Sanno Matsuri まつり 祭り

As the seasons change one exciting form of public entertainment is the many festivals, often regional or for specific purposes, which take place in Japan. When I say Japan I’m really speaking about my own very limited experience, in the Hida Takayama region of Gifu prefecture, and the Takayama Spring and Fall festivals.

In April you can truly witness the change of seasons, with drastic changes happening overnight. Literally, I’ve woken up to fields of flowers that were not there the day before.
Takayama’s spring festival, or Sanno Matsuri, celebrates this change of season. Takayama’s festivals are generally regarded as one of the best in japan, due to the sheer beauty of the elaborate displays called Yatai.

Now let me take a step back here. It’s hard to know how to describe what the Yatai is, and the closest english is probably “parade float” but I really hate to use those words for two reasons. 1. I’ve never been a fan of parades, and I wouldn’t compare one to the festivals. and 2. When I say “float” it makes me think of an inflatable Donald Duck ballon or something, and the Yatai carts are ornate wheeled displays with intricate carvings, lacquering, woven-work and decorative metal-work, found both on the outside and inside – some with intricate mechanical puppets which perform as part of the entertainment.

 

My understanding is that the different Yatai carts were created by different surrounding communities, with contributions from various artisans from those communities. Over time they would be further improved, and with a bit of competition between the communities the carts would become even more beautiful.

As expected there is music, dancing, performances, and of course my favorite… many differed food stalls to choose from. I recommend attending one for yourself if at all possible.

A Rice Field is Born 田んぼ

Not being from the countryside, let alone Japan, I’ve asked myself the question: How are all these beautiful rice fields prepared, planted, cultivated, harvested? I’ve heard the same question from friends and family as well.

Fortunately, this year I got to see the process take place over a couple months as the one behind our house was turned from a dry, already-harvested field – into a fresh newly-planted one.

Hooray for rice!
Hooray for rice!

By the time we arrived in March, winter was fading away along with the snow, and most rice fields sat empty with dry stubs where the rice had been harvested last year.

Ready to till
Get outta the way!

But as spring would start to appear, I would see these fields being prepared for growing in the new year.

Empty rice field, pre-flooding.

This starts out as you probably might expect. A tractor tills the dirt with large rotating blades, turning the soil over and chopping up any plant material.
Next the sides of the field are shaped up, corners rounded, and sometimes covered with plastic to help “keep water in”.

Next the fields are flooded. How? Well up here in the mountains water runs everywhere and constantly supplied from the snowy mountain tops and several rivers in the area, so everyone has plenty of water to irrigate their fields.

Quite a difference from water-deprived California from where we came.

Next, the fields are tilled once again…. maybe 3 or more times, getting the soil into a nice fine, smooth texture. I often see people adding fertilizer pellets at this point either walking the field and throwing it by hand, or via a machine (backpack with a pellet shooting  attachment hose). After some time and continued irrigation it’s time for planting the Nae (苗) or baby rice plants.

It seems like most people purchase these by the crate from a nearby grower. And next comes the fun part. The crates are loaded into a small tractor type vehicle which is exclusively for planting the little seedlings into the ground. It is quite satisfying to watch.

Planting By HandDo people still do it by hand as well? Yes, at least I saw several old farmers doing it the manual route, though I have to imagine it adds many hours to the equation.

From here the water stays with the seedlings for a good, long time. How long? I don’t know – I’ll update you when something changes!

And there you have it. I’m sure there are many more steps involved, but for a visual overview, this is what it looks like.

Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド

A spontaneous weekend family road-trip took place. We recently made it to an amusement park in Nagano, called Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド. I imagine most Americans are familiar with Nagano due to the winter Olympics of 1998 being held there, and yes as expected there was plenty of mountains and water which would facilitate such an event.

Getting to Family Land from Takayama took a few hours, although I recommend paying the toll roads to get there faster. Skipping the last toll road and trusting our GPS took us up some wild mountain road to get there which had me a bit white-knuckled at times.

Family Land was perfect for ages 3-8 or so I would say, although the whole family had fun and even our 1 year old went on some rides. I would have to say that Japanese amusement parks, or at least this one in the off season (ski season over) was very laid back. Definitely the most stress-free amusement park I’ve ever been to. The number of people wasn’t overwhelming, and the atmosphere relaxed.

Some of the rides they had:

– Elephant ride (similar to Dumbo at Disney)
– A smaller Roller Coaster (still too big for my kids)
– Go Carts
– A beautiful mini-golf putt-putt area
– Zip Lines
– ATV riding
– A canoe water raft ride
– Multiple bounce-house type areas
– Merry-go round
– Large adult-size trampoline area
– Swan boats on a lake filled with fish
…you get the idea!

Plenty to keep little ones busy, but not overwhelming either.

TIPS:

  • You can either pay “per ride” or get an “all day pass”. We opted for 1 day pass and figured the other parent could go per-ride, as one of us would often be watching the baby. In retrospect it was far from strict, and we could have just paid per-ride. I mean how many rides can you fit into a day with two little ones anyway?
  • Attractions were spread out into a few different areas, so there was quite a bit of walking. I’d recommend a stroller, baby backpack, water, sunscreen, hats.
  • The food area we ordered from was nothing spectacular, mostly fried food and took a long time. It’s probably a good opportunity to pack lunches for the family and bring them with you.
  • We stayed affordably in a nearby hotel for one night, which included all you can eat (and drink!) dinner and breakfast, which really makes for a great start & end to the day.
  • I should also mention that the area contains several other places which can be visited including multiple farms, a ski resort, a brewery, etc. You could stay multiple days and find plenty to do.

While I didn’t make it to the brewery, I was able to track down a few of the local Shirakaba beers in our hotel, and managed to end my evening with one in the cool mountain air. Delightful! Adding it to my list of Japanese beers I’ve enjoyed.

Shirakaba Beer Review

Malty, thick but satisfying. Kind of like a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with a bit of sugar. Surprisingly easy to drink, could easily have 2 or 3 in a row. Not hoppy at all. Slightly sweet aroma like ripened apple skins, but subtle. It’s what I want from a craft beer, a special and complex taste that I can sip and enjoy. It’s my last beer of the night, and perfectly timed.
More Beverages>>

For the love of Onsen 温泉

I’m always surprised when I bring up Onsen to Americans as one of my favorite things about Japan – and they aren’t familiar with it. Onsen is the Japanese term for “hot spring” but really it covers a lot more than that. It means the whole cultural experience of partaking in these volcanically heated natural baths. There are literally thousands of them in Japan!

Kosatsu onsen
Héctor García

What do I love about Onsen? So many things!
The fact is – usually your are out in nature and you can have have a rare moment to meditate or ponder life, and to enjoy a truly uniquely Japanese experience. A sense of harmony with nature, a sense of healing through the mineral baths, and a chance to reflect.
Oh, did i mention how amazing a HOT bath outdoors in the winter feels as snow falls around you… amazing!

Answers to common questions:

  1. Is it nude?
    Almost always yes, and men and women’s areas are separated / not visible to each other. So nothing to worry about there.
    I’ve also been to a co-ed one where a towel is provided for the women and men to cover sensitive areas – but I hear this is less common.
  2. Is it clean?
    Very. In fact it is required that you shower and clean your body/hair thoroughly before entering.
    This part is great, and usually an enjoyable, almost ritualistic time for a nice shave. Always be courteous to those in showers around you.
  3. Towel or no towel?
    You will have access to a small towel for your use, but NO TOWELS IN THE ONSEN.
    Keeping the Onsen water pure is a big deal, and you will likely upset someone if you bring a towel or any foreign object into the Onsen.
    You may see people with their towel on their head, or possibly on a nearby rock.
  4. What kind of people go to Onsen?
    Some American spas or “bath-houses” may have developed some stereotypes or a reputation. Do not compare this to Onsen!
    I can assure you that Onsen is a big part of the Japanese culture and enjoyed by almost everyone.
  5. What about tattoos?
    While there is still some stigma attached to tattoos in Japan, I have not encountered any difficulty in the few that I have been to.
    It probably helps that I only have 1 tattoo, kept mostly out of view, and am also accompanied by locals.
    If you have a lot of tattoos it might be worth checking with one of the locals regarding the specific Onsen in question.
  6. What’s in the water?
    There are some specific requirements for a bath to be considered Onsen including concentrations of certain natural minerals.
    The Onsen waters are generally considered to be good for the health, and offering healing properties.


Odds are if you are familiar with Japanese customs, and are able to go with the flow – you will greatly enjoy the Onsen baths, and it will become a favorite like it has for me.
If you are extremely concerned about being naked – many hotels or ryokan 旅館 offer private Onsen where you can experience without anyone else in eyesight. Also with a little research, co-ed Onsen can be found where towels are offered.

My recommendation? Try to enjoy the experience as if you were a local. Just follow what everyone else does and you’ll be fine! Good luck.

Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) “Pure Water Temple”

I want this Blog to document my move to Japan, a “fish out of water” experience. But it’s not as if I’ve never visited. It is the beautiful experiences with the country, people and culture which strengthen the siren call to make the big leap. Being married to a Japanese citizen means that I’ve had the fortune of a few trips, usually focused around family, food, travel and fun.

One such trip was my Honeymoon, in 2010. On this trip we stayed with family in the countryside, but also made it a point to visit a few other cities including; TOKYO, KYOTO, and IZU.

Today my mind wanders to a fond memory from Kyoto. With literally hundreds of temples and shrines in Kyoto, I only had the time to pick a couple to visit. One was Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺).

 

I remember clearly how it was not only the hottest day of the year, but also the hottest day on record for decades. We didn’t let it deter us and it made for a vivid memory. I’ve heard that extreme cold/heat can make for stronger memories. Maybe there’s some truth to that. As always, the streets and people in route to the destination always grab my attention.

A few facts about Kiyomizu-dera:

  • Founded in 780
  • Like most ancient structures it has been built, and rebuilt with current buildings from around 1633
  • Not a single nail in the entire structure, notched wood
  • It’s named after a waterfall that runs through it
  • The Main Hall hangs off the side of a cliff, overlooking maple trees and the cit of Kyoto
  • An old tradition states that if you jump off (49′), and live, your wish is granted (jumping not allowed)
  • In 2007 it was a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World
  • It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I guess it’s typical of my curiosity to focus on the oldest structures first. And with this temple being founded around 780, perhaps as early as 657, I can’t help but be fascinated by it.

The reality is that no man made structure lasts forever, and the temples and castles of Japan have often been partially or even completely rebuilt at times due to fire or various battles. This one is no exception with many of the buildings having been rebuilt in the 1600’s. One amazing feat is how faithful they are to reproducing the original structures.

Not a single nail is used in the construction of the 13meter high main hall which sits on the edge of a mountain. 139 pillars, each 49 feet high.  What a testament to the mastery of the creators. It is said if you jump off and survive – your wish will be granted. While the practice has obviously gone out of fashion (banned), 234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period and 200 survived. I’d love to know what their wishes were.

As you can probably guess, I recommend checking out this temple regardless of the fact that it is a popular destination. It is large enough, with enough history and interesting things to explore that you are sure to have your own unique experience.