The Treasures of Monzen Nakacho – Fukagawa Fudo-do

monzen 4We took advantage of a sunny day to visit Monzen Nakacho and the Fukagawa Fudo-do (Fukagawa Fudo Temple).  Situated conveniently on the Oedo line, the town itself is a cute, shop-filled place that’s easily navigable by walking.  We visited on the 15th of the month, so we got to see the flea market at Fukugawa Hachiman Shrine, and then ate at a scrumptious soba at a tiny restaurant between the shrine and the huge temple.  The Temple itself is simply humongous, set back majestically from the main road.  What makes this Temple special though, is the sutras read by the colorfully dressed priests in a fury of monzen 1taiko drums and fire.  After a spectacle of color and chanting outside on the stone walkway, visitors, as long as they are respectful and willing to take off their shoes, are invited inside into the main room of the temple where the high priest chants and blesses people as the fire rages behind him and the drums crescendo and lull in rhythmic succession. After the ceremony, we got to walk through the shrine.  We saw the thousands of tiny Buddhas set behind glass and rubbed the ball-like stones beneath them for luck.  Upstairs is a rendition of the shrine trek of the island of Shukoku, where it is said that worshiping is like making the trek itself. The beauty and majesty of the contrasting red and black and crystal monzen 3accents add to the atmosphere of shimmering excitement when combined with the incomparable fire and drumming.  It might be one of my favorite things I’ve done in Tokyo in all the years I’ve lived here.  I’d highly recommend a trip out there.  Enjoy the photos and video.

The Beauty of Japanese Textiles

2013-02-22 21.51.32In the days of ancient Tokyo, all the way through the 1950’s, kimono dying factories lined the banks of the Myoshoji River in the areas of Nakai and Ochiai.   Yearly since 2009 the residents of these parts of the city have commemorated the rich history by creating a gallery of Kimono cloth and noren, stringing beautifully painted cloth along the river and throughout the streets. Noren are the cloths that hang outside of businesses in Japan in front of the entry doors.  Shopkeepers and restaurant owners put them out at the start of the business day and pull them in when the day is done. Calling the festival Some-no-Komichi, in addition to just showing beautifully dyed and painted cloth, the city opens the gym of the local elementary school to let people dye or paint their own cloths.  The gym is also a gallery of stunningly painted kimono and obi with descriptions of the artists and their techniques.  With the bright sunshine and lovely breeze leafing through the cloth, we could feel the echos of ancient times as we wandered the streets of Nakai. Enjoy the photos from the day.

The dyed cloth strung along the river

The dyed cloth strung along the river

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A description of the dying processes

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More cloth along the river

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One of the 90 or so noren we saw in shop windows in the city.

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Another example of a hand-painted noren

This man is a local artist; he is carving a woodblock to make woodblock prints.

This man is a local artist; he is carving a block of wood to make woodblock prints.

Celebrating a Holiday in Japan

matsuri picMonday was a Japanese holiday – Foundation Day, where the Japanese celebrate the monarchy and ascension of Emperor Jimmu, but according to my dear friend Ms. Miki Hathaway, it’s also the day General MacArthur approved the draft of the modern constitution in 1946.  Lots to celebrate, and the Japanese don’t shy away from celebration.

One of my favorite Japanese ways to celebrate is with the Mikoshi, or portable shrines, which they carry through the streets while dressed in traditional garb. This video was taken in Omotesando, widely regarded as the Champs Elysee of Tokyo with it’s wide, tree-lined street and excellent shopping.  The shrines paraded one after the other, making their slow bouncing progress, for more than an hour. Here is a brief video of the parade of Mikoshi.  Enjoy the Japanese way of celebrating a special holiday!

Another New Year Celebration in Japan

shishimai2The Japanese really know how to celebrate a new year.  In addition to the traditions of going to the shrine, eating soba, and pounding rice, there’s Shishi-Mai, or the Lion Dance.  The Lion dances around to the beat of drums and the tune of flutes. As it dances, people can put money in its mouth for good luck.  Because most Shishi-mae troupes originate from a shrine, all money goes to support the shrine.  The Japanese lion consists of a wooden, lacquered head called a “shishi-gashira” (Lion Head), and a characteristic body of green dyed cloth with white designs.  One family at my daughter’s school sponsored a shishi-mai demonstration at the International School the children attend.  It was quite a treat to watch.shishimai1shishimai5


The dango, ready to go into classes

About two weeks ago I went into my daughter’s school to help celebrate the festival of O-tsukimi, or moon watching.  In ancient times, the people of Japan celebrated the harvest moon waxing and waning in September and October and the tradition, in various forms has survived the centuries.  In many homes, the Japanese will spend time outside on the nights of the full moon, watching it.  Tradition says that children look at the moon to see the rabbit who lives in it.  People decorate with pampas grass, or susuki, and they eat dango, dumplings made out of mochi flour.

At Sydney’s school, they held an assembly to remind the students to watch the moon and tell the story of the rabbit.  The cross cultural committee of the parents group, of which I am a member, dressed up in traditional yukata and served dango

Me, in yukata getting ready to serve the dango

with the sweet mitarashi sauce that goes with it.  The kids loved the story and the treats almost as much as we loved sharing it with them.

Traditions can be very beautiful in their simplicity.

New Year in Japan

New Year is a special time in Japan.  It’s not an over-the-top party type of special; it’s more like a quiet, reflective, be-with-family type of special.  In that vein, there are traditional games that  children play and intricate performances to watch, all to ring in the new year with a sense of luck, happiness and prosperity.

Every year, Roppongi Hills, a trendy area not far from our home, has a little festival in their center arena.  We’re not often here for New Year, so this is our first time attending.  The kids got to spin tops, and juggle with professionals as well as watch a dragon performance and a group of Taiko drummers.  The tops are the type that are spun with a string, and to wind them and then “throw” them properly is quite a skill.  The professional organizers of the day spent as much time as each kid wanted with him or her, patiently helping until the child could do it.  It really was an amazing feat of patience.

The Taiko drummers never fail to enthrall me.  They dance and move as they drum in a synchronized rhythm of crescendos and descrescendos.  It’s so exciting to watch and I can barely keep still!

Here are a few more photos on the day.

Sydney learned to wind a teeny tiny top


This dragon lady touched the heads of children in the front row to bring them luck


Look carefully: these are all tiny tops - the players throw them onto the drum and they spin to knock each other out to determine the winner

Beat the Heat with Food and Attitude

I have come to realize that in Japan, there is more to temperature than environment. In the U.S. we tend to flock to pools or air conditioned zones to get away from the oppressive summer temperatures in some areas, such as my current summertime location in Washington D.C. But in Japan, it can be quite different. In a big city such as Tokyo, the heat can be crippling when combined with the extreme humidity. However, the worst problem is that people are out in it. There’s no such thing as going from the air conditioned house to the air conditioned car to the air conditioned office. Public transport is the most common way to work, and people have to get there somehow – most often by walking – and then walking from train to work. In addition, this particular summer, with the electricity crisis happening all over Japan and the government looking to reduce usage, the trains are even warmer than in past summers. The most common sight in Japan is the little towel. People all over pull it out of pockets and mop up sweat on their faces and brow. It’s one way to grin and bear it. The perfect gift for a summer resident of Japan is this towel. My husband sometimes carries two of them.

There are such things as cooling foods, almost guaranteed to lower the internal body temperature. One such food is the ever-popular shaved ice. It’s a staple of the Japanese Matsuri (festival) and can be found in shops throughout the cities in the hot months. The Japanese people do not like things as sweet as Americans do, so there’s most often more ice than syrup in the Japanese version, which is even cooler. Smoothies, ice cream, gazpacho soup – they’re all foods that cool internally. When I am in Japan in the summer, I have observed skyrocketing sales of ice cream. The Japanese believe that it cools one’s temperature significantly and don’t mind the indulgence. Of course their portions are significantly lower than an American’s idea of an ice cream cone. The Japanese people drink less plain water than Americans, also. They believe in the cooling power of tea – green, black or barley. I don’t think jasmine tea is as popular for a cooling function, but it is available.

Beyond food, sometimes “cool” really is a state of mind. The Japanese government, for the first time, is approving Hawaiian shirts as proper office attire in this summer of SUPER cool biz. To me, this is a recognition of the power of mind over matter. When wearing one of these lightweight, cotton shirts, one can’t help but think of palm trees, cool breezes, and delightful beaches. The Japanese are a stoic people who have a strong sense of national pride and want to do the best they can to help their country. Most of the expats who reside there feel the same. And if helping the country involves wearing a printed, cotton shirt to work, then let’s all go purchase a few.

These are a few ideas to beat the summertime heat in Japan. When all else fails, please do head for the beach or the pool or even the aircon. In the meantime, mop your face, drink heartily and think cooling thoughts. Good luck!

This Post is part of Loco in Yokohama’s Blog Matsuri

It’s Golden Week in Tokyo!

Flowers in the Japanese gardens at Showa Kinen Park during Golden Week.

This week in Japan is known as “Golden Week” because of the string of national holidays contained within it.  The Japanese have a different, more collective, take on vacations from work than Americans do.  Americans have a certain number – often between 10 and 20 – vacation days and a few holidays over the year when the office is closed.  In Japan it’s different: there are many national holidays where most companies are closed and individual workers take very few vacation days.

There are three times over the year when the country is quiet and companies are closed.  The first is over the New Year, when most places are closed from January 1st through 4th every year.  Second is Golden Week, which is just a series of well-place holidays and third is the third week of August, which is Obon, when Japanese are supposed to go back to their ancestral homes and celebrate their ancestors.   There are other one-off days throughout the year, including a few days in September/October that are starting to be called “Silver Week” due to it’s similarity to Golden Week in the spring.

Specifically, Golden Week is made up of five holidays.  The first is April 29th, which is Showa day, a day to honor the

Leaf-wrapped, bean-filled mochi

Showa emperor – known to Americans as Emperor Hirohito, who was born on this day in 1901.  Even though one might think the Japanese wouldn’t choose to celebrate the Emperor who brought the country into World War II, but the opposite is true.  Under his reign, though there was the war, Hirohito brought Japan into the modern age with industrialization and militarization.  He withstood the American changes to the constitution of the country and was the longest reigning emperor in Japan’s history with his rule from 1921 to 1989 when he died.  The emperor’s birthday is always a holiday in Japan (the current emperor’s birthday is December 23rd) but after his death, the holiday became known as Showa day, celebrating the Showa period in history.

April 30th is not a holiday at all.  Some people take it off to make a full week of Gold, and some do not.

The second holiday is May 3rd, and it celebrates Constitution Day.  May 3rd is the day in 1949 when the new Japanese constitution was put into place after the war.  It’s the only day of the year when the Diet (the Congressional building) is open to the public.

May 4th is Greenery day and is sort of like Earth Day.  People are supposed to celebrate the earth and nature and all of its gifts.  Some people go to the temples to worship accordingly.

Koi Flags fly all over the country for the holidays

May 5th is one of the more interesting holidays – Kodomo no hi – or Children’s Day.  It’s when parents specifically celebrate boys (Girls’ day is in March, don’t worry) and go to temples to pray for the health of all children.  There are more symbols and traditions for this holiday.  All over the city of Tokyo right now, you can see brilliant flags in the shape of carp. Carp swim upstream, and represent strength, so they are the symbol of the holiday.  There is one traditional food: mochi – pounded rice – stuffed with bean paste and wrapped in an oak leaf, also representing health and strength.

Those are the official meanings of the holidays.  However, what they mean to pretty much all Japanese people is a rare time of the year that they can travel easily without taking days off from work.  At this time of year the airports, busses, trains and everything are crowded beyond belief.  Air travel prices spike out of this world.  Public parks and tourist spots become overrun with people.  I tend to stay in if possible!

It’s an interesting way to look at the concept of taking holidays – it’s more collective than Americans’ individual waysof looking at vacations.  But that’s the Japanese spirit – anything worth doing is worth doing as a group!


In Japan, watching the Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) bloom is a sport.  The Japanese celebrate by having Hanami picnics all over the country where the trees are in bloom.  They spread out blue tarps on the ground under the trees and spend hours and hours eating and drinking and watching the flowers of the trees above.  Families celebrate; friends celebrate; office-mates

Even dogs dress for the occasion.

celebrate – everyone does it.  “Where are you doing Hanami this year?” is a popular question.  In offices, the boss sends out the most junior associate to stake out the best spot and sit in it until the rest of his colleagues are ready to leave work.  Food ranges from onigiri (Japanese rice balls) to sandwiches to elaborate bento specially prepared for the occasion.  Wine, Sake and beer are all in large supply for everyone and anyone.  Everyone shares. There is all manner of dress – from the formal to the casual. Some of the outfits on the women were unreal in their complexity and attention to detail.  As usual, all outfits are not complete until the shoes are considered.  The irony is that no one is allowed to put shoes on the blue tarps so you see picnic areas covered with the tarps and the edges of the tarps littered by shoes.

Proper picnic food

The thrush of people crowding under the trees for the best glimpse of the flowers - and drinking and drinking and drinking...

The picnic foods you see in Japan are always entertaining.  They go through great lengths to ensure that meals are portable, well balanced and neatly packaged.  Obento lunches are common – perfectly boxed little bits of perfection that contain artfully arranged bits of veggies, meat and rice. The Japanese, always environmentally conscious and clean conscious,  carry their trash home because there are no litter receptacles in the park.  What you bring in, you bring out.  It’s a fascinating concept and a wonderful idea.  We spent our Hanami Saturday in Arisugawa Park in the Minami Azabu section of Tokyo and it was relaxing to simply while away the hours with friends, drinking and eating and drinking again while the kids all played.  There are no expectations or complaints.  It was time to just sit and watch the blossoms bloom.  In a city of people who spend their time rushing hither and yon, this is a refreshing break from reality.  It’s time to work hard at relaxing.

(photos taken by Debra Reiskind Bajaj)