11 reasons to visit Japan in the winter

In the autumn there are the turning leaves, in the summer there’s hot sun and lush green landscapes, and in the spring there is (of course) the famous cherry blossom.

When there are these wonderful seasons to travel to Japan, why choose to come in the bitter depths of winter? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: winter is actually the best time to travel to Japan.

Shibuya in the snow

Shibuya in the snow

OK – so the claim isn’t unqualified. Winter in Japan has its attendant inconveniences, just like any other season. For instance, on the day my family arrived in Tokyo in February for their winter Japan holiday, it was the heaviest snowstorm the city had seen for fifty years (which is just typical). If you can’t put up with cold weather, the chances are that winter in Japan is not for you. But if you’re anything like me, the following reasons will be more than enough to persuade you that winter in Japan is the best season of all.

 

1) There are no crowds

It is a fact universally acknowledged that in Japan, there are crowds. Lots of them. It’s part of the charm of the experience: Tokyo’s Shibuya scramble crossing wouldn’t be quite the same without the swarms of pedestrians, and would the cherry blossom be as enjoyable without the festive atmosphere and parties gathered beneath the trees?

But if you are allergic to queues and the thought of a squashed subway carriage sends you running for the hills, consider travelling in the winter. Throughout the colder months you will find many of the country’s most iconic sights almost completely deserted – and none the worse for being wreathed in snow or touched with a hint of frost.

Kinkaku-ji's Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji’s Golden Pavilion is at its best in the snow, as we found in Kyoto.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of  Okunoin Cemetery.

A dusting of snow on Mount Koya added to the eerie atmosphere of Okunoin Cemetery.

 

2) Snowsports

Japan is over 70% mountainous, boasts over 500 ski resorts and receives some of the world’s most reliable snowfall thanks to icy winds blowing in across the sea from Siberia. All this considered, it’s pretty much the most epic snowsports location in the universe.

Japan’s ski resorts go from the absolutely minuscule to the world-class, with incredibly long, sweeping runs and superb powder snow. Having hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and 1998 and the Asian Winter games numerous times – and Japan being Japan – ski resort infrastructure and hospitality is generally top-notch – with après-ski to rival anywhere in the world.

Enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

The author enjoying the slopes in Hakuba ski resort in Nagano Prefecture for New Year 2014

View over Hakuba, one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics

The view over Hakuba on the first day of 2014. Hakuba was one of the locations for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Lots of Japanese people go skiing at the weekend, so it’s super easy to incorporate a day of skiing into a winter itinerary – but I recommend a week or more!

 

3) Snow monkeys

No winter trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to the hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Yudanaka, in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture.

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Monkeys in the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park, Feb 2014

Yudanaka is a tiny, quaint hot spring town with some lovely traditional inns and plenty of onsen hot spring baths for the chilly traveller to warm up in. It is about an hour’s walk along icy, wooded paths from the town to Jigokudani monkey park, but when you finally arrive you’re rewarded with a flock (gaggle? what’s the collective noun for monkeys?) incredibly cute Japanese macaques hanging out in their hot spring and even throwing the odd snowball or two.

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka's Jigokudani Monkey Park

A baby Japanese macaque at Yudanaka’s Jigokudani Monkey Park.

 

4) Warm sake

When there’s snow on the ground and you’re huddled inside your traditional ryokan inn or an izakaya pub, what better excuse to order a bottle of hot sake to warm the cockles of your heart?

Sake is Japan’s native rice wine (known as nihonshu in Japanese), and comes in a huge variety of types and qualities. It can be served warm or cold, and there’s nothing better than coming in after a long day in the cold for a lovely warming brew (or two, or three, or four).

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle - designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

Warm sake poured from a ceramic bottle – designed to keep the liquid warm for the longest amount of time.

 

5) Onsen hot spring baths

It doesn’t have to be chilly to enjoy a nice soak in a hot spring, but in my opinion there’s simply nothing like sinking into a lovely, steamy rotenburo (outdoor bath) when there are snowflakes falling all around you.

Hot springs (or onsen as they are known in Japanese) are an integral part of Japanese culture, and there are resorts dedicated to onsen bathing up and down the country – ranging from traditional cedar-panelled bathhouses to huge, themed hot spring complexes where you can bathe in red wine or milk and honey.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

The onsen hot spring bath at Jinpyokaku ryokan in Yudanaka.

Watch this space for a post on Japan’s most magical onsen baths!

 

6) Kotatsu

Japan gets bloody cold in the winter, but the Japanese have come up with a great solution: the kotatsu.

A kotatsu is a low table fringed with a thick quilt with a heater underneath the top. The idea is that you sit cross-legged with the quilt over your knees to warm up your toesicles – but they are also great for napping underneath! In winter you’ll find kotatsu in most traditional Japanese-style inns, and some bars will even have them outside so you can combine 4) and 6) whilst watching the world go by!

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

Kotatsu at Jinpyokaku ryokan inn, Yudanaka

 

7) Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 

If you are in the habit of reading the InsideJapan blog, you’ll know that festivals abound in Japan. One of the most impressive of all takes place in Sapporo, capital city of the comparatively little-visited northern island of Hokkaido.

The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, or snow festival, is a winter celebration of epic proportions. For a few days every year, the streets and open spaces of the city are filled with giant snow and ice sculptures up to 20 metres tall and 30 metres wide, with toboggan runs, games, ice bars and all sorts of fun for all ages to join in. If you’ve ever fancied seeing a giant replica of the pyramids of Giza in snow, this is the festival for you.

YM2

YM3

YM4

Please note that this festival is very popular (because it’s very awesome), so you’ll need to book accommodation in Sapporo well in advance.

 

8) Red-crowned cranes

crane2

If you’re in Hokkaido for the Yuki Matsuri, why not make your way to Tsurui to witness one of Japan’s most enchanting natural events? Every winter Japan’s red-crowned crane population congregates in Tsurui to mate, performing intricate and seemingly choreographed mating dances together. It’s an amazing sight, and you can be privy to it at the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary.

crane1

Mating dance of the red-crowned crane at Tsurui crane reserve, Hokkaido.

 

9) Illuminations

In Japan, where the national love of festivals is surpassed only by the love of lighting stuff up, illuminations are another winter must-see. The Halloween decorations are barely down before every city centre in Japan is suddenly flooded with thousands of twinkling fairy lights. Throughout the season my walk home from work through Nagoya was a winter wonderland, and attending illuminations is a favourite romantic pastime for loved-up Japanese couples.

There are some pretty spectacular illuminations throughout Japan in the winter, so if you’re planning a trip there’s bound to be something awesome going on near you. In Tokyo you should head to Tokyo Midtown to see the ‘starlight garden’; in Kanagawa you can visit the Kanto region’s largest light show at the Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest; and for the biggest show in all Japan, make your way to Mie Prefecture for the Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination, which boasts around 7 million LED bulbs.

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture's Nabana no Sato

Illuminations at Mie Prefecture’s Nabana no Sato

nabana2

10) Shirakawago

A preserved, traditional village in the Japanese Alps that was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995 for its wonderful collection of original thatched farmhouses, Shirakawago is a superb place to visit at any time of year – but it’s particularly spectacular in the winter.

The farmhouses are called gassho zukuri, or ‘praying hands’ because of the steep pitch of their roofs – designed to cope with the heavy snowfall in this alpine region. If you decide to visit, I highly recommend arranging to spend the night at one of these farmhouses (some of which have been converted into traditional inns) for a totally unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else!

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

A gassho zukuri farmhouse

And, of course, you can’t leave without seeing the view from the observation point above the village. On certain days in January and February each year (click here for this year’s dates) the village is illuminated (see, I told you they like lighting stuff up), creating one of Japan’s most picturesque winter scenes.

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

Shirakawago illuminated in the winter

 

11) You can actually see Mount Fuji

This article was going to be called ’10 reasons to visit Japan in the winter’ – but then I went and thought of another one!

Now, I’m going to have to put my hands up and confess, I have never been blessed with a glimpse of Fuji-san. Not from the pirate ship across Lake Ashi, not from the plane, not from the bullet train – nada. The fact is, Mount Fuji may be a Japanese icon, but she is also notoriously shy – hiding her face behind clouds and haze for most of the year.

If you want the best chance of seeing Fuji-san, guess what? You have to go in the winter!

Fuji looking her finest with clear winter skies

Fuji looking her finest against clear winter skies

InsideJapan Tours organised my family’s fantastic winter holiday to Japan in February, and can organise any (or all) of the items on this list. (Well, we can’t guarantee a sighting of Mount Fuji, so anything apart from that). Get in touch to find out how you can visit snow monkeys, sweep down ski slopes, soak in a hot spring and snuggle up under a kotatsu this winter!

Ninja vs. Samurai

Two of the most evocative images of historical Japan are the ninja and the samurai. We’ve all heard of them, but what do you actually know about these famous historical assassins and warriors?

It’s time for the epic showdown of the ninja and the samurai!

ninja vs samurai

 

First of all, who were they?

Samurai 侍 (usually called “bushi” or “buke” in Japanese) were the military nobility of Japan. They lived during a time when the Emperor of Japan was little more than a ceremonial figure, and the country was actually ruled by a shogun, or military general.

The shogun presided over a bunch of powerful clans, called daimyo, each of which controlled its own small portion of the country and hired samurai to act as its guards and warriors.

hokusai samurai

Samurai were not only fierce warriors but followed strict codes of honour and combat. During the long peace of the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), samurai gradually lost their military function and expanded their roles courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators. The samurai class was eventually abolished in the Meiji Reforms of the 19th century, after enjoying hundreds of years of power and influence.

There is no evidence that ninjas favoured pizza over any other foodstuff

There is no evidence that ninjas favoured pizza over any other foodstuff

Ninja 忍者 (known as “shinobi”忍び in Japan) were essentially ye olde equivalent of secret agents, whose role involved espionage, sabotage, infiltration and assassination. Where the samurai adhered obdurately to their principles, the ninja were a very different story, using covert means to achieve their ends. Just like the samurai, they were employed by powerful clans to do their dirty work.

beverley hilss

Not much about them is known for certain, but what we do know is that the modern-day image of a ninja is a far cry from the historical reality – as Kotaku explains in this interesting blog post. Rather, our current conception of the ninja has been reinforced over time – not only by western movies like American Ninja, but also by Japanese media and folklore.

 

What did they look like?

Clue: not this

Clue: not like this

All this sounds exciting, but as Matt Alt points out in his book Ninja Attack: True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws, being a ninja was probably much more about gathering information than assassinating people in the dead of night. Most often, ninja would be dressed inconspicuously – as farmers or priests for example – so that they could act as scouts and observe the doings of the enemy without being rumbled. Come to think of it, the idea of some guy running about the place dressed in black does seem kind of conspicuous…

Perhaps the first image of the stereotypical "ninja"

Perhaps the first image of the stereotypical “ninja”

We have the painter Hokusai to thank for the first ever image of the ninja dressed all in black, which may have been based on the garb of stage hands in the Japanese theatre – who wore dark colours so as not to be seen on set.

Sadly, real ninja probably looked more like this.

Sadly, real ninja probably looked more like this.

…or actually, they currently look like this 63 year old engineer, recently touted as one of Japan’s ‘last Ninja’ …

Samurai, on the other hand, looked awesome and imposing in their badass armour, which grew to have a ceremonial as well as protective function as the role of the samurai changed. The fact that samurai no longer had to charge into battle at a moment’s notice during the Edo Period meant that some armour became exaggerated, even to the point of being a little ridiculous – like this fine set, belonging to the Ii clan of Hikone.

Not the most practical of headgear

Not the most practical of headgear

 

When were they around?

The concept of the samurai began to emerge during around the mid-Heian Period (794 – 1185). Sneaky ninja predecessors probably existed as far back as the late Heian Period too, but the shinobi as a specially trained group of mercenaries from the villages of Iga and Koga only appeared in the fifteenth century, making them a good five hundred years younger than the samurai.

The ninja, born out of a demand for fighters who were willing to do dishonourable deeds and reliant for their trade on political unrest and war, faded into obscurity after the unification of Japan in the seventeenth century. The samurai, meanwhile, adapted their role in society and endured much longer.

 

What was their philosophy?

The rules by which the samurai governed their lives are known as Bushido – which is basically the Japanese version of chivalry. This code of honour, influenced by Confucianism, Shinto and Zen Buddhism, introduced an element of wisdom and peace to the violent life of the samurai.

old time samurai

To sum it up: the seven virtues of Bushido are rectitude (or righteousness), courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Mastery of the martial arts and a frugal lifestyle were also highly important to the samurai, and they endeavoured to follow all these precepts to the letter in every aspect of their lives. Honestly, nothing could be more different from the underhand dealings of the ninja.

Ninja philosophy (if you can call “not giving a fraction of a shit” a philosophy) had its roots in Chinese military philosophy and was focussed much less on values and much more on kicking butt.

There are three main texts from which we get most of our knowledge of ninja, called the Ninpiden (1655), the Bansenshukai (1675) and the Shoninki (1681). These address things like how to disguise oneself, how to break into houses and gather information, how to lay false trails, and some observations on human nature and emotions.

sundial

Cats’ eye sundial

Just some of the awesome tactics that ninja are reported to have used are telling the time by observing the dilation of cats’ pupils, and carrying around a box of crickets with them to disguise their footsteps. Whether these are actually true is anyone’s guess.

 

What kind of weapons did they use?

uma

Samurai pretty much relied on their swords for weaponry. These ranged from the katana (long sword) to the wakizashi (short sword) and the tanto (dagger). Sometimes they also used a kama (a sickle-like weapon), but without a doubt the most awesome samurai weapon is the WAR FAN.

Antique tessen, c. 1800-1850, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer

Antique tessen, c. 1800-1850, made of iron, bamboo and lacquer

Thought fans were just for the ladies? Well, you were wrong. A tessen was a folding fan with outer spokes made of pointy iron, or sometimes a solid club made to look like a fan. The tessen could be used for attacks, fending off arrows and darts, as a throwing weapon and even (rather amusingly) as a swimming aid. Crafty.

"If only I had my tessen"

“If only I had my tessen”

Because ninja relied on ambush and unorthodox tactics whereas samurai generally fought honourably (face-to-face), ninja could use a much greater variety of weapons.

Whilst ninja probably used swords too, they also used things like red pepper or iron filings to temporarily blind enemies; a scary-looking chain and sickle contraption called a kusarigama; farming tools that could be easily disguised as, well, gardening tools; darts, spikes, knives, shuriken throwing stars, bows, smoke bombs, poison, cane swords, acid-spurting tubes (apparently) and even a variety of explosives. Besides these they carried tools such as grappling hooks, chisels, hammers, drills, picks and saws (all of which could also be used as weapons), and inflatable skins with breathing tubes to allow them to stay underwater for extended periods of time.

DCF 1.0

Obviously they didn’t carry all this at the same time – the Bansenshukai, one of the ninja texts, states that “a successful ninja is one who uses but one tool for multiple tasks”

 

So who would have won in a fight?

In an honourable fight? Maybe the samurai would have had a chance. But considering the huge array of tricks up ninja sleeves (plus purported superhuman abilities such as invisibility, shapeshifting, walking on water, the summoning of animals and control over the elements – which were probably true, let’s face it), the ninja would probably have got him in the end.

Well, we all know what happens to men with honour - don't we?

Well, we all know what happens to men with honour – don’t we?

InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Japan: Country of Diversity?

The idea of Japan as an ethnically and culturally homogenous country is a pervasive one, both in Japan and across the world. For foreigners, the idea of Japan as a homogenous country is pretty ingrained – and for most Japanese (as any expat in Japan will tell you), the sight of a person of non-Asian descent speaking Japanese is still cause for incredulity. Obviously, this doesn’t exactly scream diversity!

(As a side note – this experience also gets old pretty quickly for the tiny minority of non-Asian native Japanese speakers living in Japan. Watch some of Ken Tanaka’s videos for a funny perspective on what it’s like to be a “Kei Nihon-jin” – someone who was born and raised in Japan but is not ethnically Japanese)

There is also a political dimension to the myth of Japan’s homogeneity: it fosters a sense of national identity, contributing to the strong Japanese sense of cohesion. For this reason the Japanese government has traditionally endorsed the misconception. A sense of national unity does have important benefits, but it also has the effect of forming a barrier against the world – keeping the outsiders out and the insiders in.

In reality, of course, what constitutes “outsiders” and “insiders” isn’t as simple as you might expect! Japan is more ethnically diverse than most of us realise. Although ethnic minorities in Japan have historically received little to no recognition and have even been actively suppressed – things have changed considerably, and today efforts are being made to preserve and rehabilitate the unique cultures of Japan’s minority groups.

Ainu

The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan and have a culture, language and religion entirely distinct from that of Japan as we know it. During the Meiji Restoration, when Hokkaido was officially incorporated into Japan, Ainu land was confiscated, their language was banned and their cultural and religious practices curtailed. In 1899, they were officially labelled “former aborigines” and granted Japanese citizenship, forcibly assimilating them into the general population in a process that overall took less than fifty years.

Ainu

From the time of Japan’s unification until 1997, the Japanese government’s official position was that there were no ethnic minorities in Japan – and it took until 2008 for the Ainu to gain official recognition as a minority group. They remain Japan’s only recognised ethnic minority. At this time, the Japanese government also released a statement acknowledging the fact of the Ainu people’s subjugation during the Japanese “modernisation” and expansion.

Ainu family in 1906

Ainu family in 1906

Today there are very few people of pure Ainu descent left in Japan, but some citizens with Ainu heritage have made attempts to rehabilitate aspects of their culture, traditions and music. One such example is Oki, a musician of mixed Ainu and Japanese descent who plays the tonkori – a traditional Ainu instrument – in the Oki Dub Ainu Band.

Although the damage to Ainu culture can never fully be repaired, Ainu populations in cities across Japan have established political and cultural communities, and there are now institutions whose aim is to protect Ainu rights and heritage – such as The Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) run by the Japanese government. The Ainu political party was also founded in 2012, with the aim of realising a multicultural and multiethnic society in Japan.

Ryukyuans

The Ryukyuan people, indigenous to the islands between Taiwan and Kyushu (including modern-day Okinawa), are another sector of Japanese society with culture and traditions distinct from that of mainland Japan.

ryukyu

Preceded by three other Okinawan kingdoms, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a thriving independent dominion from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, participating in trade with China, Southeast Asia and mainland Japan. This long history of trade meant that Ryukyuan culture developed from an extremely diverse group of influences which can be seen in its arts, crafts and architecture.

In the seventeenth century the Ryukyu Kingdom was invaded by Japan and forced into subordination, before finally being officially incorporated into Japan in 1872. More destruction followed in the twentieth century, when the former Ryukyu kingdom became the site of the devastating Battle of Okinawa, and subsequently came under American administration for nearly thirty years.

Despite this turbulent history, and despite Okinawan people having suffered widespread discrimination in twentieth century Japan, Ryukyuan culture has gone on to become something of a success story. Music, dance, art, architecture, textiles and food on the Okinawa Islands are strikingly different from that of mainland Japan, retaining their multicultural flavour and making these islands some of the richest and most diverse areas of the country.

 

Performance of "Eisa," traditional Ryukyuan dance, at Ryukyu Mura in Okinawa

Performance of “Eisa,” traditional Ryukyuan dance, at Ryukyu Mura in Okinawa

Japanese Koreans

Another significant – and problematic – ethnic group in Japan is the Korean-Japanese population, known as “Zainichi”, who are officially considered foreign residents rather than an ethnic minority. Over the course of Japan’s history, Korea has been instrumental in transmitting the culture and religion of the Asian continent to Japan, and some of Japan’s most treasured crafts were first brought to the country by Korean immigrants. It is even likely that the first Japanese people emigrated to Japan from the area now known as Korea.

Contact between Japan and Korea only became antagonistic in the twentieth century, and many of the ethnic Koreans now living in Japan are the descendants of forced labourers brought to the country after Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. This population is thought to number in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – and its members have often faced discrimination despite having lived in Japan for their whole lives.

Although discrimination against ethnic Koreans unfortunately still exists in Japan, through the activism of Zainichi organisations and other minority groups – including the Ainu – the social atmosphere continues to improve. A Korea-Japan friendship festival is now held each year in Tokyo and Seoul to promote better understanding between the two cultures, and Korean food and culture (particularly pop music) is enjoying a surge in popularity in Japan.

A scene from 2013's Korea-Japan Friendship Day

A scene from last year’s Korea-Japan Friendship Day

Besides the groups mentioned here, there are significant communities of ethnic Brazilians, Taiwanese and Chinese in Japan, along with others.

So there we have it!  Busting the myth of Japan’s homogeneity and celebrating its cultural minorities :)

11 Amazing things you probably never knew about sumo wrestling

Everyone thinks they know what sumo wrestling is. It’s about big fat guys slamming into each other, right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Well, yes and no. Sumo may seem comical to you and me, but it is actually a very serious business – there is an awful lot more to sumo wrestling than most outsiders ever realise.

It wasn’t until I attended a sumo tournament in Osaka earlier this year that I began to realise just how fascinating Japan’s national sport really is. Here are a few of the amazing things I learnt about sumo – I hope they will encourage you to go to go and see a tournament for yourself!

 

1. Sumo is a religious ritual

Compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago. About 1,500 years, in fact. From the very beginning it was entwined with Shinto ritual, when it was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.

Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring

Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a match to purify the ring

Sumo is still very closely associated with its religious origins, and Shinto principles continue to govern the everyday life of today’s sumo wrestlers. Each of the ring-entering ceremonies is a Shinto purification ritual, and every newly promoted yokozuna (the highest rank in sumo) performs his first ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The canopy that hangs over the ring is modelled after the roof of a Shinto shrine, indicating that the ring itself is a holy place.

Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

Ring-entering ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo

 

2. The rules of the match

A sumo match doesn’t start until both wrestlers have placed both hands on the ground at the same time. This leads to quite a lot of fannying about whilst each wrestler tries to psyche the other out, pretending to put his hand down and then getting back up again.

Once they finally do begin, it is very rare for sumo bouts to last longer than a few seconds – although occasionally they can up to four minutes. This means that the action is very fast-paced and exciting. A match ends when one of the wrestlers is either thrown out of the ring, or if any part of his body apart from the soles of his feet touches the ground.

The following video of a sumo match (plus superb commentary, it has to be said) is a great example of just how long it takes for a bout to begin:

 

Interestingly, the match can also end if one of the wrestlers loses his mawashi, or loincloth – in which case the de-loinclothed wrestler is disqualified. More interestingly still, this rule was only adopted after Japan began adopting European (read: prudish) attitudes toward nudity.

This outcome is very rare in sumo, but a wardrobe malfunction did occur during a match in May 2000, when the unfortunate wrestler Asanokiri exposed himself and was disqualified immediately.

 

3. Sumo life is really, really hard.

I once met a retired sumo wrestler who ran a chanko nabe restaurant in Hakuba. He was very keen to talk about his life as a rikishi (wrestler), but when I asked him if he enjoyed it – if being a sumo wrestler was fun – he looked at me as though I’d just spat in his food. Now I understand why.

It would be easy to assume from their famously substantial girth that wrestlers live a life of excess outside their training schedule. In reality, sumo wrestlers’ lives are possibly the most rigidly regimented and disciplined of any athletes in the world, and life in a sumo stable is incredibly hard.

The sumobeya, or ‘stable’, is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live in an independent dwelling. An average stable will contain around 15 wrestlers, and is arranged according to a strict hierarchy.

Morning practice at a sumobeya

Morning practice at a sumobeya

Life is hardest for the lower ranked wrestlers, who are expected to get up earliest and cook, clean, serve food and generally wait on the higher ranked wrestlers. They even have to bathe last after training, and get last pick at dinner time – after their more senior peers have gobbled all the choice morsels!

If this sounds hard, it gets even harder. It is a fact of sumo life that the younger, inexperienced wrestlers endure systematic hazing and physical punishment in order to toughen them up. This is part and parcel of sumo culture and something that young wrestlers know to expect, but it can sometimes go too far – resulting in injury and very rare cases even in death.

Hakuho, a very popular Mongolian-born sumo champion, has spoken out before about the brutality of life as a young wrestler in training – you can read some of his comments here.

 

4. Sumo wrestlers haven’t always been fat

In fact, it was only very recently in the history of sumo that the wrestlers developed the chubbiness they are now famous for. Since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler basically just wants to get as big as humanly possible so that he can use his weight in the ring. It wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that the modern image of the whale-like sumo wrestler really emerged – with earlier wrestlers typically much more wiry and muscular.

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A famous exception to the general fatness is Takanoyama Shuntaro, known as the “Skinny Sumo”, a Czech wrestler distinctive for his diminutive size. Despite being comparatively minuscule, Takanoyama has had impressive success in the rankings, reaching the makuuchi division in 2011. Read more about him here.

Takanoyama Shuntaro: "The Skinny Sumo"

Takanoyama Shuntaro: “The Skinny Sumo”

If you’ve ever wondered just how modern sumo get so fat, it’s all thanks to something called chanko nabe. This is a special kind of (delicious) hotpot packed with meat, veggies and noodles that is specifically associated with sumo wrestlers in Japan. This alone doesn’t do the trick – wrestlers have a special routine of exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating to help turn the calories they consume (purportedly up to 10,000 per day) into bulk.

Unfortunately this increase in weight, combined with a high consumption of alcohol, means that modern sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy is more than ten years shorter than that of the average Japanese male.

 

5. Sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to drive cars

 It sounds absurd, but this is actually true. After a serious car accident involving a sumo wrestler, the Sumo Association banned wrestlers from driving their own cars. Just ‘cus they can, I guess.

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Perhaps that’s why this guy looks so fed up.

 

6. The last night of a sumo tournament is called the ‘pleasure of a thousand autumns’

This rather poetic epithet echoes the words of 14th-15th century playwright Zeami Motokiyo, and is meant to convey the excitement of the decisive bouts and the celebration of the victor – who receives all kinds of elaborate prizes for his success. And a fat wad of cash, of course.

 

7. Sumo referees live on borrowed time

 Sumo referees, or gyoji, are as interesting as the wrestlers. Like the wrestlers, they enter the world of sumo at a young age (about sixteen) and remain in their profession until they retire. The traditional clothing they wear in the ring is strictly graded according to rank, and as they progress up the ranks they earn honorific names by which they become known. The top ranked gyoji (the equivalent of yokozuna for wrestlers) takes the name Kimura Shonosuke but, unlike the rank of yokozuna, it can only be held by one person at any one time.

gyoji

Perhaps most interestingly, the gyoji also carries a sword, or tanto, of about six to twelve inches in length. The significance of the sword is to show that the gyoji understands the seriousness of the decisions he has to make – and is prepared to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) if he makes a bad decision!

Talk about pressure. Thankfully, in these cases today the gyoji usually just submits his resignation papers instead as a gesture of contrition. In most cases the gesture is just that, and the erring gyoji’s resignation is very rarely accepted.

Try as I might, I can’t find out when (or if) a gyoji has ever actually committed seppuku as the result of a mistake – if anyone can tell me, please do!

 

8. Sumo wrestlers have to wear traditional clothes

 In accordance with the strict rules governing their lives, sumo wrestlers aren’t even allowed to choose their own clothes. As soon as they join a stable they are expected to grow their hair in order to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. They are expected to wear this hairstyle and traditional dress at all times when out in public – which means that sumo wrestlers are pretty easy to spot on the subway! (That and the fact that they’re easily ten times the size of anyone else).

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Not only must they wear traditional dress, but the specifics of that dress is also closely controlled. The less experienced wrestlers must wear lower-quality, thin yukata (a cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) even in winter, whilst higher ranked wrestlers can wear increasingly swanky robes and even – shock! horror! – get to choose their own!

 

9. They’re not even allowed to behave how they like

 In addition to the strict routine governing their training schedule, sumo wrestlers are even expected to control their demeanour and personality in public. Rules delineate that when out and about, wrestlers must be self-effacing and softly spoken, and during tournaments they should refrain from showing joy at winning or disappointment at losing. No amateur dramatics or self-congratulatory gloating here, and quite right too.

 

10. Only one foreigner at a time, please!

Sumo stables were once allowed to recruited as many foreign wrestlers as they like. Then, after one stable recruited six Mongolians at once, there was a mass gaijin-induced panic, and today stables are only allowed to have one foreign wrestler (defined as somebody born outside Japan) at any one time.

These foreign wrestlers are expected to speak Japanese, and must be well-versed in Japanese culture – meaning that foreign sumo face all the same challenges that Japanese sumo do, but with the added anxiety of having to learn to live and breathe like a Japanese. And that, my friends, is no mean feat – as you can read a little more about here.

 

Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993.

Akebono Taro, born Chad Haaheo Rowan, became the first ever foreign-born sumo grand champion in 1993. He is a native of Hawaii.

11. Women can’t be sumo wrestlers

 It is a sad fact that men’s sports are almost always more popular than women’s (except perhaps beach volleyball) – but there aren’t many sports from which women are actually forbidden from participating. Sumo, however, is one of them – the Sumo Association doesn’t even allow women to enter the sumo ring, as it is considered a violation of the purity of the ring.

This caused a bit of an issue when there was a female Governor of Osaka – Fusae Ohta, governor from 2000 – 2008. The Governor traditionally presents the Governor’s Prize in the ring at the end of the tournament, but obviously this is a bit tricky when the Governor is banned from the ring. Ohta wasn’t all too impressed by this ruling, and she repeatedly challenged the Sumo Association to allow her to fulfil her traditional role as Governor. She was repeatedly turned down until she eventually stepped down from office.

It wasn’t always the case that sumo was so hostile to women, however, and as early as the 18th century there was a form of female sumo commonly performed in some areas of Japan. Most of the time this was just a form of entertainment, but in some areas of Japan female sumo did have a serious role in Shinto rituals. Today it is prohibited from taking place in anything but an amateur setting.

Female sumo wrestlers

Female sumo wrestlers

So there you have it. The next time you’re tempted to laugh a sumo wrestler’s man boobs, just remember that those wobbly abs and thunder thighs conceal an incredible discipline the likes of which you or I can hardly imagine.

Sumo is a fascinating sport with an uncertain future, as the harsh lifestyle makes it more and more difficult to attract new recruits. I would urge anyone visiting Japan to go to see some if they can – we can arrange tickets to sumo tournaments and visits to watch morning training at a sumo stable in Tokyo. 

Taking part in a Japanese festival

Japanese festivals – matsuri – are an important part of life in Japan. You will find them in every region of the country during every season of the year. But the best time for catching matsuri is undoubtedly in summer, when festivals are so plentiful that it’s not uncommon to come across them by chance as you travel through the country. Even in Tokyo, a haven for fashion trendsetting, young people are seen on the underground heading off to fireworks festivals and other matsuri in yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono. Yet amongst the thousands of matsuri, there a handful that stand out among the rest. One such matsuri is the 350 year old Fukagawa Matsuri.

Fukagawa Matsuri from above

The great Fukagawa Matsuri!

Once every three years this huge water throwing festival is held in downtown Tokyo. Over 100,000 people gather to watch as 53 mikoshi (portable shrines) weighing from around 2 tons to 4.5 tons are boisterously carried 8 kilometers through local neighborhoods on the shoulders of men and women in traditional costume. This alone would be a site worth coming to Japan for but what makes this festival particularly special is the fact that water is being thrown on to the shrines as they slowly move through Tokyo’s streets. While some of this comes in the form of children with buckets and water pistols, the fire department also joins in at tens of locations to dowse the participants with fire hoses!

Our mikoshi being "cleansed" by some of Tokyo's finest!

Our mikoshi being “cleansed” by some of Tokyo’s finest!

Here is a brief description of what it is like to participate in one of Tokyo’s three “great” festivals. I awoke at 4:30am and took the train to Monzennakacho, a station that is truly at the heart of the Fukagawa Matsuri. Although there was no traffic at this early hour, there was plenty of activity. Hundreds of locals could be seen scurrying around the streets in their happi Japanese tops, white shorts and split-toed shoes. As not just anyone can participate in the festival, I was met by the family who gave me the “introduction” to partake. Each of the giant mikoshi (portable shrines) is associated with a particular district of the local area. There are 53 in total.

Dressed for the festival

After quickly changing in to my costume I gathered with the other participants and we ate onigiri – rice balls with different fillings – and got ready for the days event. At 7:30am we moved down the street to where the mikoshi for our district was set up and waiting for us (see below).

Mikoshi

We carried this float 8 kilometers through Tokyo and back to the local neighborhood.

As our turn came, around 40 of us heaved the 2 ton float up on to our shoulders and began the 8 kilometer walk through Tokyo. Slowly marching through the streets as we chanted “washoi!!” and bounced the float up and down. But what really made this festival a day to remember was the water that was poured on our mikohsi – and us! – as we walked about. Kids and adults alike splashed us from all angles. Any spectator is able to join in on this aspect of the matsuri and so the day ends up feeling like a giant water fight!

IMG_1480Water!

At splash stations like the one above we lift the mikoshi above our heads so that other participants can drench the mikoshi and us below with cold but refreshing water. But the 53 shrines being paraded around are not the only thing that this festival has going. There are multiple places where traditional Japanese music is being played and even several large taiko drumming areas where the loud drums set the pace of the chanting of the shrine bearers like myself. In order to show respect to the musicians we lift the mikoshi above our heads as we pass. There are also floats along the route selling beer and shaved ice for the onlookers, those of us carrying the shrine have to wait till the afternoon.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

Taiko drummers at one of many stations along the festival route.

We all take turns carrying the float and there is a morning rest stop and a midday break for lunch but even so by the afternoon my shoulders are bruised and battered. And my feet are sore from the massive weight crushing down on them.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Yours truly at the head of the pack. My shoulder and arms sore from a long but fun day.

Of course, my personal favorite part of the matsuri is after we finish and I can sit down with my friends for a few well deserved beers.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo's cordoned off streets.

A long time friend. The man who allowed me to partake in the festival treated me to lots of shochu and beer after we finished. He also brought me some Otoro tuna sashimi from Tsukiji Fish Market to help replenish all the energy spent walking through Tokyo’s cordoned off streets.

Seeing matsuri in Japan is truly a “once in a lifetime” type experience. The friendly and fun-loving nature of such festivals ensures that all are welcome. Aside from some fantastic pictures, you are likely to go home with some new friends as well!

There are thousands of festivals all over japan throughout the year. You may just stumble across a small festival on your travels in Japan, but if they are on and we know about them, we can help you catch a Japanese festival during your trip.

 

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 2 of 2)

As I touched on in the first part of this post, Nikko National Park is not far from Tokyo and so with even a one night stay here you can pack in two full day’s of “off the beaten path” sightseeing. Sure, you’ll see a good number of tourists at the most famous sites in Nikko (like Kegon Waterfall or the Unesco World Heritage listed Shrines and Temples) but if you dare to put in just a little bit of extra effort to get beneath the surface of Nikko’s natural and cultural history you will be amply rewarded. Continuing on from part 1, here are some more can’t miss sites that aren’t in the guidebooks just yet.

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A working waterwheel in Nikko National Park. This is one of only a handful of waterwheels that is not simply there for nostalgia’s sake but actually working to produce incense.

What better place to start your journey in Nikko National Park than with a visit to the area near Takao Shrine (pictured above). Altering shades of green roll across the landscape of verdant evergreens and giant sheets of rice paddies divided by small ditches that can be walked along for an experience that will completely surround you.

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The proud and friendly owner of the incense producing water wheel.

A highlight of visiting this area is a small hut with a water wheel that is near the shrine’s entrance. You might even hear the clickety clank of the water wheel’s gears before the old shack comes in to view. Surprisingly, this isn’t simply a water wheel that has been leftover from more rustic times,an old man uses the power of an irrigation stream to assist in making incense – a ubiquitous good in Japanese homes and temples.

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Wooden gears spin as the waterwheel turns. The noise is unforgettable!

The nearby Takao Shrine is equally interesting. Like the shrines and temples seen in Japanese movies, this one is surrounded by nature and sees only a few dozen visitors each day so you can often get it to yourself. The beauty of architecture is complemented nicely by the tall cedar trees that line the entrance. But unlike some of the masterpieces that you’ll find in Nikko proper, it’s the small details at this shrine that are most likely to stick with you.

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It may not look like much but if you take a ladle of that crystal clear water and pour it over the rocks, you will hear a beautiful ringing as the water drips into a massive brass bowl that resonates the sound below. Magical!

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Before you leave the area make sure to stop at the small restaurant at the bottom of the hill for some naturally produced shaved ice. Before I had tasted it, I questioned whether there was much of a difference between this “natural” shaved ice and the stuff my refrigerator churns out back in Tokyo but after having a few bites of the green tea sweet I have become a convert for life! If you want to see what goes in to make such a treat for the senses, check out the process with this video from Youtube.

 

The hard work is a labour of love for the 4th and 5th generation ice makers that oversee this process. They are Nikko locals and run their operations in the National Park so, if you’re there during the right time of year you can go and see this ice making process in person. And if you’re there in the summer you can simply enjoy some of the best shaved ice (kakigori) that you’ll find anywhere!

Moving on, we head to Heike no Sato a place of cultivated and natural beauty that is full of history. This collection of folk houses from around the area recreates the atmosphere of 800 years before, when a battle between rival clans sent the Heike warriors into refuge in Nikko’s mountains. If you aren’t making it to any other folk villages over the course of your trip to Japan then this is a must-see sight in Nikko National Park. You will come away with a far better understanding of the type of lifestyle that was still common up until the 1900’s.

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The picturesque entrance to Heike no Sato.

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The world renowned Akiko Sakurai performs at Heike no Sato. In the background you can see a Torii gate where the Heike clan worshiped in place of the original in their homeland – which they couldn’t go to because they were hiding from the victors whom had driven them here.

There is great food to be found in Nikko and plenty of variety to boot. But the one thing that you shouldn’t miss is surely yuba – a tofu like sheet that Nikko has become famous for. A particularly tasty yuba dish is available at Heike no Sato (pictured below).

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Enjoying some yuba, green tea and mochi at Heike no Sato.

Having already covered some of Nikko’s best sights you could easily relax at a cafe overlooking one of Nikko’s lakes or head to an onsen (hot spring) but if you still have a bit of energy left, why not go for a walk through the wilderness in Senjogahara. The path here is an easy walk with sweeping vistas of the National Park. Best of all, if you visit in different seasons you will find entirely new seasons waiting for you.

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The boardwalk keeps you safely above the marsh beneath and, most importantly, protects the local habitat at the same time.

Trying to decide where to go in Japan is a difficult task to say the least. I’ve lived and worked here for nearly a decade and traveled extensively but there are so many places that I’m still longing to visit. But if you find yourself in Tokyo and your looking for a side of Japan that simply can’t be found in the city, head up to Nikko for a few days; you won’t be disappointed!

 

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