Several styles of Soba noodle in Tokyo

In this blog, I have once written that Soba, Japanese traditiontal noodle made from buckwheat flour, was a fast food in Edo era (17th to mid 19th century) in Japan.

http://howdyjapan.com/2016/05/11/soba-japanese-fast-food/

However, it doesn’t mean soba noodle is just a simple food without any sophistication. In the contrary in Tokyo in Edo era many master chefs of soba noodle had been making continuous efforts to cook the better soba and such efforts reached to 3 different cooking styles of soba noodle. Now in Tokyo, there are still some soba noodle restaurants which keep each traditional style.

Minowa is an area in northern Tokyo where traditional shopping street are still well used by local people. And at a corner of the street there is a soba noodle restraurant Sunaba-Souhonke whose building was built in 1912.

Sunaba is one of 3 styles of cooking soba noodle in Tokyo (the others are Sarashina and Yabu). And it is said that Sunaba is the oldest style stemming from the location in Osaka to build Osaka castle for a famous Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the 16th century. Once we enter the restaurant, we can feel such tradition even from the interior of the restaurant.

In each traditional soba styles, chefs make soba noodle from buckwheat flour manually. And each process to cook soba noodle is slightly different among each styles. But in common soba noodle in Tokyo styles are known as long length of each noodle and crisp feeling on month.

Traditionally people in Tokyo have been enjoying sucking in such crisp soba noodle making a big noise. Differently from Western culture, it’s never rude to make a noise but an appropriate way to enjoy feeling the noodle into mouth and down throat.

To be honest, I as a person from a country side of Japan like Inaka Soba (country style soba noodle) better, which has a feature of more chewy mouth feeling and stronger flavor of buckwheat. But when I see local people in Tokyo eating Tokyo traditional soba making a big noise, I would feel a sense of “Iki” (sense of sophistication in old Tokyo).

When you have time, you can enjoy not only soba noodle but also Tempura. In the centuries, Tempura has been considered as one of the best matches with soba noodle.  It’s also cool to drink Sake little by little while eating soba noodle and tempura.

When you think to eat some traditional food in Tokyo, why don’t you consider soba noodle as an option. Although it looks simple, it has a long tradition for chefs as well as people to eat it.

Colored grasses in Oku Nikko

When you visit Japan in autumn, you might expect leaves colored in yellow or red such as maples. And you could end up with becoming very tired of too crowed places. But what becomes colored in autumn in Japan is not only leaves. In Oku Nikko, Tochigi prefecture, Japan, in early October you can enjoy another color of Japan.

Nikko is one of the most famous sightseeing places in Eastern Japan. The highlight of Nikko is a magnificent Nikko Toshogu shrine dedicated to Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first shogun of Tokugawa shogunate.

The day trip in Nikko may finish after visiting several temples and shrines around Toshogu shrine, or Kegon waterfall at most. However, if you keep going further, you will arrive the area called Oku (deep in Japanese) Nikko which has another attraction less familiar to the visitors.

The highest season of colored leaves in Nikko is Mid to Late October. However, in Senjogahara Marshland in Oku Nikko it starts coloring a little earlier.

Senjogahara means a battlefield in Japanese. But it’s not related to a bloody real battle but stems from a mystical battle of mountain gods. Now in the 21st century it’s covered with grasses such as cotton grasses and Japanese pampas grasses. So that visitors can enjoy their colors wooden trails are well equipped all over the marshland.

South to Seojogahara Marshland there is another marshland, Odashirogahara. In this place where you can go only by walk or by a special bus, grasses are more vividly colored.

After you enjoy colored grasses in Oku Nikko, you can also enjoy hot springs in hotels located around Yunoko lake. The water in the hot springs in the area contains much sulfur and colored in green. This component flew into Yuknoko lake and colors the lake green as well.

In Japan there are many places where you can enjoy colored leaves in autumn. But I want to recommend Oku Nikko as a place less crowed in early October and as a rare place where you can enjoy colored grasses.

 

 

 

Urban trail around Nippori Tokyo

It’s one of highlights of travels when you walk through trails which are conditioned well in nature or in a country side. However, in Japan, a railway company, Japan Railway East provides events named “hiking from stations” on which we can enjoy exciting urban trails in Tokyo. And this weekend they provided the trail from Nippori station close to our house. Now let’s walk through the trail together!

After we left Nippori station, we headed to the east to Nippori Fabric Town. For those who like sawing, Nippori is well known as a center of small fabric retailers.

Then we went down to the south through Yanaka cemetery and several temples up to Ueno park. Ueno park is a huge park where there are several museum and a zoo. But one of these museums, National Museum of Western Art, attracted big public attention last year since it was registered to UNESCO World Heritage, as one of masterpieces build by a French architect, Le Corbusier.

We turned to the west for a while and came to Shinobazu Pond. The area including Ueno park and this Shinobazu Pond was parts of Kanei-ji temple ‘s land in Edo era from the 17th to mid 19th century. When Edo Shogunate started at the beginning of the 17th century, they tried to build a center of Buddhism corresponding to Enryaku-ji temple and Biwa-Lake in the Western Japan. Now in the 21st century well grown lotus leaves shows the beauty of Buddhism culture.

When we came west up to the corner of Tokyo University, we turned to the north and walked along the wall of the university. In 10 to 15 minutes we arrived at Nezu shrine. As I introduced in this blog in the past, Nezu shrine is famous for azalea flower in bloom in April.

When we walked to the northeast for a while, it’s almost the end of the trail. But we had another amusement before the end. On Yanaka shopping street you can enjoy a variety of sweets which cure your fatigue after the walk.

How was the trail? It’s about 11km and 3 hour walk by walking slowly while enjoying the places on the way.

If you come to Shitamachi, traditional area in Tokyo, please don’t take taxi all the time from one place to another. But please take a walk some time to know how places are connected to each other.

Ogi, Sado island, living by the sea

What do you think they are doing when you see a photo below?

You maybe think that it’s a just attraction for visitors for sightseeing. However, in fact it’s for visitors to experience “Tarai-Bune”, an existing traditional way of fishing in Ogi coast located at the east side of Sado island. Let’s see the life of people living by the sea there.

Sado island is the second biggest island in Japan (except Japanese main islands) located west to Niigata city in northern Japan. Along the coast line of the island there are many villages which have different ways to deal with the sea in front of them.

In case of Ogi, it flourished as a fishing port as well as a port of Japanese freight vessel named “Kitamae-Bune” in Edo era of Japan (from the 17th to the middle of the 19th century). But the big earthquake seriously damaged the village at the beginning of the 19th century. It not only collapsed the buildings but greatly changed the landscape of the coast. The sea bed of the coast was lifted up by 2 meters and it became difficult for the fishermen to fish in such shallow sea with their normal boats.

But they never gave up. They cut their tubs by half, floated them on the sea and rode on them. The shape of half tub was ideal to look for fishes and shells in such shallow water. They named their special boat as “Han-Giri” which means “half cut” in Japanese.

Tarai-Bune is not an only example of people in Sado island living by the sea. West to Ogi port there is a smaller village called “Shukunegi”. In Edo era, it was the village of shipwrights for the freight vessels shipping between northern and western Japan. Since the land of Shukunegi was so small, the shipwrights lived in tiny buildings closely packed with each other.

But they didn’t live small. The local merchant and shipwrights built their own freight vessel and sailed to the sea. They indeed transported a lot of cargo from one port to another port along the coasts of Japanese islands. And another surprise. In the 21st century their descendants rebuilt such a vessel using the drawing at that time.

Sado island is the small island compared to Japanese main islands. But I cannot help admiring people living by the sea there who have been creating new ways based on the local environment.

Yoshinogari, how to preserve the ancient site

Compared to old capitals in Japan such as Kyoto and Nara where there are many beautiful historical buildings, the ancient sites in Japan earlier than the 4th century are not well known by foreign visitors, even the Japanese themselves as well.

Yoshinogari site in Saga prefecture in Kyushu Island was one of such sites. It is a huge site of moated settlements in Yayoi era from the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.C. found in 1986. But when the local government in Saga decided to arrange the archaeological site as a historical park, it was nothing but a flat land in the middle of peaceful rice fields.

However they tried to bring back the life of the people who lived there in the 3rd century. Late Yayoi Era was the age in the ancient Japanese history when the people who had lived in small villages gathered together and made some “countries” especially in Western Japan. And Yoshinogari is considered as a main part of one of such countries.

Therefore the settlements have double moats surrounding them and watchtowers to protect them from the attacks by other countries. The park developers reproduced these big watchtowers.

It has not been completely investigated that which country in Chinese history books Yoshinogari belonged to. But it’s sure that there was the big community with the head and high class people who governed other ordinary people. They reproduced such a community in Japan in the 21st century.

But it’s another point which distinguishes Yoshinogari from other ancient sites. In order to show visitors not only the life at that time but also how to investigate the ancient time for archaeologists, they also preserved a dig site as it was being dug. The site was a tomb of a high class person and many earthenware and burial accessories were buried with him. They fixed all the items and kept the site well air conditioned.

When I stood in the preserved tomb, I felt like I were one member of the archaeologist group who is digging the site.

I believe that the value of the archaeological site should be evaluated by not only its historical value but how the people around there try to preserve it for visitors and future people.

A cafe with passion of young artists

Close to our home there is an area called Yanaka where old and small buildings built in the middle of 20th century still remain. Such scenery let us imagine the beautiful days when Japan was poor but everyone was enjoying their life. And now the area attracts a lot of visitors.

However those who have been living there long felt that even this area changed. And they experienced the situation that a shop or a public bath they had visited one day disappeared in the next day.

Hagiso could have been one of such buildings. It was built in 1955 as a wooden apartment building. And since 2004 it had been used as a shared house by students of Tokyo University of the Arts nearby. But when the big earthquake hit eastern Japan in 2011, the owner of  the building decided to dismantle it due to deterioration.

But for the young artists who lived there it was a place filled with their memory. They asked the owner to let them have an art exhibition in the building as their last memory of the building. Then the exhibition received a lot of  visitors and the owner decided to renovate it as a cultural space, “Hagiso”.

Now the first floor is open to everyone as a cafe “Hagi Cafe” connected to an art gallery “Hagi Art”. At the cafe we can have a good time seeing a well preserved wooden building and works created by young artists.

Such a space makes me feel that a building, a space engraves its history in itself. And the history is a kind of the arts.

When it comes to history in Japan, old cities like Kyoto and Nara attracts foreign visitors. But Tokyo is also a city where creating its own history. I hope the building attract more artists and visitors, and then have more history.

A unique experience to climb Mt. Fuji

If someone asks me to recommend some mountains in Japan for climbing, I might recommend some mountains in Japanese Northern Alps or South Alps where you can enjoy beautiful and various geographical features from peaceful streams with flowers to steep rocky peaks.

However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend to climb Mt. Fuji. It’s different from climbing other mountains in Japan, it’s a unique experience to climb Mt. Fuji.

First of all, time to climb is different. Most climbers of Mt. Fuji start their climbing from 5th stations of either of 4 climbing trails. The altitudes of the 5th stations are different in each trail from the highest of 2,400 meters of Fujinomiya trail to the lowest of 1,450 meters of Gotemba trail. This time we chose Fujinomiya trail. (The photo below is the 5th station of Fujinomiya trail covered with fog.)

When I was a member of the alpine club of my high school, I learned that an important rule of climbing is to start early and rest early in order to avoid bad weather change. However, in case of Mt. Fuji we arrive at the trail head in the afternoon. And after taking short sleep in a mountain hut on the way, we restart climbing in the midnight !

A main reason to climb at night is to see sunrise from the summit of the mountain. The sunrise seen from Mt. Fuji is called “Goraikou” in Japanese and has special (often spiritual) meanings for climbers.

However, the weather at the summit of Mt. Fuji is very unstable. From my experience I feel like that the possibility to see the sunrise would be 50:50. For example, this time, when we restarted climbing around 0 A.M., the sky was very clear and we could enjoy numerous stars. But after we passed the 8th station around 2 A.M, heavy rain and strong wind started hitting us. And even though we could arrive at the summit before sunrise, we could not see anything and just realized the sunrise when it became bright.

Nevertheless, I believe for most climbers it would be a special unique experience to climb Mt. Fuji even in case of bad weather. Unlike other mountains there are no ups and downs in Mt. Fuji. Once they start the climbing they just keep climbing up to the summit. Even if they realize that they cannot expect the good sunrise due to bad weather, the most of them don’t give up climbing up. They just keep climbing up resisting harsh rain and wind. Such experience would give some confidence on their lives after climbing.

Furthermore, as I wrote, the weather at Mt. Fuji is unstable. While we couldn’t see the sunrise, she showed us a wonderful view of Lake Yamanaka reflecting the morning sunshine which finally showed up from thick crowds.

Okinoshima, value of worship from afar

As of today July 8th 2017, World Heritage Committee of UNESCO is discussing in Krakow Poland to register new World Heritage sites of 2017. And from Japan, the Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region is recommended as a new site.

You might think the description of the site is too long and we should simply call it as Okinoshima island. But it’s not right. The full description of the site has an important meaning for local people. We also realized it when we visited there in May this year. (Below is a photo of a shrine which is included in the Associated Sites.)

Okinoshima is an island located in Genkai-Nada sea close to Munakata in Fukuoka prefecture in the southern Japan.

In the geographical point of view the island is located on the sea route from Japan to Korea and China and thus; it has been very important for cultural exchange in East Asia in more than a thousand year. It’s said that the ancient Yamato dynasty of Japan started a ceremony to worship in the goddesses in the 4th century. And as treasures on the ceremony made in the 4th to 9th century many masterpieces from all over the ancient Asia were found.

ICOMOS, a global network of cultural experts which recommends candidates of new World Heritage sites to the UNESCO committee, recommended Okinoshima earlier this year, evaluating it as an untouched archaeological site which shows change of ancient ceremonies. On the other hand, they excluded other associated sites which Japan had applied with Okinoshima.

Local people strongly disagree to such a decision.  A goddess has been worshiped in the shrine of Okinoshima, and also her two sister goddesses has been worshiped as well in the shrines in Munakata city and in Oshima, another island closer to  Munakata. (Below is a photo of the shrine in Munakata city.)

For local people, the three sister goddess, and the three shrines worshiping them are united inseparably. And more importantly it’s prohibited to land on Okinoshima island even now except local male priests. (Women are prohibited to land on completely.) So for normal people in order to worship Okinoshima island it has been a only way to “warship from afar”.

In Oshima island there is a special sacred place to worship the Okinoshima island from afar.

Even from there Okinoshima island is located in a long distance. So even in a sunny day we can merely see the island.

However, for local people it has been having a special meaning in a long time to see the island with their own eyes and worship from afar. And that’s why Japan applied these sites together.

Japan is a country with some main islands and numerous small islands. And in some areas old people refrained from landing on some tiny islands thinking the whole islands as sacred places where gods and goddess lived. I believe such a sense of taboo related to islands has been shared in a long time of Japanese culture.

Therefore I hope Okinoshima be registered as a new World Heritage site as a package with associated sites.

Minor castle in Japan, Ishihama Castle, Tokyo

Among castles in Japan, there are some world famous castles such as Himeji Castle which was registered as one of World Heritages by UNESCO. However, there are much more sites of old minor castles with which we can imagine the history of that place. Ishihama Castle in Tokyo is one of such castles.

Minami Senju in northern Tokyo is a rapidly growing area with more and more high rise apartments for the younger generation.

And with 15 minute walk from Minami Senju station to the east you can see a new symbol of Tokyo, Tokyo Sky Tree over Sumida River.

All the scenery looks so urban and it seems there is no room for old history to exist.  But if we stop just before reaching to Sumida River, there is a small shrine.

It’s called as Ishihama Jinja Shrine. Its own history says the shrine was built in the 8th century, and many samurais worshiped it in the medieval era. And nowadays people who lives in the neighborhood still visit it.

But this place has another face. Some scholars believe it was a site of old Ishihama Castle where one of powerful samurai families in eastern Japan, Chiba family, lived there in the 15th and 16th centuries, which is the age of Japanese Civil Wars.

Chiba family went to ruin during the early stage of the Civil War Age, and they are not shown in the main history of Japan like Tokugawa shogun or other famous samurais.

But now, after 500 years later, such a unknown site reminds me of bravery of old samurai as well as the concept of impermanence which such samurais loved more than big and famous castles do.

Hydrangea is in bloom in Tokyo

Even though Mr. Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement claiming that it’s not clear how human activities effect on climate change, I, living in Tokyo Japan, feel each season of Japan became more vague than that in the past.

Late June and Early July is a rainy season in Japan called “Tsuyu” in Japanese. However, this year we didn’t have so much rain yet, rather there were several hot days when we felt summer had come without Tsuyu.

Nevertheless we still have a symbol of our rainy season. It’s a flower, hydrangea (“Ajisai in Japanese”).

In Nippori, the area we live, we see beautiful hydrangea close to temples and shrines. For example on the way from Suwa Jinja, small shrine in the area to Nishi Nippori station, a flock of hydrangea flower is in bloom in the contract to trains.

Ueno Park, a big park close to our home, is famous for flowers in each season, especially cherry blossom in Spring. It also has hydrangea, while the size of flower is smaller than others as long as we found.

The origin of hydrangea is Japan but had been exported to Europe and America as an ornamental flower. The pH of land effect on the color of hydrangea. Acid land turn it blue, while alkaline land turn it red. However even blue hydrangea turns gradually red as it ages.

In the short rainy season the flower makes us enjoy its changing beauty.