We decided it was time for a short trip out of Tokyo, and since we hadn’t been to see a castle since we arrived in Japan we set off for the city of Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture. Its about a 2.5 hour trip from Shinjuku station up into the fringes of the Japanese alps.
Because Matsumoto is up in the mountains it was not bombed during the Second World War, which means that the castle is the original deal – 400 years old. Okay, its probably not exactly 100% original parts, but its pretty much as it was. Familiar story – it was neglected during the Meiji restoration and was not in good shape. Fortunately local folks decided to buy it and restore is and now it is here for us to enjoy.
One of the things that is a bit unusual is that the castle is not all white, like most Japanese castles. For contrast, here is Himeji Castle:
Matsumoto castle pretty neat inside – the spaces are pretty much as they would have been used. And the stairs, oh my gosh, the stairs. This was a defensive structure – people did not live here, so there was no need to make it easy to move about. In some places the risers on the stairs were a foot tall or more. And then the next one would be about six inches. And most of them where more like ladders than stairs.
Did I mention that this is a no shoes facility – we were carrying our shoes in plastic bags while touring the castle. We had to be very careful not to slip in our sock feet….
That was a challenge.
She’s looking pretty good at 400 years of age!
And it was a perfectly lovely fall day – blue skies and not a breath of wind, which led to this lovely shot:
Last Saturday we set out to find the Dream Yocasoy Festival in Tokyo – and we did. I told you all about it and your response has been fantastic. Several of you commented that it looked like Bhangra dance or something from a Bollywood movie. It certainly is a joyful thing.
Today’s excursion was a trip to the city of Odawara. Further south than Yokohama, it required a short ride on a Shinkansen (yay!). As we were walking to the Odawara castle we began to see groups of people in bright costumes – in the centre near the rail station and then along the way and even on the grounds of the castle. But we were kind of in denial. Surely not another dance festival? What are the odds of that. We should go see the castle.
So we did.
The modern history of the castle is a familiar refrain – the Meiji government began to disassemble it in a fit of ‘out with the old, in with the new’. The the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 struck, followed by the Second World War. But, eventually, the citizens of Odawara decided to excavate and rebuild the castle. Unlike Matsumoto Castle which we visited earlier this week, this is a reproduction. Of course, being a Japanese reproduction it is an exacting one, using materials and techniques from the first go ’round. With some improvements- like proper stairs! (But not like the castle in Osaka that has escalators inside to manage the traffic!)
Did I mention that it is unseasonably hot here? It was past 20C today – the 12th of November. And very sunny. And did I mention that one of the unavoidable facts of castles is stairs? Not just inside the castle tower, but just to get there.
There are moats and bridges and stairs and courtyards before even getting to the main event. And then the castle itself is 5 stories tall. I cannot imagine visiting in the height of summer with heat, humidity and crowds!
It was a beautiful Saturday and people were out enjoying the day. As is often the case in the fall a big chrysanthemum display was set up in the area around the tower.
There were about ten big tents full of displays of chrysanthemums big and small, simple and fancy.
The inside of the castle is given over to displays about the history of the castle and the Odawara area. Odawara was pivotal in the ending of the battles of the warring states that proceeded the long period of the rule of the Shoguns. The castle surrendered after a siege of three months in 1590 when it was clear that they were outmanned. But no one was going to come in unwanted or uninvited – there was no way to sneak up or sneak in.
For one thing there were a whole series of great big gates to get through…. and oh, look, more stairs!
We toured the castle, the grounds and the auxilliary exhibits and decided that maybe we were done. Our enthusiasm for our excursion was not matched, it seemed, by our stamina. Time to consider returning to Tokyo. But as we exited the last exhibit we could hear – music. Familiar rhythms. And sure enough – right across from the main entrance to the castle, in the courtyard of a school there were yokasoi dancers performing. They were in an enclosure and we could only see a little bit, but we could see the bleachers, facing into the blazing sun. Nope – not going to do that. Felt a little badly, but nope. We continued down the street and heard more music – and the street was blocked. And what did we see?
Dancing in the streets, the sequel!
And check out these cuties!
We continued up the block until we could find a curb to sit on. Turns out we were right at the staging area. Got to see close ups of the costumes and the prep and the pre-performence carrying on.
This small group was fierce in their preparation and presentation.
The youngest member of this group was about 65. See the wooden rattle in their hands? It sounds so neat when they all rattle them in unison. One of the happy sounds of the day.
And they’re off!
The group ahead – and their banner man are in full performance mode while the group in the foreground are in the on deck circle. The next group or two are lined up down the street behind them. As they get to this point the official photographer takes the group shot and then everyone moves ahead by one. Very organized.
And then, of course, there are the kids….
This little guy is a banner man in training. The guys who do the real thing are big guys – they work hard to manage the flag pole and the very large flag – while avoiding the crowd, the signs and their own dancers. This little guy deserved his own video:
We decided to take a little road trip to Yokohama. Wilf and I have been there before – its about an hour on the train from Tokyo. It has an important place in the history of modern Japan, as it was one of the first ports to engage with the West after Japan opened itself to foreign trade. Yokohama was transformed from a small fishing port to a major port and industrial centre very quickly in the latter part of the 19th century. Beer making came to the country via Yokohama, for one thing. The city had become a bustling concern with many western style brick buildings when the twin disasters of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and the bombings of the Second World War occurred. Yokohama was rebuilt, and more recently parts of the industrial and commercial waterfront have been reclaimed as lively people based places. There is a beautiful European style garden along the waterfront promenade and the old customs warehouses have been re-purposed as event spaces. One of the big events held there every year is a huge Oktoberfest. Wilf was very disappointed to have missed it this year.
There is a huge ferris wheel and a gondola to connect the waterfront to the rest of the city. And amidst all the history there is one very modern thing to see.
Meet Gundam. I’ll let Wikipedia introduce him to you:
The Gundam franchise had grossed over $5 billion in retail sales by 2000.By 2022, annual revenue of the Gundam franchise reached ¥101.7 billion per year,¥44.2 billion of which was retail sales of toys and hobby items.‘
Those are some pretty big numbers! Most people I’ve talked to at home assume that Gundam is related to the Transformers franchise, but this is something else completely. It is this huge thing, and if you know, you know. If not – you are oblivious.
Let me back up a bit so you can see the whole thing.
The above photo was taken outside of the facility. You can see him from a long way away. See the people in the glassed in balconys? Those are the truly faithful fans, those who wanted to get up close and personal. We decided we would go into the facility to watch the show.
Here’s a video- its quite long, so don’t feel like you have to watch it all. It was a windy day, so there is wind noise. At about the 4minute 30 seconds point Gundam himself begins to speak. From the music and tone of the speaker I think perhaps he is having an existential crisis of some kind- I can’t make out enough of what the voices are saying to know for sure. In my mind it is a great quasi Shakespearean drama. But then again, maybe not.
After watching him come out of his building, move about, rest, then retreat to his building we headed to the gift shop. If he’s responsible for billions of Yen in sales perhaps there’s something to see? Well. It was really something. Kits to build model Gundams ranging from the $10.00 price point to hundreds of dollars per kit. And limits – there was a limit to how many kits could be bought at one time, and how many times you could enter the facility to buy them each day. Big business indeed.
So- it was an interesting day in an interesting city. A mix of the old and the new. And it was an opportunity to learn about something huge about which we knew nothing at all…..
Wilf has several day trips planned for us, and yesterday we were to go see a famous library. Okay – that sounds good. I like libraries. We’ve gone to look at libraries before. First up – an hour of riding trains to get to a town near the city of Saitama. The town is called Tokorozawa. As we were pounding our way north and west from Tokyo the train lines went through some agricultural areas, quite a lot of small industrial areas, small towns, small cities – quite a variety. Sometimes the train stations were big multilevel affairs with shopping centres and lots of activities, sometimes they were not. Tokorozawa was from the ‘sometimes not’ side of the ledger. But, our friend Mr Google knows how to get us places, so when we wound up in front of a small station on a small street he began to direct us.
I will say that for some reason Mr Google has taken to showing us the scenic route when we are walking. We have seen many a neighbourhood in quite a bit of detail, only to discover that there was another route on more traveled streets that might have been simpler…..
So we are walking through neighbourhoods, admiring the mostly two story houses. Nice houses with nice gardens – quite a few persimmon trees. We go a little further and the neighbourhood shifts a bit to small businesses.
And then this heaves into view:
This is where we’re going? According to the map it is…..
Before we get there we see a first for us – a contemporary Shinto shrine
Complete with tori gates and a purification fountain out front.
But lets get back to the main attraction across the plaza
This is the Kadokawa Culture Museum, designed by architect Kengo Kuma.The giant polyhedral is clad with 20,000 blocks of granite and ‘floats’ in a wading pool.
I’m a little confused at this point as I was expecting a public library and this seems a bit …. much.
In we go. Into a cavernous space. We look around a bit and Wilf engages an employee to ask where the granite came from. With some toing and froing and a translation app the answer is ‘China’. Wilf has read that the books are on the 5th floor, so we take the elevator up. And when the doors open we are greeted with this:
And a ticket gate. I look at Wilf and say ‘I don’t know what this is but we have to go back and get a ticket.’
A quick session with my phone tells me that this is not, in fact, a public library. It is a museum/gallery/event space sponsored by a publishing company called Kodokawa. Their area of publishing is the world of manga, anime, and light novels(which are basically young adult novels), with tv and movie divisions.
Back to the fifth floor we go, tickets in hand. First we are directed to the exhibition space. No pictures allowed, and lots of young ladies with signs telling us so and watching over us. I did not, of course, take pictures in the exhibit. But I did take a picture of the poster for the show to share with you:
The artist Mitsuaki Iwago is a wildlife photographer and this exhibit is pictures of cats taken all over the world. The poster cat, chilling on Copacabana Beach in Rio di Janeiro, is the coolest cat of the bunch, but there were many more from all over the world.
Having seen the cat pictures, back to the books. There is a desk at the front with a librarian at it, so the sign said. And then the books. Piled up every which way. Well, not entirely every which way. There is a type of classification. For example:
Each section is crammed with books, shelves full to bursting. Japanese books, English books, old books, new books. There are chairs and tables to sit at, and trolleys to put the books for re-filing.
And there are things to look at all around
Two giant paper mache shirts because why not.
And then, we pass through a huge gauze curtain to this space:
Here is a video to give you a sense of the space:
Behind the mask my mouth is hanging open.
I had to sit down for a bit after that.
In the big room the lower stacks are of modern books – a lot of them collections of books published by Kadokawa. In the upper reaches the books looked older and the info brochure said that they were private libraries from the founder of the publishing company and other famous Japanese writers and scholars.
A giant steampunk fish is coming out of the wall and people are walking around, reading books, looking at things. There was another exhibit tucked behind the stacks that was a sort of cabinet of curiosities that a Victorian collector might have assembled. No pictures there, either. But collections of butterflies and bird skeletons and everything you can imagine.
On the second floor there was another smaller library of manga and light novels. I forgot to take a picture there – it was a bright open space with comfy low furniture and and probably everything Kadokawa had ever published. It was full of young people reading the books. If you are a fan and a local – what a treasure trove.
So – I was pretty dazzled by what I’d seen. It is not a lending library, though you are free to sit and read. There is no catalogue, so it is really a matter of serendipity what kind of books you come across. But walking down what felt like streets of books, interspersed with art and video and places to sit was an interesting thing to do.
And top it all off there was an brewpub on the other side of the plaza that made excellent beer and handmade udon noodles, so we were able to fortify ourselves for the journey back to Tokyo.
Continuing with our theme of exploring culture and festivals on this trip we headed to the entertainment island of Odaiba. We pretty much always make a trip over there to see something. Once upon a time there were a few small islands in Tokyo Bay that were used as fortifications – ‘daiba’ means fort in Japanese – but a big landfill project combined them into one big island. It is a fun ride on the monorail over to the island, and there are lots of shopping centres, museums, beaches and other things to entertain.
This time we were going to see an event called ‘Dream Yosacoy Matsuri’. I was kind of curious about the name – first word in English, second word an Anglicized Japanese word and the third the word for festival written in romaji. What was this to be?
It turns out that the dance form called yokasoi was created after the Second World War in the city of Kochi. While many dance forms follow ancient traditions and steps, yokasoi is a fusion of old and new. And it was amazing.
This was one of those time when being unable to read Japanese was a leeetle bit of a problem. We bought tickets for the standing only area and they said the performance began at 14:45. Turns out that the opening ceremony began then. 25 minutes of speeches from the assembled dignitaries. Then a twenty minute break to reset the area for performances. It wasn’t a stage, but a wide roadway that passed under the monorail track. To tell the truth we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen.
And then it began!
What we were to see was just a part of the total event, which had 80 teams participating – about 6,000 participants. The teams ranged between 20 and 60 people each.
This group had a vaguely 1940s vibe, with their fedoras and music choices.
These folks had a vaguely Steampunk look to them.
Most groups had a big guy at the back with a huuuuge banner. And they all made it under the monorail track!
Not sure who the two young ladies were with the umbrellas….
I wondered if this group was made up of professional performers – they were all about the same age and were very good dancers.
Most of the groups were made up about equally of men and women, and across a range of ages. Young kids, like this one flying along.
The costumes were amazing!
So much detail. And sometimes they would flip their jackets inside out and whoosh – a whole different look.
So what does it look like?
And here’s one with the kids
It was quite wonderful. There were some groups that could have been professionals, but mostly they were just folks, doing something they love. High school and university students. Moms, Dads and kids. Everyday people. And behind the costumes and the dazzle there was a real sense of joy as they danced for us.
November 3 is a national holiday in Japan – a day to celebrate culture. The part of Asakusa where we are staying has a bit of a holiday feel to it most of the time – this is an entertainment district historically and it still has many theatres, bars and an amusement park. But it is also a residential area and there are many small businesses here. Big ones, too. Lots of bustle, all the time. And even the weekends have a sense of ‘getting things done’. This past Thursday was Culture Day and the vibe around here was very different. This wasn’t a work day. It wasn’t even a ‘doing the Saturday errands day’. It was a holiday. It didn’t hurt that it was 20C and sunny.
We had seen a poster for a taiko drum festival, and scoped out where we thought it would be, so off we went. One thing about a drum festival – it is not hard to find! Just follow your ears….
The park is right beside the Sumida River, with the SkyTree as a pretty cool backdrop. It was hot! I wasn’t the only person who forgot their hat and had to wear their handkerchief on their head, as you can see. Wilf kindly did not record that, but suffice it say I fit right in with the crowd – handkerchief on head, brochure as a visor.
Anyhoo. The drums. The 12 groups varied from big to small. Most of them had their own equipement, but the two big drums on the stage were shared. I expect they’re pretty difficult to move around.
It was all fantastic. Some groups had little kids, some seemed to all be made up of women of a certain age, others appeared to be student groups. All were highly choreographed and the skill level was amazing.
It was great way to spend the afternoon. When we got back to our hotel we discovered that our street had a little ninja situation going on, but that is a tale for another day!
I’m glad I got to see the taiko festival. We have a taiko performance group in Victoria and they show up at all sorts of events and festivals. I always enjoy coming across them at the 10K road race, feeling the pulse of the drum before I can see them.
When we visited Japan in 2018 one of the highlights was a visit to the tori no ichi festival in Shinjuku. I wrote about it here. It was a big deal, but we knew that the really big event was in Asakusa.
And – the way things worked out for this trip we are staying in Asakusa, so the festival is about a 15 minute walk away.
As a refresher – Japanese businesses often have a decorative object called a Kumade, which originally looked like a rake. The tines of the rake would be decorated with auspicious symbols and the idea is that you would ‘rake in’ good fortune and prosperity. Over time the ‘rakes’ have become more and more abstract and elaborate. Some have lost the handle all together and look more like a box or a basket.
My brother Bill is with us in Tokyo right now, and last night he and I decided to walk up and scope out where the festival is to happen. Things start at the stroke of midnight on the fourth of November – we figured they’d be in prep mode as the evening wore on. We were also concerned that it might be mob scene today and we may not be able to get to the shrine itself.
The shrine was ready and not too many people were there so we could go right in.
All decorated and ready to go.
The kumade stalls are ready.
Today the food stalls were getting busy.
We knew we were in the right area because people were walking down the street with their new kumade.
Part of the ritual is to bring in the kumade for the previous year – it is to be replaced with a bigger, better and more auspicious one for the new year. On the street there is a place to put the old ones. You see here a big kumade being taken away while an attendant from the shrine waves an implement called an onusa to purify the outgoing rakes.
Two more attendants stand at the entrance to the shrine to purify those entering.
And it is getting busy.
Here’s a video of the scene in front of the shrine.
People are waiting to approach the shrine where they can ring the bell and make their prayer. At the same time a shrine official is up on a balcony area – perhaps making a blessing. In the video you can hear a voice close by – the police were managing the crowd very carefully. Although there were a lot of people it was not a press and we felt safe.
This family was having professional photos taken at the shrine – in the background you can see one of the hundreds of stalls selling the kumade.
We did buy one. We were sidling along looking at the stalls and everyone was polite enough, but there was one guy who got to chatting with us. He told us about his products and we settled on one packed with auspicious emblems. He asked me to write my name on a piece of paper and then he went away for a moment. When he came back our little kumade in a box was all decorated:
I’m very impressed at how beautifully he wrote my last name. If I’d had to write my last name in Japanese it would not look nearly so beautiful. Sadly my writing in Japanese looks just like what you would expect from some with grade two level abilities. But by the way it looks like this typed out: ストーンマン .
Part of the routine of acquiring a kumade involves a ritual exchange of good wishes for prosperity in the coming year and a ceremony involving clapping hands. I think we acquitted ourselves well.
Of course the other reason to go to a festival is for the food. The shrine itself is quite small so the food stalls spill out through the neighbourhood for blocks and blocks.
The festival equivalent of mini doughnuts are these little cakes called castella (かすてら). Lovely little sponge cakes.
And if there is an octopus, you know who will find it! There was everything you could imagine. The only thing we couldn’t find was a place to sit down! It is one of the few times it is appropriate to walk along the street, eating and drinking.
We ate the sausages and karaage chicken before we got pictures! So good!
I expect that by tonight (Friday night) the whole area will be just heaving with people. We went out for dinner tonight and there were people walking about with their new rakes, parading them down the sidewalks as they returned to their home or business, secure in the fact that they would be raking in good fortune for another year.
Did you know that Tokyo has the most Michelin starred restaurants of any city in the world? There are more than 200 restaurants in the city that have a star.
I’m not interested in chasing after restaurants with rankings like that – I’m pretty basic in my food preferences and would rather eat a well cooked down home meal than a cheffy concept meal.
Having said that it turns out that there is a restaurant a few blocks from where we are staying that has been noted by the Michelin people. And it turns out to fit my ‘not too fancy’ criteria.
This is Asakusa Onigiri. I didn’t expect that we would be able to get in to the restaurant, but we scooted in as the last two people for lunch service. There are two tables for four people and six seats at a counter. It looks like a sushi restaurant with all the ingredients displayed behind the counter, and a chef preparing the onigiri as they are ordered.
And yes, I’m talking about onigiri – rice balls! The lunch set is a cup of tea, a bowl of miso soup and two onigiri.
Our soup has arrived, and the tray between us has the first two onigiri (grilled salmon filling).
At this restaurant they wrap the nori (seaweed) around on one side and the other side of the sheet of nori stands up like a wing. Because the onigiri is made and immediately handed over the nori does not have time to get soft, so the contrast between the crispy outside and soft warm rice inside is perfect.
For our second ‘course’ I had the pickled ginger filling and Wilf’s had tiny little shrimp boiled in soy sauce.
And all this for about $6.00 per person. Some might say that’s alot for rice balls that can be had at the 7-11 for two dollars, but these were Michelin approved rice balls. And it was a great little meal!
I was going to say that Japan has a lot of festivals, but then it occurred to me that maybe we just don’t have as many where I live. And in a country of many people living close together with a deep deep culture – there is a lot to festival about. So- two examples, quite different.
Wilf told me that there was a pickle festival to be seen. At first I was thinking ‘okay – pickles. Like dill pickles?’ With a bit of reflection I realized that was probably unlikely. Japanese cuisine has a wide variety of pickled foodstuffs, so who knew what to expect? The website we found said that the festival happened near a particular shrine and involved between 400 and 500 food stalls.
Well then, I’m in!
The story of our travels around Tokyo usually involve us having a plan of how to get to a place, with detailed instructions regarding the transit system. The weak point in the plans is always the same – the point at which we come to the surface. We know where we want to be, but it can be surprisingly difficult to figure how to get started – which way is north? Do we turn right or left. Oftentimes we have to get moving before the wi-fi can decide where we are and tell us which way to go. This can lead to walking back and forth. And muttering.
When we came to the surface this time it was just falling dusk – a lovely time of day. We started off in what we believed was the direction. And right away – in the distance – we could see the lanterns. Good sign!
You know how the website said between 400 and 500 food stalls? I really didn’t think about what that meant. What it meant was blocks and blocks of streets filled with stalls. And those streets were quickly filling up with people.
Bettarazuke (べったら漬) pickled daikon radish
These are the pickles for which everyone has come. And people were buying them to take home in large quantities
Here is the street early on. See what I mean about the lanterns?
The thing about this many stalls is it is actually hard to pick anything. Lets assume 450 stalls. A certain percentage are selling the pickled radishes. We probably passed 30 different sellers of okinomiyaki (お好み焼き savory pancakes), and at least as many takoyaki (たこ焼き deep fried octopus balls) vendors. And then there yakisoba (fried noodles with other stuff) and it went on and on.
And then we saw this:
These are little fish and big shrimp being grilled over a charcoal fire, turned and turned and turned until they were all cooked and smokey.
And beer. And a place to sit.
Picking out things on sticks for the grill.
That was a fun thing to do, and it is a festival that has deep roots in the culture.
There was another street fair this past weekend near the Koen-ji train station. The ads said there would be performances in the area, a beer garden, things to see on the shopping street. Among the performances were to be folk dancers. Professional wrestlers. Musicians. Samba dancers. Does that not sound like an interesting combination of things to see?
We fell out the door of the train station right into the square where the stage was and found a wall to perch on. There was a folk singer singing very passionately, but it is hard to really connect when we didn’t understand a word she was saying. But in the background we could see – feathers. And I had kind of been wondering if when the program said Samba if that was a Japanese dance form, or did they mean Samba like from Brazil?
Turns out they did mean Samba from Brazil! Lots of tail feathers being shaken there!
This was followed by two different groups of young women in fluffy white dresses singing and dancing their hearts out. JPop Idols, working their way up the ladder.
The thing I’m actually trying to capture in this picture isn’t so much the group. The people – the men – in front who know every word, every gesture and every dance move and are following along. There were a lot of them. We couldn’t tell if this group was performing their own music or covering the tunes of of more famous singers, but the crowd did know the songs, were singing and dancing along.
We did find the beer garden, which was held in the front and back of a small apartment block next to the train tracks. Beer, food, music, families and lots of sunshine. This felt less like a festival of deep cultural significance, and more like a neighbourhood inviting everyone down for a fun afternoon in the sun. We never did see the pro wrestlers. Or the folk dancers.
The folk dancers did, however, show up practically on our street last night!
We arrived right at the tail end of their performance, which had become a big street dance in front of the Don Quixote store.
Harajuku is an area in Tokyo that caters to the young and the hip. The main shopping street, Takeshita Street is a pedestrian street packed with clothing stores, cosmetic shops and places to eat cute trendy food. It is crazy busy on the weekend, and near impassible on a Sunday as the young and beautiful come to shop and to be seen, and everyone else comes to see them.
Been there, done that.
But there’s another part of town that services a different clientele.
This is the entrance to the shopping street in the district of Sugamo, known as Grandma’s Harajuko. Here, the street is wide and flat. There are benches upon which one can rest and stores that cater to a clientele looking for comfort over trendiness.
We were there on a Sunday afternoon, and it kind of reminded us of our Sidney – lots of senior citizens out for a stroll, a snack, some shopping.
Red is colour associated with strength and vitality, and apparently it is not uncommon to give people over 60 articles of red clothing to ensure that they remain energetic and vital.
There is, of course, a store for that:
A store dedicated, mostly, to red underwear.
Boxers for the gents
Briefs for the ladies.
Why so many, you say? To get the full effect you need to have red underwear emblazoned with the symbol from the Chinese Zodiac that matches your birth year.
And so – the year of the dog, and the year of the rabbit. Ready to be pressed into service…..
There was a slip of paper tucked into the bag with information about how the wearing of red panties can stimulate the Qi energy in the body without having to learn all sorts of esoteric breathing techniques. It concludes with the following statement
‘Please note that our Red Panties may cause you to suffer from insomnia due to their stimulating effect, so please change into underwear of an ordinary color when you go to sleep.’