The oldest ekiben (boxed meal sold at railway stations) is believed to be the “Toge no Kamameshi,” which has its origins at Yokogawa station, deep in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. The kamameshi (a steamed mixture of rice, meat and vegetables) weighing a hefty 725 grams, is sold in ceramic containers. This makes it a bit inconvenient to carry — although it does a good job of keeping the contents warm, thereby making it a wonderfully tasty meal. Sales were first launched in 1958, and its popularity continues to this day. The shop that sells it, called Oginoya, has a long history, having been founded in 1885. Originally Oginoya sold onigiri (balls of rice wrapped in seaweed) with takuan (radish pickles), but when sales lagged it came up with the idea of offering a meal in a ceramic vessel. People who choose to keep the container and take it home are able to re-use it for steaming individual portions of rice. For a really authentic experience, the dish can be consumed while seated in a passenger car pulled by an old steam locomotive, which makes special runs as a local tourist attraction.
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A Ritual in Practice for over 1,300 Years in Japan
Naiku which enshrines Amaterasu Omikami, the kami (deity) of the sun
The Joto-sai ceremony, at which priests raise a munagi (ridge beam) into the main hall of Naiku
Scene from a celebratory ritual
A purification ritual officiated by the head priest
The Sengyo ceremony, in which the deity Amaterasu Omikami is transferred to the newly rebuilt Naiku
Among the many Shinto shrines in Japan, the most revered is the Ise Jingu (Grand Shrine) in Mie Prefecture. Its most important ritual, known as “Shikinen Sengu,” was recently completed in October. In principle, every 20 years the shrine’s two main buildings — the main sanctuary, Naiku which enshrines the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami and Geku which enshrines Toyouke Omikami the deity of agriculture and industry — along with 14 other shrines in Ise Jingu are completely rebuilt. At that time, the torii (gate), mikaki (wall). mikeden (dining hall) and some 65 other structures, ornaments, treasures and bridges are also renewed.
The ornamentation on the interior and exterior of the main hall consists of 525 varieties numbering a total of 1,085 items, whereas the so-called treasures consist of 189 varieties totaling 491 items. Shikinen Sengu ceremony is also an important occasion to hand down those traditional craftsmanship to future generations.
According to historical records, the practice of rebuilding the shrine was established by Emperor Tenmu during the Asuka Period (538 to 710), and was first carried out in the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Jito in 690. Afterwards, with a few exceptions, such as a civil war continuing more than 120 years during which reconstruction was not carried out, and some delays, the practice of Shikinen Sengu every 20 years has been maintained for some 1,300 years. In 1993, the 61st Shikinen Sengu was carried out. Beginning from 2005, the 62nd Shikinen Sengu proceeded with various ceremonies like sanctifying the cutting of trees for the new buildings, workers’ safety rituals during the reconstruction and festivals in which those who live adjacent to the shrine participated. In October, the final transfer of the symbol of Amaterasu Omikami to the new structure was completed. Total costs for the rebuilding and various ceremonies are estimated at 55 billion yen ($550 million).
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What is Hitou? Hidden and Unforgettable Hot Springs
The word onsen has become widely-known in the English language as being just the right word for a Japanese hot spring bath. In just the same way as the word sushi has become the word for raw fish on rice.
So, what is hitou? Hitou is hidden hot springs, secluded baths that are so far off the beaten track that they are difficult to get to: and thus, therein lies their attraction. The word is formed from the two Chinese characters for “hidden” and “bath.”
How fitting that the word hitou is still unknown to the English-speaking world. Hitou tends to be in extremely remote locations, which may be unattractive for the casual tourist, but for the curious explorer, these are places found in areas of outstanding natural beauty, offering mountain and forest vistas that can be enjoyed from the comfort of a hot spring bath.
Onsen has always been important to the Japanese people. Historically, bathing was associated with Shintoism due to the act of cleansing and purifying the body. Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku is said to have its history more than 3,000 years and be the oldest onsen in Japan. Buddhist priests play some role to spread onsen culture in Japan. There are many onsen in Japan which are said to be found by famous priests like Kukai or Saicho. Later in the history, the health benefits of the various types of onsen spring water were starting to be recognized and going away for an onsen break became an established style of holiday.
For the more adventurous travelers in search of hitou, signposts were put up guiding travelers to the more remote and hard-to-find hot springs. There are hitou in many parts of the country. On top of the excitement of visiting hitou, is the actual adventure of making one’s way there. Trains and buses usually are long and infrequent, yet scenery is stunning and the convenience of the city is sacrificed for the peace, calm and tranquility of rural Japan. Be warned, if you visit one of hitou, you might get hooked.
Ubayu Onsen Masugataya, Yamagata Prefecture
Ubayu Onsen, literally nanny bath, has a long history dating back to 1533 when a miner went to the mountain in search of gold. He fell asleep and dreamt of an old woman with long black hair holding a baby in her arms. She told the miner to cease his greedy quest for gold and to look after the hot spring instead. It has been popular ever since. Open for business from early April until November, this is a rough and wild hot spring located in a high valley in the mountains.
Namegawa Onsen Fukushimaya, Yamagata Prefecture
Situated 850 meters high up in the mountains, set in the fold of a valley running through the forest, this hot spring has a history of some 270 years. The name of the onsen, Namegawa, comes from the story of its discovery: a man was trying to cross a river, slipped and put his hands on a hot stone. Hence Slip River onsen was born. The lodge associated with the hot spring, Fukushimaya, was built around 200 years ago and has a wonderfully rustic charm to it. It is a place to relax in peace and quiet with a book.
Takayu Onsen Azumaya, Fukushima Prefecture
Arriving at this 10-roomed onsen lodge, one is immediately greeted by the distinctive eggy smell of sulfur. This hot spring’s history dates back to 1607. The owner of the lodge is enthusiastic and friendly, who has a firm policy about running a lodge attached to a hot spring. “It’s no use getting into this business for money. You’ve got to do it for the love of it.” The hot springs at Azumaya certainly reflect the love that the owner has put into his work. The waters are an unforgettable blue, and 100% spring-sourced.
Marukoma Onsen, Hokkaido
Marukoma Onsen is a delightful onsen situated on the shores of Lake Shikotsu in Hokkaido. Opened in 1915, the hot spring was originally only accessible by boat across the lake. Now, a road has been built making it easier to get to. The open-air bath is distinctly memorable, being partially connected to the lake it looks out across. Hot water rises up from the gravel base of the bath, keeping you nice and warm to admire the view. A morning bath with mist rising off the lake will definitely give you an unforgettable experience.
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Tobu World Square Combines History, Culture and Fun
Tochigi Prefecture, situated northeast of Tokyo, hosts year-round leisure attractions that include Lake Chuzenji, the Kegon waterfall, Okunikko National Park, the Kinugawa mineral spa and Shrines and Temples of Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also boasts several theme parks, including Tobu World Square, which opened in April 1993 after five years of construction.
Tobu World Square covers a fairly compact area, in which 102 modern and historic relics from 21 countries are on display. Nearly half of the 1/25th scale-model replicas have been designated World Cultural or Heritage sites by UNESCO. The park’s operator does not exaggerate when it boasts, “It will make you feel like a 25 times taller colossal kid, touring around the world!”
The fastest and easiest way to get there is via the Tobu railway line, which operates frequently departing limited express trains, with reserved seats that running from Tobu Asakusa station in downtown Tokyo to Kinugawa Onsen. From there a taxi or shuttle bus can be taken to the park.
Once inside the main entrance gate a right turn takes you to the Modern Japan Zone, which features a model of the 634-meter high Tokyo Sky Tree — its newest attraction — along with familiar buildings still in use such as Tokyo Central Station, the National Diet building, the Tokyo Dome, Yoyogi National Stadium and Narita International Airport. There’s also a model of the Imperial Hotel, designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which was in use from 1923 to 1967.
A Shinkansen (bullet train) and commuter train depart Tokyo Central Station.
Next comes the America Zone, with the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Flatiron Building and the White House. Prominent among them are the twin towers of the former World Trade Center.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a few people were quick to jump on the park’s operators, accusing them of “exploiting” the tragedy — entirely untrue, of course, since the models had been standing there from years beforehand. And I fully applaud the park’s decision to leave them standing as a memorial to the victims and reminder of a famous historical event.
This scene of lower Manhattan shows the Statue of Liberty and twin towers of the World Trade Center, which collapsed after a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
On the street outside New York’s 22-story Flatiron Building — built in 1902 as the world’s first skyscraper — is a traffic accident, with several patrol cars on the scene.
New York cops converge on a traffic accident in central Manhattan.
Next, in the Egypt zone are three Pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Great Sphinx and the four statues at the temple of Abu Simbel.
These statues from the Abu Simbel temple in Egypt were relocated to preserve them from the Aswan High Dam.
The Asia Zone features Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, India’s Taj Mahal, Forbidden City in Beijing, the Namdaemun (south gate) of Seoul, Korea, and the Dragon & Tiger Pagodas of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, among others. The Great Wall of China realistically twists and winds along the highest point of park, and features a section in disrepair, complete with a camel grazing at the bottom, evoking memories of the caravans that once passed along the wall en route to the old Silk Road, the trading route that transverses central Asia.
Cambodia’s Ankor Wat temple complex was built in the 12th century.
A white marble mausoleum completed in 1653, the Taj Mahal in Agra, India is considered one of the world’s most beautiful structures.
It’s hard to distinguish this model from the actual Great Wall of China.
The Europe Zone has a large number of models on display, with six from France, five each from England, Italy (including the Vatican), Netherlands and Spain, and others representing Austria, Germany, Greece, Norway and Russia.
They include the Fountain Palace of Czar Peter the Great, the Arc de Triomphe, Versailles palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Westminster Abbey, and Bavaria’s elegant Neuschwanstein Castle — which is said to have served as inspiration for the Cinderella castle at Disneyland.
The bas-relief figures on Paris’ Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile show amazing detail.
Bavaria’s beautiful Neuschwanstein castle is said to have inspired the Cinderella castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Hiroshima’s Itsukushima Shrine, with its famous red torii gate, is one of Japan’s best known landmarks.
Over 30 famous buildings from around Japan include the Itsukushima shrine in Hiroshima, Nara’s Horyuji temple, the Byodo’in Phoenix Hall in Kyoto, Himeji and Kumamoto Castles, the main building of the Dogo Onsen hot springs in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture and the Shureimon Gate of Okinawa.
To do the park justice, I recommend at least two hours be allocated for a visit. Each of the 102 buildings and monuments is a work of art in miniature, with the colors, texture and detail remarkably realistic, and one needs to make an extra effort to take in other touches, such as its beautiful landscaping, like the 20,000 real bonsai trees whose foliage changes with the seasons. And the 140,000 human miniatures who populate the various sites are all claimed to have individual faces.
Needless to say, there are no restrictions on photographs so you can pose for a photo standing beside a life-size British palace guard in bearskin cap, or terra cotta warrior from the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Or, you can mount a kneeling camel in front of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
In addition to several gift shops located on the premises, the park operates two large restaurants, both with seating for over 200 persons.
While in Tochigi, travelers might also want to visit with Edo Wonderland (introduced in Japan Close-Up’s July issue) or some of its other year-round leisure activities, including a “Saru Gundan” troupe of trained monkey performers for 2,100 yen ($21) and raft rides down the Kinugawa River for 2,400 yen ($24).
Admission: 2,500 yen ($25) for adults, 1,200 yen ($12) for children ages 4 and above. Open year-round from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily (9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. from December 1 through March 19). Last entry is one hour before closing.
Address: 209-1 Ohara, Kinugawaonsen, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture 321-2593
English URL: http://www.tobuws.co.jp/default_en.html
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Sand Art Attracting Tourists in Tottori, Japan
A comic book series called “Attack on Titan” that is popular with both adults and young has sold a total over 23 million copies. To mark the occasion of the sales launch of Volume 11 in the series, this sand sculpture was created on a beach near Enoshima, a small island in Kanagawa Prefecture. In principle only sand and water can be used for the sculpture, with no inner core or other materials. It is, however, permitted to mix in milk or some other natural ingredient as a binder to prevent the sculpture from eroding quickly
The sculpture here required some 80 tons of sand. It measured some 5.4 meters in length and 3 meters high. It was due to be removed on August 15, but it was viewed by many beachgoers and attracted a great deal of attention.
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Harnessing Art to Discourage Graffiti in Tokyo
The applications of art can be said to be limitless. Take the Harajuku district in Tokyo, a hangout for fashion-conscious teens, who flock to the area both on weekdays and weekends. One problem, however, has been persistent vandalism by taggers who paint graffiti on the shutters of shops after they close for the night. To discourage this, a famous apparel shop in the district, HARADA’S, tried a unique experiment, offering its shutters as a canvas for use by a well known artist. The attractive new works, which merge art with graffiti, were completed by a group called ArtMind last May.
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A New Role for Outdoor Art Exhibits
As with project mapping, outdoor art exhibits are also undergoing new developments. Local temples and shrines usually have a long history and have played an important role for local residents who may come there for peace of mind or to offer prayers. One of the newest experiments is converting those places into an art museum. In May of this year, the grounds of the Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine in Shiga Prefecture took on the function of an art museum, with 39 artists active in Japan’s Kansai district invited to display their works on the grounds. It was the first time in the shrine’s history of over 1,200 years to attempt such an activity. “By placing items of art within nature, we can convey the sensation of goodness from both nature and art. This way we hope this historic shrine will leave an enduring legacy for future generations,” the sponsor said, explaining the exhibit’s motives.
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Fusing New Technology and Historical Buildings
Projection mapping has been enjoying increased popularity at various events throughout Japan. Using graphics generated by personal computers and projection devices, this new technology projects images on the facades of buildings and other objects, or on spray mist, in many cases accompanied by background music. This affords a completely different image to familiar objects, enveloping them in a whimsical atmosphere. The accompanying photo shows an ancient temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. The beautiful, kaleidoscopic images projected on it generated cries of amazement from spectators.
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Rice Paddies Art in Japan
Rice Paddies Become an Art Form
The village of Inakadate-mura in Aomori Prefecture has become famous for its “rice paddy art,” which uses different varieties of rice ears to form pictures on “canvasses” of rice paddies. While the best time for viewing is in August, the art can be enjoyed up to harvest time in the middle of October.
This year, the 21st rice “exhibition” since it began in 1993 took the theme of “Oiran and Hollywood Stars.” (Oriran were top-ranked professional courtesans from pre-modern times, said to be great beauties.) For example, Exhibit No. 1 showed female impressionist Tomio Umezawa, who competed with Marilyn Monroe in her famous leg-revealing scene from the 1955 film “The Seven-Year Itch.” To form the images, nine different strains of rice, including the local “Tsugaru Roman” and ancient rice strains, are utilized, making possible seven different colors all together.
Paddy Exhibit No. 2 featured the popular “Ultraman” children’s TV show created by Tsuburaya Productions, which this year observes its 50th anniversary.
Rice paddy art continues to spread throughout Japan’s farming villages, serving as a means of attracting visitors.
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Luxury Trains in Japan
Japan’s railways continue to attract travelers with kanko ressha or extravagant sightseeing trains serving destinations around the country. While not specifically defined what kanko ressha is in terms of their design or function, such trains incorporate special touches that make the journey to one’s destination a very unique and special experience. Kyushu Railway Company has put particular emphasis on train design and currently operates various theme trains along seven different routes. Two of the most interesting are the Aso-Boy and the A-Train.
This train has adopted the concept of a “boy hero.” Car No. 3 has a library stocked with illustrated books, and features a circular vat filled with wooden balls titled, “wooden pool,” as part of its “Kuro-club” playground. A staff member is present to look after the children. The train is festooned with images of “Kuro” (“Blackie”), its mascot character, and cars Number 1 and 4 feature seats in arrays of three to provide an optimum scenic view. The all-white “Kuro-chan” seats for children on the window side of Car No. 3 are raised 25cm from the floor to give young passengers a better view of the passing scenery. Aso-Boy service is usually scheduled during vacation periods and on weekends, running one round-trip per day on the Hohi main line, connecting the stations of Kumamoto, Aso and Miyaji for a trip lasting from 80 to 90 minutes. The one-way fare from Kumamoto to Miyaji is 2,380 yen ($23) for adults and 1,190 yen ($11) for children.
Take the A-Train
Familiar to readers, perhaps, as Duke Ellington’s signature jazz tune, the A-Train (A ressha in Japanese) boasts a stand-up bar — named the A-Train Bar — serving a wide selection of soft drinks and cocktails. More than a family-oriented design, this train appeals mainly to adult passengers, with its retro décor, bar and background music, featuring (of course) the tune “Take the A-Train,” to provide an nostalgic and romantic atmosphere to travelers. The train’s arrival at Misumi station is designed to connect with an excursion boat at the terminal station, Matsushima. On weekends and during vacation periods the A-Train runs three round trips per day on the Amakusa-Misumi line between Kumamoto and Matsushima stations. The one-way fare for a 40-minute ride is 1,820 yen ($18).