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TRAVEL November 23, 2017

The Whimsical Treehouses of Koyabashi

takashi kobayashi treehouses hokkaido
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

Interest in tree houses continues to grow, to the point that builders even have an annual conference in Oregon, U.S.A. celebrating the form. Photo spreads of treehouse dwellings have graced numerous magazines and travel websites, documenting ingenious arboreal habitations from Costa Rica to England, Mozambique to Sweden, Bali to British Colombia. Airbnb features a number of tree houses for rent.

Japan has its own modest contributions to the trend, in the many forms of the delightful tree houses of Takashi Kobayashi. While Kobayashi’s tree houses are smaller and simpler than many of those in other countries, they are uniquely Japanese and are arguably the most like the “tree houses” we might imagine from childhood than the many structures now being called tree houses.

While some “tree” houses are more like hillside, cantilevered or merely stilt-based dwellings that earn the name by emphasizing their views out through the branches of trees, Kobayashi’s trees are exactly what you’d expect from the phrase “tree house”: Small, hand-crafted, rustic, and sitting high above the ground, directly on the trunk and biggest branches of a carefully-chosen tree. While this means that they feature no hot tubs or extensive decks, as in many other “tree houses” around the world, a Kobayashi tree house is the real deal.

credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

His tree houses are a way, the artist and self-taught architect says, “To break down the feeling of separation that exists between humans and nature.”

True to basic elements of Japanese design, Kobayashi pays special attention to the setting of his houses, and places them in the landscape – and in the trees themselves – in the most sympathetic ways. While many “tree houses” around the world tend to dominate their arboreal environments, Kobayashi’s tree houses seem almost half-hidden in the tree branches, more like a natural outgrowth of the tree than a heavy burden imposed upon it.

takashi kobayashi treehouse
Photo via Pinterest

As he has written of his inspiration, “Treehouse building has taken me to forests and woodlands across Japan, across the globe, and everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen reflected in these largest and oldest of living beings the same nameless light that I’ve struggled to maintain within myself for so many years, the one that no one could tarnish and that never seemed to disappear. That comfort, that sense of calm, is something I’d like to share with as many people as possible. And it is with that in mind that I will continue with the one-of-a-kind rush that is treehouse creation, all the while carrying out my own personal dialogue with their hosts.”

takashi kobayashi treehouses chiba
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

Kobayashi first discovered trees when living, of all places, in the hip, chaotic Harajuku area of Tokyo, hardly a rustic, natural environment. But an enormous Himalayan cedar in front of his building touched something deep inside him, and led him down the path to becoming an unschooled, but hardly uninspired, arboreal architect.

That first tree house still stands, and is the easiest of Kobayashi’s creations to visit. It is now a coffeehouse called Hideaway, which features a library, a shop and fixed-price lunches daily, as well as a teatime in the late afternoon. It is located not far from the Harajuku railway station, at #202, 3-20-1 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. It is open from noon to 2300 daily.

Kobayashi’s devotion to the basics of Japanese design does not keep him from also incorporating another of contemporary Japan’s artistic delights: Playfulness. Because he likes to design for children, Kobayashi’s structures can be fanciful in the extreme, as in the kindergarten treehouse he made in Katsushika, Tokyo, which looks like a small wooden boat sailing over the school’s playground. Another example is the schoolhouse Kobayashi built as a gift to the children and families of Sendai, in an area devastated by the catastrophic tsunami that hit Fukushima in November 2011. There, Kobayashi, a father of three who was deeply affected by the disaster and its impact on children, decided to build a tree schoolhouse that would bring delight and joy back into the lives of the families whose lives had been so tragically disrupted.

The details of Kobayashi’s roughly 120 tree houses are often influenced by elements of the surrounding trees themselves, such as doorways and railings made from lovingly-crafted branches, which give a rustic, natural feel to the buildings. Some houses even feature wood-burning stoves, which add a nice touch of the circular nature of trees and the useful products (e.g. deadwood) that they provide humans. Others are angular and almost modernist, were it not for their rustic materials and natural settings.

kobayashi treehouse
photo via

Above all, Kobayashi’s whimsical tree houses are a sweet, often dazzling expression of Japanese design as well as art, not to mention being modern exemplars of the Japanese fascination with and love for nature.


TRAVEL November 15, 2017

A Closer Look at Itsukushima: Japan’s Mesmerizing Floating Shrine

Itsukushima Floating Shrine
Photo by DozoDomo

If you have any interest in Japan and its most popular sites, you’ve likely heard of the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture. After all, Miyajima is one of the top three scenic spots in Japan. But, there is much to learn about this hallowed site, and we’re here to give you the lowdown so you can be an expert when you visit.

A Site Steeped in History

Photo by Thilo Hilberer

As a registered World Heritage Site, the Itsukushima Shrine is nestled amongst the Prussian blue sea and the lush green of the surrounding virgin forest. For as long as anyone can remember, the island of Miyajima has been revered for its spiritual sanctity. In fact, the island itself has been worshipped as a goddess since time immemorial.

The story goes that this mysterious and beautiful “floating shrine” was built over 1400 years ago by the first samurai to assume the role of the Daijo-Daijin, or head of the imperial government. From there, many other prominent revelers continued to add their own structures, culminating in the buoyant complex of grand corridors, shrines and stages that exist today. The shrine was constructed on pier-like structures over the bay so that it would appear to be floating on the water at high tide, separate from the sacred island, which could be approached by the devout.

Steeped in Spirituality

Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Joe deSousa

While Miyajima is venerated as a deity, the shrine is dedicated to Shinto gods of the Imperial Household: the 3 daughters of Susano-o no Mikoto, the god of seas and storms, and brother of the son goddess Amaterasu. Various other shrines within Itsukushima are dedicated to other deities and Buddhist purposes, such as spiritual purification, worshiping, chanting, offerings to divine beings, and seclusion.

Because the island itself is considered sacred, commoners were not allowed to set foot on it during much of its history to maintain its purity. The shrine was constructed to allow pilgrims to visit at a distance, with the water between them and the hallowed ground of Miyajima. The red entrance gate, O-Torii, was built so visitors had to steer their boats through it before approaching the shrine.

It is so important to retain the purity of Itsukushima that no deaths or births have been allowed near it since 1878. Still today, pregnant women are instructed to travel to the mainland as they near delivery, as are the very elderly or terminally ill who are approaching the end of life. Burials on the island are strictly forbidden.

Where to Stop

Inside Floating Shrine Itsukushima
Photo by Thilo Hilberer

Popular spots to visit at the shrine are, of course, the main shrine itself, the noh stage, and the O-Torii gate.

*The Main Shrine is dedicated to three female deities, who have long been worshipped as gods of the sea, transport, fortune and the arts. This area is the largest shrine (in fact, it is one of the biggest in Japan) and is said to have an ethereal, special atmosphere.

*The noh stage is the only one in Japan constructed over water. Noh theater is one of the oldest surviving theatrical forms in the world, relying heavily on subtle visual cues rather than a conventional narrative to express ideas and tell stories. Samurai have been watching noh theater at this stage for centuries.

*The O-Torii gate is a dramatic structure built so it appears to float at high tide and can be approached on foot at low tide. Indeed, the appearance of the entire shrine complex changes each time the tides rise and fall, which adds to the appeal of the site. The gate is 16 meters (nearly 52 ½ feet) tall, and weighs 60 tons. Rather than being buried in the seabed, the gate relies on the weight of the Camphor wood pillars themselves to remain standing.

Other things you don’t want to miss when visiting the shrine:

Floating Shrine at Night
Photo by Rosino

*The illuminations after dark are a sight to behold. After the sun sets, it’s easy to imagine the shrine glowing with the hundreds of burning torches of the nighttime worshipers of the ancient days. Whether you witness its beauty up-close or from afar, the shrine and O-Torii gate lit up and floating is a vision you won’t soon forget.

*The East and West Corridors are hailed as masterpieces of architecture and craftsmanship. Unique structures that were built to link the separate shrines of Itsukushima, they are a sight to behold themselves. Vibrant colors and creative, functional construction make these a fascinating piece of your visit.

*Mt. Misen, the highest mountain on Miyajima island, is said to be filled with wonders- 7, to be exact! These include the Kiezu-no-hi, or eternal flame, that has been burning since 806 and a legendary plum tree that took root around the same time. 7 wonders or no, the mountain is home to the Virgin Forest Misen, which has been selected as a Natural Monument of Japan. Mt. Misen has been worshipped as a hot-spot of spiritual energy for ages, and is included in the shrine’s title as a World Heritage Site.

Known for its serene beauty, rich history, and ethereal nature, the Itsukushima Shrine is a must-see on your journey through Japan. High tide or low, day or night, this spiritual hotspot should not be missed. Walk or float this hallowed ground and you’ll be sure to come away with a peaceful heart and a tranquil mind.

FOOD&DRINK October 26, 2017

Beyond The Pub: A Closer Look At Japan’s Izakaya Culture

Izakaya Culture in Japan
Photo by Japanexperterna

Japan’s dining options range from convenient and cheap vending machines to elegant and very expensive kaiseki banquets, with everything in between. But another kind of relatively inexpensive, not to mention tasty way to satisfy your hunger and thirst is becoming popular all over the world.

Izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of the international gastropub, a place to eat and drink in a setting that is high quality but informal and friendly.

History of the Izakaya

Izakaya first began to be popular during the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration, but it gained contemporary popularity a hundred years later, during Japan’s go-go years of the 1980s. Today’s izakaya offer a slow-paced, eat-and-drink-as-you-go style, with drinks and dishes being ordered and appearing at the table in a relaxed, informal style (as contrast, say, with kaiseki’s highly-orchestrated pace). International analogs are Spanish tapas, Turkish meze, or perhaps even Chinese dim sum.

Photo by Kurt

Although some izakaya are nomi-hōdai (“all you can drink”) and tabe-hōdai (“all you can eat”) styles, most izakaya allow drinkers – and in this format, drinking is the main point – to order as they go along, with the drinks and eats being totaled up at the end of the evening.

How Izakayas Work

Most evenings start with a beer (biiru), even if drinkers intend to move on to sake or cocktails. After all, beer is a universal language, and the Japanese speak it with enthusiasm. Izakaya are generally after-work or even happy hour-type affairs, so drinking remains the focus. Along with beer, sake is a mainstay, but shochu drinks and other cocktails are also popular. Wine is less common, and you may find that your favorite red doesn’t really go with a lot of Japanese food. But if you’re a wine drinker, most izakaya will be able to produce a decent bottle or two. Whisky is also popular, especially Japanese whiskeys, which are blended to work particularly well with Japanese food.

The food at izakaya can be standard items such as edamame (boiled soy beans), tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and tofu in various forms, but things can get much more interesting as the evening wears on, with gyoza (dumplins), karaage (fried chicken, octopus or vegetable bites), sashimi slices, and kushiyaki or yakitori (various meats grilled on skewers) making frequent appearances. Many diners will finish with a hearty rice or noodle dish.

Photo by Nobuhiro Nikushi

As with many forms of bar food, most often plates are shared among the group, rather than enjoyed separately. But however you eat it, most of this bar food is likely to be of the consistently high-quality that most Japanese establishments maintain. This being Japan, the variations on these basics can be overwhelming, and the menus can be intimidatingly extensive. But chosen wisely, no more than two or three dishes at a time, and washed down with the beverage(s) of choice, izakaya snacks can add up to a balanced, healthy and filling meal.

(Note: Although izakaya usually do have sushi, this is not their speciality, and if you have any sense of sushi quality, you may find it to be less-than-ideal. Better to stick with sushi bars for this internationally-popular treat.)

Izakaya began as small, informal affairs, with seating on tatami mats, at low tables, similar to the local pub, and traditionally marked with red paper lanterns hanging outside. But today large, well-lit chains such as Tsubohachi, Watami, Shoya and many others have sprung up to serve the large and often rambunctious post-work gatherings that izakaya have come to be. Seating at tables has become much more common.

izakaya hagi
Photo by Kok Chih & Sarah Gan

Whatever the style of the place, some diners like to izakaya crawl, grabbing a drink (or two) and a bite (or two) at the first stop, then moving on to a second, to repeat the process. If you have a short time in Japan, it’s a great way to experience different places, but be warned: a lot of izakaya to fill up after work, which can mean a wait for a table at the next establishment. Better perhaps to linger in one place, enjoying the slow pace of the traditional izakaya – this, after all, is the whole point to this delightful dining tradition. Sit down, have a beer, order a snack, and chat. Then order a sake, and something more substantial. And then yet another drink, and another; after all, izakayas are one of the relatively few places in Japan where one is encouraged to get a little (or a lot) loose. In any case, what’s your hurry? You’re in an izakaya, there’s no need to go anywhere else!

By David Watts Barton

TRAVEL October 11, 2017

7 Stunning Train Rides in Japan You Don’t Want to Miss

On the way (嵯峨野観光鉄道)
Photo by Alex Chen

If you’ve started your research about getting around in Japan, you’ve discovered that trains are the most popular mode of transportation, both in major cities and between them. Although they can be a bit complex to use, they are notorious for being punctual and are the most efficient way to traverse the country once you get the hang of it. Since it’s inevitable you’ll be spending at least some time on trains while you’re traveling here, we’ve compiled a list of breathtaking train rides in Japan that will make all your efforts worth it.

#7: Tetsudo Hobby Train on the Yodo Line

YODO LINE one of the Best Train Rides In Japan
Photo by Kzaral

This trip is one we sussed out for the train enthusiasts among us. This particular one was remodeled to resemble the “o series,” the first line of Shinkansen, or bullet train, that came onto the transportation scene more than 50 years ago.

The charm of this train ride in Japan between Kubokawa and Uwajima stations is a two-parter. First, the route is along the crystal clear Shimanto River, famous for being one of Japan’s last limpid streams. The river has 26 low water crossings, and is surrounded by natural, untouched beauty. Second, as you make your joyful journey, train geeks will find many fascinations in the interior of the train; it has been converted to a showcase of model trains of the past and present, so you get a museum and a nature tour in one!

#6: Hanwa Train Line in Kansai

see cherry blossoms during train rides in JapanPhoto by Pedro Martín

Japan is definitely famous for its sakura, or cherry blossoms. The sakura is the national flower, appears on Japanese money, and is a Buddhist metaphor for the brevity and beauty of life itself. If cherry blossom viewing is on your vacation bucket list, they are at peak season in April.

Located in the Osaka Prefecture of the Kansai Region, this train ride in Japan takes you from Osaka City to Wakayama, with eye candy galore along the way. Both sides of the rail are filled with pink or white sakura, allowing for a peaceful and alluring view that is quintessential to any trip to Japan.

#5: Kyoto’s Sagano Scenic Railway

Sagano Scenic Railway One Of The Best Train Rides In Japan
Photo by cotaro70s

If foliage is your cup of hot sake, another essential item on your list of train rides in Japan should be the Sagano Scenic Railway. Although this particular ride is only 7 kilometers (about 4.5 miles) long, it’s likely the best 25 minutes you could spend in this region.

The train moves at a deliberate, lounging pace so you can take in views of the Hozugawa River and is especially pleasant in autumn. Although Japan is indeed famous for their plum and cherry blossoms in the spring, the vibrant colors of fall are not to be missed. This train line is ideal for koyo, or the viewing of the shifting shades.

#4: Kurobe Gorge Railway in the Northern Japan Alps

Kurobe Gorge Railway Best Train Rides In Japan
Photo by tsuda

This railway was originally built for the construction of the Kurobe Dam, the tallest dam in Japan, and arguably the most beautiful, as it contains a gorgeous artificial lake and is surrounded by the Japanese Alps. It has since been repurposed for visitors who wish to explore this exotic area.

For almost an hour and a half, this train takes you through forested mountains, past rivers, over 20 bridges and through 40 tunnels. You can also stop at one of the many onsen, or hot springs, along the way for a relaxing dip. As a bonus, this train ride in Japan is another exceptional way to see the fall foliage.

#3: Hakone Tozan Railway in Kangawa

Hakone Tozan Train Rides In Japan
Photo by Jordi Sanchez Teruel

For anyone staying in Tokyo but still looking for a taste of life outside the city, this train ride in Japan is ideal. Hakone has many onsen resorts, making it perfect for a day or two outside the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. On the train, both the hydrangea blooms in June and the changing colors of autumn make this trip worthwhile. Once in Hakone, onsen, lakes, shrines and an open-air museum make this mini vacay complete!

#2: Mount Fuji From the Shinkansen

Mt. Fuji and Shinkansen Express train rides in Japan
Photo by Kosho Owa

As Japan’s highest mountain, Mount Fuji is a must-see on your itinerary. One of the best ways to do this is on the Shinkansen bullet train line between Tokyo and Kyoto. Fuji is visible from the train for 10 minutes or so about an hour after leaving Tokyo.

On this train ride in Japan, you should plan your seating accordingly; if you’re heading South to Kyoto, Mount Fuji will be on the right side of the train, and if you’re headed North to Tokyo, it will be on the left. If you have time and would like to explore a bit more, you can take the bullet train to Fuji’s 5th station and spend the day around the mountain. There are lakes, shrines and an aerial tram to the top of neighboring Mount Komagatake for superb views of Fuji and its valley.

#1: North Honshu’s Gono Line

North Honshu’s Gono Line Scenic Train rides in Japan
Photo by Kzaral

Running between the Akita Prefecture to the Aomori Prefecture, this train ride in Japan has some of the best coastal scenery in the world. We especially recommend you hop on this trip if you’re traveling to Japan during the winter; the line runs along the Sea of Japan, and juxtaposed with the snow-covered natural rock formations of the region, is sure to be unforgettable. As a bonus, this excursion also affords you views of Mount Iwaki, an inactive but still impressive volcano.

Trains are one of the best ways to travel in Japan. From cityscapes to countrysides, mountains to the sea, a train ride in Japan is guaranteed to never disappoint. For a totally unique and unforgettable experience, make sure you fit these locomotive locations into your itinerary!

ARTS&CULTURE September 20, 2017

The Timeless Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints

The_Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa The Timeless Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints

Even those unfamiliar with various styles of woodblock printing from around the world, let alone Japan, are likely to be familiar with what is perhaps the most famous woodblock print in the world: Kanagawa-oki nami ura (The Great Wave Off Kanagawa), by ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.

Created sometime between 1829-33, the print depicts what is thought to have been a rogue wave off of Kanagawa, near present day Yokohama in Tokyo Bay. The massive wave has since become nearly as familiar, and as often-satirized, as iconic Western paintings such as the Mona Lisa or The Scream.

But beyond the worldwide fame of that particular image, the piece is an exemplar of ukiyo-e woodblock printing, which flourished in Japan for nearly three centuries. Although woodblock printing goes back to the earliest days of Chinese influence on Japan – printed books are recorded as early as the 8th century CE – woodblock printing came into its own after the invention of moveable type and the introduction of mass printing in the 16th century.

The History of Printing in Japan

Japanese Woodblock Prints

The first hero of the story of printing in Japan is Tokugawa Ieyasu, just a few years before he founded the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan during its two and a half centuries of isolation. Tokugawa was the first to create a native printing system using moveable type that could work with the tens of thousands of Japanese characters – the German Gutenberg, by contrast, only needed to create 26 letters and 10 numbers.

The best-known style of woodblock printing in Japan was Ukiyo-e – literally “pictures of the floating world” – the hedonistic world of merchants and artisans that grew up during the 18th and 19th centuries under the Tokugawa shogunate. Although the lowest of the four classes of the shogunate were the merchants (the highest being samurai), those merchants thrived under the relative calm of the shogunate, and with their newfound wealth, they discovered the pleasures of the “floating world” and paid good money for representations of it: Woodblock prints of geisha, courtesans, kabuki theater actors and nature were highly-prized and widely-disseminated.

Women of the Green Houses The Timeless Art of Japanese Woodblock Prints

The next man to influence Japanese woodblock printing was the artist Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-94), who in 1670 began to create monochromatic prints, and was also the first to produce prints that were not illustrations in books, but works of visual art that stood on their own as single prints.

Color was gradually added over the next century, and by 1760 the artist Harunobu was creating so-called “brocade prints” that were made with numerous blocks that added different colors, making him the dominant artist of the period. Later in the 18th century, a number of artists had perfected the complex process and were producing what we now know as the classic woodblock prints, of which the acknowledged masters were Hiroshige and of course, Hokusai, whose above-mentioned The Great Wave Off Kanagawa was the ultimate expression. Their work in landscapes was the final iteration of the ukiyo-e style, as was their focus on the details of everyday life.

The Proccess

The process was complex, requiring not just an artist, but four people to produce: The publisher was first, financing the production and hiring the three master artisans who would actually create the work: A painter, who created the original artwork; a carver, who carved the lines of the painting into cured white cherry wood for printing; and the printer, who actually applied the paints to the woodblock and rolled out the prints. With this process, artists were able to mass produce copies of a print, while at the same time making something that was utterly unique, as each print was slightly different, at least in coloration, than the others.

Women's Activities of the Tokugawa Era- Creating Bonkei Tray Landscapes LACMA AC1998.235.1.1-.3

After that, with the rapid social and technological modernization of the Meiji Restoration, ukiyo-e went into a steep decline from which it never recovered, though color block printing is still practiced. Still, the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the subsequent modernization of Japan led ukiyo-e style to be exported, particularly to Europe, where “Japonism” became a hot trend and artists such as the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (particularly Manet, Cassatt and Whistler) adopted some of the style and techniques. Vincent Van Gogh went so far as to paint copies of some Japanese originals. Subsequent artists such as the art nouveau master Toulouse-Lautrec made their debt to ukiyo-e even more apparent in their prints (and in many cases, choice of subject matter).

The vogue for Japanese woodblock prints may have surprised some Japanese, who considered form to be a mass medium, by no means a high art. Funny, then, that the cover of composer Claude Debussy’s pivotal work La Mer would be published with a woodblock print variation on Hokusai’s Great Wave as its cover. In keeping with the growing appreciation of the form by Westerners, was an American, Ernest Fenollosa, who curated the first exhibition of ukiyo-e work in Japan itself, in 1898.

With the ongoing popularity of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, the position of Japanese woodblock printing in art history would seem to be assured.


TRAVEL September 13, 2017

A Guide To Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods

A Guide To Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods

Tokyo’s sheer size can make planning a visit to the expansive metropolitan area seem like a daunting task. Apart from popular tourist destinations like Shibuya and Ginza, where are the best neighborhoods to discover chic cafes, modern museums, artsy boutiques and creative bars and restaurants?

Wonder no longer; we’ve compiled a guide to Tokyo’s trendiest neighborhoods so you don’t have to.

From winding cobbled paths dotted with design shops to bohemian bookstores and scenic parks, here are some of the coolest spots to discover in the world’s largest city:

A Guide To Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods


Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Naka-Meguro - Tokyo - Japan

Photo via Staffan Asami on Flickr

It wasn’t long ago that Naka-Meguro was a mecca for hipsters and artists. While increasing development and gentrification have started to change the vibe in this neighborhood, you’ll still find plenty of alternative shops, innovative art galleries, and creative souls.

Don’t miss a stroll along the canal at Meguro River, especially picturesque when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. From here, take time to explore the neighborhood’s narrow lanes, dotted with design stores and artisan coffee shops.

Keep an eye out for Cow Books, an offbeat bookstore selling out-of-print books, including “first editions of modern day authors.” For hydration, try the Sidewalk Stand, which specializes in quality coffee, hot sandwiches and craft beer.

When hunger strikes, stop by Junkadelic. The hip Tex-Mex restaurant has a funky atmosphere, beautiful murals, and a cool grunge design.


Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Kagurazaka Snowfall

Photo via Jim O’Connell on Flickr

Once known for its geisha houses (a few of which still stand today,) Kagurazaka is the place to experience traditional Japanese culture.

Come hungry, because you’ll find an array of authentic Japanese restaurants serving everything from ramen to soba noodles to Japanese rice pudding. Of particular note is Kyourakutei, a chic but affordable Michelin-star restaurant famed for its Japanese noodle dishes and tempura.

To learn about furoshiki, the beautiful cloths used to wrap, protect and decorate various Japanese items, visit Yamato Nadeshiko. Furoshiki make excellent gifts and souvenirs. The helpful attendants can demonstrate how to use your furoshiki as shopping bags, decorations, and even to present wine bottles.

Kagurazaka is also home to a large French population, which means you’ll find a surprising number of delicious French restaurants that are worth checking out. Try the savory crepes at Cafe-Creperie Le Bretagne, the first creperie to open in Japan.

Round out your visit to Kagurazaka with a stop at the Akagi-jinja, a unique shrine remodeled by famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.


Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Jiyugaoka

Photo via chia ying Yang on Flickr

Fittingly referred to as “Little Europe,” at first glance, Jiyugaoka’s promenades and Venetian Piazza “La Vita” (featuring Italian architecture and an actual gondola) might leave you feeling like you’ve changed continents. But take a closer look, and you’ll discover a mesmerizing fusion of European design with authentically Japanese touches.

Alongside mouthwatering French bakeries and stylish boutiques, keep an eye out for Japan’s famous zakka shops. These miscellaneous goods stores are all about improving home, life and appearance. Koe House is always a favorite stop in Jiyugaoka; it focuses on accessories for the home, but you’ll find plenty of zakka shops of all sizes and wares throughout the neighborhood.

Finally, don’t miss Joshin Temple, a large complex of Buddhas, gates and exquisite buildings surrounding by lush woodland. It’s the perfect spot to escape the bustle of the city without having to venture far.


Sakura (Cherry blossom) at Inokashira park Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods

Photo via Naoki Nakashima on Flickr

Kichijoji might not be a popular spot for tourists, but it is very well known amongst locals, many of whom consider it to be one of the best places to live in Tokyo. Start your exploration with a visit to Inokashira Park. Shaded walking paths make this an ideal location to take a stroll; the scenic pond in the center serves as the perfect backdrop for a quiet picnic.

Also within the park is the mesmerizing Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli animation house. You don’t have to be an anime fan to appreciate this museum, which features a walk-through of animation techniques, temporary exhibitions, a roof garden, cafe, and gift shop. Just be sure to purchase your tickets well in advance as they are high in demand.

For shopping and drinking, head to Harmonica Yokocho. This maze of alleys was once home to Tokyo’s black market. Today, you’ll find a large variety of merchants selling a little bit of everything, including specialty goods like yokan (sweet bean jelly). Most visit Harmonica Yokocho for the vibrant open-air bars and restaurants. It’s easy to while away an entire night hopping from bar to bar without leaving the area.


Crate digging Tokyo’s Coolest Neighborhoods Shimokitazwa
Photo via Zac Davies on Flickr

For a neighborhood that’s both edgy and sophisticated, the colorful streets of Shimokitazawa are a must-visit. From vintage clothing stores to organic shopping to theaters and live music venues, Shimokitzawa lives up to its Bohemian reputation.

Savor the izakaya dishes at the hugely popular Shirubei. The restaurant is always crowded but for a good reason, with a nice variety of traditional and fusion dishes. Or, combine your drinking with flower shopping at the eclectic Flowerbar Gardena.

When you need a pick-me-up, stop into the small but memorable Ikkyu Donut. Their Soy Cream and airy donuts are consistent crowd-pleasers, guaranteed to give you the sugar rush you need to continue your neighborhood exploring.

ARTS&CULTURE, TRAVEL August 30, 2017

Shinto Weddings: Your Complete Guide to a Perfect Traditional Japanese Wedding

Traditional shinto wedding.
Photo by Simon Desmarais

Gone are the days when tying the knot was confined to a ceremony in a Christian church; now, couples looking to celebrate their love through marriage have a wealth of more unique options available to them.

As wedding destinations go, Japan surely ranks as one of the most romantic. Famed for its delicate cherry blossom, elegant temples and ancient traditions, Japan also has surprises up its sleeve when it comes to getting hitched. Read on to learn why a Shinto wedding – the country’s traditional type of ceremony – could well be the perfect celebration for you and your partner.

What is Shinto and what are the traditional features of a Shinto wedding?

Shinto beliefs

Japanese gates

A Shinto wedding is a traditional marriage ceremony that takes places at a Shinto shrine in Japan. Shinto is a system of beliefs centred around worshiping kami, a word loosely translated in English as “spirits”. The kami can influence people’s everyday lives, bringing good fortune or misfortune to worshippers.

Praying to these spirits normally take place at private Shinto shrines in family’s houses or at one of the thousands of larger shrines that are dotted around Japan. Shinto shrines are an iconic part of Japanese architecture, recognizable the world over for the vermilion-coloured torii gates that mark their entrances.

Shinto weddings are held at these shrines and the first ceremony actually took place relatively recently, when Crown Prince Yoshihito (who would later become Emperor Taishō) married Princess Sado in 1990.

Features of a traditional Shinto wedding

Although Shinto weddings were once a popular type of marriage ceremony, estimates now suggest that only twenty percent of all Japanese weddings now are in this style. The majority of Japanese couples now opt instead for a “white” or “Western” wedding.

Photo by David Offf

But those that do take place include the following features:

– The wedding takes place at a Shinto shrine using a Shinto priest
– The couple are dressed in traditional outfits, with the bride wearing a white or silk kimono or “shiromuku” – the colours associated with purity in Shinto – and a hood (or “wataboshi”) or a paper hat (“tsunokakushi”) on her head.
– The most important feature of the wedding is the purification ritual, the san-san-ku-do ceremony that sees the bride and groom sharing and exchange three different sized cups of sake, which are poured and offered to the couple to be drunk.
– Vows are then read by the groom and the whole wedding party – which normally only consists of a small group of close family – join together in drinking sake.
– Offerings are given by the priest and a representative of each family to thank the kami that have blessed the union and finally the rings are exchanged.

After the official ceremony, the celebrations continue at a large hall or hotel, where more friends and family are invited to join the reception. Food and drink are served and speeches are made.

Guests are expected to make gifts of money to the couple and in return are given wedding favours, known as hikidemono. These can range from tableware to confectionary and even catalogues from which the guests can choose their own gifts.

How to plan a traditional Japanese wedding

Even if you’re a resident of another country, it is possible to celebrate your marriage with a traditional Shinto wedding.

Organizing your Shinto wedding

One of the initial stages of planning is to contact a Shinto shrine directly to organise the dates of the celebration. Many can hold up to 15 weddings per day, but it’s still essential to book well in advance to avoid disappointment.

here comes the bride
Photo by David Offf

Another vital step in planning your wedding is to file for marriage at the local government office in Japan. You can only conduct a Shinto wedding if you have the correct official paperwork and documentation.

Costumes and make up are other crucial components and bridal outfits can be hired from Japanese companies or hotels that offer wedding packages.

Get in touch with, who can help you find the perfect Shino shrine and wedding reception venue, or take all of the planning out of your hands with their range of wedding packages that will ensure the day runs without a hitch.

Although the website is in Japanese, don’t hesitate to contact one of their wedding planning specialists who can assist you in English.

Best times of the year for holding a traditional Japanese wedding

Spring and Autumn are the most popular times for wedding ceremonies in Japan, with the months of March, May, October and November when most take place. Expect no rainfall, clear skies and the chances of seeing the cherry blossom in bloom or autumn colours in all their glory.

ARTS&CULTURE August 17, 2017

How Art Transformed This Island Into A Unique Must-Visit

red pumpkin naoshima
Photo by cotaro70s

There are a number of open-air art museums in the world, places where large works stand amid the elements, often situated harmoniously in the environment so that each is elevated by the other.

And then there is Japan’s Naoshima Island.

One of the roughly 3,000 islands located in the Seto Inland Sea between southern Honshu and the island of Shikoku, Naoshima was long obscure. It was known, if at all, for the Mitsubishi plant that employed many of the island’s nearly 9,000 residents.

But time and industrialization – and nearly two-thirds of the island’s residents – moved on. It was then, just 30 years ago, that Soichiro Fukutake, head of the language arts and test-prep publisher Benesse Corporation, decided he wanted to share his extensive art collection with the world.

In doing so, Fukutake began the transformation of this region from a post-industrial decline to a vibrant arts-based economy.

The Origin of Naoshima As The Art Island

"The Oval" by Tadao Ando
Photo by Todd Lappin

Choosing Naoshima Island, Fukutake hired the internationally-known Japanese architect Tadao Ando, winner of the 1995 Pritzker Prize, to design a museum, and a hotel, and then another museum – and another, and another. Over the subsequent 30 years, Naoshima Island has become one of the great museums of the world, indoor or outdoor, an entire island devoted to contemporary art in its many forms.

Among the names represented here is Japan’s beloved matriarch of modern art, Yayoi Kusama, whose giant, polka dot “pumpkins” are the island’s icons.

Naoshima Island, Japan
Photo by Jason Schlabach

But there are many other artists represented here: Luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Bruce Nauman, Walter de Maria, Lee Ufan and Richard Long are represented on the tiny island.

Chichu Art Museum

Chichu Art Museum
Photo by Todd Lappin

Dominating the island is the Chichu Art Museum – entirely underground, and thus named chichu (literally, “in the ground”) – that nevertheless uses natural light to illuminate its collection. Those works include some by the artists above, as well as by an artist who is not contemporary, but whose epic, quasi-environmental works have inspired generations of artists and art lovers: One of French Impressionist Claude Monet’s large-scale “Water Lilies,” as well as four smaller pieces, are displayed in minimalist settings that make them appear almost to float in the air.

The Chichu Art Museum, opened in 2004, is situated above the sea, and was built adjacent to Benesse House, opened in 1992, a luxury hotel of only 10 rooms in which one can stay surrounded by monumental environmental art. Designed by Tadao Ando, the galleries are open to those who stay in the hotel after it is closed to visitors, giving greater space to view the art.

Another Japanese architect who has contributed greatly to the look of the island is the late Kazuhiro Ishii (1949-2015), who designed all of the municipal buildings on the island, including the local schools, a gym and the town hall. All can be visited during normal business hours.

Kazuhiro’s work has come to be known as Naoshima Style.

There are other recent additions to the island, including the relatively new (2009) public bath house, or sento, cleverly called I Love Yu, a Japanese/English pun that plays off of the double meaning of yu, which means hot water in Japanese. Like everywhere else on Naoshima, I Love Yu also integrates contemporary art, and the fusion of utilitarian spaces with art means that visitors are more likely to come into contact with local residents.

Honmura Village

Honmura Village
Photo by cotaro70s

In the village of Honmura, on the east side of the island, a number of artists have taken seven distinctive local buildings – including one that used to be a parlor for the playing of the beloved Japanese game called Go – and turned each one into a unique environmental art experience. This Art Houses Project easily charms visitors, in contrast to some of the larger works.

Honmura itself was built to evoke the castle towns of the “Warring States” period of civil war in Japan, during the 15th-16th centuries, and is thus a unique visit even without the art houses.

How Art Is Transforming Islands Outside Of Naoshima

 Teshima Art Museum
Photo by Yellowmo

The successes of Naoshima have begun spreading to other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, and the Setouchi International Art Festival, held every three years, has expanded to include nearby islands.

One of them is Teshima Island, population 920, a half hour’s ferry ride from Naoshima. 2010 saw the opening of the Teshima Art Museum, shaped like a drop of water, which has, in turn, inspired the restoration of the terraced rice paddies that surround the museum is yet another example of the merging of architecture, art and landscape – and another example of how art can transform, even revive, post-industrial areas.

ARTS&CULTURE November 28, 2016

Haiku and the Japanese love of brevity


In a land of people who love miniatures, efficiency and a clean, simple aesthetic, the haiku may be the ultimate Japanese literary form.

Familiar all over the world, these almost impossibly brief, elegant glimpses of life and spirit have grown in popularity in many languages. As in Japan itself, the form has changed from the strict structure of the past, but all retain the simplicity and clarity of the original. The most famous haiku written in Japanese was from the national saint of Japanese poetry, Matsuo Basho:

old pond…
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

Basho, who lived from 1644-1694, wrote his poems long before what we now call haiku existed as a form. What we know as the haiku’s structure evolved from an earlier form, the hokku, which was a short opening stanza to a longer poem called a haikai or renku. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration that the poet Masaoka Shiki, who lived from 1867-1902, would cut the haikai’s opening lines free, thus bringing the haiku itself into being.


Since then, the haiku has changed its form over the centuries, and grown in popularity with the talents of Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. In Japanese, the haiku has traditionally consisted of one long vertical line down the page, just as all Japanese is written, its rhythm implicit in the sounds and sense of the words used.

Haiku first entered English via Japanese poets, who tried their hand at creating original hokku in English at the beginning of the 20th century. Yone Noguchi even wrote “A Proposal to American Poets,” suggesting that they try their hand at this economical form. Haiku itself was introduced into French in 1906 by the poet Paul-Louis Couchoud, and in Spanish not long thereafter, and the style, if not the name, was adopted by the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound in 1913, with his “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound’s poem was considered to be an Imagist work, a modernist form of the time, but the influence of haiku was clear to many. Still, full recognition in the West of the Japanese form would be some time in coming, when Reginald Horace Blyth, an Englishman living in Japan, produced a four-volume collection of Japanese haiku in 1949, followed by Japanese-American translator Kenneth Yasuda’s 1957 collection and interpretation of haiku in both Japanese and English.

In English, we think of haiku as consisting of 17 syllables, arranged in three horizontal lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. That tradition has changed in the 100 years since Pound introduced an approximation of that form to English literature, but most writers of haiku still don’t stray far from this limitation, which imposes a discipline and structure on what could otherwise be a very insubstantial form.


In Japanese, the structure is quite different. The mora is a unit of sound roughly similar to a syllable, thus the Western style of the 17-syllable haiku. But haiku structure isn’t just a matter of counting syllables, or morae; it is about how elements that might not otherwise fit together are juxtaposed to create an effect akin to a kind of revelation. Haiku allows the reader or listener to make an imaginative leap simply by hearing two phrases or images bump up against each other in a compelling, insight-inducing way.

the first morning of autumn:
the mirror I investigate
reflects my father’s face

(Shiki Masaoka)

Besides the number of syllables, or morae, the essential element in most haiku is something less precise but equally important: the kireji, or “cutting” word, which comes at the end of one of the three lines, and separates the two thoughts in a way that unifies them, or ends a haiku in a way that signifies closure or emphasizes an emotion. English doesn’t have an equivalent, save perhaps in classical poetry’s caesura; instead, Western poets use punctuation to pause the flow, change the poem’s direction or end it all together.

Another element of haiku that has remained relatively consistent is the kigo, or seasonal reference, which places the poem in the proper seasonal context. It does that through the use of specific words that have long been understood by the Japanese to signal specific seasons. This is an important aspect of much Japanese art in general, which has long been connected to the changing of the four seasons the Japanese celebrate. Haiku written in other languages, by poets of other cultures, often lack this seasonal element, but it is still considered essential by most Japanese lovers of the form.

Japanese haiku may strike some Westerners as insubstantial, or overly simple, and the limits of translation work against a full understanding of the form outside of its native language. Still, some time spent reading haiku, even in translation, can draw even the less-poetically inclined into its spell, making haiku yet another way in which Japanese art can illuminate the mind and soul of the Japanese people.


ART&DESIGN November 21, 2016

Elements of Japanese Garden Design


Japanese culture may well be the most deliberate, self-conscious culture on the planet. One excellent example of this is found in Japanese garden design.

As with ikebana or >bonsai, Japanese garden design aims for a naturalism in which nothing is left to chance, and everything has meaning. If there are leaves scattered on the ground, they were left there to simulate nature’s processes; if a moss garden looks parched and fading, it has been left that way because it is the height of summer; and if there is a mound toward the center of things that seems to be the same shape as Fuji-san, well…that’s supposed to represent Japan’s most famous and revered mountain.

Japanese garden design has evolved over more than a thousand years, and into a number of different kinds of gardens, each one suited to a very particular purpose: Karesansui, Zen or rock gardens, for contemplation; kaiyū-shiki-teien for strolling; roji, to enjoy while participating in a tea ceremony or kaiseki feast ; and tsubo-niwa, small courtyard gardens that may be designed to suggest Japan’s grand vistas – or even the celestial vistas of heaven.


To achieve each of those effects, there are techniques and guidelines of great detail. Nothing about a Japanese garden is by accident. In that way, Japanese gardens are like three-dimensional, living symbolist paintings or sculptures, in which one thing represents another, or sometimes, even its opposite. For instance, one’s first glance at a Zen rock garden may seem to a foreign viewer as something dry and austere. But look at those carefully raked, curving rows of gravel snaking along, in parallel lines: as they flow around a carefully placed, upright rock, they suddenly are revealed as waves lapping against the bases of the enormous rock formations such as those seen on the coasts of Japan.

Suddenly, the vast white expanse of raked gravel is revealed for what it “really” is: the vast, rippling ocean. Scale disappears, or is reordered; the space in front of the viewer suddenly expands and one is no longer looking at a small, fenced garden; one is transported into a much larger reality. With more contemplation, the rows of rocks undulate, turning from solid rock to endlessly changing water. One’s vision expands.

None of it happens by chance. Japanese gardens, many of them hundreds of years old, are the product of countless hours of thought, deliberation and painstaking care.

Japan’s Zen gardens, which use rocks large and small to such remarkable effect, are just one style; water itself also plays a crucial role in most Japanese gardens, which are, above all, meant to be evocations of Japan’s natural beauty, its mountains and waterfalls, its lush forests and dense undergrowth, all of which are a result of the country’s remarkable mountain geography.

But Japanese gardens are also meant to transcend nature, to acknowledge that the gods – kami in Shinto – that inhabit nature are to be worshipped through nature. Japanese gardens – one word for which is niwa, the word for a place that has been purified for the arrival of the kami – are temples of the natural world.

Japanese gardens are – consciously, deliberately – spiritual places, temples created from not just natural materials, but from the very elements of nature: water, rock, plants, space. The godai, the five elements of all creation, are all present in Japan’s gardens.

Japanese gardens are, of course, pretty as well, and one need not be a Shinto believer, or obsessed with symbolism, to enjoy them. Gardens that were at one time the exclusive province of the Imperial family, going back a thousand years, have become much more open to the general public for all to enjoy.


When initially brought over from China in the sixth and seventh centuries, these were “pleasure gardens,” places for frolics of the ruling elites. But as with other elements of Chinese culture, the Japanese soon made them their own, so that despite elements of Chinese garden design – arching bridges, water features, little islands and anchoring rocks – the more naturalistic tastes of the Japanese soon took hold.

Nature is what these beautiful gardens evoke for foreigners visiting them for the first time. But knowing that ancient Japanese cosmology was based on the legend of a perfect central mountain, Mount Horai, where the gods reigned in a misty past, makes those rocks, and that mound rising in the center of the garden, take on a deeper meaning. Sitting quietly in a Japanese garden is one of the great pleasures of life in Japan, as it was many centuries ago.