Tanabata, or the Star Festival, is held in Japan on the evening of July 7. The festival is thought to have started in China. It was transmitted to Japan during the feudal period and combined with traditional local customs to become an official event at the Imperial court. Commoners soon began observing this festival, with different localities developed their own distinctive ways of celebrating.
The festival traces its origins to a legend that the Cowherd Star (Altair) and Weaver Star (Vega), lovers separated by the Milky Way, are allowed to meet just once a year – on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Children and adults write their wishes on narrow strips of coloured paper and hang them, along with other paper ornaments, on bamboo branches placed in the backyards or entrances of their homes. They then pray hard that their wishes will come true.
Little bears are following the Tokyo tradition, where most people decorate bamboo branches with just the narrow strips of paper that carry their wishes.
Shellie-May and Duffy admire their handiwork.
Hmmm… What to wish for?
What about more cartoons with Mickey and Minnie?
And a new outfit!
Sendai (Miyagi Prefecture) and Hiratsuka (Kanagawa Prefecture) are particularly famous for their elaborate Tanabata displays. Shopping arcades in these two cities feature huge decorations that are sponsored by local shops, which try to outdo one another in the size of their displays.
Some areas of Japan celebrate Tanabata a month later, on August 7, since this is closer to the seventh day of the seventh month on the traditional lunar calendar.
While there are stories that are similar to Tanabata in many Asian countries, the Japanese version of the story is a mixture of a Chinese legend and local beliefs, and the story is told differently in different areas of Japan.
And now it’s story time!
A long time ago, there was a young man who lived in a small village. One day as he was on his way home from working in the fields, he discovered something amazing: the most beautiful clothes he had ever seen. He wanted the clothes very badly, so he quietly put them in his basket and started on his way.
Just then, a voice called out, “Excuse me.” The boy was startled and said, “What? Did somebody just call me?” A beautiful girl answered, “Yes, I did. Please give back my robe of feathers. I live in heaven, and I just came down to this pond to take a bath. Without my robe of feathers, I can’t go back.”
The girl looked as though she were about to cry, but the boy pretended not to know and answered, “Robe of feathers? I don’t know anything about that.” Unable to go back to heaven, the goddess was forced to remain on earth. She began to live with the young man.
The goddess’ name was Tanabata. Tanabata and the young man got married and were living together happily. One day several years later, though, while the young man was working in the fields, Tanabata found her robe of feathers hidden between two beams in the ceiling. “I knew it. He’s been hiding it,” she thought to herself. She put on the robe of feathers and right away began to feel like the goddess she had once been.
That evening when the young man came home, he was surprised to see Tanabata wearing the robe of feathers, standing in front of the house. Tanabata began rising up toward heaven and called out to the young man, “If you love me, weave a thousand pairs of straw sandals and bury them around the bamboo tree. If you do that, we’ll be sure to see each other again. Please do this. I’ll be waiting for you.” Tanabata rose up higher and higher and returned home to heaven.
The young man was very sad, but he knew what to do. On the very next day he began making straw sandals. He continued weaving them day and night. At last he finally finished making his last pair and buried them all around the bamboo tree.
Right away the bamboo tree began to get bigger and bigger, and it grew higher and higher into the sky. The young man immediately began climbing the tall bamboo tree. He climbed higher and higher until he was almost able to reach heaven. But because he had wanted to see Tanabata with all his heart, he had hurried when making the straw sandals and had actually made only 999 pairs. The tree stopped one step short, and the young man’s hand could not reach heaven.
“Hey! Tanabata! Tanabata!” the young man cried out to heaven. “Oh, it’s you!” Tanabata exclaimed. She extended her hand to the young man and pulled him over the clouds. “Tanabata, I missed you so much,” the young man said. The two of them were overjoyed to see each other once again.
Tanabata’s father was not happy that she had married a man from the world below. He gave the young man hard work to do, hoping to make him miserable. “You’ll guard the melon field for three days and three nights,” he said. Watching the melon field made the young man extremely thirsty, but if he ate one of the melons, it was said that something terrible would happen. Tanabata told him, “You absolutely cannot eat one of those melons.”
But as the three days went by, the young man grew thirsty and became unable to bear it any longer. He reached for a melon. The instant he did, water burst forth from the fruit and became a flowing river. “Darling!” “Tanabata!” In an instant the two were pulled apart from each other.
The two lovers looking across the river at each other became the stars Altair and Vega. Tanabata’s father allows them to meet, but only once a year, on the night of July 7. To this day these two stars face each other across the Milky Way, shining brightly.
Looks like Miss Honey’s wish has already come true. Funny that 🙂
This is Minnie’s Soryo Kobu dance outfit! Very nice!
It turns out that many streets in Japan have no names and the buildings are numbered in a random fashion that was possibly invented by a 13th century Buddhist monk. The secret of deciphering the addressing scheme appears to have died with him. In two weeks, we never really looked for an address. Getting to the hotel on the first day in each city involved taking a taxi to guarantee getting there. Despite failing on a regular basis, Google Maps worked just enough to get us to the locations we were looking for. Instead of the address, we just walked about until the blue dot was on top of the red one! Sometimes it did take walking in circles…
However, when it comes to navigating cultural differences, no guide can prepare you adequately, and there is no app for it either.
This was our first trip to a land where we didn’t understand the language at all or even the alphabet! The Japanese use the Chinese writing system, which does not suit their language, and which takes ten years for Japanese children to learn. Go figure!
The Japanese are very different from everyone else, their uniqueness probably deriving in the main from three principal factors: their history of isolation, the crowded conditions imposed by their geography and the Japanese language itself.
Packed together in large numbers in big cities, the Japanese have developed complex social skills, which led to the phenomenon known as web society – that is, great interdependence between all members of a group and an abundance of social and moral obligations.
The world over, people behave a certain way because the way they think is governed by the language in which they think. The structure of a person’s language influences the manner in which he or she understands reality and behaves with respect to it. The Japanese use language in a completely different way from everyone else. What is actually said has hardly any meaning or significance whatsoever. The Japanese use their language as a tool of communication, but the words and sentences themselves give little indication of what they are saying. What they want and how they feel is indicated by the way they address their conversation partner. Smiles, pauses, sighs, grunts, nods and eye movements convey everything. The Japanese leave their fellow Japanese knowing perfectly well what has been agreed to, no matter what was said, while foreigners leave a conversation or meeting with a Japanese with a completely different idea. While the Japanese focus on the mood of the conversation, other nationalities tend to focus on the content. Consequently, all their hear is platitudes or, even more suspicious, flattery. However, the Japanese are simply being courteous and caring.
The Japanese have a keen sense of the unfolding or unwrapping of time. They are more concerned not with how long something takes to happen, but with how time is divided up in the interests of properness, courtesy and tradition. They are very generous in their allocation of time to you and your transaction. That can also make for long queues and long waiting times! Of course, all the Japanese in the queue wait patiently, while I am standing there thinking, good lord, how long can this possibly take?
In Japan’s conformist and carefully regulated society, people like to know at all times where they stand and where they are at: this applies to both social and business situations. The mandatory, two-minute exchange of business cards between executives meeting each other for the first time is one of the clearest examples of a time activity segment being used to mark the beginning of a relationship.
Other events that require not only clearly defined beginnings and endings but also unambiguous phase-switching signals are the tea ceremony, New Year routines, annual cleaning of the house, and even cherry blossom viewing! A Japanese person cannot enter any number of activities in the casual, direct manner a Westerner might adopt. The Japanese must experience an unfolding or unwrapping of the significant phases of the event. It has to do with Asian indirectness, but in Japan also involves love of compartmentalisation of procedure, of tradition, of the beauty of ritual.
The Japanese are masters of courtesy. Standards of politeness are much higher in Japan than anywhere else in the world. All the Japanese people who took photos of the bears asked for permission first, even if it just took the form of ‘ok?’. Ok!
It is easy to say be very polite at all times, but what is polite in one society is not necessarily polite in another! We got by with lots of smiles, apologising when we got things wrong, and kawai (cute) bears! The bears dressed in kimonos made a particularly big and favourable impression 🙂
Speak slowly and distinctly. They smile and nod constantly, but may not understand much. Ideally, you would learn some Japanese words, we got by with arigato only. Bow if you can manage it, restrict your body language, do not wave your arms about, do not touch people unnecessarily and do not tell jokes unless they are at your own expense and are easily understood. And do not make a racket! Apart from being told off on the plane for laughing too loud 🙂 (I was also told off for that in a workplace once, but unlike on the plane, I ignored that complaint and carried on!) I caused some consternation in a souvenir shop in Takayama when I and two Japanese teenagers found a talking doll extremely funny and we all, including the doll, burst into loud laughter at the same time. We got some telling looks from the staff in the shop, but of course they were far too polite to say anything. Well, I did buy the doll!
It has been said that humour crosses national boundaries with difficulty, especially when heading east. Apart from the Koreans who appear to like everybody’s jokes, few Asians are amused by American or (most) European jokes. The Confucian or Buddhist preoccupation with truth, sincerity, kindliness and politeness automatically eliminates humour techniques such as sarcasm, satire, exaggeration and parody. They also find little merit in jokes about religion, sex and underprivileged minorities. Sick or black humour is definitely out.
Laughing over funny dolls is in!
Privately, the Japanese are convinced of their uniqueness, of which one facet is intellectual superiority. Privately, most, if not all, nations believe they are superior to everyone else. Unlike the French, the Japanese base this belief not on intellectual verbal prowess, but on the power of strong intuition. On a side note, I have to say that Jean-Luc spoke impeccable English and his eloquence was outstanding.
Our next cultural challenge will be back in Europe. It is time we visit Germany. The contrast to Japan will be significant, even though they are both conformist societies. The Germans have a tendency to be blunt and disagree openly rather than going for politeness or diplomacy. Should suit me just fine! Irony, sarcasm and subtle undertones usually fall on deaf ears, you have to say what you mean. Again, not a problem. I sometimes use bluntness just because I am bored! That usually causes a flurry of reactions and I have something entertaining to watch 🙂
Serious-minded, factual Germans do not split their sides on hearing American jokes about Texas, which usually depend on gross exaggeration. The story about the Mexican driving just as fast as he could for 24 hours to get out of Texas, but finding he had not managed it, thrills the American imagination but sounds far-fetched to the German, who might reply, “He should have used a German car”. Now that is funny!
Sunday morning arrived with lots of clouds and another forecast for rain. Not deterred, little bears went out to check Shibuya, next door to Shinjuku, our residence in Tokyo.
While in Tokyo, we navigated every day Shinjuku train station, the world’s busiest transport hub (and registered as such with Guinness World Records). The station is the main connecting hub for rail traffic between Tokyo’s special wards and Western Tokyo on inter-city rail, commuter rail, and metro lines, using 36 platforms. Including an underground arcade, there are well over 200 exits. You really want to know what platform you need and especially what exit you want to take! Helpful staff will help you identify the right platform, and it is best if you stick to the one entry/exit option every time you use the station. The station is used by an average of 4 million people per day, and while we stayed in Tokyo, by four little bears as well! We also have a new skill. Getting across a river of people, all going in the same direction. The ‘stick to the left’ or ‘stick to the right’ approach does not work particularly well in Japan since there is no consistent use of either side. You have to watch for the arrows on the pavement or on the stairs to find out which side you are supposed to walk on.
From the world’s busiest transport hub, we went to the world’s busiest intersection in front of Shibuya station’s Hachiko Exit. The intersection is heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens and gets flooded by pedestrians each time the crossing light turns green. Shibuya Crossing is often featured in movies and television shows which take place in Tokyo, such as Lost in Translation, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and Resident Evil: Afterlife and Retribution, as well as on domestic and international news broadcasts.
On sunny afternoons or clear evenings, the surrounding area is packed with shoppers, students, young couples and commuters. When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box. You can observe this moment of organized chaos from the second-story window of the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing’s north side, the world’s busiest Starbucks.
Shibuya station’s Hachiko Exit refers to the exit that has a statue of a loyal dog named Hachiko. According to a famous story, the dog waited for his master every day in front of Shibuya Station, and continued to do so for years even after his master had passed away. It is one of Tokyo’s most popular meeting points.
We crossed the intersection and walked north on whatever street that is, going past Tsutaya building and Starbucks and past 109 Shibuya on the other side of the street. Shibuya 109(1) is a 9-floor shopping complex planted, bold and glitzy, diagonally across from Shibuya Station packed with about 120, mainly fashion, boutiques for the under-30 glamor girl. Store names like “Me Jane,” “Baby Shoop,” “Pinky Girls, “Honey Bunch,” and “Dazzlin’,” “Swanky,” “Egoist,” and “Shagadelic” say it all.
Then there is Shibuya 109(2), the younger sister of 109(1) and its chic robo-tech exterior is the first thing you see when you come out of Shibuya Station. Like 109(1), 109(2) has 9 floors of shopping, but it has a lot less dining, and a lot more fashion items for men than for women. It does have a Hello Kitty Store on the 8th floor. Apparently taking the escalator to 8th floor for the small Hello Kitty store is an experience and a tour de force in the Japanese mad fashion world. The Hello Kitty store has a full DJ set up!
We did stop at the Disney Store. On Shibuya Koen-dori, this is one of six Disney stores in Tokyo proper. In terms of looks, the Shibuya Disney Store is the one to visit, with its fantasy shop front opening directly onto the street. All the other Disney stores are inside department stores.
Shibuya is one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo, but often refers to just the popular shopping and entertainment area found around Shibuya Station. In this regard, Shibuya is one of Tokyo’s most colorful and busy districts, packed with shopping, dining and nightclubs serving swarms of visitors that come to the district everyday.
Shibuya is a center for youth fashion and culture, and its streets are the birthplace to many of Japan’s fashion and entertainment trends. Over a dozen major department store branches can be found around the area catering to all types of shoppers. Most of the area’s large department and fashion stores belong to either Tokyu or Seibu, two competing corporations.
From the Disney store we went back to the main street walking north, crossed over to Meiji-dori and walked up to Omotesando.
Referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, Omotesando is a one kilometer long, tree-lined avenue, serving as the main approach to Meiji Shrine. Numerous stores, boutiques, cafes and restaurants, including several leading fashion brand shops, stand along the avenue. This area generally caters to an older and wealthier clientele than Takeshita-dori near Harajuku Station.
It has all the brand names, but Champs-Élysées it is not. You know when you are on Champs-Élysées! But they do try. This is the only clear street name sign that we saw the whole time in Japan!
The Louis Vuitton Omotesando store was opened in autumn 2002 as the company’s largest store. It is one of many famous brand names that have opened a store along Omotesando. The public store makes up five of the building’s ten floors, which are designed as a stack of trunks rather than conventional floors.
Right next door to Louis Vuitton is the Tokyo Union Church. In case you need to pray to get the disposable income to shop at Louis Vuitton. Says she who owns far too many LV items, and has an eye on the new summer collection!
Also on Omotesando is one of Tokyo’s most famous and popular toy stores, Kiddy Land. It has a fantastic selection of toys and other products to amuse kids, including a Snoopy Town and Hello Kitty Shop on a total of five floors. The Omotesando store was reopened in July 2012 after being reconstructed and redesigned.
Rilakkuma (a combination of the Japanese pronunciation for ‘relax’ and the Japanese word for bear) is a character designed by Aki Kondo, produced by San-X (originally a stationary maker). In 2010, Rilakkuma ranked as the fifth most popular character in Japan in a survey of the Character Databank. Each year Tokyo-based research firm Character Databank develops the top character listing using sales data. With a retail market for character goods valued at nearly $16 billion!!, Japan represents, by a wide margin, Asia’s largest territory for branded character merchandise.
Japan’s character market reached its peak during the Pokémon and Hello Kitty induced frenzy of 1999, a year that saw roughly $20 billion in retail sales of character merchandise. While economic malaise, migration to digital platforms and other media and one of the world’s lowest birthrates have since tempered the industry’s growth, Japan continues to be the Asian behemoth of character licensing. And with an array of new hit properties such as the popular boys’ action brands, YO-Kai Watch and Oreca Battle, the country promises to maintain its position as one of the world’s most dynamic character licensing markets.
Despite the buoyant environment for character goods, the country proves challenging for Western brands trying to get a foothold. Each year sees the arrival of hundreds of new homegrown characters that are introduced through manga, children’s books, anime and digital platforms, or purely as original iconic characters. Breaking into this lucrative, but competitive, character goods market has proved difficult, but not impossible, for non-Japanese brand owners.
In 2013, the top characters were, in order, Anpanman (a character that is based on a Japanese jam-filled pastry!!! produced by Nippon Television), Mickey Mouse, Hello Kitty (who is 41 years old this year!), Pokémon (who was in second spot in 2010) and Pretty Cure (who has obviously pushed Rilakkuma futher down the list).
These five have dominated the character market landscape for many years. It is interesting to note that both Pokémon and Hello Kitty drove the 1999 explosion in licensed character goods, and they continue to hold top-ranking positions today. The last 10 years have seen the emergence of many new character brands, but the evergreens (which include brands such as Snoopy, Doraemon, Winnie the Pooh, Thomas the Tank Engine and Super Mario) continue to hold the largest share of Japan’s character market.
While Pokémon and Hello Kitty are well-known for their own stores, at stores such as Kiddy Land, one can enjoy a medley of characters such as Snoopy, Pretty Cure, Rilakkuma, Moomin, Shonen Jump, Hello Kitty, Miffy and more. The best-known destination for character stores is Character Street, found in the basement level of Tokyo Station. In addition to character stores, there are themed restaurants and cafes such as the Gundam Café, also found in Tokyo Station.
While Kiddy Land was interesting, we still prefer Hamley’s in London.
After walking up and down Omotesando avenue gawking at people and store windows, we decided to visit Meiji Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Located just beside the JR Yamanote Line’s busy Harajuku Station, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city. The spacious shrine grounds offer walking paths that are great for a relaxing stroll. Unfortunately, we arrived at the same time with the rain!
The shrine was completed and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and the Empress Shoken in 1920, eight years after the passing of the emperor and six years after the passing of the empress. The shrine was destroyed during the Second World War but was rebuilt shortly thereafter.
Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan. He was born in 1852 and ascended to the throne in 1867 at the peak of the Meiji Restoration when Japan’s feudal era came to an end and the emperor was restored to power. During the Meiji Period, Japan modernized and westernized herself to join the world’s major powers by the time Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912.
Entry into the shrine grounds is marked by a massive torii gate, after which the sights and sounds of the busy city are replaced by a tranquil forest. The approximately 100,000 trees that make up Meiji Jingu’s forest were planted during the shrine’s construction and were donated from regions across the entire country.
The function of a torii is to mark the entrance to a sacred space. For this reason, the road leading to a Shinto shrine is almost always straddled by one or more torii, which are therefore the easiest way to distinguish a shrine from a Buddhist temple. The second torii along the path to the Meiji Shrine is the largest wooden torii of the myojin style in Japan. It was rebuilt in 1975, an exact replica of the original built in 1920. The wood used for the reconstruction is ‘hinoki’ (Japanese cypress), 1500 years old from Mt Tandai-San Taiwan.
In the middle of the forest, Meiji Jingu’s buildings also have an air of tranquility distinct from the surrounding city. Visitors to the shrine can take part in typical Shinto activities, such as making offerings at the main hall, buying charms and amulets or writing out one’s wish on an ema.
Meiji Jingu is one of the Japan’s most popular shrines. In the first days of the New Year, the shrine regularly welcomes more than three million visitors for the year’s first prayers (hatsumode), more than any other shrine or temple in the country. During the rest of the year, traditional Shinto weddings can often be seen taking place there.
At the northern end of the shrine grounds visitors will come across the Meiji Jingu Treasure House, which was constructed one year after the shrine was opened. The Treasure House displays many interesting personal belongings of the Emperor and Empress, including the carriage which the emperor rode to the formal declaration of the Meiji Constitution in 1889. There is also a Museum Annex Building just to the east of the main shrine buildings that displays temporary exhibitions.
A large area of the southern section of the shrine grounds is taken up by the Inner Garden, which requires an entrance fee to enter. The garden becomes particularly popular during the middle of June when the irises are in bloom. A small well located within the garden, Kiyomasa’s Well, is named after a military commander who dug it around 400 years ago. The well was visited by the Emperor and Empress while they were alive and has become a popular spiritual “power spot”.
Another reason to visit Yoyogi Park and the Harajuku area is to be experience the Japanese teenage culture at its most extreme. Apparently if you visit Harajuku on a Sunday, you could many young people gather around Harajuku Station and engage in cosplay (“costume play”), dressed up in excentric costumes to resemble anime characters, punk musicians, etc.
We missed them and also missed the city’s Rockabilly gangs who hold dance competitions in their poodle skirts and leather jackets in Yoyogi Park.
Harajuku refers to the area around Tokyo’s Harajuku Station. It is the center of Japan’s most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, but also offers shopping for adults and some historic sights. The focal point of Harajuku’s teenage culture is Takeshita-dori and its side streets, which are lined by many trendy shops, fashion boutiques, used clothes stores, crepe stands and fast food outlets geared towards the fashion and trend conscious teens.
But, when faced with inclement weather, little bears did what they do best, they went inside 🙂
Ladurée was found to be a suitable inside 🙂 and bonus, it came with simply delicious cakes! Puffles and Honey tried the Fraise Ladurée, while Isabelle and Jay tried the Saint Honoré Rose Framboise. I am told the cakes were simply divine, and the macarons were euphoric! Especially the cherry blossom ones…
It was ten days ago when we got the train from Tokyo to visit Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is most notable for its somber place in history due to one single incident in 1945 when it became the target for the world’s first atomic bomb detonation. The fatal moment was at 8:15am on Monday August 6, 1945.
The nuclear bomb “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets, directly killing an estimated 80,000 people. By the end of the year, injury and radiation brought the total number of deaths to somewhere between 90,000 and 166,000. Approximately 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed, and another 7% severely damaged.
This panorama at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum shows the aftermath of the atomic bomb within a 2.75km of ground zero. The atomic bomb exploded 600m above the ground, generating an instantaneous fireball. The red ball above the panorama simulates the fireball (280m in diameter) one second after the explosion.
All wooden houses were destroyed, and even ferro-concrete structures near ground zero were destroyed by the force of the blast. Windows were smashed as far away as 27km from ground zero.
Interestingly concrete chimneys remained standing in the midst of the ashes. They were probably protected from the full force of the blast by their cylindrical shapes.
Some buildings also incredibly remained standing. One of them was the Fukuya Department Store.
It is still there today, in much better shape, and surrounded by a bustling modern city.
Then, less than 6 weeks later, on September 17, 1945, Hiroshima was struck by the Makurazaki Typhoon (Typhoon Ida). Hiroshima prefecture suffered more than 3,000 deaths and injuries, about half the national total. More than half the bridges in the city were destroyed, along with heavy damage to roads and railroads, further devastating the city.
The city today is a tribute to the way the people of Hiroshima found a way to recover from such disasters, with the city rising from the ashes to rebuild itself as one of Japan’s most relaxed, vibrant cities offering fabulous food and friendly, welcoming locals.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is located in the center of Hiroshima City, but remains a quiet and spacious place. It is difficult to imagine that this triangle-shaped area bordered by two rivers was once a busy commercial and residential downtown area. After World War II, a group led by a Japanese architect named Kenzo Tange submitted a design to turn the land into the Peace Memorial Park. It was completed in 1954. By imagining the contrast between the misery of the atomic bomb attack and the beauty and tranquility of the park today, we are moved to appreciate how precious peace is. The park is also known for its beautiful cherry blossoms. Over 300 cherry trees are found along the Motoyasu River.
Mummy, mummy, look at me!
Hiroshima was rebuilt after the war, with help from the national government through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law passed in 1949. It provided financial assistance as well as land for the reconstruction of the city.
In 1949, a design was selected for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the closest surviving building to the location of the bomb’s detonation, was designated the Genbaku Dome or “Atomic Dome”, a part of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was opened in 1955 in the Peace Park. The peace park also contains a Peace Pagoda, built in 1966 by Nipponzan-Myōhōji. Uniquely, the pagoda is made of steel, rather than the usual stone.
The A-Bomb Dome is a symbol of peace which most people have at least seen at one time in a picture. The building was designed by a Czech architect in 1915 and had been used as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. In 1912, the National Confectionery Exposition was held in this place. Following that exposition, Baumkuchen, a German cake, was manufactured and sold in Japan for the first time. Since the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall was located only around 160 meters from ground zero, the building was also destroyed, and all those inside the building died. However, the building was not destroyed completely and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 and today it is representing people’s prayers for lasting peace.
Hiroshima was proclaimed a City of Peace by the Japanese parliament in 1949, at the initiative of its mayor, Shinzo Hamai (1905–1968). As a result, the city of Hiroshima received more international attention as a desirable location for holding international conferences on peace as well as social issues. As part of that effort, the Hiroshima Interpreters’ and Guide’s Association (HIGA) was established in 1992 in order to facilitate interpretation for conferences, and the Hiroshima Peace Institute was established in 1998 within the Hiroshima University. The city government continues to advocate the abolition of all nuclear weapons and the Mayor of Hiroshima is the president of Mayors for Peace, an international mayoral organization mobilizing cities and citizens worldwide to abolish and eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2020.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which includes the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, draws many visitors from around the world, especially for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, an annual commemoration held on the date of the atomic bombing. The park also contains a large collection of monuments, including the Children’s Peace Monument, the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims and many others.
The Children’s Peace Monument stands in memory of all children who died as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The monument was originally inspired by the death of Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb at the age of two. Ten years later, Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia that ultimately ended her life. Sadako’s untimely death compelled her classmates to lobby for the construction of a monument for all children who died due to the atomic bomb. Built with contributions from more than 3,200 schools in Japan and donors from nine countries, the Children’s Peace Monument was unveiled on May 5, 1958.
At the top of the 9m monument, a bronze statue of a young girl lifts a golden crane entrusted with dreams for a peaceful future. The figures of a boy and a girl are located on the sides of the monument.
The inscription on the stone block under the monument reads: “This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in this world. On the surface of the bell hung inside the monument, the phrases “A Thousand Paper Cranes” and “Peace on the Earth and in the Heavens” are carved in the handwriting of Dr Hideki Yukawa, Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics. The bell and golden crane suspended inside the monument are replicas produced in 2003.
Inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum you can see some of the paper cranes made by Sadako Sasaki.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is located in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. By standing on the Peace Boulevard side, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, the Memorial Cenotaph, the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome can be seen along a straight line.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which opened in 1955, gives people an opportunity to learn of the outcome of the bomb attack and consider what peace really means through many reference materials. The East Wing exhibits photographs, panels, videos and panorama models showing the actual history of Hiroshima before and after the bomb attack. The main building exhibits victims’ belongings and references which show the misery of the bomb attack. You will see a burnt lunch box, a tricycle which a 3-year-old boy was riding, etc., which reflect the instantaneous destruction and strike right at the heart of visitors.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was designed by a group headed by Kenzo Tange, who also designed the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Kenzo Tange won the Pritzker Architecture Prize (the architecture equivalent of the Nobel Prize) in 1987.
Little bears needed some nourishment before continuing with the visit.
The other love affair in Japan is with Italy. Lots of Japanese restaurants serving Italian style food 🙂
After lunch, little bears went to visit Hiroshima Castle.
Hiroshima Castle was a castle in Hiroshima which was the home of the daimyō (feudal lord) of the Hiroshima han (fief). The castle was constructed in the 1590s, but was destroyed by the atomic bombing on 6 August 1945. It was rebuilt in 1958, a replica of the original which now serves as a museum of Hiroshima’s history prior to World War II.
The castle was originally constructed in wood, pine primarily, and had attached wings to the east and to the south. It was completed sometime between 1592 and 1599, and was designated a National Treasure in 1931. The reconstructed castle features the main tower (tenshu) only, which is made primarily of reinforced concrete. Its five floors stand 26.6 meters above the stone foundation which, in turn, is 12.4 meters high off the ground. However, in 1994, a gate and a yagura in the ninomaru were re-constructed out of wood using the original methods.
An excellent example of a hirajiro or flatlands (plains) castle, Hiroshima castle once had three concentric moats in addition to the Otagawa river to the west (now called the Hongawa), which provided an additional natural barrier. The two outer moats were filled in during the late 19th & early 20th centuries, and much of what was once within the castle grounds is now modern urban areas, including homes, schools, offices and shops. A number of secondary castle buildings, towers and turrets once stood, and a Shinto shrine called Hiroshima Gokoku Jinja is located within the innermost moat, having been moved there after 1945.
Japanese Darth Vader 🙂
Within the castle walls, three trees survived the atomic bombing, a eucalyptus and a willow at approximately 740m from ground zero, and a holly approximately 910m from ground zero. Both specimens are preserved just beyond the Honmaru. Also located inside the Honmaru is the concrete bunker from which the first radio broadcast out of Hiroshima following the atomic bombing was made.
A bear-sized bonsai tree 🙂
To finish the day, little bears went to Andersen.
The bakery and café chain Andersen is a household name in Japan, known for its oven-fresh breads and pastries. Also part of Andersen chain are the Little Mermaid bakeries, and the hugely popular Danish Heart kiosks that sell piping-hot heart-shaped pastries in station buildings and shopping centers up and down the Japanese archipelago.
Less well-known is the fascinating history behind the enterprise, how a Danish connection turned a small Hiroshima bakery into a global business. The bakery was founded in 1948 by the Takaki family. In 1959, Shunsuke Takaki was in Europe on a study tour. He was so delighted with the sweet, flaky pastries served at his Copenhagen hotel that he sent a telegram back to Hiroshima: danish pastries. gear up now. Japan got its first taste of Danish pastry three years later and the rest, as they say, is history.
Little bears are out for a walk in Kyoto, and checking out what attracts so many tourists to Gion.
Gion is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, located around Shijo Avenue between Yasaka Shrine in the east and the Kamo River in the west. It is filled with shops, restaurants and ochaya (teahouses), where geiko (Kyoto dialect for geisha) and maiko (geiko apprentices) entertain.
Gion attracts tourists with its high concentration of traditional wooden machiya merchant houses. Due to the fact that property taxes were formerly based upon street frontage, the houses were built with narrow facades only five to six meters wide, but extend up to twenty meters in from the street.
The most popular area of Gion is Hanami-koji Street from Shijo Avenue to Kenninji Temple. A nice (and expensive) place to dine, the street and its side alleys are lined with preserved machiya houses many of which now function as restaurants, serving Kyoto style kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine) and other types of local and international meals.
Interspersed among the restaurants are a number of ochaya (teahouses), the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments, where guests are entertained by maiko and geiko.
Another scenic part of Gion is the Shirakawa Area which runs along the Shirakawa Canal parallel to Shijo Avenue. The canal is lined by willow trees, high class restaurants and ochaya, many of which have rooms overlooking the canal. As it is a little off the beaten path, the Shirakawa Area is typically somewhat quieter than Hanami-koji Street.
Many tourists visit Gion hoping to catch a glimpse of a geiko or maiko on their way to or from an engagement at an ochaya in the evenings or while running errands during the day. If you do spot a geiko or maiko, act respectfully. Complaints about tourists behaving like ruthless paparazzi have been on the increase in recent years. We did see two geiko, but they were in a taxi and we didn’t manage to take a photo. The reason I know they were geiko is because they didn’t have any of the hair accessories that a maiko wears. Given the number of tourists in Gion, unless all they have to do is cross the street, we suspect that the girls prefer the anonymity and safety of the taxis.
With paper-white skin, demur red-painted lips, glorious silk kimonos and elaborate jet-black hair, Japan’s geisha are one of the most iconic images associated with the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
The first geisha-like performers in recorded Japanese history are the saburuko, “those who serve”, who waited tables, made conversation, and sometimes sold sexual favors. The higher-class saburuko danced and entertained at elite social events. Ordinary saburuko were mostly the daughters of families left destitute in the social and political upheavals of the 7th century, the period of the Taika Reform.
In 794, the Emperor Kammu moved his capital from Nara to Heian (near present-day Kyoto). Yamato Japanese culture flourished during the Heian period, which witnessed the establishment of a particular standard of beauty, as well as the origins of the samurai warrior class. Shirabyoshi dancers and other talented female artists were in high demand throughout the Heian era, which lasted until 1185.
By the 16th century, with the end of the Sengoku period of chaos, major Japanese cities developed walled “pleasure quarters.” The courtesans or yujo who lived and worked in these districts were licensed sex workers, and the Tokugawa government classified them according to their beauty and accomplishments. At the top of the yujo hierarchy stood the oiran, who were early kabuki theater actresses as well as sex workers. Samurai were not permitted to partake of kabuki theater performances or the services of yujo by law; it was a violation of the class structure for members of the highest class (warriors) to mix with social outcasts such as actors and sex workers. However, the idle samurai found ways around these restrictions, and became some of the best customers in the pleasure quarters. Where there is a will, there is a way!
With a higher class of customers, a higher style of female entertainer also developed in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto and other cities. Highly skilled in dancing, singing and playing musical instruments such as the flute and shamisen, the geisha did not rely on selling sexual favors for their income. All were trained in the art of conversation and flirting. Among the most prized were geisha with a talent for calligraphy, or those who could improvise beautiful poetry with hidden layers of meaning on the spot. History records that the first self-styled geisha was Kikuya, a talented shamisen player and sex worker who lived in Fukagawa around 1750. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of other pleasure quarter residents began to make a name for themselves as talented musicians, dancers or poets, rather than simply as sex workers.
The first official geisha were licensed in Kyoto in 1813, just fifty-five years before the Meiji Restoration, which ended the Tokugawa Shogunate and signaled the rapid modernization of Japan. Geisha did not disappear when the shogunate fell, despite the dissolution of the samurai class. It was World War II that really dealt a blow to the profession; almost all young women were expected to work in factories to support the war effort, and there were far fewer men left in Japan to patronize teahouses and bars. Although the hey-day of the geisha was short, the occupation still lives on today. Whereas traditional maiko began training at about age 6, today all Japanese students must stay in school through age 15. Thus, girls in Kyoto can begin their training at 16, while those in Tokyo usually wait until they are 18. Popular with tourists and business-people alike, modern-day geisha also support an entire industry. They provide work for artists in all of the tradition skills of music, dance, calligraphy, etc., who train the geisha. Geisha also buy top-of-the-line traditional products such as kimono, and all the accessories, keeping craftsmen in work and preserving their knowledge.
For many years, the world of the geisha, often referred to as the flower and willow world, has perplexed and intrigued people around the world. The most common image of a geisha is a white faced, red lipped, kimono clad, glorified working girl, but in truth they are so much more. A true geisha is a person of art and can be male or female. To become a geisha requires more skill and dedication than the Western World is able to comprehend and because of that, the misconception is, more often than not, upheld.
Arthur Goldens critically acclaimed book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ opened the eyes of the Western World to the beauty, grace and plight of these women; however, there is so much more than meets the eye. The geisha culture is the only business in Japan that is run exclusively by women for the pleasure of men and has been successful for many centuries. In this society, where a woman’s place was either in the home or in the brothel, the geisha carved out a separate niche, creating a community of women that became known as the karyuaki (flower and willow world). Despite the often harsh realities of this world, a geisha could gain an education of sorts, acquire artistic skills, make her own money, establish an independent life, run a business, pursue romance, and sometimes find true love.
Today, it costs about $500,000 to become a geiko! Because of the high cost, the okasan must be sure that the apprentice is resolute in her decision to become a geiko. In the past, girls were simply bought and sold to an okiya and more often than not, would not run away because they would be unwilling to bring dishonor to their family. Today, a girl makes her own decision to become part of an okiya and seeks a personal recommendation. In the hanamachis, everything is based on personal relationships and trust within an inner circle and therefore an okiya will not simply accept any girl that turns up. Before becoming a geiko, one must go through a stringent five year apprenticeship that includes several phases. After completing each phase, the maiko will go through a rite of passage that will symbolize her ascension to the next level.
When a girl first arrives at the okiya, which will be her new home, she will not begin her apprenticeship immediately. First, she will spend approximately one year as a shikomi. Before World War II, when kuchi berachi was still an acceptable misfortune, girls began this stage as a way to begin paying off the debt that had been incurred to obtain, house, and feed them. Today, a girl will begin this stage around the age of sixteen after she completes middle school, and uses it as a time to observe her onesans in a stress free environment. As a shikomi, a girl will begin her dance lessons and start to learn the rules of the community. At this stage, the girl starts wearing informal kimonos, but no makeup. She is allowed to wear her hair in the style of her choosing but is unable to cut her hair. It is during this time that she will grow her hair to the length required to create the elaborate hairstyles that she will wear during her apprenticeship.
At the end of the first year, or when her okasan deems she is ready, whichever may come first, the girl will begin her apprenticeship. The shikomi becomes a maiko. She starts to wear the white makeup, the trailing kimono with long sleeves, her okobo, and have her hair styled every week. She also starts to collect the items that she needs during her apprenticeship: a set of new kimonos (including one for each of the four seasons), underwear, kanzashi (hair ornaments), accessories, tabi (the thick-soled Japanese ankle sock with a separate section for the big toe), a hand mirror and an ozashiki-kago (handbag). Also everyone in the hanamachi and their regular customers will be advised that a new maiko has begun her training.
The final ceremony signals the change from maiko to geiko, and essentially from bling to style. The maiko, with her bright trailing kimono, ornate hairstyles, and ornamental kanzashis, cannot help but catch the eye. The geiko, however, who dresses much less elaborately, must attract attention through her accomplishments, the intelligence of her discourse, her personality, and her behavior. After all, she is all of 20 or 21 and she is getting on!
The ultimate experience is being entertained by a maiko or geiko while dining at an ochaya. As expert hostesses, maiko and geiko ensure everyone’s enjoyment by engaging in light conversation, serving drinks, leading drinking games and performing traditional music and dance.
The services of geiko are expensive and exclusive, traditionally requiring an introduction from an existing customer. In recent years, however, some travel agencies and hotels have started to offer lunch or dinner packages with a maiko to any tourist with a sufficient budget. There are even a few companies which target foreign tourists without Japanese language skills! What is the world coming to 🙂
We tried to book a dinner at a restaurant in Kyoto that offers maiko entertainment, unfortunately they didn’t have any dinners on the nights we were there.
A more accessible experience is the cultural show held everyday at Gion Corner at the end of Hanami-koji. Aimed at foreign tourists, the show is a highly concentrated introduction to several traditional Japanese arts and include short performances of a tea ceremony, ikebana, bunraku, Kyogen comic plays and dances performed by real maiko. If you are in Kyoto in April, check out the Miyako Odori with daily dance performances by maiko. Unfortunately, we missed this too. But plenty of videos on youtube of the show!
Dressing like a geisha for a day is a fantasy shared by both Japanese and foreign ladies and MAICA, in the Miyagawa Geisha district, is one of the best places to do it. MAICA is one several places in Kyoto where they’ll dress you up and make you up as a geiko (fully fledged geisha) or maiko (apprentice geisha) for a fee. MAICA has been in business for years and is comfortable with foreign guests and enough English is spoken to get the main points across.
They offer various packages, including some where they’ll take you around to several famous Gion sightseeing spots and have a professional photographer take a few commemorative shops. Be prepared to be stared at like never before in your life. Next time!
It’s Saturday morning, the forecast is for a beautiful sunny day and four little bears go walkabout in Tokyo.
The first stop is Kagurazaka, a fashionable shopping and dining district along a sloping street in Tokyo near Iidabashi Station.
The main road of Kagurazaka was once at the outer edge of Edo Castle, opposite the Ushigome bridge over the castle moat, and has always been busy because of this privileged location. In the early 20th century, the area was renowned for its numerous geisha houses, of which several remain today. Currently, Kagurazaka is experiencing a popularity boom due to its traditional, sophisticated atmosphere on the edge of modern Shinjuku ward and proximity to Waseda University. The area is also home to a number of publishing houses.
Akagi Shrine was formerly found at the top end of Kagurazaka. It was recently redeveloped with a new shrine and apartment complex, designed by world renown architect Kengo Kuma, and opened to the public in September 2010.
Possibly because we got there just after 9am, before most shops were even open, the street looked nothing like we expected. Four little bears are trying to see where the action is!
They found it at Paul’s 🙂 It might be a French patisserie, but it’s in Japan, and nobody batted an eyelid when four little bears took residence on the table to munch on pastries. And they were delicious pastries!
The Japanese have a love affair with the French. Well, who doesn’t 🙂 There are patisseries everywhere! Kagurazaka has Tokyo’s highest concentration of French eateries, bakeries and cheese shops, alongside a host of trendy and upscale Japanese restaurants and ryotei, many of which are tucked away along the sides streets that lead off of the main slope.
A little play in a park…
…before heading to Roppongi Hills to check out the Mori Art Museum and the Roppongi Hills Art & Design Store to check out the Kaikai Kiki goodies and souvenirs by Takashi Murakami.
The Mori Art Museum takes up the top six floors of the Mori Tower in the Roppongi Hills development. Unfortunately both the Mori Art Museum and the the Tokyo City View with panoramic views of the city were closed. Both will reopen by the end of the month, the Mori Art Museum with the first combined exhibition with Centre Pompidou, Simple Forms – Contemplating Beauty. The first six levels of Mori Tower contain retail stores and restaurants, and the rest of the building is office space.
Located near the entrance to Mori Art Museum is one of the coolest, most original shops in all of Tokyo, Roppongi Hills Art & Design Store. The store has an eclectic selection of both contemporary and traditional goods from all over Japan. The store carefully selects works from young, up-and-coming artists, so most items are reasonably priced. We acquired a few cool things, we would have acquired more but we do have a developing luggage problem, including a pair of cherry earrings 🙂 A red one and a yellow one. As in one red cherry earring and one yellow cherry earring! They were not selling these earrings in pairs and I had an attack of whimsy when I bought them…
Roppongi Hills is an urban centre in Tokyo and one of Japan’s largest integrated property developments, located in the Roppongi district of Minato, Tokyo. The architecture and use of the space is documented in the book Six Strata: Roppongi Hills Redefined.
Constructed by building tycoon Minoru Mori, the mega-complex incorporates office space, apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, movie theatres, a museum, a hotel, a major TV studio, an outdoor amphitheatre, and a few parks. The centerpiece is the 54-story Mori Tower. Mori’s stated vision was to build an integrated development where high-rise inner-urban communities allow people to live, work, play, and shop in proximity to eliminate commuting time. He argued that this would increase leisure time, quality of life, and benefit Japan’s national competitiveness. Seventeen years after the design’s initial conception, the complex opened to the public on April 25, 2003.
Around the Mori Tower are several smaller buildings predominantly occupied by shops and restaurants, a cinema complex, and the Mori Garden. Behind the Mori Tower lies the Roppongi Keyakizaka Street which has cafes and luxury stores such as Louis Vuitton.
With the shopping done, it was time for another dose of cherry blossoms, this time in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, along with half of Tokyo’s population.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a large park with an eminent garden in Shinjuku and Shibuya, Tokyo. It was originally a residence of the Naitō family in the Edo period. Afterwards, it became a garden under the management of the Imperial Household Agency of Japan. It is now a park under the jurisdiction of the national Ministry of the Environment.
The shogun bequeathed this land to Lord Naitō (daimyo) of Tsuruga in the Edo period who completed a garden here in 1772. After the Meiji Restoration the house and its grounds were converted into an experimental agricultural centre. It became an imperial garden in 1879. The current configuration of the garden was completed in 1906. Most of the garden was destroyed by air raids in 1945, during the later stages of World War II. The garden was rebuilt after the war and was open to the public on May 21, 1949.
The garden, which is 58.3 hectares in area with a circumference of 3.5 km, blends three distinct styles: a French Formal and English Landscape in the north and to the south a Japanese traditional garden.
The garden is a favourite hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) spot, and large crowds can be present during cherry blossom season. We saw them today!
The garden has more than 20,000 trees, including approximately 1,500 cherry trees which bloom from late March (Shidare or Weeping Cherry), to early April (Somei or Tokyo Cherry), and on to late April (Kanzan Cherry). Other trees found here include the majestic Himalayan cedars, which soar above the rest of the trees in the park, tulip trees, cypresses, and plane trees, which were first planted in Japan in the Imperial Gardens. Horticulture work has been going on in the greenhouses in the garden since 1892. The present greenhouse, built in the 1950s has a stock of over 1,700 tropical and subtropical plant species on permanent display.
It is a great place for a pleasant afternoon.
Hiding from the paparazzi in a cherry blossom tree…