Posts Tagged ‘Museums’

Nara Revisited: Day 1

June 3, 2009

When I first visited Nara, I only had enough time to see a fraction of what I wanted to.  I resolved to make another trip, and so I did.  I revisited Nara at the end of October 2007, and this time I stayed at a hotel and made two days of it.

On the first day, I visited two sub-temples of Tōdai-ji – the temple with the giant statue of Buddha – as well as a major shrine and Nara National Museum.

From the northeast corner of the Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji, a path leads up the hillside to Nigatsu-dō, the larger of the two sub-temples.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Path

Nigatsu-dō means “Hall of the 2nd Month,” and while there are several buildings in the complex, only the eponymous hall itself is open to the public.

Nara Nigatsu-dou

Nigatsu-dō dates from the 8th century, like the rest of Tōdai-ji, but the hall was reconstructed in 1669 after being destroyed in a fire. “2nd Month,” refers to a group of ceremonies held here during the 2nd month of the old lunar calendar, which equates to around March.  These ceremonies have been held every year since 752.

Along the stairs to the hall, there is a fountain for ritually purifying yourself by rinsing your hands.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Fountain

That’s a Shinto tradition, not a Buddhist one, but it sometimes shows up at Japanese Buddhist temples.

Up at the hall, you can’t actually enter the building, but you can walk along the terrace.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Terrace

In addition to lanterns in a variety of shapes and sizes, there are placards mounted all along the eaves.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Pictures

Some have writing and others have pictures, and some are fairly new while others are very old.  These two are nameplates (Nigatsu-dō is written “二月堂“), but as you can see, only the one on the left is still legible.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Nameplate

On two neighboring buildings:  Gargoyle tiles!

Nara Nigatsu-dou Onigawara

They’re called onigawara (鬼瓦) in Japanese.  I love these things.

Back on the ground, I encountered one of Nara’s many free-roaming sacred deer.

Nara Nigatsu-dou Deer

They get rounded up every October to have their antlers removed, but this guy must have evaded capture.

From Nigatsu-dō, I headed south along the hillside.  A short distance away is a modest building known as Sangatsu-dō, meaning “Hall of the 3rd Month.”

Nara Sangatsu-dou

It’s name comes from a ceremony held here during the 3rd lunar month. Sangatsu-dō isn’t as as well known as its neighbor, but it is said to be the oldest building at Tōdai-ji. It houses 16 statues, 14 of which date from between 729 and 749.  The statues are in very good condition given their age, and 12 are designated national treasures.  No photography allowed, alas.  After taking a look, I continued south.

The hillside is wooded, but some spots allow for views over Nara.  This is the Great Buddha Hall.

Nara Toudai-ji Distant

And here you can see the pagoda at Kōfuku-ji, the other temple I stopped by on my first visit.

Nara Koufuku-ji Distant

About 15 minutes farther south, in denser forest, is Kasuga Grand Shrine.  This is a side entrance.

Nara Kasuga Side Entrance

Kasuga Grand Shrine was founded in 768 as the tutelary shrine of the powerful Fujiwara clan.  It’s home to some 3,000 lanterns.  You can buy a paper to write your name and a wish, and then put it in one of the stone lanterns.

Nara Kasuga Stone Lantern

This person is praying for the well-being of his family.

For a more permanent prayer object, you can have a bronze lantern made.

Nara Kasuga Big Lantern

Here’s a close look at one.

Nara Kasuga New Lantern

These aren’t cheap, I’d imagine, but they’re hanging everywhere inside the shrine.

Nara Kasuga Lanterns

At least they’re probably more affordable than a torii gate at Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.

And hey, here’s a wooden lantern.

Nara Kasuga Buckets

On the left.  I didn’t see any writing on it, so it probably wasn’t a prayer lantern.  I wonder if there’s always a wooden lantern there or if it was filling the spot for a bronze prayer lantern.  Hmm.

At any rate, as for the shrine itself, this inner gate is as far as the public is allowed to go.

Nara Kasuga Shrine

You can, however, see a picture of the inner sanctuary at the shrine’s website, here.  There are four kami enshrined in the sanctuary, hence four shrines.

I left Kasuga Grand Shrine from its south gate and headed back into town.  On the way, I happened upon the shrine’s Treasure Hall, a small museum that truly deserves its name.  They had some outstanding artifacts.  There are a few pictures here (click on the images for a better view).

Back in town, my last stop for the day was at Nara National Museum, which was holding its annual exhibition of treasures from Shōsō-in, a storehouse belonging to Tōdai-ji (although the treasures are now administered by the Imperial Household Agency). The dedication of the giant statue of Buddha at Tōdai-ji was attended by monks and dignitaries from as far away as India, and the collection includes some fascinating Silk Road artifacts in addition to Japanese works. You can see a handful of the repository’s 8,874 items here.

Dinner was noteworthy.

I ate at Miyako Kozuchi (京小づち), a restaurant that serves Japanese style Chinese medicinal cuisine, made from organic and mostly locally grown ingredients.  The restaurant doesn’t have a standard website, but they do have a blog.  This post shows what I ordered.

The soup is made from the traditional Japanese stock based on kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, and katsuobushi.  To this is added egg, shredded nori (the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi), and green onion, as well as the very unusual ingredients of red rice and Silkie chicken.  The chicken is called “crow-bone chicken” in Japanese (烏骨鶏, “ukokkei”), due to the inky color of its skin, flesh, and bones.  To the right of the soup is, I believe, sesame pudding with wolfberries on top.  Next is an assortment of Japanese pickles.  Below that is a row of medicinal food to add to the soup – mostly seeds and berries, with pickled garlic and shiso leaf being the only things I could identify.  The contents of the large plate may have been a little different for my meal, but as far as what is pictured, on the right is egg, green beans, taro root, and wheat gluten (the pink and green thing); in the middle is fish with citrus-doused sweet potato; and on the left is a lightly sweetened mix of soy beans, seaweed, shiitake, and konnyaku.

The meal was delicious, satisfying, healthy, and novel.  You can’t ask for much more.

Miyako Kozuchi is located in a shopping arcade near the Nara-machi neighborhood.  From the southwest corner of Sarusawa Pond (south of Kōfuku-ji), head south one block and then west one block.  (The streets in this area are all narrow and there are many side streets, but I’m defining a block as ending at a four-way intersection.  And if you’ve left the narrow streets and hit a main road, you’ve gone too far.) You should be at the shopping arcade.  Head south and the restaurant will be on your right, just a few doors down.  You can recognize it by the picture of a short-handled mallet on the shop curtain.



March 3, 2009

I may be back in the States, but I still have Japan travels to talk about, so without further ado, here’s one of them.  In May of 2008, I made a day trip to Fushimi.

Fushimi is now the southernmost ward in Kyoto city, but it used to be an entirely separate city and it has its own castle.

Fushimi Castle

As seen from a train station.  This is as close as I got.

Fushimi is the home of Gekkeikan, the world’s largest producer of sake.  Gekkeikan makes a lot of cheap sake – a lot of cheap sake – but it has some higher quality products, too.  It was the first brewery to sell sake in bottles instead of kegs and is still an innovator.

Gekkeikan was founded in 1637 and remains family owned.  The old brewery is now a museum.

Fushimi Gekkeikan Yard

The buildings, which I believe date from around 1900, are so much more attractive than the concrete box warehouses that prevail today, don’t you think?

Fushimi Gekkeikan Street

Of course, wooden buildings do make fires more of a danger.  The adjacent canal may have helped mitigate that.

Fushimi Gekkeikan Canal

More importantly for daily business (a hundred or more years ago, that is), the canal provides access to a major river that was used to ferry sake and all manner of other goods to and from Kyoto and Osaka.

After seeing the museum, I had yakitori for lunch, at a restaurant run by another sake brewery, and then I took a short train ride to Fushimi’s most famous feature, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine.

Fushimi Inari Gate

Established in the year 711, Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine is the main shrine of Inari, the kami of agriculture and industry.  There are tens of thousands of minor shrines to Inari across Japan, often attached to temples or other shrines.  Inari is said to use foxes as messengers, and you can always identify an Inari shrine by its fox statues.

At Fushimi Inari, businesses and individuals donate (ie, buy) torii gates to wish for success, and these torii make a loop up the mountain behind the main shrine that takes several hours traverse.

At the beginning of the path are two rows of small torii.

Fushimi Inari Split

They practically form tunnels.

Fushimi Inari Tunnel

After a relatively short while, the small torii give way to large ones with more space between them.

Fushimi Inari Couple

Each torii has the name and address of its donor written on its uphill side.  It was interesting to read them (those that I could read, anyway), and occasionally I saw some well known companies, such as Sapporo Beer.

Fushimi Inari Sapporo

It’s the one with the big writing.

I also saw new torii being erected.

Fushimi Inari Raising

The number of gates is just crazy, and the path takes hours to walk, as I said, but it’s not monotonous.  At points, the torii stop for a while and there are other things along the trail.

Fushimi Inari Pathside

I’m not entirely sure what these piles are, but my best guess is that they’re private offerings like the gates, but in the form of small shrines.  In Japanese, they’re called tsuka (塚), which just means “mound.” The word tsuka also refers to burial mounds, but I don’t think these are graves.

Here’s a closer look at a mound.

Fushimi Inari Torii Mound

Each torii along the path has 奉納, “dedication” or “offering,” written at the joins on its front side. These torii have that, too, but they also have a bunch of other writing.  On the torii in front, there is the name of a kami on the cross piece – not Inari, but “Tamamitsu-ōkami,” who I don’t know anything about.  The left post says “Erected on New Year’s Day, 2008” and the right post has an address and some names.  “Jewel” (玉) is inscribed in the stone.  Hmm . . . I wish I had a picture of a different mound to compare with this one.  Oh well.  In any case, as far as I know, these mounds are peculiar to Inari shrines.

Along the path, there is also a large pond and the occasional building.

Fushimi Inari Pond

And this cool dragon fountain.

Fushimi Inari Dragon

And to abandon narrative entirely, in favor of the “Here’s a ___” blogging style, here’s a stage for ceremonial music and dance, back at the main shrine at the bottom of the trail.

Fushimi Inari Stage

That’s all for now.


February 11, 2009

I spent my last full day in China in the city of Suzhou, 45 minutes west of Shanghai by express train.

Suzhou was founded some 2,500 years ago as the capital of the state of Wu, during China’s “Spring and Autumn Period” (when separate kingdoms formed as the Zhou Dynasty gradually lost control, leading in turn to the Warring States Period).  Suzhou remained the cultural center of the region until Shanghai overshadowed it in the last century or so.  Today, a visitor might be tempted to call Suzhou a town rather than a city, as it doesn’t have any high rises, but it has over two million residents.

The Grand Canal passes through Suzhou, and the city is crisscrossed with many smaller canals.  Marco Polo called Suzhou the Venice of the East, and although it isn’t nearly so magnificent today, it still has charming spots.

Suzhou Canal-W

The canals vary in size and character.  This one is cleaner, if perhaps less interesting.

Suzhou Canal-C

Another small canal.

Suzhou Canal-N

But as picturesque as its canals can be, they aren’t what brought me to Suzhou.  The city’s real draw is its collection of old gardens.

Like Yuyuan in Shanghai, Suzhou’s gardens were urban homes landscaped into private paradises and sanctuaries.  At one time, Suzhou had over 200 gardens.  Unfortunately, far fewer remain today, but nine of the best preserved gardens are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.  I managed to visit five of these.

The first garden I saw was the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence

This is not the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

On accident, I entered Suzhou Museum, which is right next door.  I had known that the museum was next to the garden, but I was tricked because the museum has two entrances – one for the museum proper and another for Prince Zhong’s Residence, an old mansion that’s now part of the museum.  I soon realized my mistake, but only after I’d bought a ticket and entered.  Still, two good things came out of screwing up.

One was that the residence is a fascinating historic site, although the English signage was limited. Prince Zhong was a rebel commander in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  I’d never heard of the rebellion, but apparently its leader claimed to be the younger brother of Christ.

And so the residence has a chapel.

Suzhou Prince Zhong's Residence Chapel

The Taiping Rebellion took place following the First Opium War, whose humiliating outcome left many Chinese people disaffected with the imperial government.  The rebellion gained many supporters and escalated into a brutal civil war that killed over 20 million people.  You’d think that would warrant mention in a history class, but then again, I don’t think I learned any Chinese history before college.

The second good thing about accidentally entering Suzhou Museum was that the main museum building was brand new and had really nice, clean, modern bathrooms.  That’s not something you can take for granted.

Anyhow, my time was limited, so after taking a very quick look at the most interesting parts of the museum and enjoying the beautifully sanitary restroom, I moved on to my intended destination.

At all the gardens I visited, the crowds were heavy – it was the Saturday following a national holiday after all – and the best views were constantly blocked by domestic tour groups.  There were occasional lulls in the flow of people, and I took pictures when I could, but the breaks didn’t necessarily happen when I was in a good place for a shot, and my digital camera still had the problem of randomly flipping its image (which began in Hong Kong and which I didn’t fix until I was back in Japan), so I don’t have many good pictures.  I’ll share what I can.

This is the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

Suzhou Humble Administrator's Garden

It presents a nice example of the borrowed scenery technique, using the pagoda.

I bought a book on the gardens of Suzhou while I was in the city, and it says that the Humble Administrator’s Garden was built in 1530.  The book then goes on to note that the garden was later divided into three sections with different owners for each part.  Before being reunited centuries later, the different sections experienced very different treatment.  The central part mostly kept the original Ming Dynasty aesthetic, the western section changed to reflect late Qing Dynasty style, and the eastern section was in ruins before getting a renovation in the 1950s that didn’t really adhere to any classical style.

Maddeningly, the book never explains any of these styles.  It just says that such and such a garden is an exemplar of such and such an era’s style and then leaves it at that.  And since I haven’t found much information elsewhere, I can’t offer any illumination. Bah.

The next garden I visited was the Lion Grove, built around 1340.

Suzhou Lion Garden Lion

Rock collecting was a popular pursuit among Chinese literati and the owner must have been thrilled to find this lion-like formation.  I don’t know if the rock inspired the garden or if it was added later, but apparently the garden’s builder was a Buddhist monk, and Lion Grove was the name of a mountain monastery.

The garden’s most famous feature is its sprawling artificial hill, which was meant to evoke the mountain home of the original Lion Grove.

Suzhou Lion Garden Rocks

This is just a part of the maze-like rockery, which has nine paths and 11 caves.  Those numbers have some sort of religious symbolism, but I don’t know what that is.

After seeing the Lion Grove, I stopped for lunch.

I ate at Deyuelou (得月楼), a 400-year-old restaurant.  My food was fine, but nothing impressive, and the restaurant’s huge, modern building wasn’t particularly atmospheric.  Still, I don’t dismiss Deyuelou, since it’s really meant for large groups sharing a variety of dishes.  And I did eat something that I’d never eaten before and may never encounter again:  I had a soup that included fried caterpillar fungus.  It wasn’t bad.

From lunch, I moved on to the Master of Nets Garden, built in the 18th century on the site of a 12th century garden.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Flowers

The name, my book tells me, is a tribute to another garden, the Fisherman’s Garden.

The love of unusual rocks was present here, as in all the gardens I saw.

Suzhou Master of Nets Garden Rock

This particular rock supposedly produces a ringing tone when struck.  I didn’t test it myself, but a Chinese kid whacked at it with a plastic bottle for a while with no results (while his parents watched, utterly unconcerned).

This is the Surging Wave Pavilion, one of the oldest gardens in the city.

Suzhou Wave Garden

Built in 1044, the Surging Wave Pavilion is rare in that is surrounded by water, rather than having a large pond in the middle.  Apparently, this was the usual layout for gardens in southern Chinese “water towns” like Suzhou, before the pond arrangement became the norm.

The last garden I visited was the Garden for Lingering (or “Lingering Garden” as the official translation goes).

Suzhou Lingering Garden Door

The site began as the East Garden in 1593 and changed names several times before becoming the Garden for Lingering in 1876.

It had my favorite rocks among the many in all the gardens.

Suzhou Lingering Garden Mountains

I think that these  evoke mountains in a much more graceful and attractive fashion than the Lion Grove’s huge mass of rocks.

So as I said, I had a hard time taking pictures.  I was mostly limited to shots of walls and corners in the gardens, which are fine in and of themselves, but only give a vague idea of what the gardens were like.  Oh well.

The next morning, I visited the Shanghai Museum.  It’s free, which was nice, but to prevent overcrowding, visitors are admitted at a slow, controlled pace, which made for a long line outside.  After the museum, it was time to make my way to the airport and catch my flight back to Japan.

For one last fun experience in China, I rode the maglev to Pudong Airport.  The German-built Shanghai Maglev was the first commercially implemented, high speed maglev train.  Each compartment has a speedometer, and the top speed displayed was 431 km/h (about 268 mph).  Whee!


January 10, 2008

The side of Japan’s main island that faces the Sea of Japan is less populated than the side that faces the Pacific Ocean, and it’s rather off the beaten path. I’ve only made two trips over the mountains to the other side. One was to Matsue, a couple weeks ago, and the other was to Kanazawa, at the end of August (image from

Kanazawa Map

The city of Kanazawa has an unusual history. During the warring states period, a group of monks and peasants ousted the lord of the area and established a “Peasant’s Kingdom.” They successfully ruled themselves for about one hundred years, from the late 15th century to the late 16th century, until Japan’s reunification under the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Under the new lord sent by the shogun, Kanazawa, already wealthy from its considerable agricultural output, became a major producer of gold leaf, and it developed into an important center of art and craftsmanship. Around the end of the 17th century, the shogunate made gold leaf a government monopoly, and its manufacture was restricted to Edo (which became Tokyo). Kanazawa however, continued to make gold leaf in secret, and after the Meiji Restoration it resumed open production. Kanazawa craftsmen created the first mechanized gold leaf press/hammer and today, Kanazawa accounts for more than 95% of Japan’s gold leaf production.

One symbol of Kanazawa’s wealth and culture is Kenroku-en, an expansive garden adjacent to Kanazawa Castle. Kenroku-en was originally the lord’s garden, but it was opened to the public in 1874. This long-legged lantern is the garden’s most iconic feature.

Kanazawa Kenroku-en Lantern

A teahouse.

Kanazawa Kenroku-en Boat

Not many flowers were blooming in late August, but the garden was filled with wild birds.

Kanazawa Kenroku-en Heron

Appropriately enough, the heron – a symbol of longevity – was resting on an island meant to represent the legendary Horai, the island of immortals.

In addition to the garden, the highlights of my visit were Seison-kaku and the former Nomura residence.

Seison-kaku was the villa of the lord’s wife. It’s gorgeous and has some fascinating European touches, like stained glass from Holland and some rooms with vividly painted walls. No pictures allowed, but you can see a little at the website.

Moving down the ladder of social hierarchy, the Nomuras were the lords’ chief retainers, and their old residence is a beautiful example of a high-ranking samurai’s house. It’s not mansion-sized, but the building is handsome, the garden is very good, and every sliding door is a work of art employing Kanazawa gold.

This is a typical room.

Kanazawa Nomura Tokonoma

Tatami matting, bare walls, and an alcove displaying calligraphy and flowers.

The aforementioned doors had protective covers, making it hard to take pictures without glare and reflections, but this shot isn’t too bad.

Kanazawa Nomura Fusuma

A suit of armor was on display in the entryway.

Kanazawa Nomura Armor

Additional treasures were shown in a small, single-room museum attached to the house (in the place of an old storehouse, I think).

Things like these swords . . .

Kanazawa Nomura Swords

. . . and this lacquered box.

Kanazawa Nomura Box


Next time: Thailand.



Trees in Japanese gardens are often pruned into bonsai-like shapes, and sometimes they been made to grow too horizontally to support their own weight.  Poles are used to keep such trees from breaking or falling over. This pine at Kenroku-en is probably the most extreme example I’ve seen.

Kanazawa Kenroku-en Pine

Home with the Flu

December 6, 2007

I’ve been really busy lately. I took the level two Japanese Language Proficiency Test last weekend. 9:45am-2:40pm. Holy crap, that was hard. I have no idea if I passed, but I’ll find out in February. School, meanwhile, has been crazy. To give one example: There is a elementary school next door to my current junior high school. A couple weeks ago, one of our 8th graders brought an air gun to school and shot an elementary school student. Now seriously, that’s not okay.

Speaking of the elementary school, it seems that I’ll be teaching classes there every Thursday. I did that last week, which is probably why I’m now sick with the flu. Taking sick leave here is a hassle, by the way. We have twenty days of sick leave, but we can’t just use them as we like. One day of leave requires a receipt from a doctor’s visit or from a pharmacy. For more than one day (like my current case), you need an official, sealed doctor’s note, which costs about $30. What a racket.

Upside: I have time to write a post for my poor, neglected blog.


The last stop in my big summer trip was in Nagoya, the home of Toyota. I don’t really have much of interest to say though. Well, I don’t want to say nothing, so here’s one thing.

Nagoya Atsuta-jinguu Kusunoki

This camphor tree was planted around 1,200 years ago by the monk Kūkai (better known by his posthumous name, Kōbō Daishi), who was the creator of Shingon Buddhism. He founded dozens of temples, including one I saw in Fukuoka. This tree isn’t at a temple, though, it’s at Atsuta Shrine, which is said to house the sword that is one of the three imperial regalia. The real sword was probably lost a long time ago, but they have a museum that includes an impressive collection of swords received as offerings.

Alright, that’s it for Nagoya.


The weekend before last, I made a trip to Matsue, a city near the Sea of Japan (map pilfered from

Matsue Map

Matsue is a nice place, although a bit short on attractions in and of itself. My reason for making the journey was to see the Adachi Museum of Art and Izumo Grand Shrine, an hour to the east and west, respectively.

The Adachi Museum was built in 1970 by Adachi Zenko, then 71, a self-made businessman with a large collection of 20th century Japanese art (FYI, the museum’s English website says 1980, but that’s a typo). The art is quite good, but the museum is more famous for its garden.

Adachi Museum Garden

The design of the garden often feels like a painting, and a few windows in the museum explicitly create that effect.

Adachi Museum Picture Window

The white gravel usually represents water, but this section looked like some strange desert landscape.

Adachi Museum Pines

The museum was my first stop in the area, but when I moved on to Matsue itself, heavy rain moved in, so that was it for the day.

The next morning I headed for Izumo.

Izumo is known as “the home of the gods” and tradition has it that in October all the gods of Japan gather in Izumo, so for the rest of the country October is the month without gods (except for the god Ebisu, who is deaf and doesn’t hear the summons).

Izumo Taisha

The shrine’s history says that the original main hall was much taller than the current structure and the recent unearthing of the remains of huge pillars supports this. Supposedly it looked something like this.

Izumo Taisha Original

At shrines, you can get “omikuji,” which are slips of paper with your fortune written on them. They don’t predict events, rather they simply say things like “great luck” or “bad luck.” If you get a bad fortune, you are supposed to tie it to a tree.

Izumo Omikuji

After looking around Izumo, I returned to Matsue.

Matsue Castle.

Matsue Castle

Sunset over Lake Shinji.

Matsue Shinji-ko Sunset

And this is in the wrong place chronologically, but for one last picture, here’s the bullet train arriving in Kobe.

Kobe Shinkansen

Hard to Top

November 4, 2007

When I ate at Imobou Hiranoya, I was thoroughly impressed that the restaurant was 300 years old. While I still think that’s pretty cool, I recently had lunch at a place that makes Imobou seem young.

On Saturday I ate at Honke Owariya, a noodle shop in Kyoto that was founded in 1465.

Kyoto Honke Owariya

I had “hōrai soba,” pictured on the website’s menu between “Specialties” and “Rice Bowls.” Age isn’t everything, but then again, when a business is around for that long they’re clearly doing something right, and the food was indeed very good.


My reason for being in Kyoto in the first place, meanwhile, was to see a special exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum.

Kyoto National Museum Kano Eitoku Exhibit

They were showing works by Kanō Eitoku (1543-1590), a distinguished member of the Kanō school of painters. Eitoku created the “taiga” style of screen painting (大画 – literally “large picture”), seen in the ad above, which is pretty close to the size of the original. In taiga, the size of the painting itself isn’t necessarily larger than in previous styles, rather the name comes from having one or two large figures that dominate the picture. My favorite works were his Chinese style monochromes, though.


October 8, 2007

Right. I said I’d talk about Yasukuni Shrine.

Tokyo Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni was built by imperial decree in 1869, to honor/enshrine those who died in the short civil war of the year before which had ended the Shogunate and restored direct imperial rule (the Meiji Restoration). It later became the shrine for all those who died in service of the nation.

Today, whenever a Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni, protests arise throughout east and southeast Asia, particularly in Korea and China. But what’s the big deal? A nation should be able to honor its fallen soldiers, right? The US, for example, has Arlington National Cemetery and numerous war-related monuments, after all.

Part of the outrage comes from the fact that Class A war criminals are included among the enshrined. They weren’t included initially, since they hadn’t died in action, but when the government put them on the registry of war dead so that their families could receive pensions, Yasukuni used this as grounds to enshrine them. In and of itself, that’s still defensible, however the war criminals were enshrined as “Martyrs of Showa” (Showa being the name of Emperor Hirohito’s reign).

So the real issue isn’t that war criminals are enshrined at Yasukuni, but that the shrine is saying that they were in the right. This leads to the other source of controversy: Yasukuni’s war museum.

In addition to displaying letters, pictures, and personal affects of soldiers, the museum covers Japan’s military history, focusing on the modern era, from the Meiji Restoration to World War II. It presents Japan’s military actions of this period as a matter of defending itself and the rest of Asia from Western aggression. Korea was annexed for its own good and the invasion of China was somehow inevitable.

This is from Yasukuni Shrine’s official website [edit: the website has been overhauled and this rant no longer appears there]:

The text books used in history instruction at intermediate schools from the 1997 school year will contain material on the subject of comfort women. The textbooks depict as a historical fact the story of Asian women who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese Army. Imparting this story to students who are still young and immature has become a great problem since last year. This matter is drawn upon the judgment professed by the Military Tribunal for the Far East that Japan fought a war of aggression. Can we say that this view is correct? [. . .] We cannot help but feel that the possibility of ulterior motives have not been discounted. Isn’t it a fact that the West with its military power invaded and ruled over much of Asia and Africa and that this was the start of East-West relations? There is no uncertainty in history. Japan’s dream of building a Great East Asia was necessitated by history and it was sought after by the countries of Asia. We cannot overlook the intent of those who wish to tarnish the good name of the noble souls of Yasukuni.


Meanwhile, after the “Martyrs of Showa” were enshrined there hasn’t been a single imperial visit to Yasukuni. That’s gotta sting.

And that’s the basic background.


This has nothing to do with anything, but here’s another picture from Nikkō.

Nikkou Toushou-guu Lantern

This huge lantern in Tōshō-gū is decorated with baku, mythical creatures that eat bad dreams.



So what’s the deal with Yasukuni Shrine being so nationalistic when the Emperor himself is much more moderate? Basically, Yasukuni retains the State Shinto ideology.

State Shinto’s creation following the Meiji Restoration involved sharply separating Shinto from Buddhism, organizing the nation’s shrines into an ordered hierarchy, and shaping the varied and amorphous beliefs and practices of Shinto into a national religion centered around emperor worship and serving the empire. State Shinto was abolished after the war and old shrines at least partly reverted to their traditional identities, but aside from the removal of emperor worship, Yasukuni’s identity pretty much is State Shinto.

Also, the shrine’s de facto lay organization, the Izokukai, is very nationalistic. The Izokukai represents the families of soldiers who died in World War II. It began with the purpose of looking after widows and orphans, but has become increasingly right-wing. From Wikipedia, this is the Izokukai’s original mission statement:

With a view to pursuing the end of warfare, establishing global peace and world prosperity and contributing to the welfare of humanity, we seek to provide relief and assistance to the families of those who died in the War.

And this is their current mission statement:

In pursuit of the establishment of a peaceful Japan, the cultivation of character, and the promotion of morality, we seek to praise eirei [“heroic spirits,” i.e. the kami of soldiers], to promote the welfare of the families of the war dead, and to seek recognition and compensation for civilian auxiliary units.

So goals of world peace are dropped and instead they talk about morals and praising eirei. And that’s the sort of thing you hear from the people who demand that Japanese textbooks teach students patriotism and not “fabrications” like comfort women, the Nanking Massacre, and so on.


September 17, 2007

Gah. I seem to be unable to write anything coherent, so I’ll stop trying and just throw something together.


One of the several neighborhoods I visited in Tokyo was the nerd mecca of Akihabara. Following the war, there was a black market in Akihabara selling electronic parts to students of the nearby technical college. This grew and became known as Electric Town. This is the old face of Akihabara.

Tokyo Akiba RC Sign

From the ’80s on, computer parts entered the scene. The neighborhood increasingly became a destination for nerds of all types, not just the radio enthusiasts and gadget freaks. Eventually, Akiba (as the abbreviation goes) came to be dominated by Japanese comics and animation culture. This is the current face of Akiba.

Tokyo Akiba Toranoana et al

You can still find the electronics shops, but they’ve been joined by maid cafes, thriving arcades (a dead or dying institution elsewhere), huge manga (Japanese comic book) stores, and numerous 24-hour internet cafes. On Sundays, the main street is closed to cars and all manner of strange street performances take place. Singers of both the professional and painfully amateur varieties do their thing, girls in outlandish costumes pose as crowds take pictures, groups of people do synchronized dances, and craziness abounds.


Tangentially related:

Only a bit nerdy and not at all fringe is the Ghibli Museum, a 30-minute train ride west of Tokyo’s central loop.

Mitaka Ghibli Totoro

Studio Ghibli is an animation film studio, best known in America for the movies Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away (both highly recommended if you haven’t seen them). The museum has exhibits on the science of animation, a mock studio with piles of reference material, sketches, and storyboards from Ghibli’s films, a mini theater showing short films that can only be seen at the museum (you get one viewing), and so on. The whole time I was there, I felt like skipping around giddily like the little girl in the picture above.

On the roof, there was a full-sized statue of a robot from Castle in the Sky.

Mitaka Ghibli Robot

Photography was forbidden indoors, but there are some pictures of the museum’s interior at the official website.


A few random things.

A wedding procession at Meiji Shrine.

Tokyo Meiji-jingu Wedding

A statue in honor of kamikaze pilots, outside the war museum at the ever-controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Tokyo Yasukuni Kamikaze

And a restored Mitsubishi Zero, inside the museum.

Tokyo Yasukuni Zero


Oof. Yasukuni warrants some background explanation, but I’ll forgo that in favor of just getting this entry posted.