Sunday, June 29, 2008


On Sunday, I went to the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo to see some kendo and judo classes. You might remember I went there a few months back for the David Bowie concert.

Originally built for the 1964 Olympics, it is now a major venue for rock concerts as well as martial arts competitions. It is octagonal in shape and contains three halls, the largest of which holds 14,000 people and is modelled on the Horyuji Temple in Nara.

It was very interesting to see these martial arts in their country of origin and it's also possible to see aikido and karate on other days. You can even join if you want, although a grasp of the Japanese language is definitely recommended.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rainy Day in Shibuya

Well it's rainy season, so this basically means lots rain for the whole month of June, although so far it hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be, as the sun has managed to shine on a few occasions. In Shibuya, which is one of the busiest places in Tokyo, it's impossible to move when it's raining because so many people have umbrellas.

Apparently, now it has got warmer as well there will be a plague of cockroaches descending upon Tokyo, which I'm really not looking forward to.

In fact one of my students who is an ear, nose and throat doctor, has had to remove a total of eleven baby cockroaches from the ears of patients in his career. If I'm being honest, this sounds a bit to much like some nightmare story from the Bangkok Hilton for my liking.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sanno Festival

On Sunday, I went to the Sanno Festival at Hie Jinja. This shrine was built in 1478 for the lord of Kawagoe(Ota Dokan), to ensure divine protection for the Edo Castle and is dedicated to the god O-Yamakui(Sanno Gongen). The present buildings are largely a new construction and were rebuilt in 1967 after being destroyed in the Second World War.

During the Edo period, this shrine became famous as the Tokugawa clan family shrine. The festival started in 1681 and is one of the biggest in Tokyo.

Today, the main Sanno Festival is held every other year with mikoshi from local communities participating and there is a parade of people dressed in ancient costumes around the nearby streets.

I had a great day and it was really exciting and like lots of festivals there was lots of drum playing and delicious food. Best of all was the traditional music and dancing in a performance called Daidengaku.

You can see all the photos

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Today, I went to the National Noh theatre in Sendagaya. Noh is a traditional form of Japanese theatre that involves a combination of dance, drama, music and poetry.

Noh is believed to have developed into i's present form in the 14th century, when the playwrights and actors Kan'ami (1333-1384) and his son Zeami (1363-1443) took elements of traditional Japanese entertainment to create Noh.

Plays are performed on a square stage approximately 19 feet square, that is made of cypress wood. The is no scenery except for a painting of a pine tree at the back, which dates from when Noh plays were performed in open shrines that usually had a pine tree nearby. Most interesting of all is that above the stage is a roof, which is the same as on a Shinto Shrine. At the back of the stage sit the musicians who are composed of three people on drums and one person on a flute.

The costumes are very beautiful to look at and are adapted from ones from the 15th century. The principal performers also wear wooden masks, which help to portray the emotion of the character, many of which are hundreds of years old.

The cast are divided into three groups which are Shi-te, Waki, or Ai-Kyogen. The main performer is the Shi-ite and these people often wear masks, especially if they are playing a female role. The Waki are the secondary characters in the plays and the Ai-Kyogen present monologues while the Shi-ite is off stage, in order to give more information about the Shi-ite's situation and to allow the Shi-ite time to change.

Intrinsic to Noh is dancing, which is very stylized. The dances are very slow and elegant and completely different to the forms of dancing often seen in western culture. Everyone also moves about the stage very slowly, not raising their feet from the ground, almost gliding across.

Kyogen is also performed alongside Noh plays. Kyogen is comic in its nature and uses the stories of everyday people or folklore. There is no dancing or music performed in Kyogen and it relies entirely on dialogue.

The first performance I saw was a Kyogen play called 'Kaki Yamabushi'. This play was about a warrior returning from his ascetic training on Mount Omine to Haguro. On his way he stops to climb a persimmon tree to get its fruit.

The farmer who owns the tree then turns up. The humour in this play comes from the warrior pretending to be different animals in order to try and convince the farmer that he is not stealing the fruit from the tree.

The next performance was a Noh play called Raiden. This is about Sugawara no Michizane(845-903) who was an early Heian court figure. He was a brilliant scholar and had great influence in the court until he was exiled to Kyushu by the jealous Fujiwara no Tokihira. A few years after his exile Michizane died and a number of natural disasters occurred. As many people believed that that these disasters were the result of Michizane's angry spirit he was given a number of posthumous titles in order to placate him. He is most famous for being the god of learning, in fact you may remember that I visited the Kameido Tenjin Shrine in February and April, which was built to honour him.

At the beginning of the play Michizane's former teacher, Hosshobo, the head priest of Enryakuji Temple, is holding a service to pray for peace. Michizane's spirit then appears and they discuss the strong bond that they had as teacher and pupil.

However Michizane then becomes angry as he recounts how he was treated by Fujiwara no Tokihira. He takes a pomegranate from the alter dish, bites it and then spits it out, turning it into flames. The priest then chants some incantations to put the fire out. The spirit of Michizane then disappears.

In the final part of the play Hosshobo prays to appease the spirit of Michizane, but he does not listen to the priest. Appearing as the god of thunder he throws lightning bolts and thunder before him and he and the priest then embark in a struggle. It is only when the Emperor gives Michizane a new honourable name that he leaves.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Yesterday, I went to the Kabuki-za Theatre in Ginza to see Kabuki, which is a traditional form of Japanese theatre from the Edo period(1603-1868). The word 'Kabuki' translates as 'dance, music and craft or skill'.

Plays are divided into three categories, which are jidai-mono (historical), sewa-mono (domestic), and shosagoto (dance pieces).

Originally both men and women acted in Kabuki. However due to many of the women also being involved in prostitution, the Tokugawa Shogungate forbade them from acting in 1714, as they disapproved. Now it is only men who perform in the plays and they also take on the female roles. The actors who specialise in these roles are known as Onnagata.

This month is extremely popular for Kabuki as there are lots of famous actors and classic plays, so nearly everyday is sold out. It is possible to buy a ticket on the day, which I did, but you have to get there early and queue for a couple of hours.

Although the performance is in an older, more traditional Japanese that some Japanese people may even have trouble understanding, it is possible to rent an earphone guide which provides a translation of what is happening.

In total I got to see three performances. Each performance was from a different play and lasted a total of five hours in all, although you can just go to one if you want to.

The first play was written by the Japanese playwright Chikawatsu Monzaienor, for the Bunraku puppet theatre. The story is about an artist called Matahei, who has been refused a professional name by his master because of his stutter. As a result of this and the fact he is forbidden from rescuing a princess, he decides to take his own life.

So he will not be forgotten he decides to draw his portrait on a stone drinking fountain. Magically his portrait seeps through to the other side and his master seeing this decides to give him a professional name and allows him to go and rescue the princess.

The second performance was from Yoshio Yama. This story is about two lovers called Yoshitsume and Shizuka, who are in exile and on the run. Shizuka has been left in the hands of Yoshitsume's retainer, Tadanobu. When they become separated a magical fox disguises himself as Tadanobu in order to get closer to Shizuka's drum, which is made from the skin of the fox's parents.

The final performance was from the play Sukeroku Yukari No Edo Zakura and is one of the most famous kabuki plays. It is about a man called Sukeroku, who is seeking revenge for the death of his father. The play is set in an area of Tokyo known as Yoshiwara, which is famous for its tea houses and geisha. Sukero spends his time here challenging people to fights, in the hope they will reveal his father's stolen sword, taken when he was murdered.

This play was by far the most interesting with its colourful costumes, acting and humour and in my opinion was definitely the best one. The audience obviously agreed with me, which was witnessed with the rapturous response given to the actors throughout the play.

I had a great day and this traditional form of theatre is definitely a must see when coming to Japan.

The official site for the Kaubuki-za theatre in Ginza is

Monday, June 02, 2008

Everywhere you go in

Japan there are pachinko parlours and it's an extremely popular way of gambling. In fact you often see people queing up at ten o'clock in the morning in order to get the best machines.

Last weekend I tried pachinko for the first time, which was great fun even though I unfortunately didn't manage to win anything (in order to do so I would probably have to invest a bit more than the measly 500 yen which I spent).

The game itself is like a cross between pinball and a fruit machine. The player controls the speed of the tiny metal balls, which are thrown into the machine and the aim is to get them into holes to gain points. The more points you get, the more metal balls you win. There are even some people who play the game professionally and they are known as 'pachi-puro'.

Now because of the gambling laws in Japan, when you actually win you don't get paid in money. The steel balls which you have won are exchanged for goods in the pachinko parlour. These goods are then taken to a small window in a building or back alley next to the pachinko parlour and are exchanged for money. Even though it is illegal, this practice is completely ignored by the law.