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Botticelli is putting on an exhibition. Well, not the painter himself–he’s long dead and still buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci (reputed to be the inspiration for titular subject of the Birth of Venus ) in Florence. But the traveling exposition of his works are on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

Mere steps from the Ueno Zoo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum is the perfect denouement from a day in the sun with the lions, tigers, and bears. The Special Exhibits require you to purchase tickets, but the Citizen’s Galleries are mostly free (some may require a small fee, such as the ikebana exhibition I saw during my visit).

After deciding to see the Old Master, I passed the giant silver ball and descended the escalator to the Inner Court and Museum entrance. Once inside, you’ll see the Museum Shop directly across and the information booth to your right (where English maps and pamphlets are available). And beyond that, the ticket counter and the Citizen’s Galleries await.

Beyond the Special Exhibitions, the Museum also has space for local art schools, calligraphy shows, and more obscure showings. These exhibitions are free to the public, so use the opportunity to take in the works of a local artist or practice your kanji-reading skills. Be sure to check the schedule on the Museum’s home page to see what’s on display. And who knows? You may run into a future Old Master exhibiting his or her works.

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Ueno, Tokyo

Kanji Display, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum Art Museum, Ueno Tokyo

 

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Information

Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (English website)

Location: Ueno Park (click on the pin for directions via Google maps)

Hours:

   – Daily: 9:30 – 17:30 (last admission 17:00)
   – Fridays: 9:30 – 20:00 during Special Exhibitions (Last admission 19:30)
– Special Exhibitions and Thematic Exhibitions are closed Mondays (except national holidays,    when it closes the following day instead). The Museum is closed every 1st and 3rd Monday of month (except national holidays, when it closes the following day instead)

Estimated Price: Free! Entry fees apply for special exhibits. Museum Gift Shop, Cafe M, and Restaurant IVORY available.

Free entry, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Ueno Tokyo

Free Entry

“Why Go?”: Free entry for Citizen’s Gallery and Public Exhibitions, low price for Special Exhibitions.

 

January 30, 2016 0 comment
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Tokyo SkyTree is one of Tokyo’s most iconic observation towers. It houses many shops and restaurants at and around its base, including a large and modern aquarium. SkyTree caters to international visitors by offering exclusive premium tickets that allow them to skip long line and go up to the observation deck almost immediately. You can think of this ticket as one would a Fast Pass in Disney World. These tickets are, of course, a bit more expensive than normal tickets (about ¥1500 more), but they do speed up the waiting process significantly.

SkyTree has two decks, and both the regular and premium tickets take you up to the first deck. To access the second deck, you must pay an additional fee at a ticket booth in the first deck. However, the view from the first deck is incredible as is, so the additional fee seems a bit unnecessary. But since you need to purchase the second ticket at the first deck anyway, feel free to make the call yourself once you’re up there.

The first deck has three floors, and you arrive on the highest floor. Each has a fluid and beautiful panoramic view, as well as different photo spots where you can purchase/have your photo taken with some sort of prop by a professional. The second level has the tower’s gift shop, which sells slightly different merchandise than the one at the tower’s base. The lowest floor has a cafe where you can sit down and eat.

A note about SkyTree is that there’s a bit of a line to go down the escalator to each floor. Also, the staff regulates how many people go to each floor, so once you go down, you’re unable to go back up. That being said, the floors aren’t extremely crowded and while there seems to be long lines, the wait isn’t all that bad.

Overall, SkyTree is a definite must during your trip to Tokyo. Keep in mind that the view during the day and night give different atmospheres, so plan accordingly.

Looking for more spots to view the Tokyo skyline from? Watch our video on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building or visit our article Tokyo’s Top Observatories: Enjoying the Tokyo Skyline

October 23, 2015 0 comment
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Matsuri Featured Image, Tokyo, japan

If you’re in Japan for any length of time, you’ll see it. Period costumes. Beautiful ladies in equally-beautiful kimonos. Perhaps someone dressed as an oni, scaring children into behaving. Packs of drunk Japanese people in festival clothes yelling, bouncing, and carrying some huge object down the street. And streets lined with food booths. You’ve wandered into the middle of the big street fair/party known as a matsuri!

Everyone seems to be having a good time. But what about you? Finding yourself in the middle of all of this might be a bit awkward. Is there something you should be doing? Or maybe something you are supposed to be wearing? Are you supposed to help with carrying that huge object?

Don’t worry! I’ve been to more than a few matsuri, so I can help! So let us eat, drink, and be fat and drunk, because it’s time to get in on the block party to end all block parties! And if you’re lucky, you might even get press-ganged into carrying a mikoshi!

Portable Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

In this article, I’m going to use my local dual-matsuri as a guide. The Kita-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Shinagawa Shrine) and the Minami-No-Tenno-Sai Matsuri (Ebara Shrine) combine yearly to form one giant sprawling matsuri (hereafter called the Shinagawa Matsuri) for everyone to enjoy!

 

What is a Matsuri?

Matsuri” is just the Japanese word for “festival.” As opposed to holidays, matsuri are not held on specific dates throughout Japan–each neighborhood schedules and holds their own matsuri. Matsuri are usually held anywhere from late spring to fall, and it is possible to attend several matsuri throughout the year.

There are many large and famous matsuri. The larger festivals are usually visitor-friendly, but you should go with a Japanese friend in order to get the full experience. But the smaller ones–that’s what we’re getting at. No big touristy stuff for you!

Matsuri Preparation

Not all matsuri are the same. Yes, there are common elements, but thinking that each one is a carbon-copy of the other is sort of like thinking that Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day are all celebrated the same way. Each neighborhood does their matsuri their own way–what may be a central element in one festival may be completely missing from another. Even for the smaller ones, having a Japanese friend (preferably a local) will help you navigate the peculiarities of a matsuri.

But even if you don’t have a Japanese friend, don’t worry! Matsuri is a fun time, and everyone is in a good partying mood. If nothing else, you can always come sample the food booths and people-watch. Just be friendly and not only will you have a good time, you’ll probably make new friends!

Matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

The Mikoshi

Many matsuri are centered around neighborhood Shinto jinja, or shrines. During the Shinagawa Matsuri, mikoshi (portable Shinto shrines that look like miniature temples) are carried throughout the neighborhood. Shrines house the kami (gods or spirits) for the duration of the festival, and the locals celebrate matsuri by carrying the shrines through the streets, drumming and chanting and bouncing the whole way. In between bouts of eating and drinking, that is.

Portable shrine, Tokyo, Japan

And for the Shinagawa Matsuri, “portable” is used in the very loosest sense of the word. These shrines are huge and very heavy, and they require a dozen or more people to carry. And you could be one of those people!

 

Getting Dressed for the Occasion

If you’re just going to matsuri to people-watch or for the food booths, you don’t need to wear anything special. You can come just as you are! You’ll see plenty of adults and children (and more than a few pampered dogs) in festival clothes or kimonos, but it’s not required.

Kids in matsuri clothing, Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to help carry a mikoshi, you’ll have to get dressed for the part. Please note that you cannot just jump into the mikoshi-carrying mix–if you want to participate, let someone in festival clothes know (either through your own language skills, that of your Japanese friend, or the tried and true “point at my own chest and make the up-and-down shoulder-lifting motion”). If it’s okay, they will likely lend you a hanten (a light jacket) to wear.

If you are really lucky, you may be able to borrow a full set of festival clothes, called matsuri-issho. These clothes consist of a light jacket (known as a hanten), a pair of trousers, an undershirt, and a pair of tabi boots. The hanten is held in place with a sash, and there is a small man-purse (or just a purse, for the ladies) for your money. I live in Shinagawa, so I bought my own set of matsuri-issho (pictured). But if you’re just visiting, a borrowed hanten or matsuri-issho will be just fine.

Matsuri-issho, Festival clothing

Carrying the Mikoshi

Now that you are properly attired, get ready to get in there and lend your back to the cause! A few cultural notes–

  • Be sure to ask before joining a mikoshi carry in progress. Most matsuri are rather casual affairs, but some mikoshi have significant religious significance and are not to be touched by outsiders. In truth, there are very few mikoshi under that sort of restriction, but it pays to be sure.
  • In the past, women were strictly forbidden from touching certain mikoshi. This is not completely true today; some places are fine with it, some places are not, and other places allow women to touch some shrines but not others. As always, check with the locals before touching a mikoshi.
  • Other traditions may apply in different areas. My wife remembers a time when people were not allowed to look down at a mikoshi (“looking down on a god from above”) during the Shinagawa Matsuri. Windows over street level had to be closed and bridges over rivers were cleared when a mikoshi passed underneath on a boat. Other locales may have similar traditions, so please be observant and do as the locals do.

Once you get in, brace yourself! Mikoshi can be very heavy. Most people simply shoulder the load, but I always wuss out and use a towel to cushion the wooden beam. Also, you want to stand as straight as you possibly can and keep the wooden beam on your shoulder. Not only is this the easiest way to carry your part of the load, it also prevents back injuries. This may be easier said than done–I am 5’8″, which is about average Japanese size. If you’re one of those really tall people, make sure you get in next to people who are about your size.

A few other things might happen during your stint as a porter of the gods. At the Shinagawa Matsuri, people yell, “Washoi!” when carrying the shrine. The closest translation to English would be something like, “Heave ho!” and is used as encouragement to your fellow mikoshi carriers. Feel free to join the chant!

Another thing you may encounter is a difference in mikoshi-carrying styles. The Shinagawa Matsuri uses the Jōnan-style carry, in which mikoshi carriers lift from both the parallel and perpendicular beams that support the mikoshi palanquin. The mikoshi generally travels forward, but often stops and bounces, moves from side to side, and sometimes may go backwards. In other places, you might encounter the Edomae-style carry, in which the mikoshi carriers stay on the parallel beams and move forward at a measured, marching pace.

There are other styles, but these are the two most commonly seen in Tokyo. I am looking forward to one day seeing a Kenka Matsuri, such as the one in Nada. Kenka means “fight” or “conflict”, and in a Kenka Matsuri, mikoshi shrines “fight” by crashing into each other. Exactly how this honors the gods is somewhat mysterious, but it appears that even spiritual beings enjoy a good demolition derby. You may want to stay away from these; people get injured and even killed while participating in a Kenka Matsuri.

Another thing that might occur is something I call the “bouncing challenge.” In the bouncing challenge, the person on the other end of your beam will bounce his end up and down, which will cause your beam to smash up and down into your shoulder. This is painful! The only thing you can really do is hold on tight and keep your shoulder to the beam to lessen the impact. Once they stop, you can respond in kind, but you may want to consider that you might not know that other person, nor how they will take a dose of their own medicine. Best to just leave well enough alone.

Finally, you do not need to carry the mikoshi for the full duration of its travel. You can take breaks, rotating responsibility for the load with other participants. Just be sure to give nearby revelers an indication that you intend to bail–it’s considered bad form to just leave your part of the carry without warning, suddenly shifting the weight to someone else’s shoulders. Once you’re out, you can rub your sore shoulders, walk along for awhile and then rejoin, or move on and do something else. If you borrowed a hanten, be sure to return it before you leave

 

…and the Rest of It

Even if you don’t get the chance to carry a mikoshi, there is still plenty to do at a matsuri. There are lots of people to see, kimonos to admire, and many kinds of carnival-style games for children and adults. Street entertainers perform at some matsuri–I have seen trained monkeys, taiko drum players, Vegas-style street magicians, and even a karaoke contest. Stick around and watch, and have some coins ready for when the hat gets passed around.

And then there is the food. There are so many good things to eat during matsuri, and you’ll want to try them all. You can choose cultural favorites like chilled cucumbers or grilled squid on a stick, old standbys like karage (fried chicken) and shaved ice, or even chow down on imported ideas such as pizza pockets and cotton candy. My personal favorite is the yakkitori-style meats, such as steak and salted pork. And you can wash it all down with one of the many nearby beer stands.

Matsuri food stalls octopus, Tokyo, Japan

Octopus, Matsuri food stall, Tokyo, Japan

Meat on a stick, Matsuri Food stall, Tokyo, Japan

So there you have it–a basic how-to guide for enjoying a mikoshi matsuri in Japan! There may be regional or neighborhood differences for each matsuri, or maybe even a restriction or two. But matsuri time is supposed to be a good time, for both the locals and for visitors. So get your pocket money and your camera ready, get out there, and have a great time!

Shrine during a matsuri, Tokyo, Japan

 

August 28, 2015 0 comment
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Odaiba Onsen Featured Images, Odaiba, Tokyo

Onsens in Japan date back thousands of years. Thousands of these hot springs can be found throughout the country, but the cultural barriers to entry can seem high to outsiders. Where do you go? What do you do? Do you really have to get naked around a bunch of strangers?

Never fear! I have been to several onsens throughout the country, and in this article I’ll show you the do’s and don’ts of the onsen experience. For this article, I use the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo. Not only is it a great onsen, it is easy to get to from any number of local train stations and hotels.

And should you decide to visit the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Voyagin can help you out with a discount!

A Note on Tattoos

Japanese people have an aversion to body art due to its long association with criminal elements. Some onsens outside of Tokyo allow them, and others will allow you to enter if you have some way of covering them up (usually with a flesh-toned bandage).

The Oodeo Onsen Monogatari does not allow tattoos at all. Yes, they are aware that not everyone who has a tattoo is a criminal. Your tattoos may very well be innocuous (your kid’s names, etc) or have some deep, personal meaning. But sorry, you will not be admitted. Please do not be the ugly foreigner who shows up and makes a scene by arguing with the staff.

NOTE: I have heard that some people have gotten around this rule by covering up with a t-shirt or leggings, but you will still not be able to get into the baths. And if you can’t go to the baths, why bother going at all? Also, I don’t know what happens to you if you get caught, but I’m sure it will cause quite a bit of embarrassment.

 

Money Matters

Onsen trips can be expensive. The Oedo Onsen Monogatari has a reasonable price of entry (2500-2900 yen per adult, 1000 yen for children ages 4-12, under 4 is free), which includes the bath, the yukata robe (more on that below), towels, and facility usage. But that’s not all–there are plenty of good things to eat and drink, games for the kids to play, and wonderfully relaxing massages.

You do not carry money at Oedo Onsen Monogatari–they have a computerized system that keeps track of your purchases via a barcoded bracelet that you will receive once you go inside. Therein lies the danger. Since money isn’t changing hands, you may have no idea how much you have spent until you get to the checkout counter. For your estimation purposes, my last trip with my wife and son cost 12,000 yen (baths, food and drink, etc). Make sure you have enough to cover your trip!

 

Other Things To Consider

Medical conditions and pregnancy. If you have high blood pressure, are pregnant, or are otherwise susceptible to high temperatures, complications could arise from using the baths. Please check with your doctor before you leave home if you are thinking of going to an onsen.

Bring a change of clothes. You will want clean underwear after you leave the baths, and clean clothes to change back into once you leave the onsen.

Know your height in centimeters, so you can get an appropriately-sized yukata (below).

 

The Oedo Onsen Monogatari Experience

Once you enter the onsen, you have to take off your shoes and place them in one of the lockers to the left of the entrance. You can wear socks if you want, but make sure they are clean and not-holey ones. Keep the key, so you can get your shoes back at the end of your visit.

Next, you will check in at the service desk. Here you will give your credit card number and you will receive a barcoded bracelet that doubles as locker key and wallet. The barcode bracelet is used to pay for food, drinks, and other extras inside the onsen area.

The third step is to get a yukata from the counter. A yukata is a thin robe, worn with a sash, which you will wear for the duration of your trip to the onsen. As it is with the case of tattoos, this is not negotiable–this is what is worn inside the onsen area. Go to the counter and choose your size (in centimeters), a pattern, and one of the sashes. Oh, and make sure you get one that is the correct size. Too long and you are wearing a wedding gown that trails everywhere. Too small, and everyone will wonder where the flood is.

 

Wearing Your Yukata

At Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are separate changing rooms for men (blue curtain) and women (red curtain). The changing room is essentially a locker room. Find the locker that matches your key, and you will be ready to change into your yukata.

Wearing a yukata is just like wearing a bathrobe. When you put it on, you will cross the left side of the robe over the right. Ladies have additional strings on the inside of their yukata in order to prevent “wardrobe malfunctions.”

Why is it left over right? Well, the explanation I got was that swordsmen drew their katana with their right hand from their left hip, and having your yukata on right-over-left could possibly entangle your sword hand, which would likely get you killed.

“But I don’t have a sword,” I said. “Also, I’m left-handed. If I did get into a quick-draw-and-slash contest, I would be just as screwed.”

“Shut up and put it on right,” was my wife’s answer.

There is another reason. Wearing the yukata right-over-left is reserved for the dead at their funeral. No one will actually think that you are dead, but it is a social faux pas. On the other hand, you now know how to identify Japanese zombies should the dead rise during your vacation. If you forget which side goes over which, there are plenty of signs in the changing area to remind you.

Traditionally, people wore nothing at all under their yukata, but modernity has allowed for some modifications. First, you will wear underwear beneath your robe. Ladies, a bra is also appropriate. If you like, you can also wear a t-shirt and socks with your yukata. If you intend to go to the baths immediately, put on your fresh gear. You don’t want to take a bath only to put your dirty underwear back on.

Also, there is a small pocket on the inside to keep your cell phone or camera. You can take a camera inside the onsen, just be mindful of where you are taking pictures. In the common areas, it’s ok, but (for obvious reasons) no pictures are allowed in the locker rooms or bath areas.

 

To the Baths!

First, please refrain from taking a bath when you are dead drunk (see sign).

Thank you for not embarrassing the rest of the visitors. Now lets get to it.

Once you leave the locker room, you enter the common area, where all of the food booths, games, etc are located. Oedo Onsen Monogatari is built like a miniature hot springs town–in other onsens, all of these food stands, bars, games, etc. aren’t this close together. To get to the baths, go left and follow the signs.

Older onsens were mixed-sex bathing, but those have fallen out of fashion. Oedo Onsen Monogatari splits the baths into men’s and women’s sides. For this portion, please realize that I am a guy, so I only know what’s in the men’s baths. (My wife assures me that it is essentially the same over on their side, but you never know…)

After entering the bath area, you will first enter another locker room. Right inside the door you will receive two towels–one small, one large. With these, choose a locker and strip down. Everything goes into this locker–your yukata, underwear, socks, cell phone, and even your bar code bracelet. You cannot wear any clothing at all in the onsen–no shorts, no swim trunks, whatever. Naked as the day you were born, as the saying goes. The locker has a key on a plastic band. This goes around your wrist, and is the only exception to the “total nudity” rule.

The larger towel you got at the entrance also goes into the locker, because it is for drying yourself off after you get out of the bath. The smaller one (a washcloth, for Americans) is what you take into the onsen with you. If you are modest, you can use it to block the view of your junk, which no one cares about anyway. If you want to go like a native, you’ll use it to wash your face and dry your sweat in the baths. Please do not dip this cloth into the bath water–it is considered unsanitary to do so. While in the water, you can put it to the side or fold it up and put it on your head, just like in the cartoons.

 

Once Inside the Baths…

The first thing you do in the actual bath section is to take a shower. It may sound odd, but the purpose of the onsen is to relax, not bathe. You are going to soak here, and hopefully not in a bath of oily scum left by previous bathers. Inside the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are two options. Once you enter, there is a traditional “bowl bath”, in which you simply douse yourself in water. If you look behind you, there is a Western-style shower. Either way works.

If you are especially grimy, please use one of the shower stations that are on the left side of the indoor section of the baths. The stations all come with a stool, body soap, shampoo, conditioner, and a bowl and shower head combo. Get your pretty man on! Just make sure you get all of the soap off of your body before going to the baths. That’s another faux pas to avoid.

After that, there are several pools to choose from. They vary in temperature, as per a nearby thermometer. There are baths, and there is even is a whirlpool. Not bad, right? Be aware of the temperature and don’t force yourself to get into a bath if it is too hot.

And once you are there, relax. Nice, isn’t it? Some people bathe alone, and others gather in groups and chit-chat. If come by yourself, you will probably stay that way. One time during one of my earlier trips, some guy sat next to me to practice his naked English, which was rather awkward. But that was just that one time, out of dozens of trips.

 

Nude in the Great Outdoors

After your initial stride into the waters of a Broader Mindset, see if you can go outside. Yes, there are bathing pools outside, along with benches and other spots where you can lie down and flap about in the breeze. The high wall surrounding the area protects your privacy, and will protect the general public from your bad jokes (Q. Why did the bald man go outside at the onsen? A. He wanted to feel the wind in his hair). You can soak in the outside pool or take a nap if you like. Beware of sunburn on your sensitive bits.

Once you are done soaking, take another shower at one of the shower stations before exiting the bath area. You’ll leave the onsen feeling fresh, relaxed, and very clean. Time to see what else is here!

 

The Foot Baths

The foot baths at Oedo Onsen Monogatari are outside, in the Japanese gardens. Here, there is a long, winding walking pool. If you are feeling bold, hike up your yukata and wade right in!

I have to admit, this is not my favorite thing to do. The water is nice, but the walking path (both in the water and on the dry parts of the path) are studded with rocks. The rocks are supposed to “massage” your soles, for increased blood circulation or some other ancient Eastern medicine reason. I think that the larger rocks are ok for this, but walking on the smaller rocks is like finding missing Lego while going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Painful! Overall, I’d rather just sit on one of the benches that line either side of the pool and dangle my feet in the water.

There is another peculiar pool in this area, full of tiny fish. For a fee, you can soak your feet in this pool, and the fish will eat the dead skin off of whatever they can reach. The very idea sorta grosses me out, but some people seem to like it.

The Rest of Your Onsen Experience

The Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a great place to go for your first onsen experience. It is foreigner-friendly and easy to get around. All the signs are duplicated in English, and most of the staff can help you in areas related to their expertise.

There are lots of things to eat and drink. Just about every Japanese dish is represented here at one food stand or another, along with desserts (I liked the strawberry ice topped with condensed milk). We went with a group and had lunch with them (pictured), but you don’t have to do that. Just find what you like, point at the menu, and use your barcode bracelet to pay. Easy!

And there are other things to do. Near the bathing area is the spa, where you can get everything from a massage to skin exfoliation to a reflexology treatment. There are plenty of carnival-style games for the kids (and me, because I like throwing ninja stars). There is even a reclining chair area for you to take a nap, in case all of that relaxing wears you out.

And don’t forget to go to the gift shop before you leave!

In Short…

Going to an onsen is one of those “very Japanese” things to do, and will make for a great story when you return home. I used the Oedo Onsen Monogatari as a template for onsen trips–if you go somewhere else, the particulars may vary, but probably not by much. Also, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is inside Tokyo and is easy to get to through any number of methods (see below). If you are staying at a hotel, they can likely arrange a trip for you. Highly recommended!

Still not sure if you want to go to Oedo Onsen Monogatari? Maybe Voyagin’s discount can help you decide!

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Oedo Onsen Monogatari Location Information

Website (English) | Facebook (customer reviews and photos)

Access: There are multiple ways to get to Oedo Onsen Monogatari, best explained at http://daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en/#access

Hours of Operation: Open 7 days a week, 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m (next day), last entry: 7 a.m.

“Why Go?”: For a relaxing soak, good food, and an unforgettable experience!

Click on one of the tags below to find other experiences in Tokyo–

July 17, 2015 0 comment
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Shopping in Edo-style stores in Kawagoe, Saitama

by Zoe Mackey

About a month into my four month stay in Japan, I was looking for a day escape from Tokyo’s fast paced buzz. I stumbled upon a town called Kawagoe, located in Saitama Prefecture, and within short reach from Tokyo’s central hub. About 30 minutes from Ikebukuro Station on the Tobu Tojo Line or about an hour on the Seibu Shinjuku Line from Shinjuku Station, Kawagoe has retained the old Edo Period character and aesthetic, as many of the old style merchant storehouses line the street and sell a variety of goods and snacks.

Edo-style Street in Kawagoe, Saitama

An interesting duality exists in Kawagoe. Strolling down the nostalgic Kurazukuri Street provides a small glimpse into the historical Edo charm, while modern century cars drive by and stop at various traffic lights. Old Japan meets new as you venture in and out of the many clay-walled stores and restaurants, munching on senbei (rice crackers) and soft serve matcha ice cream. Traditional Japanese souvenirs and merchandise can be bought and admired along this street, including ceramics and pottery embroidered with Japanese art, tenugui (cotton hand towel), and embellished lacquered chopsticks.

Kawagoe also has a number of temples and shrines to visit. Along Kurazukuri Street, multiple cobblestone side streets will lead you to different temples. These quiet, spiritual sites are just seconds from the bustling street. I happened to find a small koi pond at a temple’s entrance. You can tell how much attention these fish receive by the way they swarm when you’re close to the water. Various other temples and shrines can be found outside of Kurazukuri Street. Handy maps are spread throughout the town, often in English with pictures for reference, aiding tourists trying to find the many notable spots of Kawagoe.

Temple Path in Kawagoe, Saitama

Another point of interest in Kawagoe’s Warehouse District, near Kurazukuri Street, is Candy Alley, or Kashiya Yokochō. The name alone is sure to attract anyone with a sweet tooth, or anyone looking for dessert after a meal. It’s a great place to stock up on traditional sweets only found in Japan, especially to bring home to friends and relatives. On this small street, stores sell several treats and snacks, including Japanese candies, ice cream, and cakes with different fillings. Looking at all the colorful candies and treats, you will feel like a kid again, only this time no one is stopping you from indulging in every sweet you want (except, maybe, your guilty conscience).

I highly suggest making it a point to visit Kawagoe, even for just a short day or half day trip. The lively Edo seen in movies, paintings, and written about in literature comes to life in this small, quaint town. But be sure to start your day in Kawagoe earlier in the afternoon or around late morning, as most if not all the shops close at 5:00pm.

Shopping in Edo-style stores in Kawagoe, Saitama

Temple in Kawagoe, Saitama

 

Back Street in Kawagoe, Saitama

Edo-style street in Kawagoe, Saitama

Access: From Hon-Kawagoe station the walk to Kawagoe’s Warehouse District, or Kurazukuri no Machinami, takes about 10-15 minutes, or alternatively 20-25 minutes from Kawagoe Station. The best route is to take the Seibu Shinjuku Line to Hon-Kawagoe station and walk the short distance from there. I arrived at Kawagoe Station and walked quite a length to the main Warehouse District, as opposed to the shorter walk from Hon-Kawagoe Station.

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Zoe Mackey is a native New Yorker and college student currently studying in Tokyo. Her greatest inspirations are street fashion, lazy Sundays, and science fiction. You’ll more than likely find her taking amateur photos and looking for the best food in Tokyo. You can email her at z.isamac@gmail.com.

March 14, 2015 0 comment
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Entrance to Taco Ché

The first thing I saw was a pygmy about to cut the nipple off of a captured Japanese girl’s left tit. And that’s just the door sign. If this doesn’t clue you in as to what you are about to get yourself into, nothing will.

Entrance to Taco Ché, Nakano Broadway Mall, Tokyo, Japan

TACO ché has a certain reputation amongst manga fans in Japan and beyond. Standing inside the small shop located on the third floor of the Nakano Broadway Mall’s escheresque building, I couldn’t really understand it. Is it the “rummage sale” indy feel? The artistic rebellion against established market themes? The “I’ve-been-there-and-you-haven’t” hipster cachet? I’m not into manga, so I tend to treat it the same way I treat all art–I may not know technical terms or styles or what’s in or out of fashion, but I know what I like when I see it. So let’s have a look.

As one would expect, the shelves are stuffed full of manga books. Some separated by topic, or artist, or other themes. The books themselves ranged in quality from professional publications to self-published pamphlets. It’s all in Japanese, so unless you have a good grasp on the written form of the language, you’re not going to find any reading material here. Illustrations range from simple line art and text to complex ink spills detailing someone’s mental illness and/or sexual hangups. Dragonball Z this ain’t.

I chose a book at random and discovered the incomprehensible adventures of Chinko-man, an apparently ordinary man with a head shaped like a penis. On the page I turned to, he was answering a phone. Exactly how talking on a phone works when your face is a foreskin is a question that I found impossible to avoid. Dude has no ears. So what, vibration? How does that not end, you know, happily? And what about the rest of his life? Blind dates have to be awkward, at least.

I turned my attention to the paintings over the shelves. The most prominent artist on display was partial to creepy nautical themes. Fish and various marine-styled monsters riding bicycles, or going to an aquarium, or enjoying a street festival. I liked the one that had a person in a dive suit driving a water-filled aquarium bus. If you like somewhat creepy art, this could be just the thing for your wall.

TACO ché doesn’t limit their artistic offerings to manga and canvas. There is a small but significant selection of grindcore and underground music labels on the shelves in front of the clerk’s desk. Across the shop are a handful of shelves devoted to DVD and VHS films–some I recognized, most I didn’t. I also found a zip-up bag shaped like a brain, a selection of buttons whose mottos seemed to be inside jokes of some sort, and a selection of T-shirts and leggings featuring characters from the books in the shop.

TACO ché is for varsity-level manga collectors who follow that scene, but it is not without its charms to people on the lookout for the strange and different. I, for one, could go for that painting of the aquarium bus.

TACO che Location Information

Website (via Google Translate) | Facebook | Twitter (Japanese) | Online Store (Google-translated)

Nearest Station: 4-minute walk from Nakano station. On the 3rd floor of Nakano Broadway Shopping Center, access through the Sunmall. (click on the Google Map for directions)

Hours of Operation: Open every day 12:00 am – 8:00 pm

“Why Go?”: For indie manga with that anti-establishment feel

Click on one of the links below to explore other shopping options in Tokyo–

February 16, 2015 0 comment
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Autumn leaves at Shinjuku Gyoen, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Whether you’re looking for a quiet getaway, interesting shopping, or sex & alcohol, Shinjuku has it all.

Autumn leaves at Shinjuku Gyoen, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Autumn in Shinjuku Gyoen

Isetan, Shinjuku Tokyo

Shopping at Isetan, East Shinjuku

Don Quijote, Shinjuku Tokyo

A great place for random gifts: Don Quijote

Bic Camera, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Electronics shopping at Bic Camera

Urban Buddha

Urban Buddha

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Nishi-Shinjuku

Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in West Shinjuku

NS Building Christmas display

Christmas display at the NS Building

Christmas display at the NS Building

Close up of the Christmas display at the NS building

View from the NS Building Observation Deck

View from the NS Building observation deck

View from the NS Building observation deck

View from the NS Building observation deck

Rakugo Theater, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Rakugo theater

Karaoke spot in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Karaoke spot in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo

The infamous red-light district of Kabukicho

Nichome bar, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Gold Finger Bar on Nichome

Winter illuminations by Shinjuku Station

Winter illuminations by Shinjuku Station

 

For more ideas on things to do in Shinjuku, visit our review of L’Olioli 365 and Yodobashi Camera.

December 24, 2014 0 comment
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If you have made friends in Japan and have made it “Facebook official,” you may have seen a few profile pictures that look like they have been photoshopped to the umpteenth degree. Their eyes are larger than life, their skin almost sparkles with pearly whiteness, and surrounding their smiling faces are floating images and various words written in neon colors. Where have your Japanese friends gotten these images? They, along with most young people in Japan, took these pictures in special photo booths called “purikura” booths and they are an extremely popular activity for girls, couples, and groups of friends to commemorate their time out together and simply be silly and cute together.

Purikura booths allow you to take an old school photo booth style set of photos for a low price of either 300 or 500 yen, depending on the booth. Purikura is shortened from the name プリント倶楽部 (print club), and is a super fun way to have a little silly fun with your friends and complete your true Japanese experience. Some girls say that they never go out on a shopping trip with their friends without memorializing the experience with a Purikura trip and, boy or girl, man or woman, who can resist being the star of your own photo shoot?

Even if your Japanese is not to at the level of fluency, using a Purikura booth is simple enough that any level of Japanese speaker can use it. To start, just insert the appropriate amount of yen (just like into an arcade game) and step inside the booth. The screen will direct you to which camera you should look at, whether it will be a full body shot or just your face, and of course you will be able to select how big your eyes will be transformed into at this stage.

Once you have finished making all the kissy faces and peace signs you can manage, exit the booth and into the editing area because this is where the real fun and creativity begins. At this stage, the editing screen allow you to add whatever kind of crazy and cute stamps and stickers you want to each individual image. There is also a pen function with which you can write your own sayings directly onto the photographs. Once you have finished making your pictures super sparkly and fun, select the order and arrangement of your best shots.

The editing stage is the final part in the Purikura process. After this, simply hit the completion button on the editing screen and step outside the booth. Just like a photo booth back in the day, your photographs will be printed out on strips of adhesive paper that you can cut up and distribute between you and your friends. A fun aspect is that your Purikura pictures also double as stickers!

If you pass a game center or an alcove of Purikura booths, be sure to stop in! It is a cheap and fun activity to remember your time in Japan!

June 24, 2014 0 comment
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In Japan, there are a lot of festivals throughout the year. Now, if you are coming to Japan and plan to attend a festival, first you must be aware of a few things. First, all Festivals are not the same ! This is a big misunderstanding that some foreigners believe that, with every new season, different sections of Japan celebrate the same thing, just in a different time. That is not correct, each festival is held differently, usually having different themes and events for the people that attend the festival. This article will focus on one specific festival near Tokyo, located at Toda koen, a small prefecture of Saitama, near Tokyo, is held a festival called Mokuzai Matsuri, or wood festival!

 

In Mokuzai Matsuri, it is focused on wooden art, with a heavy focus on wooden toys! Here, locals come together and set up small shops all over the festival area. This is where they will sell their wooden creations with the people that visit the festival. Everyone is welcome to attend Mokusuri Matsuri!  This festival is held once a year, usually during summer, for an entire weekend. In the festival, you can see various shops, goods, food, games, and special performances throughout the entirety of the festival over the course of 3 days.

 

The festival is held in summer, usually in mid to late August near Toda Koen Station at Saitama Prefecture in Japan. 

 

Here are some photographs for your viewing pleasure coutesy of ronkun

 

As you can see, this festival is more than just about selling toys, it’s about celebrating wooden art! You will find preformances from taiko drumers, group activities and events. 

 

I hope that reading this article gave you more insight as to how Japanese festivals can differ depending on their location.

 

May 23, 2014 0 comment
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Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine

 

 

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine

Entrance to Meiji Jingu shrine buildings

Japan can be a difficult country to explore if you’re a budget traveler. One great way to make your trip to Tokyo cheaper and more enjoyable is to use one of the free tour guides in Tokyo. Tour guides volunteer to show foreign tourists around the city for a variety of reasons, such as practicing their language skills, or just having fun meeting new people and showing you their hometown. Check out our article on free tour guides in Tokyo!

The following are all the different volunteer groups that are available:

 

Free Tour Guides in Tokyo : Capital Tokyo West SGG Club

Capital Tokyo West SSG Club is a group of goodwill volunteers who provide tours all over Tokyo, but focus on the Western side. Here you can find English, French and Italian-speaking volunteers. They are more than happy to help you plan your personal tour. Their service hours are 9:30-17:00 everyday and are sometimes flexible. If you are interested, visit their website and email them in advance at chu-san@sb3.so-net.ne.jp to arrange a tour.

Edo Tokyo Guide Group

Established in 2006, Edo Tokyo Guide Group can guide you in a variety of languages besides English. You can take a look at their previous guide reports here. Check out their website and contact them at least 2 weeks in advance by e-mail Edo.Tokyo.Guide.int@gmail.com to request a tour.

Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine free tour guides in tokyo

 

Shinagawa SGG Club

Shinagawa SGG Club will cater tours to your interests and requests. The volunteer can accompany you up to 3 days but groups shouldn’t be larger than 10 people. Feel free to read reviews from previous visitors here. Please visit their website and email them at least two weeks in advance to arrange a tour at sinagawa_sgg2004@yahoo.co.jp

 

The Japanese Red Cross Language Service Volunteers

The Japanese Red Cross Language Service Volunteers offer tours for the physically challenged and their assistants in various languages. Please visit their website and apply at least two weeks in advance by e-mail at sgg@tok-lanserv.jp .

Tokyo Free Guide

“We are full of energy with heart-warming hospitality and cultural insights.” An organization with over 350 volunteer guides, Tokyo Free Guide provides tours in several languages. To make your tour more enjoyable, don’t forget to write down your interests when submitting your request. Some of the guides know a lot about the Japanese pop culture while other guides might have a vast knowledge about history, religion or even… good food! Please submit your request through their website at least two weeks before your desired tour date.

Skytree free tour guides in tokyo

Tokyo Free Walking Tour

A weekly free English-language walking tour is held every Saturday (except January 1-3), from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. They are currently offering two tours. Their main tour is the “East Gardens of the Imperial Palace” and the other is the “Asakusa” tour. However, the Asakusa tour is conducted on a non-regular basis so remember to check their schedule beforehand. No reservations are needed for the walking tours so if you are interested, feel free to meet up with the tour guides. The meeting place for the Imperial Palace tour is at the ground floor of Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi Central Ticket Gate. The meeting place for the Asakusa tour is to be announced so stay tuned! You can check them out at their website or look for them on Facebook.  If you have any questions, please e-mail tfwt@live.jp .

 

Tokyo SGG Club

Tokyo Systemized Goodwill Guide Club (SGG Club) is a member group of Japan’s National Tourism Organization (JNTO). Primarily offering set tours of Asakusa and Ueno, Tokyo SGG Club also offers custom tours for free on request. They also have several information desks around Ueno area so check out their website for more information!

Spending a bit of extra time in Japan? There are also free English-language tours available in Kyoto and Osaka!

May 8, 2014 0 comment
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