Monthly Archives: June 2013

Spiral Grape

There’s a new drink in Japan called Spiral Grape.  The label says “LIFE needs SPICE.”

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Spicy grape?

I’d heard from some people that it tasted like grape and licorice.  Licorice is one of those flavours that you either love or hate.  Maybe I’m strange, but I’m in the middle.  I don’t love it or hate it, I merely tolerate it.  Well, after trying this, I do have to say that I like it.  The flavours seem to match in this drink.  It’s like a grape soda with a dry bite.  It’s not so sweet.  I’d drink it again.

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Exploring Kumamoto

In this week’s Exploring Japan, we return to Kyushu with Kumamoto Prefecture.

Kumamoto is situated in central Kyushu with a west-facing coastline.  It has plenty of mountains and volcanoes.  It has a population of 1,812,255. The capital city is also named Kumamoto.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Kumamoto (734,474)
  2. Yatsushiro (133,630)
  3. Amakusa (89,065)
  4. Tamana (69,541)
  5. Uki (62,678)

Most cities are dropping in population, as is the prefecture, but the city of Kumamoto is steadily growing.

Castles

Kumamoto Castle is a reconstruction, and a lot of restoration work has been done recently.  It’s one of the most impressive castles in Japan, and is quite extensive.  The Uto Yagura was originally the keep of Uto Castle, which is elsewhere in Kumamoto prefecture.  Even more restoration work is planned.

Yatsushiro Castle in Yatsushiro has well-maintained grounds.  Mainly the stonework and walls remain, but it appears to be quite nice.

Kikuchi Castle in Kikuchi is extremely old.  Some restoration work has been done, but from what I’ve heard, it’s very nice.

Hitoyoshi Castle in Hitoyoshi is another well-maintained ruin.  No buildings remain, but excellent walls and stonework remain, as well as the main gate.

Sashiki Castle in Ashikita is an interesting one.  It was rediscovered only recently, in 1997.  A lot of restoration work has been done on the grounds, and though small, it looks to be very interesting to see.

Sports

There’s one notable professional team in Kumamoto, and that’s the J-League division 2 team Roasso Kumamoto.

Things to see and do

Kumamoto is famous for a few things, namely Mt. Aso, one of the largest active volcanic calderas in the world, hot springs, and beaches.  Seems like a hot place.

Kumamoto, the capital city, is famous for its castle.  But there is more to see. Suizenji Jojuen is one of the country’s best formal Japanese gardens.  Shiki no Sato Park has hot springs and an animal park. Honmyoji temple seems to be very interesting, and is one of the most famous temples in Kumamoto. Fujisaki Hachimangu is Kumamoto’s best-known shrine. Hosokawa Gyobutei is the family home of the Higo daimyo, and is located near the castle. Hanaokayama is a hill near Kumamoto station with a great view of the city and Mt. Aso.  Mt. Kinpo has a great view of Kumamoto and Nagasaki. Kumamoto City Hall has a free observatory on the 14th floor with a nice view of the castle and city.  You can also visit the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art, the Kumamoto Prefectural Theater, and the Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Center.

Yatsushiro doesn’t have a lot to see, though you can check out the 777 Steps, where you can walk up the hill on a staircase that has 777 steps.  You can also visit the Hinagu Hot Spring.  The Myokensai festival in November has a lot of horses parading through the city, and there is also a very large fireworks display in the fall.

Hitoyoshi is a small city with a few historic sites.  Eikokuji is known as the Ghost Temple.  It has a scroll of a ghost drawn on it to keep the ghost away.  Aoi Aso Shrine has several National Treasures of Japan.  Hitoyoshi Craft Park Ishino Koen is a place where you can see traditional crafts as well as make them.  Kuma Kudari is a traditional boat cruise down the river. Mukashi Mukashi is a popular traditional crafts market.

Amakusa is a city located on the Amakusa Islands.  It’s accessible by car, ferry, or plane.  It’s also one of the fastest depopulating cities in Japan.  It’s well-known for Amakusa Dolphin Marine Land, where you can watch dolphin performances, see sea lions and penguins, as well as touch dolphins.  You can also see the Alegria Gardens.

Yamato town’s Yabe area is known for its 48 waterfalls and 17 stone bridges.  It seems interesting to see.  One bridge, Tsujun Bridge, is the largest stone aqueduct in Japan.

Yamaga has several places to see. You can enjoy kabuki at the Yachiyoza Kabuki Theater.  Fudougan is an interesting rock formation that looks like a person’s face.  It’s illuminated twice a year. Yamaga Hot Springs are quite old and well-known for their clear water. The Yamaga Lantern Dance Festival has a thousand women dancing to traditional music with lanterns on their heads. The Kumamoto Prefectural Ancient Burial Mound Museum is located in Yamaga.

Aso city has a lot to see.  Of course, it is home to Mt. Aso, a very large and active volcanic caldera.  There are many volcanic cones within the caldera. Aso Kuju National Park is the main attraction, including Mt. Aso, the Mt. Aso Ropeway and the Aso Volcano Museum. There’s a lot of hiking and many hot springs resorts to visit.  Aso Shrine is a well-known shrine.

Food

Kumamoto has several famous local foods.  I’ve tried one of them, and that is basashi.  Basashi is raw horse meat that’s served with soy sauce and ginger.  Karashirenkon is a popular food, with the holes of lotus root filled with hot Japanese mustard coated with flour and fried.  Ikinaridango is a dumpling filled with sweet potato and anko, a sweet bean paste.

Have you been to Kumamoto?  Have I missed anything? Please leave a comment!

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Exploring Kochi

This time in Exploring Japan, we return to Shikoku for Kochi Prefecture.

Kochi is the prefecture on Shikoku that faces the Pacific Ocean, and it’s also the largest prefecture on Shikoku.  It has a population of 757,914, one of the smallest in Japan.  It’s capital city is Kochi.  The 5 largest cities are:

  1. Kochi (340,515)
  2. Nankoku (49,040)
  3. Shimanto (35,968)
  4. Konan (33,830)
  5. Kami (28,766)

Most cities are quite small.  The population of Kochi has been declining for a long time.

Castles

Kochi Castle is the only notable castle in Kochi, and it’s an important one.  It’s one of the 12 original castles remaining in Japan.  There’s a lot to see, and it’s castle that was built during peacetime.

Aki Castle in Aki is mainly just ruins, but it seems to have some decent-looking stone walls.

Things to see and do

Kochi is famous for its hero, Sakamoto Ryoma.  He was from Kochi, and he was a famous leader who was instrumental in ending the Tokugawa government.  So, of course, you can visit the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum and Sakamoto Ryoma’s Hometown Museum.  Other museums include the Museum of Art, Kochi and the Kochi People’s and Liberty Museum.  Tosa Shrine is well-known, and Chikurinji Temple can be found on Mount Godaisan.  Godaisan Park provides great views of the city.  The Makino Botanical Garden is nearby and should be good to visit.  Harimayabashi is a famous, but small bridge from a well-known story.  Katsurahama is a famous beach with the Katsurahama Aquarium, and nearby is the remains of Urado Castle. You can also see the Tosa Dog-Fighting Center. The Sunday Market should be great for some shopping for fresh fish, vegetables, and more.  The Yosakoi Festival is a famous festival that involves teams of dancers.

Kami is a small city, but has plenty to see.  The biggest draw is Ryugado Cave, one of Japan’s top 3 caves.  Also, this is the hometown of Anpanman’s creator, so there’s the Anpanman Museum. Kagamino Park is a great place to see cherry blossoms, while Todoro Falls is one of the top 100 waterfalls in Japan.  For museums, you can see the Kami City Art Museum, Okumonobe Art Museum, and Yoshii Isamu Memorial Museum.  There are a few temples and shrines to see, including Hachioji Shrine, Shionomine Kujikata Shrine, and Koshoji temple.

Nankoku has a few historical sites, including the Oko Castle grounds, which are good for seeing cherry blossoms.  Tosa Kokubunji temple and Zenjibuji temple are on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.

Shimanto is a city where you can see a few natural things.  You can participate in outdoor activities around the Shimanto River, as well as head down to the nearby beach and see whales, dolphins, and turtles.

Cape Ashizuri is the southernmost point on Shikoku, and it has a few things to see.  It’s in Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park.  The best things to see are probably Tengu-no-Hana, a viewpoint that looks out over the ocean, and Kongofukuji temple, one of the largest temples on the temple pilgrimage. It was also here that Nakahama Manjiro was born, shipwrecked, and rescued by an American whaling ship.  He was the first Japanese man to travel to the USA, and he acted as an interpreter for Commodore Perry. So, there’s a statue dedicated to him.

Food

Kochi is famous for katsuo tataki, which is a bonito, or skipjack tuna, seared on the outside while the inside remains raw.  Sounds good.

Did I miss anything? Please leave a comment!

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Exploring Kanagawa

This week in Exploring Japan, we go back to the Kanto region with my home, Kanagawa prefecture.

Kanagawa is the southernmost prefecture in the Kanto region, just south of Tokyo.  It faces the Pacific Ocean and it’s quite easy to have an incredible view of Mt. Fuji from almost anywhere in the prefecture.  It has a population of 9,029,996, the second highest in the country.  The capital is Yokohama.  The 5 biggest cities are:

  1. Yokohama (3,697,894)
  2. Kawasaki (1,437,266)
  3. Sagamihara (719,677)
  4. Fujisawa (416,418)
  5. Yokosuka (414,960)

The population of Kanagawa is growing fairly rapidly, including the biggest cities (other than Yokosuka).  As the prefecture is quite small, it is densely populated and is mostly urbanized.  The only rural areas are the mountains of western Kanagawa and some of the Miura Peninsula.

Castles

Odawara Castle in Odawara is the only castle in Kanagawa, as all others were destroyed and never rebuilt.  Odawara Castle is a reproduction with extensive grounds.  A tour of the museum on the grounds will tell you that the moat and wall system inspired Edo Castle’s design.

Sports

In baseball, Yokohama hosts the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars.  In J-League soccer, there are several teams: Yokohama F. Marinos of Yokohama, Kawasaki Frontale of Kawasaki, Yokohama F.C. of Yokohama, and Shonan Bellmare of Hiratsuka.

Things to see and do

I’ve lived in Kanagawa since 2005, so I know quite a bit about the prefecture.  I’m highlighting the best here, though.  Kanagawa is probably best-known for the city of Yokohama and its Chinatown, as well as the old capital Kamakura and its ancient temples and shrines.  But there is so much to see.

Yokohama is the largest incorporated city in Japan (Tokyo is technically not a city), so has a lot to see.  Chinatown is the largest Chinatown in Japan and one of the largest in the world.  The Minato Mirai district has the tall Landmark Tower with an observatory on the 69th floor, providing an amazing view of the city, Tokyo Bay, Mt. Fuji, and even Tokyo.  At the base are the Landmark Plaza and Queen’s Square shopping centres.  Nipponmaru is an old military ship with sails that was often used for training.  It’s now open for tours.  Pacifico Yokohama is a convention centre that hosts many events.  The Yokohama Museum of Art is nearby, and is quite extensive.  Rounding out Minato Mirai is the Anpanman Museum.  Going south, you can find the Cosmo World amusement park with the Cosmo Clock ferris wheel.  You can go shopping at World Porters.  There’s more shopping at Aka Renga, Red Brick Warehouse, which is now a shopping mall, but are historic buildings.  Further south, you can find Osanbashi Pier, where cruise ships dock, but is also a park.  Yamashita Park is to the south of that, and you can also visit Marine Tower, a lighthouse that provides great views.  The Hikawa Maru was a passenger ship that traveled to Seattle and Vancouver and is open for tours.  Next is Motomachi, a high class shopping district, which is next to the old foreign residential area, Yamate, which includes many old western houses.  Sankeien Garden is Yokohama’s best Japanese garden and hosts many old historic buildings.  Back around Yokohama Station, you can go shopping in many places, including Sogo and Yokohama Bay Quarter.  Yokohama has three zoos, the biggest being Zoorasia.  Nogeyama Zoo is free, and there’s also the Kanazawa Zoo.  Hakkeijima Sea Paradise is both an amusement park and an aquarium, which includes an area where you can touch dolphins. Kamoike Park is a good place to see ducks and fireflies.  Moroka Kumano Shrine is a famous shrine in Yokohama.  Shomyoji is a beautiful temple with a garden.  The Yokohama History Museum is built next to an archaeological site that dates back to the Yayoi Era. There are some quirky museums to see, including the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum, the Cup Noodles Museum, and the Doll Museum.

Kawasaki is Kanagawa’s industrial city and second largest.  Probably the most famous site is Kawasaki Daishi, or Heikenji.  It’s one of the busiest temples in the Tokyo area and has plenty to see.  Wakamiya Hachimangu Shrine is a famous fertility shrine, with a large phallus.  It also has a sex museum.  The Kanamara Festival is also known as the Iron Penis Festival, and features many floats with penises.  Nihon Minkaen is the Japan Open-Air Folk House Museum, which displays many traditional Japanese houses and even Nagoya Castle’s gate.  At night, the Kawasaki industrial zone has tours to see the factories lit up.

Kamakura is one of the most famous cities in Japan and a huge draw for tourists and locals.  It has a large number of famous temples and shrines, and it was the capital of Japan 800 years ago.  There are too many temples and shrines to list, but I’ll highlight the best.  Tsurugaoka Hachimangu is the biggest and most famous shrine in the city.  The grounds are huge and always busy.  Myohonji is near the station and is the temple dedicated to childbirth.  Kotokuin is the home of the Great Buddha, or Daibutsu, the 2nd largest in Japan. Hasedera has a great view of the city and has the largest wooden statue in Japan. It also has a cave filled with Benzaiten statues. Zeniarai Benten is a great shrine surrounded by cliffs where you can wash your money.  Nearby is Sasuke Inari Shrine, which is near the home of the precursors of the ninja. Kita-Kamakura has a collection of very famous temples.  Engakuji is quite beautiful and has many national treasures, including one of Buddha’s teeth.  Kenchoji is Kamakura’s most important temple, and it has the largest wooden structure in eastern Japan.  You can access the Ten’en hiking trail from here.  Tokeiji is a nunnery that was dedicated to protecting abused women.  It has a great atmosphere.  Meigetsuin is the hydrangea temple, filled with many hydrangea blooming in June.  In Ofuna, you can find the Ofuna Kannon, a giant concrete statue of Kannon’s bust.  It’s easily visible from the main street. Going east, Jomyoji is a pretty attractive temple.  Nearby is Hokokuji with its bamboo forest.  Sugimotodera is the oldest temple in Kamakura, nearly 1300 years old, and it has many steep stairs to the top.  I can keep going, but these are the highlights.  Also, it’s nice to visit Minamoto no Yoritomo’s grave.  Kamakura has some great beaches that are very popular in the summer.  There’s plenty of surfing, too, giving Kamakura a bit of a Hawaiian flavour.  Hiking is also popular, as there are several hiking trails through the city. Some good museums are Kamakura Museum of National Treasures and Kamakura Museum of Literature. Also, the Kanagawa Prefectural Ofuna Botanical Garden is supposed to be great. Having lived in Kamakura for 4 years, I got to know it pretty well.

Yokosuka is home to an American Naval base and a Japanese Self-Defense Force naval base.  Therefore, it has a lot of Americans and a strong Navy presence.  One major site is the battleship Mikasa, which you can take a tour of.  Perry Landing Park is around the spot where Commodore Perry opened up Japan to the rest of the world.  Verny Park is a nice park dedicated to a French engineer who helped Japan build its navy.  Kurihama Hana-no-Kuni is a great place to see flower, and there are a million poppies.  Sarushima is an island accessible from Kurihama.  It’s a private island and nature preserve, but it’s a good place for a picnic during the day.  Anjinzuka Park is the city’s best place to view cherry blossoms.  Chouganji is a historic temple with plenty of events.

Fujisawa is a coastal city known for its very popular beach, surfing, and its biggest attraction, Enoshima.  Enoshima is an island that has many attractions. Along with the shrines and temples on the island, there’s a very busy main town area with plenty of shops and resorts.  It also has a large marina.  On the south side of the island are the Iwaya Caves, which are interesting to explore, but not extremely large.  Probably the biggest features are Samuel Cocking Garden and the Enoshima Lighthouse.  Nearby, you can see the New Enoshima Aquarium, which includes dolphins, a false killer whale, a huge main tank, and a pool where you can touch sharks.  Enoshima and Kugenuma beaches are both popular, and include surfing and beach volleyball.  Shirahata Shrine is a nice small shrine to visit.  Shojokoji (Yugyoji) is an important temple in Buddhism.  Also, you can find Oba Joshi Park, which is the ruins of Oba Castle.  No ruins actually exist, but there is a beautiful park there now.

Odawara is mainly famous for its castle, but there are several shrines and temples to see as well.  But in 1590, there was another castle called Ishigakiyama Ichiya Castle, which seemed to appear overnight.  It was constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi behind the cover of trees during the siege of Odawara Castle, then the trees were cut down.  Stone walls remain.  Also, you can visit the Kanagawa Prefecture Museum of Natural History, which is quite informative.

Sagamihara may be the third largest city in Kanagawa, but it is mainly a bedroom community, though half of the city is mountainous.  The biggest attraction is Sagami Lake, which is wonderful for flowers, fireworks, and in winter, Illumillion light display.  Tsukui Lake is another popular lake with fishing, flowers, market, and a small mountain you can climb, Shiroyama. Myougenji temple seems like it might be nice to see.  The Tanamukaihara ruins are 20,000 year old paleolithic ruins that can be visited, and are the oldest ruins in Japan.

Zushi is a small seaside city that is popular for its beach.  There’s plenty of hiking to do in Zushi, too.  Hiroyama Park has a great view of the mountains and Mt. Fuji, and has a small zoo.  Gandenji temple is a very old temple and worth visiting. Jinmuji temple is also very old, and has some nice hills and hiking trails nearby.  Hosshoji temple is another temple that’s good to see.  You can watch the Zushi Yabusame, which is horseback archery. Osaki Park is famous for its cherry blossoms.  Nearby, Kotsubo is a small fishing village that’s great for fresh fish and the Ayu Festival.

Hakone is Kanagawa’s premier hot spring resort area.  The town is situated in the caldera of Mt. Hakone, and it’s a UNESCO Geopark. This is the place you go to for hot springs, but there are many other attractions.  Lake Ashi (Ashinoko) is the central feature of the area.  Hakone Shrine is situated on the lake with a torii gate in the water. Owakudani is a hot spring area that can be accessed via cable car, though you don’t want to get in the water.  Hakone Open Air Museum is an outdoor art museum situated in a park. For some sightseeing, take the Hakone-Tozan Cable Car, the Hakone Ropeway or the cartoonish Hakone Sightseeing Ships on Ashinoko. There’s also the Hakone Komagatake Ropeway to Mt. Komagatake.  Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands is good to see. And finally, you can see the Pola Museum of Art.

Isehara is a small city that is known for Mt. Oyama.  Oyama is a mountain that is easily climbed in a day, and it has a cable car that takes you halfway up.  The view from the top is beautiful.  At the base of the mountain is a long shopping area that’s famous for tofu.

Miura is a small city on the southern tip of the Miura Peninsula.  Along with the rugged coast and beaches, it also features Jogashima, an island that’s known for its tuna fishery.  Go there for some fresh sushi and sashimi.

Hiratsuka is situated on the Shonan coastal area, and is famous for one thing, the Tanabata Festival.  This festival is the largest Tanabata festival in the Kanto region and the second largest in the country.

Food

Apart from Chinese food (especially shumai and nikuman/pork buns), Kanagawa has a couple of local foods that are popular.  One is shirasu, which is baby sardines.  Also, in Kamakura, pigeon sable cookies are very popular.

Have I missed something that you think was notable?  Please leave a comment!

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Kindness and Rudeness on the Way to the Nursery

I just had a mostly unpleasant trip to my daughter’s nursery.

It started off with getting on a full bus with no available seats. I was carrying my daughter, and several people looked at me. I stood near the back door for about a minute, then was pleasantly surprised when a young man gave up his seat for me. +5 points!

As I sat there riding the bus, the lady beside me got up at her stop. Keep in mind that I was sitting in the priority seat. There were several elderly people standing on the bus and the seat next to mine was the only available seat. Not one of them sat next to me. This could be for 2 reasons. First and probably the biggest reason is I had a toddler sitting on my lap. I know I avoid those seats. Second reason, and more unlikely, is that I’m a foreigner. This is that phenomenon that affects many foreigners in Japan, the empty seat syndrome. This actually never happens to me on the bus, so I’d say it was my daughter. The worst part was when one elderly woman spotted the seat, went for it, then noticed my daughter and I. She quickly looked away and stood a couple metres away from me looking around awkwardly. -5 points.

The bus ride continued when someone finally sat beside me. My daughter touched her and the woman said it was okay and smiled. +2 points.

Then a man across from us looked over and said she was cute. This happens a lot, actually. +2 points.

After getting off the bus, we were crossing at a crosswalk with an approaching white car traveling on a parallel course with us. He then suddenly turned directly in front of us without signaling, coming about 50 cm from hitting us. I got a good look at him. A middle-aged man with dyed brown hair, kind of mullet style, gold-rimmed tinted glasses, and lots of gold jewelry. There’s no way he didn’t see us. I was furious! -100 points.

Final score: -96

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