Unlike most other trees, the Ginkgo or Ichou in Japanese, has individuals of the two sexes, males and females. Only the female produces fruits which are renown for their unpleasant smell. This peculiar tree is commonly seen in Japan. In fact, the leaf of the Ginkgo tree is the emblem of the University of Tokyo, the most recognized university in Japan. It is thus not surprising to find a street lined with large Ginkgo trees near the Jingu Gaien garden in Tokyo. In fall, this street hosts the Ginkgo festival when thousands of visitors come to enjoy the sight of the Ginkgo leaves turning to a bright yellow color.
Summer is the season of Japanese festivals, or Matsuri in Japanese. When visiting the neighbourhood of Okurayama in late summer, we were pleasantly surprised by the ongoing festivities of the Okurayama Matsuri. The local shrine’s Omikoshi (festival float) was being carried around in the streets by locals. In the evening, Yatai food stalls were lining up the street leading to the small local shrine. We ate choco bananas and got purified by a shinto priest at the shrine.
The flower festival of the city of Nagano is held every year in early May. For the occasion, Chuo-Dori, the main street leading to Zenko-ji Temple, is covered with flower mosaics. Cultural performances, such as the lion dance, are also held during the festival. It is also a great chance to enjoy a good Matcha ice cream!
Sumo is more than a sport. It is deeply rooted in tradition and spirituality. The life of a sumotori is strictly regulated. When in lower ranks, sumo wrestlers must be obedient to their seniors. Wrestlers live in stables, large living complexes that feature, sleeping, eating and training facilities. Several times a year, all wrestlers meet at the major tournaments.
I had the chance recently to attend a Sumo tournament held in Tokyo at the Kokugikan. Upon arriving at the Ryogoku station, one notices the Sumo wrestlers getting off the train and the large posters of sumo wrestlers in the station. The stadium itself, the Kokugikan, is quite peculiar. The seats are divided into two sections. The upper one consists of normal seats. The lower one has what is called a masu-seki. It is a flat space with cushions large enough to fit four people. The sumo stage is at the center, under what looks like the roof of a shrine hanging from the ceiling. The sumo ring is indeed a very sacred place. The ring itself is covered in sand and is encircled by a rope.
Sumo matches are very short. Most lasted a several seconds and rarely exceeded a minute. When the two wrestlers put their fists on the ring the bout starts. They accelerate rapidly towards each other and hit with a phenomenal force. From then on, wrestlers try to force their opponent out of the ring or to fall on the floor. Once the bout is over the sumo wrestlers withdraw and two new wrestlers come for the next match.
Sumo tickets are sold for a whole day of competition. The day starts with the lower ranks and ends with the best wrestlers. Between every division, a ceremonial cleaning of the ring is carried. Most spectators come to watch the upper divisions so it is generally quiet in the morning. Before the uppermost division, Yokozunas, the best wrestlers, performs a special ceremonial entrance.
Every year, Kodo, one of Japan’s best taiko ensembles, hosts a summertime music festival on their home island of Sado. The festival takes place in Ogi, a small town (but quite big for Sado standard) nearby Kodo village where the members of Kodo live and train.
During the three days of the festival, many cultural and artistic activities focused on Sado’s traditions and taiko drums are held in the vicinity of Ogi. Each evening, a big show is held on the main stage of the festival. While the last show usually features Kodo’s classics, others feature invited guests (this year featured Braman, a metal band). After the festival is over, Kodo bids farewell to their visitors by performing on the dock in front of the departing ferry. As the sound of the drums fades away, one already thinks of coming back to Earth Celebration.
The Oykot train is a special scenic train which starts from Nagano station and follows the Iiyama line all the way to Tokamachi station. The Iiyama line follows the Chikuma-gawa river which features truly beautiful rustic scenery featuring rice paddies and small villages that are representative of the beautiful Japanese countryside.
The purpose of the Oykot train is to allow its passengers to enjoy this scenery while having a relaxing time onboard the train. To this end, the train interior is designed to mimic the old rural Japanese home and the trip also includes a serving of locally-made Japanese pickled vegetables. Guests can also bring their favorite food and beverages onboard. This philosophy of the Japanese countryside is reflected in the train’s name, Oykot, which is the reverse of Tokyo, the most populous metropolis of Japan. It is possible for the passengers to explore further the Japanese countryside by stopping at stations along the Iiyama line and taking another Oykot train, or a regular train, for the return trip to Nagano.
Ryukyu glassblowing is a famous attraction in Okinawa. Many glass stores around the island offer the experience of glassblowing. We were lucky to find this one which was smaller than others but had a more authentic feel.
The glass blowing experience requires you to carry out small step of the overal glassblowing process. The instructor will attach the molten glass onto the glassblowing tube and inflate it to a good size. You are then asked to blow a bit more in the tube to bring the glass bubble to its final shape. Your participation is required for several other small steps until your glass is ready. Actually, most of the difficult steps are handled by the expert but you are nonetheless left with a feeling of accomplishment, and a beautiful piece of glass to bring home!
Yatai are small food stalls selling a variety of delicious Japanese street food including Ramen, Oden and Yakitori. They were once popular throughout Japan but are nowadays more prevalent in the city of Fukuoka. One of the most popular places to eat Yatai food is along the Naka river where the photos shown here were taken. Perhaps the best way to enjoy Yatai is to move from one cart to the other for a chance to sample a diversity of Japanese delicacies.
A Japanese mansion, pronounced manshon, is not a large and expensive house the name would suggest. Mansion is used in Japanese to describe a typical apartment complex. Interestingly, individual apartments at mansions are usually accessed from outside through a balcony running along the building. Although everyone has access to this balcony, it lacks privacy and seems rarely used to enjoy nice weather or eat outside. The latter is not popular in Japan and terraces at restaurants are practically nonexistent. The mansion is well adapted to the Japanese climate, which rarely justifies the necessity of access corridors to protect inhabitants from the cold.
The Kaikaro Teahouse is located in Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya (East Teahouse) district. Japanese teahouses are traditional establishments where guests may be entertained by Geishas. While most of those establishments are exclusive, the Kaikaro Teahouse is open to the public. The teahouse features many lavishly decorated rooms on the second floor. The visit includes tea and a traditional Japanese desert (Kuzukiri) where noodles made of Kuzu starch are dipped in a sweet syrup covered by a thin gold leaf.