getaway: Part One

What looks almost like blue sky in the background are actually clouds covering Mt. Fuji from top to bottom.

Well, we did not go to Hakone-Izu National Park for our getaway as I thought when I heard “Mt. Fuji” and “ropeway.” That, I was informed, would have been madness because of the expected crowds that would be visiting this week. Instead, we headed for the Mt. Fuji Five Lakes district, just outside of the city of Kawaguchiko. Because of traffic issues that were expected on Golden Week’s opening day, we spent Friday night at our son’s home, and were all up at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday and on the road by 4:30, arriving at our first stop, the Oshino Hakkai Springs, shortly before 9:00 a.m.

Streams as well as underground tunnels connect the eight springs at Oshino Hakkai.
In the past, the streams were used to power mills in the area.

The Fuji Five Lakes, which wrap around the northern side of Mt. Fuji, were formed following several eruptions of the volcano as were the Oshino Hakkai Springs, which was originally a sixth lake that dried up. The air at the springs was crisp and quite cool when we arrived, but Mt. Fuji was covered in clouds – if you didn’t know better you’d never have known there was a very big volcano sitting just off to the side.

Pure, clean water bubbles up from the bottom of one of the springs. The water is filtered through deep layers of porous lava.

The eight Oshino Hakkai springs are an asset of the Mt. Fuji World Heritage Site, and are lovely, deep pools of extremely clear, pure water. The water said to be the best in Japan, and is revered by locals for its purity – “water of the gods.” When the snow melts on Mt. Fuji it enters the ground and passes through several layers of lava, which is porous. Apparently it takes nearly 80 years for the water to reach the springs which is why they are so clean and pure. The deepest pool, Wakuike, was over 26 feet deep and coins were visible sitting on the bottom (visitors have been asked not to throw coins though as it degrades the water quality). Koi could be seen swimming in layers throughout the pool, and beautiful green water grasses on the bottom waved back and forth. Next to the pool was small waterfall where cold, refreshing water from the spring was available to drink or bottle (we filled a bottle).

A modern Japanese farmhouse in the Oshino Hakkai Springs neighborhood
Because of the cooler temperatures in the Five Lakes area, cherry trees and other plants were still in bloom.

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Surrounding the springs are farmhouses and farmland, and we visited several of the local vendors who were set up near the springs selling locally produced or grown items, including sweets, pickles and local crafts. We ate some grilled dango (balls of mochi basted with sweet soy sauce), grilled kusa mochi, made with local mugwort and filled with sweet bean paste (my favorite mochi, although I’d never had it grilled before), and hot chestnuts right from the roaster (Brett’s favorite). Several farmers had huge Fuji apples for sale – the samples we tried were very sweet – but we decided to wait until later to purchase those. The Five Lakes area is also known for growing wasabi, and I purchased two bags of wasabi senbei (crackers), and one of my favorite Japanese snacks.

The Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan museum farmhouse
Crossview of the deep thatch on traditional farmhouses – it almost appears to be solid.

Included in the village is a small museum, Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan, which allowed us to walk around two more of the springs as well as visit an old, traditional farmhouse and outbuildings. The former farm owners were apparently silk manufacturers – silkworms were grown in the attic area of the farmhouse, and then woven into fabric with finished products made at the home. We were able to climb through the entire house and see how the rooms were set up and where work was done – it was fascinating.

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Colorful koinoburi greeted visitors to the aquarium

After leaving the springs we headed over to a nearby small freshwater aquarium. Because of the streams coming off of Mt. Fuji and out of the other surrounding mountains, trout are plentiful in the area as are sturgeon. The kids especially enjoyed spending time here, and we came across several more farmers selling vegetables, apples, and eggs at the side of the parking lot – both my DIL and I were very tempted!

Then it was on to a nearby restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed another area specialty: houtou. These are wide, thick udon noodles served in broth. I ordered noodles with pumpkin, Brett had his with pork, and the lunch sets included pink rice (cooked with red beans), pickles, tofu and some other treats. We left with full, happy stomachs.

Pumpkin houtou set for lunch – I ate every bite.

Rain was coming down as we left the restaurant and Mt. Fuji was still swathed in heavy clouds, so we decided to split up for a while before going to our cabin. Brett and I wanted to visit the Itchiku Kubota Museum just down the road, and our son, DIL and kids needed to do some grocery shopping. The museum was the most beautiful I have ever visited in my life and worthy of a separate post.

The kitchen at the cabin.
The soaking tub was fully programmable – you filled and heated the water (and maintained the heat) from a remote control in the great room.
The cabin was paneled in pine which gave off a lovely, soft aroma throughout the house.

Our cabin for the next two days was wonderful. The house slept 10, and had a great room with a large, extremely well-equipped kitchen; a huge, luxurious soaking bath; a tatami room downstairs for two; and two bedrooms upstairs that slept four each. Both Brett and I said we could have happily lived in that house – it was lovely.

Mt. Fuji emerged from the clouds as the sun began to set.
Grandpa helped K with some after-dinner fireworks.

After getting unpacked and the food put away, we all took a short nap and awoke a couple of hours later to the magnificent sight of Mt. Fuji coming out of the clouds as the sun set – a beautiful ending to a terrific day, and a promise of a beautiful day to come.

Golden Week

Although next Monday is the official start of Golden Week in Japan, because the first holiday falls on a Monday almost everyone’s time off will begin on Saturday. Every year four national holidays occur in the span of one week, and many if not most companies and schools throughout the country close down for the duration. Golden Week is the longest vacation break for most Japanese workers, and along with New Year’s and the Obon festival in August, it’s one of the top three times for vacationing in Japan, with lots of both local and international travel. The name “Golden Week” came about because so many resorts, hotels, inns and travel agencies earned so much income during the week.

Mt. Fuji looms over Hakone National Park. Lots of geothermal activity occurs within the park as well.

Our son said that this might be a good week for us to visit places in Tokyo as the city sort of empties out, so Brett and I are planning to visit the National Museum in Ueno Park, and the nearby Yanaka neighborhood, which was undamaged during the WWII bombings and provides a look at Tokyo pre-war architecture and neighborhood structure. We are also going for a two-day visit to the Hakone-Izu National Park with our son and family this coming Saturday and Sunday; they rented a cabin for us there and we’ll get to visit various sites in the park as well as get an up-close look at Mt. Fuji (If the weather isn’t too bad – sadly the forecast for Saturday is rain and freezing temperatures). On May 5 we will travel to Saitama Prefecture to have lunch with our daughter-in-law’s parents, a much-anticipated event as her mother is an amazing cook (last time we visited she made homemade udon noodles!).

The four official holidays that fall during the coming week are:

  1. April 29: Showa Day (昭和の日 Shōwa no Hi). Showa is probably better known to most of the world as Emperor Hirohito, with his birthday on the 29th a national holiday, beginning in 1927. Following his death in 1989 the holiday’s name was changed to Greenery Day, a day to think about nature and be grateful for one’s blessings. The day was officially changed to Showa Day in 2007.
  2. May 3: Constitution Memorial Day ((憲法記念日 Kenpō Kinenbi). This holiday celebrates the day the postwar constitution of 1947 took effect, and is a day to remember and reflect on Japan’s history. Public buildings such as the Diet (the national capital) are open to the public and public lectures are given about Japan’s role in World War II.
  3. May 4: Greenery Day (みどりの日 Midori no Hi)Previously the holiday was known as Citizen’s Holiday, but in with the April 29th holiday change to Showa Day, Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

    Koinobori fly over a house near our grandson’s school.
  4. May 5: Children’s Day (子供の日Kodomo no Hi). This is probably the most well-know holiday, and is also known as Boy’s Day (girls are celebrated on March 15 with Hina Matsuri). Large carp banners, koinoburi, are flown at residences where there is a son or in large groupings in other places to celebrate the holiday. If flown at a home there is typically a large black carp at the top to represent the father, then a smaller red carp to represent the mother, and finally smaller blue carp for each of the sons. Decorations inside the home may include a display of a samurai riding a carp and/or a samurai helmet, both which indicate strength and vitality.

    Our grandson’s samurai helmet is displayed for a few weeks before Children’s Day.

This year during Golden Week a very special event will occur: the current emperor, Akihito, will abdicate the throne on April 30, the first emperor to do so in over 200 years, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, will ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Emperor Akihito is 85 years old and in frail health, and had come to feel the job was too demanding for him at his advanced age. In Japan, a new era only begins the day after an emperor dies, but in this case the name for the new era, Reiwa (令和時代), was announced early so that calendars, computer software, etc. could be changed in a timely manner. The enthronement, or coronation, of Emperor Naruhito will take place on October 22.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko
Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako

The upcoming change to a new emperor is special for us because we were living in Japan when Emperor Hirohito died, and the Heisei Era (平成時代) began, and now are here again when that era ends and another one begins. Emperor Naruhito will be the 126th emperor of the longest reigning dynasty in the world.

Revisiting the Yasukuni Shrine

The Syagō Hyō, a stone pillar at the entrance engraved with the name of the shrine. 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the shrine, so there are repairs and improvements being done all throughout the grounds.

Last month Brett and I gave up before we got to the main structures at the Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社). After a day of walking all over downtown Tokyo, by the time we got to the shrine we were worn out, so only walked down the main pathway to the torii gate at the entrance before turning around and heading back to the station to go home.

Immense stone lanterns and temple lions flank the entrance to the Yasukuni Shrine.
The lantern-lined path leads up to the main shrine enclosure and the Yushukan museum. Brett and I made it as far as the torii in the distance on our first visit.

Yesterday we ended up with an unexpected “free” day – the grands’ other grandmother came to watch our granddaughter for the day, who is still home with a cold, and our son was able to pick up our grandson from his school. So, since it was a lovely day, and the Yasukuni Shrine is just a few stops down from our station on the subway line, we decided it would be a good time to revisit the shrine as well as tour the museum there, which we had been told was a must-see, and the most interesting thing at the shrine.

The entrance to the main shrine enclosure.
Verdigris coats the bronze torii at the entrance.
On the doors of the main gate are huge gold chrysanthemums, the Imperial crest.

Yasukuni was founded by the Emperor Meiji in 1869 and commemorates those who died in service to Japan, beginning with the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868. Interestingly, the shrine’s name means “Pacifying the Nation” even though it is dedicated to war dead. Before the war Yasukuni was an official state Shinto shrine, but following the war that relationship was terminated and now it’s an individual religious corporation, maintained and supported through private funds. The names, birth dates, and place of death of nearly 2.5 million men, women, children and even pets are enshrined at Yasukuni, and the shrine also has interred the souls of anyone killed during WWII, including those from other countries.

The main shrine. There was a memorial service going on inside while we were there.
Most shinto shrines are tended by young women (miko), but at Yasukuni the attendants were young men.

Of all those enshrined, 1,068 are war criminals, including fourteen Class A war criminals – those responsible for the planning, preparation and waging of WWII, including General Tojo – which has created controversy over the years, especially from countries who suffered under the Japanese during the war. Originally, the U.S. Occupation Authority (GHQ) planned to raze the shrine and put a dog track in its place, but officials were reminded that honoring war dead is the sacred duty of any country and let the shrine stay. It was during this time that Yasukuni became an independent religious activity.

Performances were going on a stage on the shrine grounds. The woman above sang while accompanied by a shamisen. Chairs were set up under the trees for an audience. Later a man appeared to be presenting a puppet show.

Yasukuni-jinja had a very different feel to it than other shrines we’ve visited, but that just may be because its purpose is very different from other shrines. I don’t believe we have anything similar in the United States, although maybe Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier may come close. Up until 1944, the names of the war dead were read and enshrined at Yasukuni every day, as national heroes with great pomp and ceremony, and citizens were required to listen to the services on the radio.

The first thing you see upon entering the Yushukan museum is a Mitsubishi Zero fighter. They were used during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and were called the “scourge” of the Pacific war because of their speed and capabilities.
This restored engine actually served on the Thai-Burma railroad, which was built for the Japanese by British and American prisoners of war. Thailand returned the engine to Japan for the museum.
The final several rooms we walked through in the museum were filled with boards holding over 10,000 photos of Japanese war dead from the Second World War. It was a very sobering exhibit. Every war has two sides, and these men also served and died for their country.

The last place we visited at the shrine was the Yushukan Museum. We found the museum’s point of view to be interesting, to say the least. We found it a bit disturbing that major periods, such as the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation of Manchuria in 1931 were referred to only in the context of “incidents.” According to the Nanking exhibit for example, it was only Chinese military members dressed in civilian clothes trying to escape who were “dealt with,” completely avoiding the horrific massacre of the civilian population that took place. There was very little about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and although I didn’t really expect to see much of anything on the topic, there was nothing mentioned anywhere about prisoners of war. In other words, there was nothing in the museum expressing acknowlegement of the death, destruction, and suffering brought on by a war Japan precipitated. Still, in spite of the tone and the small amount of English available in the displays, the museum’s exhibits were interesting and we were both glad we had taken the time to go through it.

Passing back through the main gate to leave the shrine – a few cherry trees were still in bloom at the shrine.
Sitting between the Yasukuni Shrine and the Budokan, on a tall stone base, is the Kudan Hill lighthouse (Jotomyodai), built in 1871 next to the shrine.

I don’t think I could ever get tired of visiting shrines and temples in Japan. From the large and important, to small structures perched on the side of the road, there is something intrinsically fascinating about each one. Yasukuni Shrine serves a very distinctive function in Japan, and along with the museum made for a thought-provoking visit.

Japan Miscellany

A few things not big enough for their own post:

My surprisingly delicious matcha bagel had tiny white chocolate chips.
  • The other day at the commissary Brett and I bought a loaf of American-made seven-grain bread. I used some for sandwiches the day before yesterday, and the first comment from both of us was, “Wow – the bread is so sweet!” This was our favorite kind of bread back in the States, and we never noticed it before, but after two months here we have become accustomed to things being a lot less sweet. Yesterday our daughter-in-law brought me a matcha bagel with white chocolate chips. I was a little wary about how it might taste, but the chips offered a tiny bit of sweetness, and otherwise it was a nice chewy, yeasty bagel with a slight matcha flavor – delicious! Besides enjoying foods with little to no sugar, things here also seem to have a lot less fat – our palates are going to have to readjust when we get back to the U.S.
  • Spring has arrived – flowers are blooming everywhere and the cherry blossoms have come and gone – so when it was 70+ degrees yesterday we figured it was time to ditch the jackets and break out the spring clothing. I went without a jacket, Brett put on shorts . . . and boy did we get some looks! Most people seem to still be wearing darker colors I associate with fall and winter along with sweaters, jackets or a coat. I remember once I wore a sleeveless dress here on an especially hot day during Indian summer, and got many stares because I was apparently not dressed appropriately for the fall season. Maybe there is a dress code in Japan, and certain dates when can safely switch one’s clothing from one season to the next, but I have no idea if that’s true or when that is.
  • Above is a page of calligraphy Brett produced last week in his class. Lots of orange corrections from the sensei, but see the small circle-like strokes in a couple of places? Those indicate his brushwork is correct! He studies every day, practicing his kanji and learning both characters and the kana, although the brush he bought last week is too large and causing him problems. One of the things I love about Japan is that while his teacher is considered a master calligrapher, she still studies under her master! The pursuit of perfection is a lifetime goal here, no matter what form of art you pursue.

    I’d like to say I’m sitting in this chair as I type, but actually I’ve slid down to where I’m practically lying flat! 
  • We don’t have a sofa in our apartment, just two big leather armchairs (and one ottoman). They are mostly comfortable, but the leather is slippery so as I read or write in my chair I slowly slip down, ending up almost on my back after a while. Also, I had to put tape on the bottom of the ottoman because it was slipping across the rug and I was ending up in the space between it and the chair (which was annoying but also funny). Lower furniture is just one of those things we have to deal with in Japan, with the chairs nearer to the ground than we are used to, and it can require extra effort (especially in the knees) to get up. Brett usually sits at the dining room table to read and work, but those chairs are low as well. We like our apartment but I have to admit we’re looking forward to having a good old American sofa to stretch out on again.

    Three of our CookDo favorites here: sweet & sour pork, chili shrimp, and stir-fried pork & peppers. The instructions are in pictures on the back so they’re very easy to follow and prepare.
  • It’s been difficult at times coming up with ideas for meals when all we have is a cooktop, a small microwave, a rice cooker, and a small kitchen. We eat American foods occasionally when we can find stuff we like at the commissary (things like bacon or sausage, or Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese or stuffed green peppers), but I mostly use things we find in the supermarkets here. I miss being able to make casseroles or put something into the slow cooker. My favorite product here is CookDo, sauces for making easy and delicious Chinese dishes. I used CookDo back in Hawai’i to make mabo nasu (ground pork with eggplant) and mabo dofu (ground pork with tofu), but we only could afford them when we could find them on sale, and even then it was $3 – $4/package, a real splurge. In Hawai’i a store might have three or four different sauces, but here there are over 30 varieties (!!!) available, and a package costs around $1. The bottom of both of our suitcases will be filled with packages of CookDo when we return to the U.S.
  • There will be giveaways after we return to the U.S. – three of them! I have been having a great time putting things together and hope you’ll be motivated to enter. Stay tuned!
  • Finally, I am currently unable to comment on Blogger. I have made comments using the Name/URL selection on several blogs, but when I hit submit the comment vanishes. I don’t know if it’s a WordPress thing, a Blogger thing, a Japan thing, or a combination of all three.

Living In Japan: The Dream vs. Reality

If we could live here, this would be my dream apartment! The reality is that it’s probably completely unaffordable – traditional Japanese craftsmanship does not come cheap.

Brett and I have often said if there was a visa available for us, we’d move to Tokyo in a heartbeat. It’s is a busy, crowded space, but it’s safe, and every trip out is a learning experience and an adventure. Our two months of living here hasn’t killed the dream, but it has been tempered by a more realistic view of what life here might be like for us. Here are some of the major issues we’ve become aware of, both good and bad:

Basically all I understand on this sign is the picture of the Kirin Beer can . . . and this is one of the less difficult ones to decipher.
  • Language: Through the kindness of strangers, lots of help from our son and daughter-in-law, translation options on many machines, and simple common sense, we’ve been able to navigate through most language issues here, but not being able to read about 95% of any signs, or not being able to communicate in anything but the most rudimentary phrases would definitely be an issue if we lived here. We know our lack of language ability means we miss out on a while lot of what’s going on. We both agree that we would both absolutely have to enroll in language classes right from the start if we were ever to have any chance of a successful life here. I continue to be extremely grateful that I can read hiragana and katakana, and know a few kanji, which has helped us at times through the past eight weeks, but for the most part my slight knowledge Japanese is worthless (and pitiful).
  • Finances: We’ve looked at the ads for apartment rentals, and we could comfortably afford a new, modern one or two bedroom apartment in the area where we are now (Setagaya), so housing wouldn’t be as big an issue as we initially imagined. Of course we’re not paying for utilities at the moment, so have no idea how much those would add to the cost of living here. Our monthly average for groceries and dining out has been around $450, which is also more affordable than we thought it would be, and our ability to shop at the commissaries and at Costco has helped our bottom line. While we would have to be careful with our spending, we have enough income that besides our living expenses here we could still help with YaYu’s college expenses and pay for things like language classes, rail passes and occasional travel around Japan.
  • Transportation: The train system in Tokyo and throughout Japan is a marvel, and is very affordable too, much more so than owning a car. We’ve had no problems getting around the city, and combined with our son or DIL occasionally taking us places in their car and LOTS of walking we get around OK.

    A Stairmaster would be redundant in Tokyo – these subway stairs show how many calories you’re burning (our station adds an additional two flights up and down). The Tokyo Hands store has this on their stairs as well.
  • Health and wellness: It’s a rare day that Brett and I don’t walk at least two miles (that’s the distance of the walk to our son’s and back, for example), but we often walk much more, up to six miles a day, so we are getting lots of exercise. Thankfully I have not suffered even once from bursitis while we have been here which has been a blessing. However, included in all this walking are stairs, lots and lots and lots of stairs. We climb and descend numerous flights of stairs every day, typically 12 at a minimum. Just to go to our son’s home, for example, we have to go down four flights to get to the subway platform at our station, and up three at our son’s station to get to the street (and then reverse it coming home).  All those stairs have done a number on my knees, and combined with Japan’s bitter cold weather and having to get up from low furniture (everything is closer to the ground here) on some days I have experienced quite a bit of pain in my knees, especially climbing the stairs. We use escalators whenever possible, but there is no way to get around eventually having to deal with flights of stairs. I’m not sure we’ve lost any weight while we’ve been here, but other than my knees bothering me, we are in much, much better physical shape than we were when we arrived back in February. As for healthcare, if we lived here we would be eligible for Japan’s wonderful national health system, and we also have our military insurance and could receive treatment at any of the bases.
  • Miscellaneous: 1) I’ve been frustrated not having an oven or a slow cooker in our apartment, but both of those are things we could take care of if we lived here, even if we only got a toaster oven. 2) I have had some real issues with my body image here. I am an average-sized person in the U.S., but when I am surrounded by Japanese women I feel quite huge and clumsy. Also, I’m the rare person around here with gray hair, but Brett says it makes me easy to spot in a crowd ;-). 3) We had forgotten how bitterly cold it gets here in the winter, the kind of cold that gets into your bones and chills you from the inside out. It also gets extremely humid in the summer, worse than it ever was in Hawai’i, which is something else we’d have to deal with as well if we lived here, although most apartments have air conditioning. 4) A big issue for both of us if we lived here would be clothing – it’s difficult if not impossible to find things in our sizes although we could buy clothes (from a very limited selection) at the military exchanges, or order things online from the U.S. and have them shipped here (expensive). 5) Finally, we realize that if we were here we would be even further away from the girls than we were in Hawai’i, but they have all said they’d love it if we could live here full time as it gives them lots of good excuses to visit Japan.

After two months of living in Tokyo the positives of being here still outweigh the negatives, and we would still relish the chance to make a life here if it were possible. However, we’re no longer wearing rose-colored glasses about what our life here would be like – there would be some serious issues we’d have to work around or overcome, some of them not very easy at our ages. It’s still fun to dream though.

Todoroki Ravine Park

Signs in the sidewalk in Todoroki pointed us to the park. The entrance was just a short walk from Todoroki station in the Setagaya ward.

Tuesday morning, Brett and I set out on a mystery outing. I had read about Todoroki Ravine Park in Super Cheap Tokyo and thought it sounded like a place both Brett and I would like to visit. I kept the destination a surprise from Brett, so when we started out in the morning he had no idea where we were going, and because I’d never been either it was a mystery to me as well. All I knew in advance was how to get there.

At our station change, we spied the top of Mt. Fuji poking up in the background between the buildings.

As I’ve said before, Tokyo often appears to be nothing more than a mass of concrete, but throughout the city there are wonderful parks where one can immerse themselves in nature and forget they’re in a city of over nine million people. Todoroki Ravine Park took that experience to a new level.

Heading down into the valley, the sound of rushing water overtakes city noises.
Looking back at Golf Bridge and its reflection. The bridge was named for a former golf course that spanned the valley in the early 20th century.
Lacy Japanese maples among the spring greenery.

The ravine is the only natural valley in the 23 wards that make up the Tokyo metropolis, cut by the Yazawa river on its way to join the larger Tama River. Unlike most parks in the Tokyo area, the ravine has mostly been left untamed, and it’s filled with giant trees, bamboo and other plants, with the river rushing through the center. As we descended into the park, we noticed the air became cooler and the river drowned out the noise of the city. We were immersed in nothing more than the sounds of nature.

This hand-carved water purification basin marked the entrance to a small temple in the park.
Across the river was another small shrine, Chiego Daishi Mieido. Behind this shrine is the Fudo Waterfall, now very small but formerly used for ascetic training.
Other small shrines sat on the sides of the ravine.

We discovered that there is more to the valley than just natural beauty. Along the way we came across temples and small shrines, and a steep stairway leading up to the site of some ancient tombs (which we skipped). There was also a wonderful traditional tearoom called Setsugetsuka, where visitors can relax and sip green tea from pottery chawan (tea bowls), nibble on traditional sweets, and relax under the shade of a large wagasa (Japanese umbrella). Occasionally along the path were benches for rest and contemplation, and about halfway down the path was a stone seating spot where it looked as if you could dangle your feet in the water.

We did not attempt the five flights of stairs leading up to the ancient tombs.
The Setsugetsuka tea room
The tearoom’s noren (shop curtain). The kanji are characters for “snow moon flower.”

Towards the end of the walking path, we came across a large wooden platform on the left with steps leading up. We were a bit afraid to climb up as we thought it was part of someone’s home, but we saw others go up and it turned out to be a large platform for viewing cherry blossoms, and looking out over the park, and was attached to a lovely small temple, Todoroki Fudoson, said to be in existence for nearly 1,300 years. The temple grounds were filled with lush plantings of colorful spring flowers, and next to the temple we found a small ice cream shop where Brett and I enjoyed some sakura mochi ice cream while we rested and took in the temple.

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At the very end of the valley path was an unassuming wall and gate, the entrance to a more formal Japanese garden. We decided not to enter, but stood outside for a few minutes to look up at a towering grove of bamboo inside and enjoy the sound of the wind blowing through the tops of the trees before turning around to head back to our starting point.

The outer Japanese garden wall
Looking up at the towering bamboo grove

As we had some time before picking up our grandson from school, Brett and I decided to leave “the sublime for the ridiculous” and headed back to the craziness of Shibuya to visit Tokyu Hands for lunch and get Brett some calligraphy tools for practice between classes.

A tea float at Tokyu Hands made the visit to Shibuya worthwhile.

Japan never gets boring, and Todoroki Ravine Park has to be one of Tokyo’s hidden gems, a gorgeous, peaceful green space and relaxing getaway in a the hustle and bustle of an incredibly busy and crowded city.

One of the many little falls along the way in Todoroki Ravine Park – a natural oasis in Tokyo.