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.

Hidaka-ya, reasonable Chinese restaurant in Japan

Recently an American-style Chinese restaurant chain Panda Express, which is popular in the US, opened a new branch in Japan as their second shot to Japanese market after they had closed all the branches in 2010. However, same as the last time, many people is skeptical that the chain can succeed in Japan.

Panda Express takes second shot at Japan

The reason of the concern is the competitive situation of Japanese Chinese food restaurants. In the US Panda Express has been growing as they serve Chinese dishes with reasonable prices quickly compered to authentic Chinese restaurants. However, in Japan there are many other Chinese restaurants with as reasonable pricing as Panda Express or even more reasonable.

A typical example is Hidaka-ya, which operates more than 300 chains in Tokyo and metropolitan area.

In Tokyo the branches of the restaurant are usually located close to main stations where many people come and go. And they have a lot of seats to absorb all the customers even at busy dinner time.

Their main menu is a variety of ramen noodles. In Japan popular ramen noodle restaurants serve their ramen noodles with own special recipes but high prices. On the other hand, Hidaya-ya serves basic ramen noodles with lower prices, which allows us to eat ramen noodles as a fast food.

But in order to keep the customer’s loyalty, they sometimes create special ramen noodles (but with reasonable pricing still) in limited time only. The below photo is their new menu, ramen noodle with thick starchy sauce and mixed vegetables (with dumpling of course).  This is my recent favorite since I can eat plenty of vegetable while ramen noodle is normally considered as fast food with little nutrition.

And they are aggressive to attract foreign visitors to Japan. Rarely as a Chinese restaurant chain, they have a website not only in English but also in English and Chinese. And at the restaurants

http://hidakaya.hiday.co.jp/english/

Moreover while many fast food restaurant chains tend to limit their opening hours in midnight due to difficulty to secure employees who want to work in midnight, many branches of Hidaka-ya in Tokyo still open till 3 or 4 AM. It’s very helpful for Japanese business people who sometimes need to work until midnight while it’s not healthy to eat so late.

In order to lose weight this year, I need to overcome the temptation of Hidakaya’s ramen after work in midnight.

Yui, old post town loved by the Ukiyo-e painter

I believe you have seen Mt. Fuji, painted on Ukiyo-e, kind of art made in Japan in Edo era (from 17th to 19th centuries) as woodblock prints. Especially Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi, series of Ukiyo-e made by Hiroshige Utagawa, one of masters of Ukiyo-e, featuring travel scenes on Tokaido road, old main road of central Japan from Tokyo to Kyoto included several beautiful paintings of Mt. Fuji seen from different places.

Now in the 21st century, the most of the places painted on Ukiyo-e had been modernized and lost such scenery loved by the painter. However, in Shizuoka prefecture, there is an old post town, Yui, which still keeps the scenery of the era when Ukiyo-e flourished.

Once you arrived at Yui station, you can see old houses which had been used as hotels in Edo era.

Near Yui town there is the place called Satta Pass, a traffic difficult point on Tokaido road. Therefore in Edo era travelers between Tokyo and Kyoto stayed here to rest before or after passing such a difficult point and Yui thrived as a post town.

However, the steep terrain also provided the travelers with a fantastic viewpoint of Mt. Fuji with Suruga bay. Hiroshige Utagawa loved this scenery and included it in his series of Ukiyo-e about Tokaido road.

Even though we see modern highways, with Mt. Fuji and Suruga bay unchanged this point is known as only a few points which still preserves the scenery of Ukiyo-e.

Nowadays there are not many hotels in Yui town,  but this town attracts visitors as a town of Sakura shrimp, kind of small shrimp fished in Suruga bay around Yui town.

At restaurants in Yui town you can eat a variety of dishes of Sakura shrimp, such as tempura of Sakura shrimp. The shrimps are crisp and tasty.

On the way from Tokyo to Kyoto how about dropping in such an old post town to see the scenery loved by the Ukiyo-e painter?

Mt. Mitake, another approachable mountain from Tokyo

When it comes to a mountain near central Tokyo, many people would consider Mt. Takao. However, in 1.5 hours from Shinjuku station, you can access to a less crowded but attractive mountain Mt. Mitake. Let me introduce this favorite mountain of mine.

After you arrive at Mitake station, same name as the mountain, the beautiful stream of Tama river welcomes visitors. There are not only hikers but also many anglers enjoying fishing. I recommend you to walk along the river up to the trailhead while you can take a bus as well.

At the starting point of the trail, like Mt. Takao, there is the cable car service which lifts visitors up to the height of 830 meters in 6 minutes. The service has been operated since 1927.

Once you arrive at the summit station, you can see a lot of small hotels in the summit area. What differentiates Mt. Mitake from other mountains in the area is the fact that there are still many people who come to the mountain to worship gods of the mountain. These small hotels called Shukubo were originally built around 300 years ago for such people but if you have enough time you are welcomed to stay there.

In 30 minutes walk from the summit station along the hotels, you can easily reach the summit with Musashi-Mitake shrine with the height of 929 meters. In the past for the Japanese, the high mountain was the place where the gods lived. And in the medieval Japan, in several high mountains, Japanese indigenous animism synchronized with Shinto and Buddhism, and the original religion called Shugen-do was created. In Shugen-do monks lead the ascetic life in the mountains trying to get supernatural power of the mountains.

On the backside of the summit there are various trails which takes 1 to 3 hours. And I recommend to take a trail called “Rock Garden”, which you can see many rocks with strange shapes in green woods. For example, the rock in the photo below is called “Tengu-Iwa (rock in Japanese)”, since the shape of the rock looks like a long nose of Tengu, monster (sometimes regarded as god as well) in Japanese indigenous religion.

If you have enough courage to climb up to the top of the rock, a small statues of Tengu praise you for your courage.

I recommend Mt. Mitake as the mountain easily approachable from Tokyo, and where you can see many attractive sides of Japanese mountains.

Below is their official website (sorry English is under construction).

http://www.mt-mitake.gr.jp/

Sushi with heaping fish in Ueno Tokyo

In worldwide Japanese sushi is famous as a healthy food. But some people might feel that a portion of sushi is too small to enjoy the taste of particular fish. Don’t worry. In Ueno Tokyo there is a sushi restaurant which expands your image of sushi by serving you sushi with heaping fish.

In 5 minutes walk from Ueno station, the sushi restaurant Miura Misaki-Ko is located.

This sushi restaurant serves sushi on conveyor belt. Normally conveyor belt sushi is popular among the ordinary Japanese since we can enjoy sushi quickly with reasonable prices. However, in case of this restaurant the people always make a long line to eat sushi on conveyor belt.

Now let’s see how different their sushi is. Even though sushi goes around on the conveyor belt, we can also order to sushi chefs to eat sushi more fresh.

The first one is Zuke-Maguro, tuna marinated with soy sauce.

Gunkan-Maki is a kind of sushi with seaweed surrounding rice in order to prevent fish on the top from collapsing. However, in case of Zuke Maguro at this restaurant, seaweed is not helping so much and tuna is sitting on the top with a delicate balance.

The second one is Engawa, flounder edge.

In this case some parts of fish have actually fallen on the plate. But don’t you think it would show the chef’s generosity?

Finally, the chef’s specialty is Maguro-Nakaochi, left-over flesh on the spine of tuna. It costs only 105 JPY!!! Considering its volume, it’s a incredible price.

Meanwhile this sushi restaurant also serves a normal type of sushi, which is also delicious. Below is Oh-Toro, fatty tuna, which is the most expensive menu in this restarant.

The above fatty tuna costs 630JPY. Even though it’s fatty and tasty, since Maguro-Nakaochi, another kind of tuna at this restaurant costs only 105JPY, I prefer to order more Maguro-Nakaochi to enjoy sushi reasonably.

If you want to expand the concept of sushi, go to Miura Misaki-Ko. They have 4 restaurants in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Below is their website (sorry only in Japanese.)

http://www.neo-emotion.jp/post_kaitensushi/miuramisakikou-ueno/