Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Kagami biraki

The Kagami-biraki is a Japanese ceremony, performed usually at the beginning of each year. It has become closely related to martial arts, since many dojo's use the celebration as a start of training in the new year.

This year we actually attended two Kagami-biraki events, first Sunday (13/1) at our Aikido dojo and the second on Monday (14/1), which was a national holiday, in the Nippon Budokan.

Kagami-biraki literary means 'opening of the mirror'. However no actual mirror is involved, but the mirror is symbolised by two (big) round rice cakes placed on top op each other. The ceremony involves around the breaking of the rice cakes (not with a knife!) with a big hammer. The cake gets divided and is eaten with sweet red bean (azuki bean) soup: oshiruko.

On Sunday the Aikido hombu dojo was packed with people visiting for the kagami-biraki! When we arrived the 3rd and 4rth floor were already full of people, and we were seated at the 2nd floor. From there we could watch on a big projection screen what was happening at the 3rd floor. The ceremony started with several speeches, followed by a demonstration (because of the amount of people, performed on a very small place!), and the grading ceremony. Then, the tables would be set, drinks and snacks would come and we would all together eat the oshiruko soup. The mochi in the soup was actually freshly made by various sensei of hombu. It was our first time eating it and it was actually quite nice.

On Monday, the day of the Kagami-biraki at the Nippon Budokan, it snowed all day! We arrived early when the Budokan was starting the turn white from the snow. This Kagami-biraki was a combined ceremony of different martial arts. Next to aikido there were people from Judo, Karate, Kendo, Kempo, Niginata, Kyudo.
Start of opening ceremony

After the opening ceremony, there were demonstrations from all these martial arts. Very interesting to watch, since we did not have the opportunity to see all these martial arts in real life before. After the demonstration followed a combined training session, representing the first training of the new year. In the Budokan all present budo had there own training, and we participated in the Aikido training. Very fun and impressive to train in the budokan, although it was a little crowded (and loud!) being surrounded by all these other martial artists. The day ended again with some oshiruko soup and drinks, and a return back home through what had become a very big amount of snow!

Nippon Budokan covered in snow

Gate towards the Budokan

Lane towards the Budokan

Friday, January 18, 2013

Winter-trip Part IV: Snow, onsens & monkeys

The second day of our winter trip we left Nagano early in the morning by bus (a nice change from all those trains the day before), and we headed to Yamanouchi area.
The Yamanouchi area lies north-east of Nagano, and features many tourist attractions and outdoor activities. The area is famous for its onsen, so we were looking forward to relaxing in the warm water.
But first, we were going to make a beautiful walk through the snowy mountains. We headed to the Jigokudani Monkey park (famous for monkeys bathing in the outdoor onsen), and the route to get there leads through a winter wonderland in the mountains.
Entrance to the walk to the park
Along the way
View close to the monkey park
The monkey park was very fun. Everywhere there were monkeys playing in the snow, and they all gathered at the big outdoor bath. Probably to escape the cold and get warm again. There were many young baby monkeys, and all around us people were saying how kawaii (cute) the monkeys were. Especially around the onsen is was very crowded with tourists taking pictures of this picturesque scenery with the bathing monkeys surrounded by snow.

Bathing monkeys
Baby monkey taking a bath

Monkeys bathing in the onsen
 After we warmed up with some hot chocolate we walked back the the town centre, to check in to our ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel) and enjoy a nice warm onsen ourselves.
Our ryokan was very nice, we had a lovely big room and guests could freely use both the gender-seperated onsens and the private-use onsens of the hotel. Very luxurious! Since there were not many staying guest (and most stayed until late at the ski-slopes) we had lots of opportunities to use the private onsen for ourselves, very relaxing.

We stayed in the centre of Shibu Onsen, a small traditional onsen town. In the centre of the town (really only a couple of small streets) there are 9 pubic onsens scattered around. Staying guests at one of the hotels in town get a master key and can freely use all the baths. The baths all look different, have different water and supposedly heal different ailments. Is it said that taking all nine baths will bring you good fortune. We changed into our yukata in the hotel (traditional Japanese robes), in which you can walk in between the baths. Very cold in the beginning, since there was much snow around town, but after soaking in a warm hot water you don't get cold walking around town.
Light up streets in Shibu Onsen
Entrance to one of the 9 public baths
Shibu Onsen
Especially in the evening the streets become very atmospheric; beautiful light up and with various people walking in yukata in between baths.

We, after a relaxing onsen
That afternoon/evening and following morning combined, we tried all the nine baths! So at the end of the morning we could very relaxed walk back to the station, and start our trip back home. It had been both very busy days, as very nice and relaxing time, but a very fun en enjoying trip!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Winter-trip Part III: Nagano

When you enter Nagano you will immediately be reminded that the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. In the middle of the station there is a big plaque showing the symbol and sign of the Olympics. All kind of signs, and statues around the city still show the Olympic history of the city, something the city is still very proud of.
We remembered watching the Olympics on television (with lots of success for the Netherlands: 5 Gold medals, 4 Silver and 2 Bronze, giving us the 6th place in the medal count!), so it was extra special actually visiting the city ourselves. 
Throughout the city the Olympic Stadia can still be seen, although some are not being used for sports any more. Unfortunately, they are quite scattered around the city, making them hard to access and mostly you are not allowed to enter. So, we were pleased to be able to see some of the stadia were the athletes competed from the bus, and recognize them from what we saw on television! If you want, you are able to ski on the same slopes and mountains that were used in the Olympic competition. But (since we both can't ski) we decided to skip that part..

Nagano 1998 commemorative sign in the Station
Small scale model of the Olympic fire in the streets of Nagano
The other famous attraction of Nagano was build long before the Olympic stadia, and dates back to the 7th century. This is when the Zenkoji temple was founded, a popular attraction in Nagano.

The entrance to the temple leads to a atmospheric street with many nice shops. We found the temple itself truly impressive to visit. It was still quite busy at the temple, probably because of the New Year prayers, but the temple complex it quite big so there were not so many crowds or queues. The extent and magnitude of the complex makes the temple really impressive. Apart from the mail hall there are several small buildings, a big gate, and various statues lined up on the complex. The scenery looks beautiful with the mountains of Nagano in the background, even though we arrived later in the afternoon when it was starting the get dark.
Street toward Zenkoji temple
Zenkoji temple
After a very busy day, were we travelled long and saw much we were very happy to get something to eat, warm up in our hotel room and get a good night rest, before we had to wake up early again next morning.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Winter-trip Part II: Matsumoto

After getting off at Matsumoto-station we walked through the city to Matsumoto castle. Matsumoto proved an interesting walk, a nice atmospheric city, with some traditional streets and temples. At the outskirts of the city you can see the mountains surrounding Matsumoto, giving beautiful views.

Street with temple in Matsumoto

Matsumoto's biggest attraction is its historical castle; one of Japan's most complete and beautiful original castles. The castle, build in the 16th century, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework. The story goes that this preservation is owing to the protection of the Goddess of Nijuroku-yashin. "On the night of January 26, 1618, in a vision, one of the young vassals on duty saw a woman dressed in beautiful clothes. Handing him a brocade bag, she said “if the lord of the castle enshrines me with 600kg of rice on the 26th night of every month, I will protect the castle from fire and enemy.” It is believed that because the bag was deified the castle was preserved and has survived to be the oldest castle in its original form" The shrine dedicated to the Goddess is still viewable through the ceiling. The castle has indeed been protected, being one of the few perfectly preserved castles in Japan!

A visit to the castle makes for a very impressive experience. The outside of the castle, of beautiful black and white shades, makes for a very picturesque scenery: located next to the water and with the mountains surrounding Matsumoto on the background. Not surprisingly, it is a very popular photo-spot with both Japanese and foreign tourist lining up to make the most beautiful picture of the castle.
Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle seen from the castle's garden
Matsumoto Castle by the water surrounding the castle's grounds
The fully preserved interior is fully accessible to the public. It not only shows perfectly how the inside looks, but also how cold is it inside!
The castle was build to be defended from attacks, leaving special walkways, shooting holes, and a secret floor for ammunition and food storage that could not been seen from the outside. (it looks as though the castle only has five floors, while in fact there are six)

Samurai floor: designed so the warriors could easily run through in full armour in time of attack
In order to walk through the castle the visitors have to use to traditional staircases. Very narrow, and with some very steep steps, these make for an adventurous route. (giving the real castle-experience)
After that we headed back to the station to continue our journey ...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Winter-trip Part I: by train to Nagano

Now that we are completely settled in in our new place, we thought we deserved a nice break and plan a little winter vacation. What better place to go to in winter than a place with lots of snow and beautiful scenery (despite the cold!), so we decided to go to Nagano. The city that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, and off course is famous for its lovely winter weather.

The easiest, and fastest way to get to Nagano is by Shinkansen, but that is also the absolute most expensive way to travel. So when we were looking at cheaper options (probably the express way bus), we found about a great seasonal railway ticket: the Seishun 18. Sold only three times a year during school holidays it gives 5 days of free travel on local and rapid JR trains (so excluding the faster express trains).
Not the fastest way to travel, but definitely the cheapest way.
If you plan carefully and don't mind catching the first train in the morning and travelling till late in the evening, you can apparently even travel all the way from Tokyo to Hiroshima in one day! Personally we thought that travelling that long by train, and doing so many transfers is a bit too much, so we kept the distance a bit shorter and the amount of transfers limited.

Seishun 18 ticket
Travelling by local or rapid trains is a fantastic way to look around, and see much of the country. The biggest advantage of travelling by the Seishun 18 ticket is that you can get out at any station you want on the way to your destination. Therefore we planned our transfers carefully, so we could visit some interesting cities on our way to Nagano.

After leaving early in the morning, our first (short) stop was a Kofu, a city west of Tokyo, and famous for it's beautiful views on Mount Fuji. Even continuing our trip, the windows of the train offered a splendid picture on the white peak of Japan's famous mountain.
Our second (longer) stop was in Matsumoto, a city famous for it's original castle. We have always wanted to go and see the castle, but it's a bit far for a day trip from Tokyo, so this train tour was the perfect opportunity to explore the city of Matsumoto. (more in next update!)

After Matsumoto, we only had an hour by train left. Increasingly we saw more and more snow covering the landscape as we reached the Olympic city. ...to be continued...

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! We want to wish everyone the best wishes for 2013!

It's has been a while since we posted on our blog, but 2012 ended with a lot of changes in our lives, so we have been very busy these last months. A short summary of all that has happened (if we have some more time the coming weeks, we might write some more about it): Laurens has found a very nice job, had his visa changed, and is now working full-time in Tokyo. We found a apartment (or more accurately in Japan, a mansion) of our own in Shinjuku! It's a lovely place to live: beautiful building, great view, good location. Finally we have now completely settled in, all paperwork is done, furniture bought and assembled and we can start 2013 really enjoying our new place.

So how is celebrating New Year in Tokyo? Actually, it is quite different from what we are used to. There are no fireworks at New Year's Eve (fireworks is really only a summer event here), but instead it is more common to celebrate the changing of the years at the temple. Around midnight the temple bells will ring 108 times to accompany the transition from 2012 to 2013. 

Another tradition is to start the New Year by watching the first sunrise. Many high buildings which offer a good view specially open at very early hours, or you can choose to climb one of the mountains around Tokyo (for example, Takao) and watch the first sunrise from the top. We, however, though this was all happening a little too early. And after our busy last weeks, we preferred to sleep in a little on New Year's Day.

Doing things the first time in the new year is a central theme the first couple days after New Year. Another important 'first', is the first visit to a shrine (the hatsumode). Shrines all around the country are really busy during the first days of the new year (which are also national holidays), and although the queues to the shrine can be quite long there is a really festive atmosphere around.

First drag queen visit of the year

Other side of the queue