Why go to Germany?

Turns out Japan is a big fan of Oktoberfest. There’s a huge Oktoberfest every year in Yokohama, which reflects the city’s history of being the first point of entry for German beer into the country. Wilf really wants to go one year but we’ve never quite lined it up.

And guess what – never mind the October in Oktoberfest! In Tokyo any month is Oktoberfest worthy. And so we found ourselves at Hibiya Park the other night, joining in the beer drinking.

And in we go!

The beer was good – all German. In the background you can see a young man – a sleight of hand magician. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, but the crowd loved him and he was very entertaining.

And the food –

I went for the small plate of sausages. Could have a plate with 12, which seemed excessive. They were keeping pretty tightly to the theme – the only non-German food I saw on a menu was nachos.

After the magician was finished a band started up. They began with a series of German drinking songs to get people warmed up. The night was young, so it wasn’t too busy and people weren’t too far into the beer. But we could see where this was going!

After getting everyone warmed up with drinking songs they moved on to ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘La Bamba’ to really get things going.

We didn’t stay late as we still had a long train journey across town, but it was fun!

And this is probably my last post for this trip. We head home tomorrow. We’ve had a great time and seen and done so much! And eaten so much! We have wandered through many interesting neighbourhoods and then come back to our neighbourhood to discover something else that is new to us.

Like this – two random samba dancers coming down the street last Friday:

They had a drummer with them and we never did find out what that was about! So -you never know what you are going to see. Just gotta keep looking around!

And then – horses!

When we were in Japan last year Wilf had us lined up to see a demonstration of horseback mounted archers in one of the parks in Tokyo. In the end the event was held, but with no spectators due to Covid concerns. That was a disappointment.

Not to be deterred Wilf kept checking around and he found a competition that was going to be held in Asakusa in May. In our neighbourhood! While we were there!

The event was sponsored by the city of Taito, in which Asakusa is located. We braved the municipal website, translated info into Japanese as requested and secured two tickets.

Last Saturday dawned sunny and bright, so we got out our hats, sunglasses and sunscreen and headed for the park beside the Sumida River. We were able to claim our wristbands and souvenir tote bags and found ourselves a spot across from target number two. It was blazing hot, so like most people we put our things on our chairs and then retreated to the shade until things got going.

Long ago archers on horseback were a part of warfare, and there were archers at this competition representing two different periods in Japanese history. With the advance of longer range weapons the use of archers faded away and the practice nearly died out. But it was associated with the practice of Shinto, and held on through the ages.

There were about a dozen archers for the competition, and a much larger number of other participants. There were the officials who judged. Each of the three targets had attendants who gathered the arrow and replaced the targets. All of this was done with great solemnity.

Here is the parade of archers and officials.

Each archer would attempt to hit three targets on each pass. They would be more or less standing in the stirrups, controlling the horse with their knees while knocking and firing the arrow with a very big bow. A lot happens very quickly.

The archer has just clipped the target and you can see the arrow bouncing back – it is just above the horses rear flank.

When the target get hits like that a totally destroyed a packet of confetti on the back is released to prove that it was a serious hit!

Racing past the officials aiming for the target!

It was a very interesting day and we sure got an opportunity to appreciate the training of both the archers and the horses. And another example of events in the community that involve a large number of people to make it all happen.

Many thanks to the hard work of the competitors, and to the city of Taito for making it happen!

Always learning new things

Travel sure provides an opportunity to learn things. This trip has been no exception. We’ve learned about Shinto shrines, and had a chance to go inside one. and this week we learned more about Buddhism.

Much of our exposure to Buddhism has been Zen Buddhism, and that always calls up images of monks in silent meditation, sitting for long hours of contemplation.

In our travels over the years we have encountered Buddhism in Thailand and Myanmar – throughout Southeast Asia, in addition to in Japan. In fact in 2015 we stayed at a Buddhist monastery at Koyasan, where we witnessed a fire ceremony.

This week we went to a Buddhist temple. Although Buddhists do not worship a God, there are deities who are worshiped. This temple serves a fire deity, called Fudo-myoo.

A new hall was opened in 2012 and 500 people can attend the ceremony, which occurs maybe 6 times per day.

On the left of the picture above you can see something in black and white.

Sanskrit lettering which represents the mantra used in the ceremony.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, no photos allowed inside. I will have to tell you as best I can.

Above the ceremonial area is a huge glittering golden canopy. There is a large area below it where the fire itself resides. There were also three large taiko drums.

The monks filed in, six of whom were blowing on conch shells. The senior officiant was escorted in and sat on a stool with his back to us. His escort seated him self behind one of the drums. The ceremony began with chanting and drumming on little drums – the monks with the conch shells had switched to drums. Then the fellow sitting behind one of the large drums stood up and picked up a stick about the thickness of a baseball bat. He positioned himself in front of the very large drum, braced his feet, raised his arms and waited. When he hit the drum we nearly jumped out of our seats. Suddenly we were in the midst of a takio drum performance.

As the ceremony went on the drumming would stop for a bit. Small sticks of wood were added to the fire, which leapt up a good three feet – good thing the golden canopy was a long way up! An assistant went around to the back of the fire area and would take down pairs of wooden boards that had writing on them and would wave them through the fire and smoke, then put them back. Some had been through the smoke many times as they were quite sooty. Worldly concerns are written on the wooden sticks and boards and are burned away.

So on it went, fire, smoke, chanting, conch shells, small drums. Just when we were being lulled into quiet there would be an outburst of taiko drumming.

And then all but one of the monks filed out. The last man there spoke to the crowd for a bit, bowed and left.

We filed out, found a bench and looked at each other. Well, that was totally unexpected. Not the quiet contemplation one might have expected. Big flames, big noise, smoke and incense and golden glitter. It was quite amazing.

Looking at the brochure we had acquired we discovered that behind the main hall is a corridor that contains 10,000 small Fudo-son statues in crystal cases. We had to go see that, too…..

I have no reason to doubt that there are 10,000 little crystal globes, each one containing a sculpture of the Fudo-son. It is said you will be blessed when you walk through the corridor touching the prayer beads hung along the wall.

Ladies and Gentlemen – The Yomiuri Giants

We’ve always wanted to go to a baseball game in Japan. We usually visit in the Fall, which is when the Japan Series is on, so a difficult time to get tickets. Not to mention the logistics of acquiring tickets online. But, being here this time in the Spring we figured tickets might be more available. And, there is a service available that will get the tickets and deliver them to your hotel for you. That is what we did and when we checked in an envelope was waiting for us.

The Yomiuri Giants have been around since the 1930’s, and are often referred to as the New York Yankees of Japan. They win the series a lot and people have strong opinions about them. They are owned by a media conglomerate that has a major TV network and the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major newspaper.

The game was at the Tokyo Dome, which sits about 46,000 for baseball and which is part of a huge entertainment complex. The game started at 6:00 but we got there just before 5:00 to make sure that we could find our seats, our food and get settled.

Hot dogs and beer – check!

And if you run out of beer – well there are lovely young ladies who run and up and down, ready to refill your glass.

No cash – transit card, watch, phone. And if you prefer whisky highball – there’s a gal for that, too!

It was a good game – the Giants pitcher pitched the whole game, and they won 1-0. Low score but some great action and great plays. I’m not really great with the super fine details of baseball, but it all looked familiar. The pace of the game was great – no dawdling while the batter adjusted his gloves over and over.

We were seated in the lower level along the first base line. By the time the game got started the place was full. Across from us there were two super fan areas – all in blue for the BayStars, in orange for the Giants.

While the players were certainly competitive, there was also more co-operation. Mascots came out together and did things together, and the cheerleaders for both teams performed together.

A little pregame light show

One thing there is in Japanese baseball is singing. There is a song for each team that the fans sing. But there is also a song for each player. Everyone sings the player’s song when they come up to bat. No DJ in the house pumping out random clips of music….

Here’s what it sounds like:

It was a fun day, a fun game and I’m glad we finally go to go!

A visit to Enoshima

After all the hullabaloo of the matsuri weekend we decided to take a little day trip. Enoshima Island is a little island south of Tokyo. One of the surprising things about the subway system here is that some of the subway lines go much further than you realize. The announcements will say ‘This train is bound for Shinjuku’, but it turns on if you stay in board it pops above ground and the next thing you know you are in Yokohama or some other city. In this case we had about a 90 minute journey from our hotel to the island. One subway and two trains – not bad at all!

At low tide a sandbar sort of connects Enoshima to the mainland, but most of the time it is an island. From the train station we walked across the causeway.

Wilf took this picture from a high point on the island – you can see the causeway across, and the beaches. The island has a definite beachey vibe to it. Lots of seafood restaurants. Lots of souvenir shops.

Wilf went for the mixed sashimi bowl. Whitebait (tiny little whole fish) are a specialty of the island – here he has them both raw and cooked.

I had the whitebait rice bowl with salmon roe, tiny little shrimp and a quail egg. It was really good! So fresh. Out in front of our restaurant there was a sign board for various types of ice cream

As good as our whitebait lunch was neither of us were prepared to try the whitebait ice cream.

It was a very hot day and after we had our lunch we were contemplating what to do next. There is a small ferry that runs from the far side of the island back to the mainland, but it was not running today. We were discussing how we felt about going up the top of the mountain when we noticed that we could buy a ticket for the escalators to the top. Escalators! Sign me up! And sure enough up we went. At the first stop there was a big Buddhist temple, so we paused to check that out. Next stop took us to a nice lookout.

There was a stand upon which we could rest our phone and use the timer to take pictures. My ineptitude at this task was such that a kind passerby took pity and took the above picture of us.

The third set of escalators took us to the top of the island, where Wilf took the first picture in this blog post. There is a lovely botanical garden up there, named after Samuel Cocking, a 19th century British merchant. There is also a structure called the Sea Candle.

Great views from up there. We couldn’t see Mt Fuji as there was too much marine haze. But it was lovely and breezy on the top deck with places to sit so we could enjoy the view.

The escalators only went up, so did have to walk back down. Fortunately the stairs were of a standard depth and width and the path was mostly through the trees, so it was a pleasant walk back down.

Given the number of souvenir shops, the size of the parking lots and the train access I expect that the island is crazy busy during the high season. We had a lovely day for our trip and are happy to finally have gotten to Enoshima.

Sanja Matsuri – Day 3

Day three of the festival is the day when all the shrine get paraded through their actual immediate neighbourhood. The past two days have been about going to and from the shrine and small processions.

The day actually starts very early at the shrine with a ceremony where groups compete to move the big mikoshi associated with the shrine. Apparently it is rather a rambunctious affair and they don’t want random tourist getting in the way. And its a 06:00, a little early for us.

On Saturday the main street was still in use by vehicles – the parade was crossing with the traffic lights. Not today, the police had blocked the street top and bottom with big buses and people and mikoshi were all over the street.

We came across one group getting ready to send out their kid’s mikoshi.

In this picture the kids were getting organized to carry the shrine. They played round of ‘rock paper scissors’ (which is called janken in Japanese). The little girl came out on top. She’s so tiny that they put her up on the carry handles to start things off. In her hands you can just see a wooden stick. She has a pair that she claps in a set pattern. ‘Clack clack clack. Clack clack clack. Clack’ Everyone else claps along in that pattern and off they went.

This group had a cart with a drum leading them.

The cart was being pulled by the local grandmothers – forgot to take a picture of them – oops!

And here they are in action:

At this point we had pretty much had enough of the whistles, the drums, the clacking of sticks, so we decided to go elsewhere. Korea-town seemed like a good idea – maybe some street food? We took the metro, then a JR train and got to the station without incident. Walked out of the station into a wall of people. Every person in Tokyo who wasn’t at the Sanja was on this street, especially if they were under 25. We looked up the street and it was a mob scene and the lines at all the shops were out the door.

We looked at each other and said ‘Um, no.’ Where are we? One stop from Shinjuku, where there is a big park. Even on a Sunday there would be a quiet green spot to relax in. So that is what we did. Found a spot on a bench under a tree, watched the world go by. And then walked to a little pub called ‘Watering Hole’ for a beer and a chat with the folks at the next table (who were from Vancouver…)

By the time we got back to Asakusa the party was still going on, the streets were still closed to traffic. The mikoshi were tucked away for another year and the shrine bearers were out drinking beer and having fun.

It was all that we expected – and then some!

On the street where we live

So, last you heard your intrepid travelers were wending their way home from the crowds at the centre of the matsuri activities. It was a bit of a salmon upstream kind of thing, but we got to our street. And it was crowded but not impossibly so. Our street intersects with Hoppy Street, which is full of small bars and eateries which is always busy. Our street – Rokku Street once was lined with theatres – there are still a few – and was the heart of the old entertainment district. Lots of eateries, including a very popular Korean hot dog shop.

When we came to the street there were lots of people in matching happi coats, but that was true of ever where we went. And sure enough – there was a mikoshi just heading off from almost right in front of our hotel.

We are on the seventh floor – the mikoshi was leaving but another smaller one was already at the corner.

Off they both went.

This was fairly short fairly local little visit because soon they were back. At the bottom of the picture you can see the cart with the drums. And just above it the all important station serving free beer to participants.

The mikoshi, resting after its journey

One door down from us there are ninjas. Not at all unusual to look up and see them hanging out. Their actual business is entertaining kids – getting them dressed up as ninjas and teaching them some moves, taking them through the neighbourhood. As one does.

Down at street level beer was being drunk, pictures taken and a good time was had by all. They guys on the right brought a tarp and after the free beer for the participants they settled in for a long stretch in front of the bar next door.

In the distance you can see the big Don Quixote store (known locally as Donki) where we get our provisions. Five floors of stuff you didn’t know you needed, open 24 hours. Great source of beer and snacks!

So – we survived day two of the matsuri, saw lots of great stuff and had a party on our door step. What’s next?

Sanja Matsuri – Day 2

Saturday at the Sanja Matsuri is the day for blessing the portable shrines – all of them. We went to one of our favorite coffee shops for breakfast with a plan to seek out the parade once we had eaten. Turns out our restaurant was pretty much right on the route. Kaminarimon-dori (thunder gate street) is the big street that bounds this neighbourhood to the south. The shrine parade was coming from somewhere on the other side of the street and crossing at Orange Street. (Interestingly Orange Street is spelt in English, not in the Japanese spelling of oranji, and the road is painted orange. If we get disoriented we can always figure where we are if we see the orange street. Anyhow)

The traffic was still flowing on Kaminarimon-dori, and the police were managing the parade crossing the traffic. Everyone followed the traffic signals and one group at a time made their way across.

Each neighbourhood group has their own distinctive jacket. And everybody is out to support their shrine.

Some groups brought their own musicians. Also in this picture you can see the saw horses if they need to put the shrine down.

There were miniature shrines for kids to carry – though as you can see helping adult hands are rarely far away!

A couple of things to remember. The really big shrines are heavy – can weigh up to a ton. And they don’t just carry them along. Every so often they start to shake and toss the shrine back and forth. This is, apparently, to energize the kami inside. Early in the parade they are still pretty feisty and there is lots of shaking going on.

Here’s a quick clip of what it sounds like

Crossing Kaminari-dori

I wasn’t kidding about Orange Street being – you know – orange…

From Orange street they parade turns right onto one of the old shopping streets and then will intersect with the main road that leads to the temple and shrine. We decided to turn the other way and work our way around the edge of the temple complex and down the other side to not get caught up in the parade congestion. We zigged and zagged through the neigbourhood, passed through the food stall areas and met up with the parade after they passed the second big gate before the temple.

At this point a clear shot of anything is pretty tough with people everywhere. There were little gaps between the groups so we could jump out and try for pictures – and eventually get to the other side. The above picture shows a group, led by the local dignitaries – passing under the Hozomon Gate.

This is the view in the other direction, looking at Sansoji temple. The parade swings to the left and carries around behind the temple. The shrine where the ceremony will happen is to the right, so we hotfooted it across the parade and headed over.

Though the parade has been going on for a bit the crowds aren’t too bad yet. Yet. The police were set up to manage the traffic and the guy with the microphone spent a lot of time saying ‘Gochuui kudasai‘ – please be careful. Mostly telling them to be careful and stay out the way of the guys carrying the big shrines….

We found a little high point to stand and look over the crowd. This is the view to the gate as they leave the shrine precinct – you can see the two officials directing them out. It appeared that going through the gate is a really good time for the shrine to get a shaking so we saw some pretty good maneuvers. You can also see how may people are holding this shrine up – its a big one.

And then a little one for the kids. You can see a couple of Dads at the front sort of steering things, but for the most part the kids have it.

Here’s a video to give you an idea of what it looked and sounded like:

After an hour or more hanging on a lamp post (sort of) we decided it was time to figure out how to get out of there. We found a way out the side – with a quick stop for fried chicken replenishment:

Even without the pictures I can read that sign!

Turns out getting out was a bit of a challenge. We couldn’t go behind the big temple because it was pretty much a parking lot for waiting mikoshi and there were serious fences in place. Couldn’t go around the front because the crowd was crazy thick and the exiting mikoshi were there. We eventually realized that the temple itself was being used as a passageway, so we climbed up the side steps, scurried across the sacred space (making our apologies to Kannon, goddess of mercy) and back down the steps on the other side. Swam through the crowds and passed the street of food stalls.

If we can just get through that gate we’ll almost be home!

We did – only to find that the party had been moved to our little street. More to follow!

Sanja Matsuri – Day 1

We planned our trip to Japan this spring so that we would wind up in Tokyo for the third weekend in May, which is when a huge festival takes place in Asakusa. A bit of explanation first…. We refer to Tokyo as a city, but it is actually made up of many smaller cities which aggregate into Metropolitan Tokyo. Tokyo city has a population of about 14 million people, the metropolis is about 39 million. We are in the city of Taito, of which Asakusa is a district. It is an important district in the history of the city, as the city of Edo was founded on the banks of the Sumida River and Edo eventually became Tokyo.

Within Asakusa there are 44 neighborhood associations – it is a big district. The Sanja Festival celebrates the spirits of the three men who founded Sanso-ji temple. It is a huge festival – in past years over a million people would come to the area over the three days. And this year is the first post pandemic measures festival.

We figured that staying at our beloved Hotel B:Conte would put us in a great position to be part of the action, but we would have a place we could retreat to if it all became too much. We explored the area pretty thoroughly last year and felt we knew a lot of the side streets and shortcuts that would allow us to move through the area.

The festival is at its heart a religious festival, and is centred around the Asakusa shrine, which is next to the Buddhist temple Sanso-ji. You can read about Shinto here ‘Shinto‘, but for the purposes of this discussion within the shrine building there is the actual shrine object, which contains the enshrined spirit of the kami of that space. A ‘portable’ version of the shrine exists, and the kami (god) can be taken out of the sacred space in the portable shrine, which is called a mikoshi. There are three enshrined spirits at the Asakusa shrine, so three mikoshi. Each of the 44 neighbourhood associations has at least one portable shrine as well.

On Friday afternoon the neighbourhood shrines were brought out and prepared. As we wandered through the streets we would find groups of people setting up and getting ready.

The mikoshi needs to be attached to the carry poles. As you can see they are not small. There are small ones, too – children carry them.

The purple ropes will attached the shrine to the carry poles.

It was threatening rain all day, so waiting shrines were protected. This is a fairly typical side street in this area. With the SkyTree, which is across the river, looming over!

And here the carrying poles are being lashed into position. Once they are together the big heavy ropes will attached to the carrying poles. The shrines are heavy, requiring 40 to 100 people to carry them.

And it is not just a matter of carrying them. There’s a whole ‘dance’ that happens. But that is for tomorrow.

On the first day there was a procession of religious figures between shrines which we could not find! But as we wandered about looking we came across all the prep work. And the crowds were building.

Stay tuned for day two!

After castles the next best thing is a volcano.

From Kinosaki we headed back east to the Izu Peninsula, which is south of Tokyo. We were headed for the seaside town of Ito. It has a real vacation by the beach vibe to it, and is known for its seafood. It is also near to a geopark with some interesting geology that needed to be seen.

The hotel we stayed at had a fancy onsen on the ground floor, but even better it had an in room mineral bath. It was a hybrid room – there were Western style beds along with a separate tatami mat room where futons could be laid out for a larger group. As I’ve mentioned before if the room is of any size the toilet will be in a separate room, usually with a hand basin near by. The shower/tub is in a different room. There is a door – usually glass, with a gasket to seal it and a ledge to step over, making a waterproof room. On one side is the shower area where one gets clean. And then there is the tub. In this hotel instead of a regular bath tub there was a large square wooden tub with a stream of hot water bubbling in from the corner. After a good shower and scrub we could hop in the tub for a soak in the mineralized water. It was very nice.

But that wasn’t why we were in Ito, nice as it was. We arranged to have our luggage shipped ahead of us to Tokyo and set out for the day’s adventure. (This freed us from backtracking to get our luggage for the onward journey – and manhandling it on the train. As it happens we beat our luggage to Tokyo, but it caught up to us!)

We took a local bus to visit Mt Omuroyama. Taking busses can be a bit nerve wracking as I always worry that I won’t hear the stop or will somehow foul things up. Since the route began at the train station and ended at the mountain that turned out not to be an issue on this excursion.

Is this not the most amazing volcano? Does it not look like a dessert?

At one point this area was very active in the volcanic department, but these volcanoes are now extinct. From the top we could see four other extinct cones. Mt Omuroyama was active as recently as 4000 years ago. It is the only one kept so beautifully manicured. Every winter they burn off the dried grass and keep it bright and vibrant. There is a ski lift to the top and a path around the top. Of course we went up!

And the crater itself is in use – there’s an archery range in the bottom!

We didn’t go down to partake – it was a long way down and then back up again!

The views were spectacular in all directions, even with a heavy haze from the ocean.

Can you see the faint smudge that is the top of Mount Fuji just above the land form – at about the 11:00 position?

We had a marvelous time wandering along the crater edge, peering down into the valleys below, looking for the offshore islands lurking in the mist.

And when we came down from the mountain we stumbled across a tiny little cafe serving a most amazing lunch:

Appetizer plate with green salad, potato salad, fried fish, seaweed salad and other things that were very tasty.

The main course, which was a bowl of rice and a serving of whitebait, a tiny white fish boiled and served whole. So good! Were instructed to eat half of it and then take the flask of dashi stock and add it to the bowl to make a soup for the second half of the meal.

And to finish – matcha tea, pudding and a wee chocolate cake. For the grand sum of $14.00 per person! So good!

And with that the rambling portion of our trip is a wrap. We took a taxi to the train station south of Ito and caught a rapid express train to Tokyo Station, where we started our adventures a week ago. We arrived at our hotel in Asakusa – same one we stayed at last year and our happily settled into the same room.

So much to tell you about Tokyo!