Japan tagged posts

Japan’s Hidden Secret: Tourist free Kanazawa or “Little Kyoto”

Kanazawa mfp

Japan’s Hidden Secret: Kanazawa

\

The Japanese describe Kanazawa, located by the Sea of Japan in Western Honshu, as “little Kyoto” because it offers an artisanal tradition akin to Kyoto’s as well as beautifully preserved traditional neighborhoods. Put more accurately, while Kyoto is the much older Japanese Imperial capital, Kanazawa is the best-preserved Edo (or Shogun-era) city in the country. As an added bonus, it is a City of Crafts and Folk Art and forms part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. It offers many of Kyoto’s charms without its tourist hordes.  In short, it is a gem that has largely been under the radar for most Western tourists.

The Maedas ruled the remote Kaga region (of which Kanazawa is the center) during the Shogun era, when power emanated from the Edo Castle (today’s Tokyo). Rather than challenge the Shogunate in war, the Maedas poured their efforts into cultural pursuits and channeled their vast wealth from local gold mines into arts and crafts, many of which are still nationally renowned. The name “Kanazawa” means “marsh of gold” and the castle town was famous early on for Kaga gold-leaf, inlaid work and calligraphy. Indeed, the gold leaf that covers Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion was produced in Kanazawa.

Being the richest domain outside the Shogunate, Kanazawa’s population swelled with samurai retainers, artisans, merchants and, of course, geisha courtesans. Since the town was located along a remote sheltered coast across the mountains from Tokyo, it was protected from being ravaged both in the feudal wars as well as during World War II, where it was spared from US bombing. As a result its samurai and geisha districts are remarkably intact.

Here is the lowdown on its six...

Read More

Photo Friday: Trainee Geisha Playing Drinking Games in Kyoto

Trainee geisha or maiko playing drinking games in Kyoto

I took this photo of 17-year-old Tanefume, a trainee geisha playing drinking games with tourists at the Gion Hatanaka Ryokan in Kyoto. The delighted expression on her face contrasts strikingly with her formal attire and shows just how young and ingenuous she is!

The Gion District of Kyoto, with its wooden inns, restaurants and ocha-ya or traditional tea houses is the heart of the geisha quarter.

You might catch a glimpse of a geisha, dressed in an elaborately patterned silk kimono, her face painted in traditional white makeup and hair piled high with delicate decorations, as she slips through a doorway. It is, however, very expensive and next to impossible for foreigners to hire a geisha for an evening’s entertainment of singing, dancing and drinking games.

However the enterprising Gion Hatanaka Ryokan, or traditional inn, offers a traditional Kyoto kaiseki dinner in bento boxes and entertainment with two maiko, or trainee geisha.

It is an entrancing experience where you watch the...

Read More

Hoshinoya Kyoto: classic Japanese inn with a twist

Hoshinoya Kyoto has been built with traditional Japanese craftsmanship

Hoshinoya Kyoto is a unique contemporary ryokan inside a noble’s retreat on the banks of the Ooigawa River in Arashiyama, just outside Kyoto. It offers a rare vision of authentic Japan incorporating a reverence for traditional culture with a whimsical modern sensibility. There are few Japanese high-end inns, indeed few resorts in the world, whose aesthetic appeals both to well-heeled locals and an informed international clientele. Hoshinoya is breaking new ground.

To get to Hoshinoya, I arrive at a dock near the famous moon-viewing Togetsukyo Bridge for the ten-minute trip in a covered boat along the forest-lined river. Tomoko Tsuchima greets me and shows me around the re-imagined interior and exterior spaces of this protected heritage site. Hoshinoya’s designers have utilised centuries-old techniques of Kyoto craftsmen…hand-crafted washi paper, latticework, ceramic roof tiles, sand plastered walls…to create a modern gem embodying the lightness of touch inherent in good Japanese design.

At t...

Read More

Kusatsu: a classic Japanese hot springs town

Kusatsu is Japan's number one hot springs town

With more than 100 hot springs producing 36,000 liters of hot water per minute, Kusatsu has the highest volume of naturally discharged hot water in Japan. Its Hot Water Field is almost a national onsen shrine.  In fact, Kusatsu onsen has been chosen by the Japan’s top travel agents as the country’s number one hot spring for 10 consecutive years in the 100 Best Hot Springs in Japan. Here is my guide on how to enjoy both the indoor and outdoor onsen is this classic hot springs town.

Bathing evokes an almost religious fervor in Japan. Since it is very active geothermally, more than 28,000 onsen hot springs dot the length of the country, the styles varying from a water hole on the side of a river to complete onsen theme parks. While many hotel and ryokan hot springs deliver a five-star experience, municipal bath houses and foot baths offer everyone the opportunity to take the waters...

Read More

Photo Friday: Japanese snow monkeys

Photo Friday: Japanese snow monkey

I shot this photo in winter when this Japanese snow monkey and his friends were enjoying their hot springs baths in snow-covered Jigokudani Yaenkoen park, not far from Nagano on the island of Honshu.

These snow monkeys are Japanese macaque, a monkey species native to northern Japan and the most northern-living non-human primate surviving winter temperatures below -15 degrees centigrade.

To see the monkeys in their natural environment you walk up alongside the Yokoyu River, which is nicknamed Hell’s Valley because of its steep cliffs and hot water steaming out from the ground. It is fun to watch them going about their business…playing, eating, running around and soaking in the onsen. There is a lot of social activity to enjoy with mothers and babies and alpha males. And it is remarkable how their faces and hands and all their emotions are so like our own.

If you would like to try soaking in an onsen yourself, check out my post on Kusatsu, which is much more human friendly!

icon-car.pngKML-LogoFullscreen-LogoQR-code-logoGeoJSON-LogoGeoRSS-LogoWikitude-Logo
Japanese s...
Read More

Great Overnight Getaway from Tokyo: Karuizawa

The onsen in Karuizawa, an hour out of Tokyo

The mountain retreat of Karuizawa, just an hour by bullet train from Tokyo, offers a delightful overnight getaway from the frenetic metropolis. In winter, it has skiing, snow shoeing, and steaming onsen baths. In summer it offers a wonderful respite from Tokyo’s heat. And year-round it has great shopping, walking, restaurants and other adventures.

Karuizawa,  has long welcomed travellers. From the early 17th century, when Japan was ruled by the Edo (Tokyo)-based shogun, Karuizawa was a post town along the busy Nakasendo highway between Tokyo and Kyoto.

You can still explore the long narrow post-town street once lined with wooden restaurants and inns catering to samurai lords and merchants. These days the offerings lean more towards trinket-filled Japanese souvenir outlets, bakeries and sweets shops.

What distinguishes Karuizawa from other post towns is…surprisingly…how it became a getaway for Westerners in the late 19th century.  After first coming in 1886, Canadian-born missionary Alexander Croft Shaw recommended what he called Happy Valley to fellow missionaries and other foreigners as a wonderful place to escape Tokyo’s summer heat. Soon an entire community of western-style houses was built among the larch and fir trees.

A ret...

Read More

Photo Friday: Walking Japan’s Nakasendo Way

Japan's Nakasendo Way is the traditional samurai trail between Edo and Kyoto

I took this Photo Friday image in a bucolic section of Japan’s Nakasendo Way between the restored post towns of Tsumago and Magome. The Nakasendo or the ancient “Middle Mountain Way” wends its way across valleys and mountain passes between the old Imperial capital of Kyoto and the Shogunate stronghold of Edo, now known as Tokyo. Once a busy byway traveled by feudal lords, samurai warriors, merchants and pilgrims, the Nakasendo Way now offers a tantalizing taste of old Japan that can be well nigh impossible to find in the country’s kitch-obsessed, neon-bright cities. It was springtime and beautiful pink blossoms floated down from the cherry trees that lined our path. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.

We had just been invited in to a traditional tea house for refreshments by a fellow wearing a traditional blue jacket and conical hat. We sat on tiny stools around a low table set on a dirt floor in a room that felt like it hadn’t changed for centuries...

Read More

Insider’s Guide to Kyoto: The Golden Temple and other Highlights

kyoto mfp-72

Know Before You Go:

When the Vikings were still raiding England, Kyoto became the imperial capital of Japan, at the beginning of the Heian period, and remained so until the court moved to Edo, or Tokyo, in 1868 during the Meiji Restoration.  To cater to the sophisticated tastes of royalty, Kyoto developed a thriving cottage industry of skilled artisans…kimono makers, wood-block artists, potters, lacquer ware craftsmen and fine woodworkers…which still survives, admittedly in a much smaller way, to this day.

Although it has been ravaged by wars, fires and earthquakes, Kyoto’s cultural treasures helped it to be spared from US bombing raids during World War II and as a result it is one of the few Japanese cities with pre-war buildings such as merchant townhouses.  With it 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines as well as a bevy of palaces and gardens, it is a must-visit historic destination.

First time visitors are, however, often surprised that Kyoto is also a busy modern city whose key industries include information technology and electronics (Nintendo has its headquarters here), higher education (there are 38 universities), and film and television production. If you take the bullet train you will arrive via the futuristic glass and steel Kyoto train station, one of Japan’s tallest buildings.  While, of course, you must savor Kyoto’s historical treasures, don’t ignore the contemporary city, with its thriving food markets, fusion restaurants and cutting edge design stores, where local craftsmen use their traditional artisanal training to create contemporary pieces.

Compar...

Read More