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August: The Return of Souls

August is peak summer season in Japan.  We can look forward to some of the most spectacular fireworks displays and festivals in the world, ...

Yasukuni Shrine for the Foreign Tourist August 15th



[ Taken with my Pentax K-1000 film / My original]


Many tourists will express an interest in visiting the most contentious shrine in Japan - Yasukuni.   Should they or shouldn't they is a matter of personal prerogative, but to say "no" they are not allowed to visit a war-linked shrine would be like making a value judgment call on them.  Some tourist may feel intimidated by all the negative press surrounding this shrine, and may even steer clear of it all together.   That is up to you/them...Allow me to clear things up a bit by at least dispelling some of the negative rumors and misinformation by The Press surrounding the shrine.


Yasukuni Shrine has no dead remains buried under its premises, and it does not honor war criminals.  In other words, no one goes there to chant and burn candles for war criminals and neither do they perform incantations to bring them back from the dead, so you are safe, don't worry.  You do not have to fear anything at all.    The photo above is a young lady who appears to be very patriotic and a person who loves her country.  This display of national pride is no different than any other country.  She is not honoring war dead, she is honoring the sacrifice of all of her people who died in service of her country.   The flag she is holding was adopted as the official flag of Japan in 1999 and is called the Hinomaru - it has been around much longer.  The flag on her back with the  disk and sun rays has been in existence since before the war.    These flags do not honor war criminals.


That is not to say that some of those who visit the shrine are not radicalized, or  those who remember the glory days of WWII.  This too is their prerogative as such it is their country.   Every country has them.




Yasukuni pre-dates WWII and was established by Emperor Meiji to those that have sacrificed their lives since 1869! Before you were born.  When visitors or the bereaved approach the main altar they pray for peace and reflect on the war and war dead, including animals involved in all wars and services since Emperor Meiji's reign.   Way before your time and way before WWII, and way before any war criminals were remembered here.


As a tourist, you are not required to be a historian nor are you required to believe the revisionist.  Like any other shrine you may visit you take with it what you see, hear, and experience.  Yasukuni Shrine is no different than that experience.   The only difference is that it is a linked to events that changed the whole world.  


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A good way to experience visiting Yasukuni Shrine is to first visit the Yushukan War Museum, and this is the most important starting point.   It is a really well thought out museum with lots of interesting artifacts dating back to the great Boshin Wars and more.   The layout of the museum is also well arranged and very easy to move around.   You can see airplanes and even a train in its original form.  The museum is quite big, so it will take some time to move around it.  There's a lot to see and read in both Japanese and English.   The list of names of those in all wars were written in Japanese and some English.



There were men, women, and even non-Japanese who served in wars for Japan.   Several dozen Canadians, Americans, Koreans, Ainus, Asians, and even women who died in the service of the Empire of Japan.   After leaving the museum you may want to have a lunch in the park adjacent to the main altar  next to the No stage.   It will take some time to digest what you see and what you take in.


As for when you should visit is completely up to you.  August 15th seems to be the most contentious time to visit Yasukuni because of WW2.   This date commemorates the  Victory over Japan Day, and is the day most people visit the shrine, including tourist.   If you choose to go on this date be prepared for a spectacle of nationalism.  You'll hear war music and old timers dressed  in military uniforms.  Actually, it is the most interesting time to visit here because you get to see live demonstrations and meet lots of people and hear their stories.


For the bereaved who visit the shrine yearly to pay homage to their fallen loved ones do so in August because it is that time of year when all Japanese return to their hometowns to honor their passed loved ones.    In other parts of Japan this season, called "obon", is held a month earlier, but for the most part August is the month where companies in Kanto region close their offices and sent their workers home for a week.    Many return home to honor loved one's gravestones and welcome the return of ancestors.

The shrine itself is supported by the people of Japan through donations and is therefore not paid for by tax dollars.   When the former Occupational Authorities  wrote up Japan's current day constitution The Separation of Church and State was clearly written out and Shinto was no longer a matter of the State.   As a result, the shrine stands on its own and is another reason why government officials are not to use tax money to offer the shrine.  Even Abe Shinzo pays out of his own pocket to the shrine.


On a diplomatic level, State level officials are discouraged from visiting Yasukuni.  In spite of that, many Japanese politicians visit Yasukuni for reasons that are both personal and symbolic.  And as long as it is not on the tax payer's dime it should be perfectly fine if a politician chooses to do this.
However, the prime minister and Emperor will most likely never set foot on Yasukuni, and this is not because of the stigma associated with wars, but in order to protect regional peace, and to suppress nationalistic fervor and for posterity.


Misconceptions about the Emperor of Japan not wanting to visit are  just rumors by overzealous and ignorant  journalist both in Japan and in the West.   The shrine was founded by the emperor and all interred there died in his name - millions.  Need I say more without sounding like a mouthpiece for the Imperial Household Agency?  You get the point.  




On a final note,  as a tourist, getting to Yasukuni is below:

JR

10 minutes walk from Ichigaya and Iidabashi stations (Sobu Line and Chuo Line)

Subway

5 minutes walk from Kudanshita Station (Tozai Line)
5 minutes walk from Kudanshita Station (Hanzomon Line)
5 minutes walk from Kudanshita Station (Toei Shinjuku Line)
10 minutes walk from Ichigaya Station (Namboku Line)
10 minutes walk from Ichigaya and Iidabashi stations (Yurakucho Line)

City bus

One minute walk from the Kudanue stop served by the Kudanshita-Takadanobaba and Shibuya-Ochanomizu lines
[ N.B. though poorly taken photos, please do not take them without my consent]

Revisionist vs. Revisionist

Everybody is a revisionist at some point.   The classification of War Criminal vs. Judicial Martyr  is interpreted differently here in Japan.  War criminal conviction was handed down by the the United States of America, whereas judicial martyr was defined by the Japanese, and this why the bereaved can still receive pensions from their lost loved ones who sacrificed their lives during WW2.  






Aichi's Beauty: Yuya Onsen



Aichi  is a quiet hidden  gem of a prefecture in the Chubu region of Japan's main island, Honshu.   It's located in between two major cities - Nagoya and Hamamatsu.    From Toyohashi Station you can reach Yuya in a little over an hour, and from Nagoya about the same.   Most travellers and business people either commute to or live in Nagoya, and if  you are a partygoer Nagoya seems to be where the action is all at.   I too have enjoyed Nagoya on several occasions.  A city most often famed for its castles and shrines, and most of all delicious chicken.   

For the onsen lover, Gifu, next door to Nagoya,  seems to be the place where the locals from Aichi flock to, and for a good reason; some of Japan's Top 100 onsen are there. - Gifu Grand Hotel.    What about Aichi though.  What's there to see and do, and what about this place Yuya Onsen?



General Vicinity of Yuya Onsen

Aichi's beauty lies in its rustic industrial landscape.   Lifeless sawmills with empty parking lots; nobody in sight.   Stern leafy deciduous evergreens standing still and undisturbed against a backdrop of oaks and pines.   Two car trains meandering round valleys and river gorges; low distant hum from a diesel engine driven train.  A Ghibli scene here and there like this train station at Yuya Onsen.   



I barely made it on time for the day-use bath, but it was worth the long train ride up.   Work finished at 2:30, at the university, and so had just enough time to catch a bus to the station.  Once there in the bath the song of summer came rushing in.  Whirring Cicadas!  What a cacophony of sounds.  



Spiders spinning and weaving their webs drew and intricate design for me while I was sitting in the open air bath.



 In Aichi, Even the beetles board the trains, like there's no shame in being a beetle in a car full of humans.



Yuya is a sleepy little onsen town where retirees go to get away from the assault of noise fed by the cities.   Most, if not all, of the hot spring water is fresh and hot from a bubbling thermal brook somewhere in the deep valley.   I can still remember how lush and green everything is here.  



Just after the dusk, and just as the cicadas are finally settling in for the evening, i take one last look at the town and its houses.    There is nothing to do here but soak your bones....Just the way I like it.   No mobile phone zombies around.



Who needs daycare when momma can do it for free.   I thought this epidemic was a Kanto problem but looks like I was wrong.   Mommy and daddy are too busy working in the big cities, and not enough time and day-care centers to look after the kids.   The grandparent's work is never done.  

N.B. There are no express trains to Yuya, so be prepared to be lulled to sleep on the train ride there.  Bring snacks and beers and a Ghibli book to read and be prepared to be "spirited away."    If you do plan to stay here, I do recommend eating out on the town.  The boutique eateries are very charming and offer a lot of really rare fare that you cannot find in Nagoya.   Think eel but with a different spin.   Cheers.


Genshu




Raw undiluted sake is the brew masters dream put in bottle form, etched in Japanese calligraphy - Genshu.   Most sake you see on the market is diluted down and tweaked for taste by adding water and brewers alcohol; industry standard dictates that sake should be at around 15 to 16% alcohol.   The naked essence of sake fully matured will yield at around 20% or more of alcohol, the highest naturally occurring alcoholic beverage in the industry.



Basically, we don't want to get you too drunk in order to enjoy Japanese sake, and neither do we want to pay more tax because of higher than standard alcohol content in our beverage, so some compromises have to be made.   Genshu is rarely sold on a large scale, so whenever you have a chance to visit sake breweries in Japan do so, and try sake in its most natural form, especially undiluted sake.  
yellow caps and kikijokos and squeezers




Why travel all the way out to visit a brewery just for sake when I can either order online or buy at a store...?  Sake that has been bottled has additional carbon dioxide added again and has therefore been exposed to different pressure, temperature, and sunlight.    Bottles do offer some protection against UV, but not enough, and it's not like you would even notice a difference in the quality of the sake unless you were a purist... At this brewery ( won't list the name), I was sampling Genshu and although the sake was bottled and yellow-capped  for the tasting, they weren't sealed which means the sake was taken directly from the cold storage fermentation tanks and placed right on the table the morning I arrived there.   No finer sake poured fresh can ever be matched!  Over 100  types of genshu were sampled.


Another reason to visit breweries is to get away from the city.   Most great breweries are deep in the backwoods of Japan with only a few in micro urban cities.   I do not particularly like drinking with Tokyo types and folks who cannot hold their own alcohol, so I avoid crowded places.   Drink for taste,  not to get drunk.   Socializing as long as there is edification is good, not mindless chatter over meaningless topics.    On my most recent trip I was, and am always blessed to nomunicate with local Jukujo.

Genshu Lovely in her purity


Sake in its raw undiluted form is full of body and character, even the aromatics give off rare and alluring scents.   Lavender, flower water, acacia, some herbaceous notes here and there, just to name a few are what can be picked up from flute or a full bell-shaped wine glass.    Visually, Genshu is quite viscous with  long legs  stretching  down the side  of the glassware.   She's got a silky sheen and smooth all the way down and fully imbued with mysticism and religious aestheticism  of generations, it's this continuity of tradition that is reflected in every single living thing in Japan.



Keep in mind that Genshu is where it's at, and you need to try as much as you can while supplies last, at least so that you can experience that natural essence of the brew master's dream!





August: The Return of Souls

August is peak summer season in Japan.  We can look forward to some of the most spectacular fireworks displays and festivals in the world, especially  in places like Tohoku and Kanto regions.  August is also  the most contentious month of the year in Japan; with the end of the war and war-related guilt.    Then there's the great exodus back home for millions of Japanese.   Obon season is what it's called in Japan, and it's  where families return to their hometowns to remember their ancestors and to spend time with loved ones.  Gravestones are visited, cleaned, and washed; rice or alcohol is often placed on  miniature altars next to a  headstone.  This is a way for Japanese to reconnect with their roots; a way for them to stay grounded and founded in the ways of tradition and cultural protocol.   


For the foreign tourist, some places will be overcrowded and expensive to reach; for Japanese, this is normal and can't be helped.   Wherever you go there will be lines and hordes of people  driving on highways and riding on buses.   Restaurants will be filled to capacity where the lines stretch on and on seemingly endlessly.    Japanese fathers will be overworked on supposedly what they consider a holiday, is just another work day for them,  but with family.   The tourist will definitely be headed to far away exotic locations for respite.   Youth hostels will be filled to capacity.  


August is a soul searching month for the Japanese; a time for family and "Japanese" friends.   A good way for the foreigner  to enjoy the long Obon holidays would be to surround oneself with nature.  A good camping expedition in some remotely located region of Japan works wonders for the soul.   In my vast experience, I had spent the hot summer months camping up in Hokkaido near a lake or an onsen town somewhere, making sure to pack plenty of bacon and salmon.   Fresh coffee grounds have to be packed in with everything else too, along with a pot for boiling water and rice.   Tents and grills; the camera and tripod; the fresh bottles of chilled sake; eggs and sausages.   Now there's a trip.


August is prime season for self-reflection much like the throngs of Japanese who return home to pay homage to their ancestor's tombstones, and to reflect on family and self.    Three days is enough for me when it comes to camping out, though.  It's so hot, humid and sticky in August.  Having less is often more when out in the sticks.  We value the necessity of electricity, toilets, and water, even a television set.   This is the value of camping out and getting away from the August rush.     


I don't know about you, but waking up in the morning to the smell of sizzling bacon and freshly brewed coffee is sublime, next to a pond.  On another grill, there's some salmon and eggs working together; adding to the harmony of breakfast...   I like to catch up on the news, too, but since there's no wifi out there I can tune in on AM radio.   Yasukuni Shrine would be the most likely topic of discussion.     I'm sure many of us have completely forgotten about real radio broadcasts sounds in the morning from the AM station.    


After breakfast and a quick power nap, the morning bath must be sought out.   Many of the natural hot springs in luxury hotels use sumi products for face washes and shampoos.   Sumi is a type of petrified wood used for centuries by the Japanese who value the therapeutic effects of natural soaps and cleansers.   The smell of fresh calcium in rich mineral springs is intoxicating, too.   Soaking the bones and refreshing the mind and working up another appetite for lunch.    


On the road again to a remotely located temple or shrine.   Perhaps some light hiking around a small valley gorge somewhere is really nice.    Never see the point of returning home to the U.S. on long summer holidays,  nostalgia just isn't there anymore, at least not for me.   This far away from my homeland - not motherland - I reflect on a lot of what's been happening in D.S.A ( Divided States of America).   The endless chatter about a Trump America, and stuff about Hillary Clinton.


The Japanese police are chubby, cute; perverted, kind,  and overall cordial when dealing with non-Japanese.  I like it that way.    In my time here they have stopped and carded me over a dozen times for speeding, loitering, and parking.   They have dealt with me kindly, unlike a time in the U.S.  when the Redondo Beach Police pulled me over at midnight.   35 police officers strong plus one ghetto bird  circling above drew assault weapons on me at a gas station; 3 12 - gauge shot guns, 3 or 4 AR-15s, 9mms and so on.    An officer approached  and cuffed me rather firmly causing me to have a light strain in my risks for several weeks.   The lead officer asked if I had understood why I was pulled over.   I nodded my head "yes."  Once I gestured with my head they released the cuffs and let me go at the scene.   They never actually told me why they pulled me over; I assumed it was because I was driving with an expired drivers license....which I have done for several years in Japan...Or when I welcomed President Obama on my Uyoku Gentsuki the first time he visited Tokyo and was pulled over by an army of Japanese police officers - they were thoroughly confused!   They didn't know whether to ticket me or arrest me, so they let me go.



Getting out on the road and taking in nature has a way of giving you perspective.   Most foreigners most often will never realize how good they have it here in Japan, and I hope they never realize it to be honest.  Leave Japan, but don't take the Jukujo with you.  They belong under my jurisdiction.   This summer I plan to focus on enjoying summer sakes while on business trips this summer.  Might pay a visit to Kuheiji Brewery in Aichi Prefecture or Asahi Shuzo in Niigata for some delicious Genshu ( Undiluted sake, that is higher in alcohol content), which is extremely rare to enjoy at a sake brewery if you are not actually in Japan!    I will bring a nice bell shaped wine glass this time around.   The traditional serving size is typically a 50ml cup from a Japanese "ochoko."  This drinking ware only serves to properly ration out sake in order to give everyone a chance to enjoy sake whereas in modern day society the need to serve in portions is relative to the number of people in your group.   If you are solo or with another person these measurements have no usefulness.  Wine glasses are perfectly fine to enjoy the bouquet that each and every sake has, along with the visual appeal you get from glass drinking ware.   If time is on my side I will also stop through Yuya Onsen to commune with the onsen gods.   

Enjoy your August















Toyama Prefecture

Toyama Prefecture




Finally had a chance to revisit Toyama properly.    Last time was just a stop over for ramen, this time turned into a nice jaunt, and again sample the ramen.  I had to eat this delicious bowl of Toyama Black, and yes you can have it in Tokyo, too.  For me, it's better to be in the place where it's known best, the backcountry of Toyama.   Imagine with me for a moment, thick cuts of melt in your mouth pork, bamboo shoots soaked in an aromatic soy sauce black pepper broth... Noodles are boiled to perfection.  Because you are in Hokuriku the soy sauce is not like the stuff people pour over sushi in the States with, but a much more refined and milder version of soy sauce.   Don't imagine it like you would something you use on other Japanese food, but something a better.  If you love black pepper without a doubt this ramen will be a hit.



Why Toyama?  Nobody has really heard about this prefecture.  Is it like Tokyo?   Tokyo is Tokyo, not Japan, per say.    Tokyo could actually stand on its own as a country because of its sheer density, culture,  and local economy.    Tokyo favors sight-seekers while Toyama favors the nature lovers and the tree huggers.   Toyama is very much Japan while Tokyo is a hodgepodge of different fusion concepts and designs, fusion foods, and cultural anomalies.    Tokyoites still think it's un-Japanese to share a bath with the opposite sex, and the same could be said for all of Kanto region.   Cultural purism abounds in every other prefecture except Tokyo Prefecture( actually not a prefecture, but could be considering its size and population). 




Kansui Park has one of the most beautiful promenades for walking and is arguably one of the best date spots.   Bridges, canals, waterways, and plenty of spots to sit on green grass and wide open spaces.   Breathe in the clean fresh air while taking in the gorgeous vistas of the bay and mountains.   You could easily spend an entire afternoon here being lazy.  Maybe even read a book on Toyama's lush greenery.    I got online to see if I would be able to book a room for the evening.  Lucked out and found a place in Unazuki Onsen; huge room with a 24-hour hot spring bath and only a 5-minute walk from the station.   I took the last room and off I went.  I made all of my connections on time thankfully and had no preparation for this trip.   Everything was serendipitous like it was all meant to happen just for me.    On a final note for Toyama City, there are lots of museums, pubs, natural parks, and some decent places for shopping.   Its transportation hub is very well thought out and English is spoken by many people here.








Toyama for me represents the coming together of the very best the West has to offer without the gaudiness of Harajuku and the swankiness of Omotesando and the Ginza.   Toyama is the place for  the Eurocentric fashionistas who prefer a more toned down image when they drink their coffee.   A moderately reserved city with clean-cut urban professionals that have a healthy appreciation for city life.   People who live here love it here and many would balk at the idea of living anywhere near Tokyo. 




The reason I chose to visit was for the legendary hot spring baths, delicious water, craft beer, and Japanese sake, and in typical fashion had a chance to chat with Hokuriku's lovely Jukujo.     From Kanazawa Station it takes about 20 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to reach Toyama Station.    If you want to by-bass Toyama Station you can continue on to Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station ( This is a shinkansen stop!).  From there you can take another line directly to Unazuki Onsen.    I chose to spend the afternoon in Toyama City for only one reason and that reason was to spend a lazy afternoon sipping coffee at the gorgeous Kansui Park Branch Starbucks Coffee shop, aka...voted the most beautiful Starbucks in the world!   It's basically just a glass terrace version of Starbucks overlooking Kansui Bay.   You can imagine how difficult it is to get a seat!   I lucked out and was able to get the best spot to enjoy my N.Y. cheesecake and straight black.  ( divine).




The rail networks is really great if you like trains.  Train enthusiast will love Toyama's dated train station all neatly preserved in original form.    Train lines meander around ridges and valleys and lowlands.   Take in views of soaring cliffs and rice terraces filled with water.   Catch a glowing  red sunset over rice paddies with snow-capped mountain ranges in the backdrop!  This is Toyama Prefecture....(sigh).    One interesting note about the Kurobe Line is that you can bring your bicycle onboard without breaking it down.  Just roll it right on the trains and keep it next to you.  The two lines you may want to remember are the Ainokaze Toyama Railway and the Chiho Railway lines.  These lines will take you to some of the most pristine areas arount Toyama Prefecture.


Again, if you choose to not go directly to Toyama Station, Kurobe Unazuki Onsen is a major shinkansen station you can get off at, and from there you can board local trains bound for Kurobe City.


Finally, arriving at nightfall, I walked out of Unazuki Onsen Station gates and was impressed at this lovely fountain shooting up hot steamy hot spring water.   Quite a few Chinese and Korean tourist, too.



After check-in, I had one of these!  Unazuki Beer made from river water and hops grown right in Kurobe.  Quite refreshing after a long journey from Kanazawa Prefecture.   Pure water is the source of pride for the locals here in Kurobe and boasts one of the purest water dams in the world.   



Nightfall came, and the moon was full and the skies were clear.  I opened up the veranda windows wide and sat out drinking just beer.  T.V. was on and volleyball was on the tube.   The beer and onsen went straight to the bones and I fell into a deep sleep.   When I woke up the next morning the weather was gorgeous and sunny.   I grabbed some nihonshu and went down to the outdoor bath to enjoy my liquid breakfast.  Who needs solids, anyway...?







I took my time and checked out nice and slowly.   I took 5 dips in this onsens all night and morning.  Had a chance to reflect on a lot....The last onsen I visited was on the other side of town just after lunch called Kindama Onsen, and it is super amazing water.



Mission accomplished....

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