Archive for the ‘History’ Category

My Kyoto Guidebook says:

Flowers bloom throughout the year at Heian Shrine’s beautiful gardens, home of the Jidai Matsuri Festival.

Heian Jingu was built in 1895 to mark the 1,100th anniversary of the founding on Kyoto. It is dedicated to the first, Kammu, and last, Komei, emperors to reign in Kyoto. Heian Jingu is most noted for its wonderful Heian-style gardens, that are arranged around large carp-filled ponds. It is especially well-known for its cherry blossoms in the spring. Shidare Zakura (weeping cherry blossoms) are interspersed with Somei Yoshino Sakura (the most popular variety, nearly white with a touch of the palest pink). See the different varieties of Cherry Blossoms here.

The day I visited Heian Jingu two years ago, it was nice and sunny. Our tour guide explained that we were extremely lucky as the blooms opened that same day, adding that he was worried because the group that came the day before did not enjoy the sakura. The garden paths go around a scenic pond, and there is a very famous bridge along the walk through Shin-en Garden. The park also is also lighted up in the evening but I wasn’t gong to be able to see it I just saw a breathtaking photo of the night scene in a photography book they were selling at the gates.

To get there, take Bus #5 to the Kyoto Kaikan Bijutsu-kan-mae, or take the Tozai Line to the Higashiyama Station. It is a 10-minute walk from the station.


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Finally! Spring is here! Time to roll out the Hanami mats and sit under the beautiful blossoms…

In the Nara Period (710 – 794), Japanese people viewed Ume (梅, Japanese Plum) Blossoms, as they were the first blossoms that signaled the coming of Spring. Around the Heian Period, however, Sakura viewing parties became more popular among the elite. There are a few reasons why I like Ume: they smell really nice and they come in different hues that are just so pleasing to the eye. I love Sakura, but Ume is a little bit more special, I think.

A lot of the Ume Matsuris have been underway since the beginning of February, but unlike Sakura, Ume is in bloom for a whole month, sometimes a month and a half. There are several places in the Kanto Area where they can be viewed, below are a few suggestions. Enjoy the start of Spring and don’t forget your camera!

Mito Ume Matsuri (Mito, Ibaragi)

Plum blossoms can be viewed at one of the three finest landscape gardens of Japan, Kairakuen. Over 3000 trees, in all colors can be enjoyed from mid-February to late March. It is a 65-minute trip by JR Joban Line from Ueno, costing around 4,020 yen.

Koishikawa Korakuen (Tokyo)

One of Tokyo’s most beautiful traditional landscape gardens, Koishikawa Korakuen is attractive all year round, boasting of an assortment of plum trees, cherry blossom trees and maple trees. Entrance costs 300 yen.

Soga Bairin (Odawara, Kanagawa)

View Hakone and Mt. Fuji during the Plum Blossom Festival at Soga Bairin and Joshi Koen in Odawara City. It is a 2-hour trip from Shinjuku Station to the Shimosoga Station on the JR Gotemba Line, then the park is a 10 minute walk from there. The park has 35,000 trees.

Yushima Tenjin Shrine (Tokyo)

This shrine is popular with students who wish to pass entrance exams. They have poetry readings and traditional concerts on weekends and holidays. The nearest station is Yushima on the Chiyoda Line.

Setagaya Ume Matsuri (Hanegi Park, Tokyo)

A small park with about 700 trees, tea parties and other events are held on weekends until the end of February.

Naritasan Koen (Narita, Chiba)

460 trees can be viewed while on tour of Naritasan Temple, in Chiba. The city of Narita is worth making the trip for, too.

Links and Photos: Japan Guide and Let’s Enjoy Tokyo

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Small face, long legs, and a tiny, tiny waist. This is how most Japanese women would like to look and how Japanese men want women to look. It’s everywhere from their anime to their ads for beauty products, and oh yeah, did I forget to mention the dyed hair and the huge eyes? There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s perfectly alright to want to look a certain way. But there seems to be an obsession here in Japan with this image of perfection.

In a lot of the anime I watch, the heroines almost always fit this description, making them the perfect women. And while some of the women I know wouldn’t admit to it, they apply cosmetics and go on diets to get this exact look. I have, one time or another, enjoyed praises from other girls that are like “顔が小さくて、足も長くて、いいですね。Kao ga chisakute, ashi mo nagakute, iidesune. Your face is small and your legs are long, good for you…” (Ok, I enjoy it all of the time…) But then sometimes it gets uncomfortable. Like for example, when that’s all they can say. And when that’s all they care about…

It also gets too much when men start to think about things like long legs and slimness… for themselves! It’s not enough that they want their women to be petite and cute, they think they must look petite and cute, too! As proof, take a look at this article from Asian Offbeat. I know that Japan has a long history of these pretty men, these boya or those samurai boytoys from like the Warring States Period (戦国時代, Sengoku Jidai). But from what I gathered, it was usually the strong, powerful men who fancied them and not really the women. Here in Japan, there seems to be some shift occurring where beauty, fashion and obviously physical attraction are concerned.

Image via: JapanFan20 and Mizer.malice (through Asian Offbeat)

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One fact I have never been able to confirm about Japanese history, particularly about the Edo Period, was the prohibition of the use of wheels. In the book Gaijin, James Clavell writes about policies enacted by either Toyotomi Hideyoshi or Tokugawa Ieyasu. Included in the ban of guns and gunpowder, was a ban on people other than samurai from owning swords. What really interested me though was that to stunt progress, one of them (it isn’t clear who because it was a historical fiction novel and the characters were merged) prohibited the use of wheels. It would be really ironic, if it were true, seeing as Japan is now one of the leading automobile manufacturers in the world. Wheels are so important in Japan, from the carts the old ladies push to bicycles people take everywhere. Clavell writes that if any of the country folk wished to travel, they walked.

The walking part is totally true, however, as everyone I’ve asked has agreed, without contest. One of my history buff friends told me about how in the Edo Period, there was a domestic travel boom. Town people all contributed money to a town travel fund. They all paid the same amount of money, and every year 10 or 15 people were chosen to go on the trip. The delegation actually walked to that year’s travel destination. They then noted differences and stuff, reported what they saw to the other town peoples. Japanese people walked all over Japan. They made it from Kanto all the way to Kansai, and back, all on foot.

Even in a popular anime I watched, the Meiji Period characters walked the Tokaido. In those days, it must’ve taken days or even weeks – a trip that now takes a little over 3 hours by Shinkansen (新幹線, the high speed railways). But it really amazes me how, despite the abundance of escalators, elevators, walking escalators, bicycles, and other wheels, Japanese people still walk. Where I come from, people don’t really walk up escalators, we just stand on them.

My boss told me he walked his dogs an average of three hours a day. He walks through the city park, to another park, then half across town then back again. He said he loved walking because it was more beneficial to his health than any other sport. I have to admit that since I’ve been in Japan, I’ve been walking a lot more. Mostly out of necessity, though, since taxi fare is crazy expensive, and buses are hard to catch. I’ve walked through rainstorms and windstorms. I’ve walked all over Tokyo, and sometimes through little towns in the outskirts of Tokyo. Long distance walking is just so much a part of Japanese culture that anyone who lives in or visits Japan has to experience it.

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Who doesn’t have a story about visiting a doctor in Japan and feeling a little bit more worried than when you scheduled an appointment? What with all those blue tablets for the swelling to go down to the pink capsules that counteract the side effects of the orange pill, and the attendant who didn’t wear proper surgical gloves, there is really a lot to be desired from the medical services here in Japan.

Unfortunately, visiting the doctor is a necessity and we can’t do much about it except complain or make fun of the whole setup. We have to understand though that modern medicine only appeared in Japan a hundred years ago. Before that, the entire nation relied on medical journals smuggled out of Dejima. The details are hazy in my mind, but it seemed these journals were translated and studied but I don’t know about actual schooling in the science of medicine. Of course, during the Meiji Restoration, things changed. But considering that things haven’t really changed, like how people would like to think, there may be a few tricks left over from the years of isolation.

What a lot of us forget though is that this is Japan, so naturally, Western medicine should not be their forte here. What they are really good at, I suppose, is mainly their own healing mechanisms, things like Shiatsu massage, alternative medicine to most of us, but it is a way of life here. Herbal medicines, healing tea and alternative methods of healing are quite the thing here in Asia. Most martial arts and Shiatsu masters are able to tell by pressing down on nerves what is really causing you discomfort, and then they massage these imbalances out. Shiatsu is only one of many massage therapies offered here. Japan also has an abundance of Chiropractors, Reflexologists, and Accupressure Practitioners.

One of my superiors is a Reflexologist, and we have orders to consult her when we feel a cold or some other bout of something coming on. She gives us a really tear-jerking back rub, followed by a hot patch (called a hokkairo, ホッカイロ) placed somewhere in the lower back. You get really drowsy after, but after a really fitful sleep that night, you awake refreshed and full of energy. She’s done this for me more than a couple of times, all with the same result: my cold getting arrested and me getting a second (or third or fourth…) chance at life. As a bonus, I also save on that trip to that doctor which worries me so much…

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I was reading this Japan Times article. It reminded me of quizzes I gave to my Japanese students. They were big hits. Later on, I’d quiz my Japanese friends and they’d all call me kuwashii (詳しい, used to describe a person who is knowledgeable about something/s). Although this observation is far from accurate, we all had fun.

Japan Quiz:

1. What is the smallest Prefecture in Japan?

2. What are the four capitals of Japan, past and present?

3. What is the most common male Japanese name?

4. How do you read this Kanji, 葡萄?

5. In the Sengoku Period, what was Tokyo and its surrounding area called?

6. Which is taller, Tokyo Tower or Eiffel Tower?

7. There are four cities in Chiba Prefecture that are in the Top Ten Richest Cities in Japan. Name two.

8. Which is older, Tanabata or Christmas?

9. How many Japanese prefectures have the Kanji, 福 (fuku), in their names?

10. In which Japanese prefecture is there a desert?

More Japan Trivia Quizzes

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When Japan closed itself to the world, they also sort of banned locals from wandering around the country. Most Japanese were made to carry some sort of identification papers with them at all times. If they weren’t able to present these to samurai guards, they’d be in real trouble. There was even a restriction on using wheels, meaning people had to carry things on their backs. It had something to do with hindering progress to keep a hold on the citizens. Anyway, if there were no wheels and no one could travel, how did things get around?

The simple answer is a not a lot of things got around. Most things remained where they were, with people sustaining themselves on what they had around them. When I first heard about this, I started asking some friends about food, did everyone eat sashimi then? How about the mountainous areas?

Apparently, each area has its own sashimi, based on the seafood that could be found locally. Places like Nagano and Gunma, which are a bit far from the sea, had konyaku sashimi. Konyaku was sliced to look like sashimi. I’ve also heard of sushi made from other local products like potatoes or yams. And there are the different wrappers, probably because nori couldn’t make it to other places. In Nara, they wrap some sushi in kakinoha (persimmon leaves), and in some other places they wrap them in bamboo leaves.

What kind of specialty does your region offer?

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