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TRAVEL April 5, 2017

The Grand Shrine at Ise


Japan’s original, pre-historic religion was a form of nature worship that centered around a number of gods associated with certain natural elements and processes. Chief among them was Amaterasu, the sun god. Unlike most other sun gods around the world, Amaterasu was a female deity. She is the most important Shinto god, and the Japanese imperial family claims its descent from her.

One of the first places where the worship of Amaterasu was enshrined was on the central Japanese island of Honshu, in the area today known as Mie Prefecture, east of Kyoto and Osaka, near what is today the town of Ise. It is here that the Ise Jingu, or the Grand Shrine of Ise, is located.

Ise Jingu is utterly unique among religious structures worldwide, for it is completely torn down and rebuilt every 20 years, as it has been for more than a thousand years. Beyond that, the shrine’s simple architecture is unique, even by law: No other Shinto shrine is allowed to imitate its simple, ancient style. Thus, Ise Jingu, built in an ancient style but torn down and replaced every two decades, is both ancient and new, and an expression of the impermanence of all material things – as well as the enduring nature of the spiritual.

The Ise Jingu is said by legend to have been founded at the very beginning of the Common Era, in 4 C.E., more than 2000 years ago, by Princess Yamatohime-no-mikoto, the daughter of the legendary Emperor Suinin. Yamatohime-no-mikoto left Nara and wandered for 20 years before hearing Amaterasu’s voice, which told her that this spot, in a forest on the slopes of the mountains Kamiji and Shimaji, was where she wanted to be permanently honored.


The original Shrine is estimated by contemporary historians to have been built sometime in the fifth century C.E., but as with many aspects of Japanese history, the era before the seventh century is mostly the stuff of legend. But we do know that the current buildings – or their architectural ancestors – were first erected by the Empress Jito, in 692 C.E. They have been torn down and reconstructed 62 times since, with a long gap during the “Warring States” period of the 15th and 16th centuries. The most recent reconstruction was in 2013. The next will be in 2033.

Before the “permanent” shrines were built, Amaterasu had been worshipped in the form of the sacred tree hinoki, known outside Japan as the Japanese cypress, or by the botanical name Chamaecyparis obtusa. The tree’s wood, even when cut down and milled, is thought by Shinto’s believers to contain its spiritual essence, and when the old shrine is torn down and rebuilt on an adjacent plot, a simple pole made of hinoki is erected in its place, for the next 20 years, and enclosed in a simple hut – an acknowledgement of the shrine’s humble origin. The Grand Shrine is, of course, made entirely of hinoki, joined without nails.


Like many Shinto shrines, Ise Jingu is actually a collection of buildings that constitute the shrine – 125 to be exact. The two main buildings are the original, “Inner” shrine, or Kōtai Jingū, and a secondary shrine, the Outer Shrine, or Toyouke-daijingū, which was built some 500 years later. In keeping with the female origins of the site, as well as the female deities, the shrine is run by the saishu, a Shinto priestess.

The Outer Shrine is somewhat more open to the public, though restrictions still keep visitors at a distance. But the grounds, with the 123 other structures and the surrounding forest, still draw many thousands of visitors every month, and the festivities around the reconstruction of the site are among the most important events on the Japanese calendar. There are also a host of other dates through the year that draw visitors. The Shrine is arguably the most important structure in Japan.

The Ise Grand Shrine is conveniently located for day trips from Osaka and even Kyoto, and a healthy tourist industry has sprung up around the shrine buildings. Beyond the shrine itself, the grounds and the surrounding forested mountains, along with the Isuzu River that runs through it, are considered to be among the prettiest, as well as the most important, destinations in all of Japan.


ARTS&CULTURE March 29, 2017

Concept of Uchi-Soto: In-Groups and Out-Groups


Japanese social customs are complex and dynamic, and often depend, and change, based on circumstance, social standing, age, professional position, and myriad other considerations. The dichotomy of honne-tatamae – the concept of a public face and a true face – is one expression of this duality. The duality of uchi-soto is another.

Uchi literally refers to “home,” as in the family, but also the nation, the religion, the social class, the business role or many other groups within which one is secure. This is common to all societies, but it is particularly finely-tuned in Japan.

Soto literally means “outside,” and can refer to people who are outside of a social group, whatever its nature. For example, within a business setting, an employee of a company is uchi; a customer is soto.

These ever-shifting distinctions between uchi and soto people, which can be different in nearly every situation in Japan, can become an enormous barrier for foreigners in Japan – as they are intended to be. Foreigners are, by their very nature and standing, outside of Japanese society, and getting past the barrier between uchi and soto can be virtually impossible, even for those who spend decades working in Japan, marrying in Japan, even raising children in Japan.


The language and custom perpetuate these distinctions: Learning the language is hard enough, but learning all the various cues and meanings and manners required by the proper observation of the uchi-soto distinction is extremely difficult. Most foreigners never manage it; even those who eventually understand the distinctions may well be still subject to it in ways beyond their understanding, let along their control.

But foreigners aren’t the only ones subject to the distinctions between uchi and soto; Japanese themselves are constantly shifting in and out of each position, depending on the situation. Uchi-soto distinctions can play out in regards to family, to corporation, to gender and to class, and every Japanese learns over time how to respond to these changing positions.

But the uchi-soto distinction we are concerned with here is between Japanese and gaijin, or foreigners. This is the essential distinction that foreigners have to deal with, especially if they are working in Japan, but even if they are traveling, for it explains many behaviors that are otherwise surprising.

The distinctions can play out along a variety of lines, from body language to grammar, and many verbs in Japanese are conjugated not just to distinguish tense and person, but also forms of politeness. Some of these distinctions aren’t just unknown to foreigners, but are actually counterintuitive when they are pointed out – if they are pointed out, which they probably won’t be. The Japanese take these things for granted to the degree that they may not fully appreciate how invisible and incomprehensible the whole structure is to outsiders.


For instance, one of the key ways in which uchi-soto plays out in social situations, or professional situations, is that the members of the “in” group treat the members of the “out” group with a greater deference, even humility. This may seem counterintuitive, given that in most cultures, those who are part of the “in” group – whether it be family, or company, or nationality – are proud of their membership in the “in” group. This is true of the Japanese as well, except that the Japanese are forbidden by manners to show that pride; instead, they go in the opposite direction, adding extra humility to, say, their language, in order to humble themselves and even their entire group, so as to not offend the outsiders.

This matters enormously in business, and whole chapters in business books have been written about why and how to work around the endlessly complex grammatical and behavioral consequences of being an outsider working with insiders.

But visitors with less of a stake in any social outcome – tourists who are passing through relatively briefly, for example – can relax. You are not expected to understand these fine distinctions, and the deference shown visitors ensures that this will not unduly affect your experience of Japan. It may, in fact, enhance it, as you may find that Japanese go out of their way to please and accommodate you and your needs, which can be quite pleasant.

But just be aware that all of this goes much deeper than mere hospitality; the uchi-soto distinction is always present in social and business interactions in Japan, and it adds a layer of complexity that a visitor ought to be aware of – be assured that your Japanese hosts certainly are!


ARTS&CULTURE March 22, 2017

The Kimono, Japan’s Traditional Garment


The kimono may be a cultural marker as familiar as the baseball cap, and it has been adapted for continued use in a country that long ago adopted Western clothing by Imperial edict. The kimono is a simple visual shorthand that says “Japan” as strongly as do sushi or anime.

But the actual kimono, whether casual or formal, silk or polyester, is a much more complicated thing. It has the usual array of precise rules for wearing, storing and cleaning it, as well as a millennium’s worth of history of these deceptively simple pieces of clothing. The kimono is anything but simple.

The kimono – the word means simply “a thing to wear” – is also anything but cheap. One can buy an inexpensive kimono in any number of different fabrics, but a real kimono – made with hand dyed silk and painstakingly sewn together by hand – can cost upwards of $10,000, making a formal kimono one of the larger investments a Japanese woman or man is likely to make during a lifetime.

That’s just for the kimono itself. To properly wear a kimono is also to have a beautiful, wide belt (obi), the traditional footwear (zori or geta), with special, split-toe socks (tabi), as well as a dozen other undergarments and accessories that can easily double the price to well over $20,000.

On top of that, the actual upkeep of a fine kimono is an ongoing investment: Traditional silk kimono must be completely disassembled into their constituent parts – large panels cut from one original bolt of cloth – then cleaned by hand (a process called arai hari) and then re-sewn in a process that can take days.


The variety of styles of women’s kimono is wide, and can be specific to a particular social status. Those in the know can tell a woman’s social status and even marital status by the cut of her kimono. Examples include furisode kimonos, which feature long, swinging sleeves that denote an unmarried young woman, while a susohiki kimono is usually worn by geisha or other performers. The junihitoe is an elegant kimono worn by ladies of the Imperial court, and the uchikake kimono is a bridal costume. Other kimono are the less-formal homongi, which are meant specifically for visiting.

Kimonos are distinguished not just by function, but also by the materials used. The komon style features delicately patterned material, while the iromuji is a solid colored kimono worn mainly to tea ceremonies. The Edo komon type features tiny dots that create sweeping, pixelated patterns.

The kimono goes far back in Japan’s history, back a thousand years or more, but it came to be what it is now during the Edo period (1603-1867), and was common dress well into the 20th century. The transition to Western dress that began in the late 19th century, during the Meiji Restoration, with its conscious embrace of modernity in the form of Western styles, began the kimono’s long decline.

But subsequent attempts to preserve traditional Japanese culture, and the kimono’s place in such ceremonial traditions as weddings, funerals and various religious events has assured that a kimono is still standard to any Japanese woman’s (or man’s) wardrobe.

Even during a walk around Kyoto, a visitor will likely see many young women sporting kimono and traditional wigs and make up. However, an observant visitor will quickly discover that these are, in fact, other tourists, playing at being Japanese ladies. Any well-educated Japanese will be able to point out a half dozen flaws in these costumes.


Men’s kimono are much simpler, in lower-key fabrics and colors, and are considerably easier to coordinate and care for. On the other hand, women’s kimono come in a wide variety of fabrics, patterns and cuts, and are worn with a number of accompanying accessories. The finest kimono, made of fine silk with hand painted decoration, require great care.

Kimono are also, conversely, put together in such a way that they can not only be taken apart to clean, they can also be taken apart to repair a damaged panel, or to add material from another, older kimono. Each part, whether the eri (collar) or a sode (sleeve) or a maemigoro (front panel) can be removed and repaired or replaced.

Thus, a kimono can be maintained for many years, even down through generations. While their use has become somewhat constrained in recent years, as the country goes increasingly modern and international in its tastes, the kimono remains an ingenious invention of the Japanese creative mind, beautiful and practical at the same time.

Wearing the proper kimono, in the right fabric, of the right cut, for the right occasion, can be a daunting prospect even for Japanese women. But it also makes getting it right such an impressive accomplishment. The famous Japanese attention to detail, as well as a conscious desire to perpetuate timeless Japanese style, finds full expression in the kimono.


ARTS&CULTURE March 16, 2017

Sumo Wrestlers: A Life of A True Warrior


Along with the samurai and the geisha, one of Japan’s iconic character types is the massive sumo wrestler, a figure of great cultural, as well as physical, heft.

In Japanese, of course, this sport is not called “sumo wrestling”; it is simply sumo, which literally means ”striking one another.” But unlike various forms of boxing around the world, the goal of sumo is not to hit one another. Instead, the goal of each wrestler is to each try to push the other wrestler out of the round ring known as the dohyo. Failing that, his goal is to get the other wrestler to touch the clay floor of the ring with anything other than the soles of his feet.

Thus, sumo is a very simple sport, at least at first glance: A typical bout lasts only three or four seconds. One enormous, almost-naked man pushes the other out of the ring. But as with so many other things that may seem simple in Japan, the subtleties that have developed over many centuries give every aspect of sumo a complexity and nuance that takes time to appreciate.

Sumo is thought to have begun many centuries ago as a Shinto purification ritual, and to this day, sumo is surrounded with precise ritualistic elements that make it much more than just the few seconds during which the physical confrontation takes place. From the tossing of salt to purify the ring to the confrontation itself – in which a human is said to be wrestling with a kami, or spirit – sumo’s ritual and imagery are deeply entwined with Shinto, all the way up to the ceiling above the dohyo, which resembles the roof of a Shinto shrine.


Sumo wrestlers are, of course, best known for their tremendous weight and girth, cultivated through tremendous caloric intake. Some wrestlers are said to consume as much as 10,000 calories a day. With their top knot of hair and enormous, nearly-naked bodies, it is easy for the uninitiated to regard them as a combination of freakish and comical. But were one ever to face one in the dohyo, he would likely be anything but funny.

Because of their great size – remarkable anywhere, but particularly in a country of such relatively thin people as the healthy-eating Japanese – sumo wrestlers loom large in Japan, literally and figuratively. While their actual time in the ring per year is minimal – with only six tournaments a year, with each tournament featuring a hundred short bouts of 3-4 seconds each – Japan’s roughly 650 professional sumo wrestlers are nevertheless famous throughout Japan, and their tournaments are extensively covered in the media.

The details of the actual lives of the wrestlers may explain something of their mystique as well, for these men are subject to restrictions and a loss of control of their lives that few other athletes would willingly tolerate.

The life of a wrestler may be glamorous at moments, but for the most part it is hard work, akin to a monk’s but with one goal: To get the wrestler as bulked up as possible, and ready to push another huge man out of a small clay ring.


The tremendous size for which most (but not all) sumo wrestlers are known is a relatively recent development. Because there are no size or weight divisions the way there are for boxers or other one-on-one competitors, sumo wrestlers are involved in a sort of weight-gain arms race, each competing to see how much weight he can put on through eating massive amounts of chankonabe, a stew of meats and vegetables, eaten with rice.

Everything is done to realize that weight gain goal, from denying the wrestler a breakfast and then forcing him to nap after the huge lunch. This works to get him big, but the long-term consequences of fattening athletes this way are what you’d expect: Former wrestlers die, on average, more than 10 years earlier than the average Japanese male.

Each wrestler’s level of accomplishment also determines how he lives his day. The younger, less accomplished ones live lives of service to their more accomplished members of their stable, acting as virtual servants, and a rigid hierarchy enforces nearly every moment of their lives. Their behavior is severe restricted – wrestlers are not allowed to drive cars – and even their dress while in public is tightly monitored and controlled.

That said, they are generally paid well, if not spectacularly so by the standards of international athletes. Even the lowest level professional will make in the low six figures over the course of a year, and the top champions, the yokozuna, can make as much as several hundred thousand dollars a year.

But their real reward, gained at the cost of their health and their freedom, is knowing that they are the latest of a long line of Japanese wrestlers who represent Japan to the world in the way few of their countrymen can claim.


EXPERIENCE March 7, 2017

Hanami: Enjoying the most iconic Japanese scenery


Life is beautiful, fragile and fleeting: This is one of the central understandings that underpins much Japanese art and culture, from ikebana to calligraphy to fresh sushi. Nature and its seasonal, ever-changing beauty is crucial to Japanese life and culture, and one of the events in Japanese life where that is most apparent is in the spring tradition known as hanami.

Its literal meaning being “viewing the flowers,” hanami is the annual celebration of one of Japan’s most indelible images: the cherry blossoms of early spring. During the brief period in late March and early April when the country’s millions of cherry trees bloom, one sees the national love of nature in its most popular expression.

Hanami parties are a primary social event for much of this time. The Japanese put together elaborate picnics, complete with fine clothes and fine sake, to picnic with friends and family under the branches of cherry trees in public parks and on the grounds of temples, shrines and even royal palaces.

These hanami picnics are so popular with so many Japanese that there is a specific “blossom forecast” on TV and radio in the weeks leading up to the bloom, so that the Japanese can plan ahead for a hanami at the perfect peak of the bloom.

But the tradition greatly precedes the blossom forecasts on the news. Hanami are recorded as far back as the Nara era of the eighth century, when the tradition was more often focused on plum (ume) blossoms, which bloom a week or two before the cherry (sakura) blossoms. The focus shifted to cherry blossoms during the ninth century.

Hanami brings together several threads of Japanese culture, focused above all on the Japanese love of nature and beauty, the delight in simple things, the joy of eating and drinking together, and the opportunity to take a break from those seemingly-endless Japanese work days.

Hana yori dango is another phrase that pops up this time of year, a gently mocking phrase that translates to “dumplings rather than flowers.” The saying recognizes that for many Japanese, the food and drink that come with the hanami celebrations can be the focus of revelers more than the blossoms themselves.

But the flowers are the whole point of hanami, and a significant variation on hanami is the popular night version, which has been dubbed yozakura – “night sakura” – by the Japanese. Paper lanterns may be hung in the park to help people navigate the dark, and even more importantly, to illuminate the blossoms.

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Another version, reputed to be even older, is umemi, or “plum viewing,” which is generally a bit more reserved than hanami, and for that reason is often enjoyed by older people for whom the drinking and occasionally boisterous partying is not “true hanami.”

There are a variety of ways in which Japanese enjoy hanami parties, from a simple blanket on the ground under the trees to fully-equipped grills, tables, chairs and coolers. Sake is widely drunk, and bento boxes are popular. Some have even been seen to bring karaoke machines for singing under the blossoms.

Some of the major department stores or food chains offer special hanami bento boxes or other pre-packaged picnics for hanami goers. It is not required to even eat Japanese food; the Japanese themselves are big fans of wine and cheese and bread and may well bring whatever food they like to a hanami.

Other things to consider are that even though cherry trees are everywhere in Japan, some groves are not open for hanami, and some groves that are open for hanami may not allow alcohol to be drunk. It is best to ask a Japanese friend or acquaintance about the places where hanami will be happening, and under what conditions.


The cherry blossoms start as early as mid-January in southern Okinawa and then gradually move north with the warming spring weather. By mid-March, the more southern parts of Japan start getting their hanami, and the movement up the archipelago can go as late as early May in Sapporo on the northern most island of Hokkaido.

Some of the major spots for hanami in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo and north include Ueno Park in Tokyo, which is said to have hosted as many as two million people over the course of the roughly two week hanami season, as well as Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. The latter is one of the favorites of that city, given that the garden is home to a number of different cherry tree varieties, so the viewing can be particularly rich.

Beautiful Kyoto is spectacular during the hanami season, with its many parks, gardens, temples and shrine complexes floating in clouds of pink flowers. Be aware that hanami season will find every hotel in town booked solid, so plan ahead if you want to visit during this special time of the year.

But wherever one goes, and whatever one brings to eat and drink, the annual hanami celebrations are some of the most quintessentially Japanese parties of the year in the Japanese archipelago. If your trip to Japan can include cherry blossom viewing season, hanami is a sight you will not easily forget.


TRAVEL February 27, 2017

The Subtle, Confounding Zen Koan


The Zen koan is one of the least understood of Japanese creations, by either foreigners or even many Japanese – but that is by design. The essence of a koan is that it is not comprehensible by the rational mind, but instead works subtly, over time, on the subconscious.

The koan – based on the Chinese word gong’an, which is a compound word meaning, literally, “public case” – is an extremely complicated form, one that is deeply embedded in monastic discipline and Buddhist study. It is the result of more than a thousand years of development and discussion and thus is easily misunderstood and even more easily caricatured.

But the koan serves a very specific function within Zen Buddhism. It is meant to test the student, first to create what is called “great doubt,” and then to measure how far he has developed in his understanding. A teacher can see, through the way the student processes a koan, how much progress towards understanding he or she is making. There is, in fact, a whole “curriculum” of more than 100 koan that a student will slowly work through over many years of study.

For the rest of us, some koan may be familiar, and can even come to express a general insight that we’ve gained through even casual study of Zen. Indeed, the most famous koan of our time is very famous indeed, for it asks a question that anyone can understand, yet few can adequately answer:

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Spoiler alert: There is no answer. A koan is not always a question – it can be a short conversation, it can be a declaration or it can be a dialog. But no matter the form, even if it is as simple as the one above, the “answer” is not to answer the question. The “answer” is to keep asking the question.

Perhaps you’re already confused. Perhaps that’s good.


Other koan that have become well known through their appearance in conversations or even media through the years include:

– What was your original face before your mother and father?
– If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
– Look at the flower and the flower also looks.

Koans have been compared to court rulings that are subsequently modified or expanded or redefined by various Zen masters. But they are also most certainly a literary form, based on the wordplay, metaphor and use of allusion of any number of Chinese and Japanese literary forms. Yet there is a practical purpose to the use of a koan, and that purpose is not literary: It is simply to keep one practicing Zen.

The koan works because it is not a thing; it is a dynamic activity, a verb more than a noun, a process. While there may eventually be an answer that comes, or an insight, it may also be that that insight is still not what the koan can teach. Perhaps one will contemplate the koan for years; perhaps its essence will be revealed in an instant.

This is perhaps one of the toughest concepts to understand. But the point is in the attempt: the koan is both the “thing” being sought and the attempt – or the ongoing attempts – to understand.


At the same time, there are correct answers to koans, though how that plays out is a result of the interaction between the student and the master, and may be assessed based on the master’s interaction with the student. It may be that the master’s assessment of the student’s understanding comes through in the way the student handles the koan.

Obviously, despite the fact that many people have heard some of these koan, they are not simply aphorisms to be trotted out to explain a spiritual truth. Any use of them in this manner will fall short of what a koan can do. The only way a koan is likely to “work” is through a long, detailed process of dialog between master and student.

In some traditions, this can take ten years or more, depending on the student. But there is a point at which the successful student is said to have “learned” the koan curriculum. But it is a complicated, lengthy and in some cases, a fairly obscure knowledge. The processes around it are complex and daunting, but a mastery of that process is something to which serious students of Zen aspire.

For the rest of us, the koan may remain a thing of mystery, or perhaps just a momentary diversion, something to play with. It may have value in this manner, but it is also clear that any understanding of it is liable to be ephemeral at best. The koan will continue to elude rational understanding; for that is its purpose.


TRAVEL February 22, 2017

Four “Little Kyotos” in Japan: Kanazawa, Nara, Takayama and Kamakura


After a few days or so in Tokyo, most visitors to Japan find great relief in visiting Kyoto, which offers many contrasts to the modern megalopolis. Where Tokyo is huge and sprawling, Kyoto is smaller and ringed by mountains, which help a visitor feel oriented. Where Tokyo is all lights and traffic and modern architecture, Kyoto is largely composed of smaller, wooden buildings in a more traditional style. Walking among them, one feels as though one is finally experiencing “the real Japan.”

But what does one do after a few days in Kyoto, when one realizes that despite its relatively smaller size, Kyoto (population 1.5 million) is still a rather large city, with busy traffic, a noisy subway and shiny new shopping districts?

This is when the taste one has developed for Kyoto’s beautiful wooden buildings and quiet side streets has developed into a full-blown desire to see other small cities that offer the same glimpses into Japan’s premodern past, when life was human scale, buildings were made of natural materials, and the sounds of the modern world weren’t quite so prominent.

This is when one wants to go to some of the smaller towns in Japan, so-called “Little Kyotos” that offer a more human scale reminiscent of Japan’s old capital – but even smaller.

This city of 175,000 was for a time the seat of the Shogunate during the Kamakura Period, and has a long and often violent political history. Despite the bloodshed in its vicinity over the centuries, Kamakura retains all of its beauty and grandeur, along with a physical situation, between lush green hills and the pounding surf of open ocean, that feels fresh and open.

Some of its temples are among the most grand in all of Japan, and the promenades that lead from the hilltop temples down to the bay are elegant and full of interesting shops and restaurants. Kamakura has the added benefit of being situated only an hour by train from Tokyo, and the additional advantage of being overlooked by most foreign tourists. This is the one “little Kyoto” that absolutely must be seen.

Though it has its modern sections, particularly along the way from the train station towards its main tourist sites, Nara (population 366,000) features several of Japan’s biggest and most charming tourist sites, including one of its most unusual: the Nara Deer Park, where hundreds of tame deer wander free, looking (sometimes aggressively) for something to eat from the thousands of tourists, mostly Japanese, who come here to see some of the country’s most impressive cultural treasures.


Chief among those treasures is Todaiji, the largest freestanding wooden structure on the planet, a stunning building that is itself home to the largest bronze Buddha in the world – just one of the Seven Great Temples complex in the city.

Like Kyoto itself, this “little Kyoto” is situated in a small bowl of a valley, but this bowl is surrounded by the Japanese Alps. Because of this, and unlike “big” Kyoto, Hida-Takayama’s geographic isolation has allowed it to develop a bit out of the stream of Japanese history. Hida-Takayama (called so to distinguish it from other cities called Takayama), is a city of 92,000, a number of whom are among Japan’s greatest carpenters, many of whom are said to have worked on the greatest traditional structures in Kyoto itself.

Hida-Takayama is well known for its high annual snowfall, as well as its annual Takayama festival, one of the three most beautiful in Japan. Other popular sights in Hida-Takayama include its large public bath, a number of old private houses, and nearby the Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village.

This “Little Kyoto” sits on Sea of Japan coast, but is still just a 2.5 hour shinkansen trip from Tokyo. Because this city, like Kyoto, wasn’t bombed extensively during World War II, many of its traditional old wooden building still line the main street, giving it a timeless quality that easily satisfies our definition of a “little Kyoto.”

Indeed, this city of half a million, while only somewhat smaller than Kyoto, has continued to live up to its name, which literally means “marsh of gold,” its artisans turning out the gold leaf that covers Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion. Its Kenrokuen garden, located around the ruins of the imposing 16th century Kanazawa Castle, is known as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, and its cobblestone streets, old geisha district, and picturesque Onosho Canal are all wonderful places to walk.

There are other small cities in Japan that deserve the “little Kyoto” designation, including Kakunodate, Hirosaki and Toono, all in northern Honshu. Many are mountain towns, some are known for their cherry blossoms or temples, but all are more reasons to escape the big cities and look for all the things one loves about Kyoto.


EXPERIENCE February 13, 2017

Vending Machines in Japan


If you’ve not yet been to Japan, you may have trouble picturing the ubiquity of vending machines, which stand in their dozens on seemingly every street, in every public space – even in forests, along hiking trails, selling insect repellent! Vending machines are so ubiquitous, even in picturesque scenes from which they’d be banned in other countries, that one wonders if Japanese even see them.

But they certain do love them. With more than five million machines stationed throughout the archipelago, Japan has the highest concentration of vending machines per capita in the world, and sometimes it seems that one can satisfy nearly any immediate need.

Indeed, the variety of products one can get in a vending machine in Japan is mind-boggling: Not just the many cold and hot beverages, as well as cigarettes, condoms and small toys, but everything from bananas and ramen to surgical masks and sake are available at the push of a button.

The first Japanese vending machine was invented by Tawaraya Koshichi, a tobacco vendor who took out his patent in 1888, but the Japanese love of vending machines really took off after World War II, and each year has seen more machines selling a larger variety of products.

In Japan, vending machines are useful in more subtle ways than mere convenience: Since every Japanese social encounter is potentially a complicated, subtle conversational dance that can grow exhausting even to the Japanese, vending machines remove the social interaction, and hence, anxiety, from simple purchases.


Vending machines don’t just benefit customers. In a country with sky-high real estate prices and relatively high labor costs, a merchant may find that a vending machine produces a much higher profit margin than a retail store, with all of its overhead.

Japan is also a logical place for vending machines for another reason: In this low-crime country, such machines are also more secure from the theft and vandalism they would likely suffer in other countries.

So what do Japanese vending machines offer? Drinks are the most common product, but they are by no means alone. Among the products one can buy at the drop of a yen are…

Ramen – Well, of course! A simple bowl of ramen requires little more than hot water to create something quick and simple.

Surgical masks – The Japanese love of these simple items, used to protect against both germs and pollution, makes them a no-brainer.

Eggs – This has got to be all in the packaging, because the idea of an egg (or six) crashing down out of a vending machine doesn’t compute. But the Japanese are also experts on packaging, so why not?

Flowers – You’re not going to get a classic Ikebana arrangement out of a vending machine, but if you’re on the way home, or on the way to pick up a date, grabbing a bouquet from a machine sounds perfect.

Socks, underwear, bras – These are items that could come in handy in an emergency – as long as you can find a machine that dispenses them when that emergency strikes.

Sake or beer – Machines in Japan can be programmed to check identification so that alcohol isn’t sold to minors. Some machines are said to be operated on the honor system, which could only work in a rule-following country like Japan.

Umbrellas – With Japan’s unpredictable weather, being able to grab an umbrella at the right moment sounds like a good business.

Flying fish soup – Yes, that is a whole flying fish in those glass (or clear plastic) jars. We cannot vouch for its edibility.

Fishing bait – These are presumably available mostly around lakes, the ocean and rivers for unprepared fishermen. We haven’t seen this one, but it seems a logical product for vending machines.

Bread in a can – Bread is not a Japanese staple, but since many Japanese are enthusiastic eaters of other cuisines, the convenience of this may outweigh its questionable edibility.

Some of the latest vending machines have an added feature that has apparently proven popular: Face recognition software can assess your gender and age and offer drinks that might be popular with your demographic – for instance, a sweeter drink for a younger person.

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More entertainingly, some drink vending machines in Japan even have an added feature: A roulette wheel that spins when one makes a purchase, so that one may end up actually winning a second drink free. Another type of vending machine delivers a short video clip of comedy routines along with the drink dispensed.

Less entertaining, but more essential, are the vending machines that have been programmed to dispense necessities during an emergency. These “free vend” machines can deliver water or even emergency information such as evacuation routes during a natural disaster such as an earthquake. One hopes never to have to rely on a vending machine for potable water, but it is good to know that these popular machines are there to slake even the most desperate thirst.


TRAVEL February 6, 2017

Nikko and the Area


In the early 20th century, foreigners such as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller and Frank Lloyd Wright discovered first hand what the Japanese have known for centuries: That you should never say kekkou – a word that means “I am satisfied” – until one has seen Nikko.

Though still little-known outside of the country, within Japan this little town (population 84,000) has an outsized reputation. Located 140 kilometers (two hours by train) north of Tokyo, its beautiful scenery, numerous onsen, cool summers and, above all, its many mountainside temples, have led it to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Those temples are one of the oldest and most extensive temple complexes in Japan: 103 buildings in total, set in 51 hectares of beautifully managed woodland. Arrayed on the side of Mount Nikko, the buildings, which include both Buddhist temple and Shinto shrines, are known collectively as the World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko.

Although the oldest temple here, Rinno-ji, was built in 766, the building of temples and shrines continued in Nikko for more than a thousand years. The shrines of Futarasan-jinja and Tosho-gu feature 23 and 42 buildings, respectively, and the Rinno-ji temple itself features 37, many of them build during the important Edo or Tokugawa period, from 1603-1868, the period during which the many ruling shogun kept Japan separate from the rest of the world. These buildings are exquisite examples of the exacting, distinctive architecture and art of that time.

Because of Nikko’s crucial role in the shogunate of medieval Japan, the man who was the first of the period’s many shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), is buried here, as is his grandson, the shogun Iemitsu. Tokugawa’s mausoleum is one of the most striking features of the temple complex.

Despite its first temples having been built in the eighth century, it is the Edo, or Tokugawa, period that resonates strongest in Nikko, to the degree that the city has developed a theme park known as the Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, or historical theme park, which features period architecture, furniture and art, and live shows that explore this crucial period of Japanese history.


But the Nikko temples and historic echoes of the shogunate are just the start: Nikko and its surrounding area – despite its small population, it is the third largest city, by land area, in Japan – enjoys stunning natural beauty. Sitting at around 1300 meters (4200 feet), Nikko has a moderate year-round climate that is the envy of the rest of humid Japan. In the summer, when lowland Tokyo swelters, Nikko remains moderate, with ample rainfall to water its lush woodlands, fill the two rivers that run through the city, and create some of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls. While its summers are mild, Nikko gets well below freezing during the winter, leading some to say that its climate is more typical of northerly Hokkaido than of central Honshu.

Nikko is also home to Japan’s highest lake, Lake Chuzenji. That lake, and the area’s many waterfalls, produce a good portion of the country’s hydroelectric power. Nikko is also known for its mineral deposits, particularly of copper and aluminum.

But Nikko’s main economic function now is as a tourist magnet, and in addition to the temples and fine weather, Nikko has a wealth of popular onsen. Much of Japan, being volcanic, is home to onsen, but Nikko’s picturesque setting, and proximity to Tokyo, means that the area’s onsen are particularly well-regarded.

Nikko National Park, situated around Lake Chuzenji, Mount Nantai and the wetlands of the Senjogahara Plateau, is full of hiking trails and picnic spots, with views of the Nikko area (bring an umbrella in the summer), and ski opportunities in the winter. During the autumn, a spectacular show of fall colors dazzles visitors, and there are log cabins for rent through much of the year at Woodsman’s Village, about a half hour outside of central Nikko. There is also a cable car that goes up to the Akechidaira View Point, for more views of this spectacular area.

But one of Nikko’s most distinctive and memorable features is the large number of monkeys who roam the city looking for food and being even more entertaining than Nara’s famous deer in that city’s Deer Park. But unlike the deer, these monkeys can be quite aggressive, even dangerous. They are, after all, wild animals, something for which Japan is not generally known, and they are reproducing at a rate that far outpaces the birth rates of humans in Japan. It is now against the law to feed them.


Other monkeys – these carved of wood – also feature in what is perhaps Nikko’s best known contribution to world culture, displayed in a horse stable of the Toshugu shrine: a representation of the Three Monkeys, carved in the 17th century as a visualization of the famous Confucian admonition to “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”

Good advice, to be sure, but not as good as this advice: Go see beautiful Nikko.


ARTS&CULTURE January 30, 2017

The Heian Period: Japan’s Classic


Japan’s “classical” period, when what we now know as Japanese culture first flowered, came later than classical periods in the West, China and India. But once it began in the late eighth century C.E., the four centuries of the Heian period saw the archipelago transformed.

The Heian period – named for the original name for Kyoto, Heian-kyo, where Japan moved its capital from nearby Nara in 794 C.E. – was the period during which Japan first distinguished itself from the imported Chinese culture that had inspired the early Japanese. By the end of those 400 years, Japan would devolve into its feudal era, under the military rule of the shogun, for several more centuries. Japan would struggle for centuries to find a lasting governmental form. But the essentials of what we know as Japanese culture that were established during the Heian would prove to be enduring.

This transformation affected nearly every aspect of life, but was particularly pronounced in evolving forms of language, writing and literature; in the structure, manners and fashions of the Imperial court; and especially in Japan’s understanding of Buddhism, which it would develop separate from the form that had been imported from China.

China’s Tang Dynasty of the time was in crisis, and Japan’s small government was being shaken by the troubles of its big brother to the west. China had given Japan much of its culture, but Japan was ready to strike out on its own, and to do that, it officially disengaged from China and began what would be one of its periods of distance from the rest of the world.

This was to become a recurring theme in Japanese history, as the country vacillated between absorbing foreign influences and then withdrawing into itself. Japan had long had a distinctive culture, as artifacts of its early Yayoi and Jomon cultures show hints of what was to come, particularly in its arts. But it was in language and writing that Japan would first establish its cultural independence.

While the new capital at Heian-kyo was laid out on the Chinese grid model, and the Japanese language continued to use Chinese characters in its writing – as it continues to do to this day – the aristocracy that controlled early Japan developed a new script, called kana, which facilitated the writing of a distinctive Japanese literature. As the Japanese would do a thousand years in the future, when they incorporated Western letters (romaji) into their language as well, the introduction of kana was a deliberate and successful attempt to create a Japanese literature separate from China’s.

In the Imperial court – the establishment of which is the stuff of legend rather than history, but has continued with varying degrees of actual political power until the end of World War II – was where all of this happened. Only the aristocracy, which some historians number as few as 5,000 people in an archipelago with as many as five million, had the time and education to pursue writing and other arts, as well as to manage the endless machinations required to acquire and maintain their position.


Several practitioners of the newly-important literary arts were aristocratic women, members of the Imperial court who would write two of the most important books in Japanese, and world, literature: The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, in 1002 C.E., and the book that is still widely regarded as the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, in the early 11th century.

Buddhism, which had been imported from China and was taught using Chinese texts, developed a more uniquely Japanese quality during the Heian, producing the first two of what would come to be many Japanese sects in Tendai and Shingon, both of which aimed at uniting the growing religion with the developing state. The religious buildings in Kyoto, even today, are less Chinese-influenced, as shown by the contrast with those in Nara.


But many significant changes during the Heian period were of a political nature, and that is reflected in the period’s name itself: Heian means “peace,” and these four hundred years were, in fact, largely peaceful. That name indicates that this period of peace was distinctive; Japanese history would soon become very violent.

Part of the reason they were peaceful was that one family, the Fujiwara clan, was able to gain almost control over the government. The means by which they did this was complex, but it boiled down to the strategic use of marriage, through which the clan was able to place its women in marriages with successive emperors, who were then beholden to the Fujiwara clan.

That said, despite the relative peace of the period – and there were frequent, if small conflicts between the Fujiwara clan and two other major families of the time, the Taira and Minamoto – the Heian period ended with much of the island nation in poverty.

The result was political upheaval and Japan’s descent, by the end of the 12th century, into chaos and a new era, when the victor of the five year Genpei War gave himself a new title: Shogun. The shogunate he founded would last for the next several hundred years, the period now known to historians as the Medieval period.

This ensuing period would take Japan even deeper into itself, and away from the rest of the world. Japan’s isolation would not completely end until Commodore Matthew Perry’s American gunships sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853.