West of Tokyo and First Foray into Kyoto

I'm finally putting together the "report" from the last two trips taken in Japan during the end of the year in 2013. 


The first was a 5 day road trip west of Tokyo. Boarding the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo station to Nagano. From there, a rented car facilitated a drive to Matsumoto, Takayama and through to Kanazawa. The return trip to Tokyo was once again by train from Kanazawa.

As the train left Tokyo, an interesting ad on the side of a building, offering "lip service". 


Many of us who are conscious of WWII history forget that the swastika is an ancient symbol of Buddhism for peace and good. Here, the symbol is stark and dynamic on the bunting seen from afar at the massive Zenkoji Buddhist temple in Nagano. 


The first night in Nagano was a rustic experience at the "Jigokudani Yaen Koen - Monkey valley Ryokan and Onsen". In other words, a traditional Japanese bed-and-breakfast type of hotel where one sleeps on futons laid out in tatami mat rooms, with hot spring baths available as part of the experience. Some of these Ryokans can be pretty fancy but this one could do with a major renovation. Still, there was an outdoor Onsen (hot spring soaking bath, circled in the picture), and since it was set so much out in the open, it was not uncommon that the monkeys, at sunset, would also take a soak in it, even with humans.  


A series of loud whistles pierced the cold air over breakfast the next morning. To my great delight, a pipe-piper scene transpired. A park ranger was literally leading what seemed like 100 monkeys into the monkey park on the other side of the ravine. Several of them chose to deviate from the troop and ran through the Ryokan! No wonder there were signs everywhere to keep the doors shut at all times.

At the designated "Monkey Onsen", one can stroll among these unique creatures. For the most part, they were not interested in people and went about their own business. The park rangers feed them as they are a major tourist attraction there. They have their own webcam and website trained on their own Onsen spot. (http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm)


Matsumoto castle at night masquerading as a pyramidal licorice stack. 


There was an opportunity to stay at a Gassho Zukuri house in Ainokura. These are designated Unesco cultural treasures. This one has been in the owner's family for 11 generations. In the middle of the "living" room, there was a sunken hearth where traditionally food would be cooked. Again, the guest rooms were Ryokan style with futons on the tatami mat floors.


A most charming puppet mechanical hut in Takayama. For the price of 100 yen, a little doll would emerge from her house and deposit a tiny rolled up fortune scroll for you, with haunting temple flute music playing during her approach to the deposit box, flanked by Inari "fox" statues. 


At the Kenroku-en Gardens in Kanazawa, what looked like a beautiful art installation turned out to be traditional methods of securing pine trees with rope, to provide support for the branches during the heavy snow falls during the winter. 


Although pressed for time in Kanazawa, a visit to the Noh museum was not to be missed. A petite fox mask stole the show in my books. As part of the activities offered at this museum, visitors can try on a full Noh costume, complete with a mask. A large array of them were on display and could be examined. 



The main reason for the trip to Kyoto was to see the night illuminations, this one is of the "kimono forest". A series of lighted tubes with patterns based on kimono textiles guiding the way to the train station. 


Large hand painted paper and reed lanterns by the river. 


Exquisite rock gardens at Daitoku-ji temple. It's actually a cluster of small temples in one area and only 6 of the 24 temples are open each day.


This is an image from the Sanjusangendo, a Buddist temple in Kyoto known for its 1001 statues of Kannon. I did not take this picture as photography was not allowed but found this on the internet (on http://jvcic.blogspot.jp/2010/05/breathtaking-sanjusangendo.html).  It was a stunning sight to see row upon row of gold painted wooden carvings, no two completely alike, for as far as the eye could see when you first entered the space. An arresting memory to leave Kyoto with. 


Food, Fruit and "Hoops"

Dragon Fruit

I always liked how strange they looked on the outside and on the inside. You scoop out the white part to eat. Its nice if its slightly chilled, but its very mild tasting. I've had them in Singapore, in NYC and now in Tokyo.


A Sake Pairing

A feast for the senses at Ningyo-cho (人形町 田酔 ) restaurant. The presentation was spectacular, as was the sake. Some of the more "slimy" morsels were challenging. 


Edible Cubes

From a cake "atelier", Louange Tokyo. These cakes cubes measure about 2.5 inches (about 6 cm). Needless to say, they are exquisite on every level. They are also exquisitely packed for the journey home.  


Wednesday Cat Belgian Style White Beer. 

Never judge a beer can by its sassy marketing "label" but I'll take two and I'll be back for more. 


Circles of Purification and Bits of Paper

I made a new friend while helping her to locate Hikawa Jinja. We arrived in time to see how these huge purification circles, called Chinowa 茅の輪, were constructed. A type of reef grass is used to wrap a base circular structure, which is also made from reed. (I love it that the kids have their white gloves on to help).


The structure at this particular shrine, the Hikawa Jinja, is erected under the Toii. It was a rainy day and everything looked so lush and green. This was done a week before the actual ceremony. 


The cleansing ceremony is called "nagoshi no harai". The priests from the shrine lead the congregation in a procession three times through the purification circle. I include this picture because these instruments make the most unusual sounds. When I first heard the chanting in the temple, a precursor to the actual procession, several tunes were played. It sounded like someone was playing abstract modern music on a synthesizer. I thought, how strange, why would they use electronic sounds piped in at intervals. I couldn't be more wrong! One of these three instruments here makes a hard metallic keyboard sound!


At the larger Hie shrine. This ceremony was more ostentatious as evident by the elegant robes worn here. Bits of white paper, cut into small squares are also thrown over the crowd, and by the crowd as well, over themselves as a symbolic act of cleansing. At this shrine, you could also part take in drinking a thimbleful of sake in a small shallow plate. All the rituals are done with great reverence. To conclude the ceremonies, an envelope of charms were handed out to everyone. 


Frogs with Foxes

Wanted to share the fox statues at my favorite shrine with my new friend and I saw these statues which I've never noticed before! Frog representatives! 


Spring Days

I went to an exhibition last week at Suntory Museum and learned a new Japanese phrase that so completely captures the Japanese way of life. A phrase which increasingly resonates with me. 

(From Wikipedia)Mono no aware (もののあはれ), literally "the pathos of things," and also translated as "an empathy toward things," or "a sensitivity to ephemera," is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō?), or transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing.

This phase was an epiphany to me... why the Japanese seemed so obsessed with taking pictures, celebrating micro-seasonal changes with festivals, making a spiritual "ceremony" of such a simple act of making tea. One aspect of this culture is so conscientious of honoring the present. For me, it has translated into a "mono awareness" of what it is to celebrate "living for today, and living today". 

The Black Butler (in Akasaka)

It was such a treat to be invited by a Japanese set designer to a full dress rehearsal of a Manga turned musical performance earlier this month. While some of the singing lacked luster, it was a great first hand experience to see a live production of "The Black Butler". The stage set was quite impressive and the piece, set in Victorian England about the adventures of a demonic butler and his 14 year old young British Lord, with an entire Japanese cast was ... a tad surreal. 

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Shaped like a Prefecture

The mascot of the Chiba prefecture is called Chiba-kun, and he is shaped like... the shape of Chiba prefecture! I rarely set scores by these mascot creatures but conceptually, he's pretty special. 

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An Acquired Taste

I was so fascinated when I first saw these, called Japanese Goya, a variety of gourd. It turns out they taste the same but have a different texture on the outside as the ones I grew up with in Singapore. I cooked them using a family recipe, in a stir-fry with eggs, rice vermicelli, minced garlic and they tasted exactly the way I remembered! The vegetable has to be sliced thinly as it has a bitterness to it. It is an acquired taste. 

Sympatico: Cats and Cemeteries

Nezu is a rather unspoiled neighborhood in Tokyo. There are about seven thousand graves on the grounds of the Yanaka Cemetery. It was a cloudy day and its furry living inhabitants were out and about, taking in the cool weather. 

The Lost Love Letter

New Wagashi designs at my favorite shop Shiono in Akasaka. The first one is fashioned after the small individual Hydrangea flower unit; the season for "appreciating" Hydrangea is around the corner with the upcoming raining season. The second design is titled "The lost love letter". The design mimics a leaf with a single drop of dew. 

A carp feeding frenzy

At the pond located on the grounds of the Yasukuni Shinto Shrine. For 100 yen, a vending machine by a little hut overhanging the pond dispenses a cigarette size box of fish food pellets. The result is a cacophony of colors breaking the surface of the water in a feeding frenzy. 

Scale and Space

"Nokogiri-yama", in Chiba, the "Saw Mountain". This hiking park is home to two immense Daibutsu or Buddha statues and a score of smaller ones set in various enclaves. The Yajushi Nyorai stands at 101.9 ft, (31.05 meters). According to the literature handed out, the park is "the oldest Imperial invocation place of worship in the Kanto area". Ergo, the Emperor laid a pretty penny down to get it done. 

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The second large Daibutsu is carved into the side of a stone hill with less dimensionality but no less poetry and beauty. It was pretty steep climbing up many flights of steps to get to the top of the mountain but the view of the surrounding mountains and sea was beautiful. The air was fresh and invigorating.

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The building where the Emperor would have taken his tea ceremony. I am constantly surprised that edifices associated with the Emperor are imbued with such incredible austerity. The roof is painted a subtle grey and the rest of the wood is left unadorned and unpainted. 

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Taking a breather at a humble tea house (for the common people). Seasonal Wagashi served with a delicate bamboo pick, with Matcha (finely ground, high quality green tea that is used in tea ceremonies) and a sprig of green on an elegant lacquer tray. 

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At Futtsu Beach, right at the "belly button" of the Chiba prefecture, (if you were looking at the overlay of the mascot shape). A structure of interconnecting viewing platforms right by the beach made for a distinct silhouette. 

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Two halves and a Whole

It was a very windy day and the beach was covered in seaweed and lots of shells, with the occasional washed up jellyfish. I found a rare fully intact sand dollar and what is more incredible, I found two halves of a second one, one half I picked up when I first started walking on the beach and the second half on the way back to the starting point.

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Golden Week and One After

Golden Week in Japan ushers in the loveliest of Spring weather. It is one of the most popular weeks for travel in Japan. There are 4 national holidays during the course of a week and this makes for a popular travel week during the start of these gorgeous spring days,

San'en-zan Zōjō-ji (三縁山増上寺)

One of the most endearing and arresting sights at the San'en-zan Zōjō-ji (三縁山増上寺), a large and prominent Buddhist temple situated in a public park near the Tokyo Tower. Row upon row of colorfully "dressed" stone statues at the "Unborn Children Garden". Crimson and vermilion crochet caps adorn these foot tall statues. 

While I was filming this, the daily 5 p.m. chime came on, with the tune from Yuuyake Koyake 夕焼小焼け, a tune originally written by a school teacher. The words to the song remind the children that the day is done and it's time to go home.

Bamboo Grove — Hokokuji Temple


Kamakura is about an hour by train from Tokyo and offers a plethora of Shrines and Temples. The bamboo grove at the Hokokuji Temple, albeit modest, still makes for a sublime walking experience.

The Great Buddha


The local tramways were stuffed to the gills. The Japanese have a special way of impossibly cramming people into train cars. The Great Buddha at Kotoku-In (at the Hase station) was impressive. Guide books have reported that President Obama has graced this tourist site with his presence.

Octopus Cracker

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Local Kamakura "octopus cracker". It's squid dipped in batter, put into a very high pressure "hot press" and cooked into a thin wafer like cracker. It looked like an abstract painting silkscreened onto an edible translucent substrate.

Dressing Public Sculptures


The practice of dressing public sculptures and statues, large or small brings smiles out all around. This, at the Hase train station at Kamakura.

Mount Fuji Bathed in Pink


The setting sun on the way to Enoshima, a small island connected by a causeway with a walkway for pedestrians. Mount Fuji (Fuji-san, as the mountain is affectionately known) in the distance bathed in a rose pink glow.

Indigo Eggplant


On the left, strips of complimentary seaweed snacks at a newly discovered Udon and Soba restaurant, Honmura An Soba, in Roppongi (thanks to our friend Mark). The indigo color from the pickling of eggplant was intriguing, at Doma Doma, a local Izakaya chain.

The Wagashi Obsession Continues


The "Romanc­ecar" Limited Express train runs from the Odakyu station at Shinjuku to Hakone. This train ride cuts the ride down to one and a half hours, shaving half an hour and the need to switch trains to get there. Hakone is located South West of Tokyo and makes for a lovely day trip. Upon arrival and foraging for food,  I came across a little shop which sold... Wagashi! 

Good advice is hard to come by


Pirate Boats 


The reputation of the "pirate boats" on Lake Ashi precedes all other forms of transportation in Hakone. (There is a "ropeway cable car" and a track bound "cable car" in addition to vintage electric tram cars). An invasion of Disney in an otherwise unspoiled seaside town. 

My traveling companions were mobbed by Japanese school children who were clamoring to practice English and were kind enough to help the children complete their English homework assignment.

I am the Eggman... Coo-Coo Ca-Choo.!


The sulphur springs at Owakudani is the first stop along the Hakone Ropeway (cable car). The hike up the hill was a gentle one but the air got pretty nasty near the pools of sulphur. This has to be one of the strangest tourist attractions. The infamous "not to be missed" food here — eggs that have been boiled in these steaming sulphur pools!

This work man is collecting baskets of eggs that have just been boiled in the liquid sulphur vats. And the result? A completely blackened shell with a frosted sheen. The eggs were strangely beautiful and while there was a faint scent of sulphur on the egg white, they tasted like regular hard boiled eggs. I didn't think I could eat one on the spot, the fumes was positively vile!

Hakone Jinja Shrine


The last stop of the day was the Hakone Jinja Shrine by Lake Ashi. Surrounded by 800 year old cedar trees was a marvelous way to end the day. This is the Torii leading to the Shrine from the main road.


Dragon statues at the shrine. Usually one is expected to rinse your hands with water (with ladles provided beside a trough of running water) before you go into the main shrine area.

This was an additional special watering grotto located immediately outside the main shrine.

A Kafkaesque image


A stunning Torii in the water providing a gateway to the shrine from Lake Ashi.


April Showers Bring May Flowers


Broccoli Rabe and tri-color peppers. The national rigorous re-cycling program provides a balance to the over packaging of green groceries. Nonetheless, feeling blessed with such incredible shrubbery.



I am still obsessed about these Japanese traditi­onal soft sculpture tea cakes called "Wagashi". The designs change according to the seasons and in keeping with major holidays and what those holidays celebrate. These are from a venerable 60 year old shop called Shiono in Akasaka, Tokyo.

The fillings are slightly different for each design. These two featured have similar bean paste filling. The one of the left is reminiscent of a cap for boys for Children's day. I marvel at the details on these cakes. There is even a three dimensional little whisker on the carp design. My small tea plates bought years ago in New York at the Broadway Panhandler now resonate deeply with these exquisite creations

The Color of Food

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I am often fascinated by food that is black. Here, black risotto at LB7 in Roppongi. Squid ink and clams add to the pungent presentation. It was delicious but there is something unsettling about consuming a lack of color. In contrast to the pastel shades of wagashi, it makes for a forceful and compelling dish.

Subway Art

This is the "summary" illuminated panel at the Tameikie-sanno station on the Namboku line. Each of these represent a large scale panel. The panels line up along both sides of the subway track. Unfortunately the station is enclosed within glass and metal framed walls and these designs become veiled behind the reflections.

The three white rabbits, my favorite panel.

The Tokyo International Forum

A breath-­taking archite­ctural structure. The interior is a lot more ornate than the exterior but its a massive structure near the Tokyo station.

Hope from a Vending Machine

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It's reassuring to know HOPE can be purchased for a mere 440 yen round the corner.

Abstraction, Pattern and Geometry

If you go looking for geometry, it will likely find you. 

Kokeshi こけし

An exhibition of Kokeshi at Toraya, MidTown Plaza, Tokyo. 

An exhibition of Kokeshi at Toraya, MidTown Plaza, Tokyo. 

These minimally designed wooden dolls are the epitome of distilling a human form down to its most basic shape. The body of the doll, a vertical trunk; reminiscent of the columnar aspect of a kimono, is usually decorated with floral motifs and then layered with wax. The artist signs his name at the bottom of the doll. 

Originating from the north of Japan, around 1600, the name comes from the Sendai dialect. A common etymology for the name of these dolls: wood (木 "ki"), small (小 ko) and dolls (芥子 "keshi"). Beauty in the stylized painted ornamentation is conveyed without the need to represent the appendages of the human form. Stripped down to the most fundamental shapes of a sphere and a cylinder, it makes for a compelling and distinct design.

Fabric wallpaper

New Year Ceremonies at the Hie Shrine in Akasaka, Tokyo. 

New Year Ceremonies at the Hie Shrine in Akasaka, Tokyo. 

On New Year's eve, a "blessing" of arrows at the Hie Shrine in Akasaka. For me, the pattern of the backdrop stole the show. Dynamic pattern creeping into the everyday. Or does it become purely a glossed over background.

Wagashi 和菓子: edible fine soft sculpture

These beautiful pieces are from Toraya. 

These beautiful pieces are from Toraya. 

This form of Japanese confectionery has taken soft sculpture to a higher level. A personal favorite are the Namagashi 生菓子, the sweet bean paste variety. Categorized as "wet confectionery", containing 30% or more moisture content, the "Jō namagashi" 上生菓子 are sold by confectionery stores in different permutations during the year. Celebrating different plant forms in keeping with the seasons, these delectable treats are an accompaniment to a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Austere Abstraction: Kadomatsu 門松



A "gate pine" is often placed in pairs in front of the entrance of buildings or homes to usher in the new year and welcome ancestral spirits. Most common versions are created from Pine, Bamboo and Ume tree sprigs. The shrubbery used represent longevity, prosperity and steadfastness. The core arrangement utilizes three large bamboo shoots set at different heights. These present heaven, humanity and earth. The pair signify the male and female counterparts.

Torii: Shrine Gateways

Stacked Torii on higher ground at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura.

Stacked Torii on higher ground at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura.

The symbol of a torii usually indicates the location of a shrine on digital maps. It is one of the most striking traditional architectural structures in Japan. There may be multiple toriis gates leading into the grounds of a shrine. 

Reduced to a drawing of lines, it is made up of two vertical and two horizontal lines producing a stark dynamic symmetry.

Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall


A stunning concert hall, from its lofty pinnacle to the warm glow of the wooden walls and ceilings. 

From the Acoustical Society of America: The TOC Concert Hall, called ‘‘Takemitsu Memorial’’ in honor of the late composer Toru Takemitsu, was opened September 10, 1997. With a seating capacity of 1636 and a volume of 15 300 m3, the hall is sized to cover the musical range from recitals to orchestral concerts. The plan is rectangular in shape but, by request of the architect Takahiko Yanagisawa, the ceiling is a distorted pyramid, with its peak nearer the stage than the rear of the wall. 

This unique shape had to be analyzed using a CAD model and a 1:10 scale model so that all interior surfaces would be adjusted in shape and absorption to yield optimum values for RT, EDT, IACCE3, surface diffusion, initial time delay gap, and loudness [Beranek, Concert and Opera Halls (ASA, New York, 1996)]. To provide a better ensemble condition for the musicians on stage and to provide early reflections to several other regions, a square canopy, almost 10 m on a side, is suspended above the stage. The pyramidal ceiling has diffusing elements added to simulate coffers. Schroeder QRDs on the ceiling surface facing the orchestra are used to control echo and to add sound diffusion. With audience, RT=1.95 s, G=6.4 dB, and [1−IACCE3]=0.72.

To put it in less scientific terminology, the design is rad.

Guam and Rainbows

This is a short report after a 4 day visit to Guam. Guam is Hawaii's "poor cousin". It's a little underdeveloped but remains largely unspoiled because of it. Sunsets were spectacular. Rain in the distance with overhanging dark clouds made for a dramatic contrast.


Two nights at the Fiesta Resort Guam (Hotel). The hotel was literally on the beach. This is the view of the ocean from the lobby. The ocean at your doorstep. 

Scattered showers during the day literally last 1 to 2 minutes. And almost always a rainbow would appear! The clear waters were simply divine. The beach never got very crowded either. 

It was common to find cemeteries near the road facing the ocean. In recent years concrete barriers were built near the shore to prevent the waters from washing away the graves during the typhoon season. The white washed graves were often colorfully decorated with flowers.

The most delicious local food at a restaurant called Proa. The "beggar's purse", a crepe appetizer creation with a mustard honey sauce. Sashimi cubes of tuna were hidden inside. Fried banana fritters in coconut batter with a sweet caramel accompaniment. At another local restaurant Meskla, where a cream soup was served in a coconut husk and a pretty presentation of fried parrot fish with curried vegetables.


Akasaka Toyokawa Inari Shrine

The Akasaka Toyokawa Inari is a Shinto shrine. The Inari Okami is a Japanese deity of fertility, rice, agriculture, foxes, industry and worldly success. The Kitsune, (fox in Japanese) is the common animal effigy associated with the Inari. These fox statues are often adorned with red yodarekake (votive bibs). The venerated canine forms often hold a symbolic item in their mouths or beneath a front paw—often a jewel or a key. A sheaf of rice, a scroll, or a fox cub or a family of cubs are also common representations.

The Kitsune, (fox in Japanese) is a messenger of the Inari Okami.

Faithful intentions written on the bibs with hopes for a child. 

There would often be little offerings of coins placed at the feet or on the top of the heads of the statues, no matter what size they were.


The flash of the red bib and flags was so stark on a cold and clear winter's day. I had to fight an incredible urge to take one home with me.