Japan is at its most beautiful in the spring when the cherry blossom (sakura) comes out. In Tokyo there are lots of parks and places where you can go and see it.
People celebrate by having hanami(cherry blossom viewing) parties, which is a very good excuse to eat and drink lots. The blossoms are very delicate and only last a short time, around ten days at most.
Hanami was originally a religious ritual enjoyed only by nobility and the upper classes. It took place before the planting of seeds and was used to forecast the harvest for the coming year. From medieval times and onwards the symbolism of its fleeting beauty was adopted by the Samurai and in Buddhism. Then towards the end of the seventeenth century more common people began to enjoy hanami parties.
One of the most popular places for hanami parties is in Ueno Park.
Another popular place to go to is Inokashira Park in Kichijoji. Here there is a lake where you can enjoy the cherry blossom from the comfort of your very own swan boat.
Here's a short film.
You can see the photos here.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Posted by steve at 2:23 am
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa
On Sunday, I went to a gallery exhibiting the works of the Japanese artist Hokusai. Some of Hokusai's most famous artwork includes The Great Wave Off Kanagawa(pictured above) and Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit. He also painted a picture of the bridge at the Kameido Shrine, which I visited a few weeks ago, entitled The Drum Bridge at the Kameido Tenjin Shrine.
Hokusai is also famous for the influence he had on Monet's impressionistic style and his pictures helped Monet to develop alternative techniques to traditional landscape paintings.
It proved to be a fascinating exhibition, especially after having recently visited the Monet exhibition and the Kameido Tenjin Shrine.
You can see examples of Hokusai's work here.
Posted by steve at 1:16 pm
Saturday, March 22, 2008
The Kinryu-no-Mai(Golden Dragon Dance) is held at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa every Spring. First the dragon is taken through the grounds of the Sensoji in a parade and then into the temple itself. People then throw money into a grate and touch the dragon for luck. After this the dragon is taken outside and there is a performance where the dragon twists and turns in front of the watching crowd.
The festival commemorates the discovery in 628 of the temple's gold Kannon, which is an image of the Goddess of Mercy, by two brothers who were fishing in the Sumida River.
Legend says the discovery caused golden dragons to fly up to heaven. The dance is performed to celebrate this and bring good fortune and prosperity.
Here's a short film.
You can see the pictures of the festival here.
Posted by steve at 10:02 am
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
From March 17 to March 23 this year it is Ohigan, which happens twice a year in the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.
The word 'higan' comes from the Sanskrit word 'Paramita', which translates into 'other shore'. It is an abbreviation of 'to-higan' which means 'to arrive at the other shore'.
The 'other shore' refers to Nirvana or Enlightenment. During this time people go to graves to pray for their ancestors. People also eat ohagi which are rice balls covered with sweet beans.
Posted by steve at 12:45 pm
Monday, March 17, 2008
On Sunday, I went to a firewalking festival (Hiwatari Matsuri) at Mount Takao which is about an hours train ride from Tokyo.
Priests believe that it was first started over 1300 years ago by yamabushi, mystics who mix Buddhist beliefs with Shintoism.
Before the firewalking begins the fire is blessed and ceremonial arrows are fired into it. It is then lit and after it has died down, the priests walk across the hot coals. It is believed that by doing this the soul is purified.
Members of the public are then allowed to have a go and I also tried it (my middle name is danger). Fortunately I didn't burn myself.
You can see the pictures here.
Posted by steve at 6:59 am
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Snowboarding is extremely popular in Japan. On Monday I decided to go snowboarding for the first time in a place called Gala Yuzawa, which is conveniently only an hour and a half north of Tokyo by Shinkansen.
You can see Snowboard Steve here.
It's a really nice resort, with a good range of courses for various levels and the snow is good too. A return ticket from Tokyo is about 12,000 yen, the ski pass is 4500 yen for the day and rental for the full snowboarding kit is 5000 yen.
You can also get a group lesson that is 3000 yen for two hours, although I decided not to.
You're probably asking yourself, 'Why didn't Steve get a snowboarding lesson? It's his first time and it would be very dangerous not to.' Well the reason is because I laugh in the face of danger. Fear isn't in my vocabulary.
After getting to the top the beginners slope I immediately fell over when getting off the ski lift. Little did I know that this would set the precedent for the rest of the day.
Anyway I decided to set off down the slope on my maiden voyage. To my surprise I had started remarkably well. I was managing to keep my balance. I was gradually picking up speed, perhaps a little too much speed for a snowboard virgin such as myself. Then I suddenly realised that I couldn't actually steer very well and I didn't know how to stop the thing. Unfortunately I was heading towards the edge of the slope and the huge abyss below (alright it was only a few metres). It was a bit like Roger Moore at the Beginning of 'The Spy Who Loved Me', but without the KGB assasins chasing me.
As I'd unfortunately forgotten my Union Jack parachute, I realised that falling over was probably the best option. So I just collapsed to the floor. I somersaulted about three times and created a huge spray of snow. As I lay on the ground with my bruised body and an even more bruised ego I realised that maybe I should have got lessons. Perhaps next time.
As I got up I saw a small child, no older than five years casually skiing down the slope, just to rub it in a bit more.
From what I could tell the people who are good at snowboarding make a sort of zig zag pattern down the slope and then stop at the bottom and then go straight up again. In contrast I sort of take a straight line down the slope, ending up in a big heap, with arms and legs flailing around at the bottom.
The biggest miracle of the day was that I didn't manage to break anything.
The second biggest miracle of the day was that I only managed to collide into one person (who I fortunately didn't manage to see again).
I had a great time, but my whole body is still aching. Next time, getting some lessons would probably be a good idea.
You can see all of the pictures here.
The website for Gala is here.
Posted by steve at 12:25 am
Sunday, March 09, 2008
I've spent the past two Sundays traipsing around Tokyo, looking for tickets for David Bowie's Reality Tour concert, unfortunately to no avail. I've always loved Bowie and he's one of my favourite singers.
Well, last night I thought why not try and get a ticket from a tout. I might have to pay over the odds, but it wouldn't matter as it's not every day I get the chance to see one of my musical idols.
Anyway, I arrived at the Nippon Budokan Hall at just gone seven. The Budokan is is one of the world's most famous venues. The Beatles made their Japanese debut there and Bob Dylan was the first of many to release a 'Live at the Budokan' album.
The Budokan was originally built in 1964, for the Judo competition in the 1964 Olympics. Although many concerts are held there, it's primary purpose is for martial arts such as Judo, Kendo, Karate and Aikido.
I managed to get a ticket and fortunately it wasn't much more than the face value. I was ecstatic.
This is the set he played:
01 Rebel Rebel
02 New Killer Star
05 All The Young Dudes
06 China Girl
07 Never Get Old
08 The Loneliest Guy
09 The Man Who Sold The World
10 Hallo Spaceboy
12 Heathen (The Rays)
13 Under Pressure
14 Life On Mars?
15 Looking For Water
18 Sound And Vision
19 Be My Wife
20 A New Career In A New Town
21 Ashes To Ashes
22 I'm Afraid of Americans
24 Five Years
25 Suffragette City
26 Ziggy Stardust
He played a mix of new and old songs, which went down very well with the crowd. In fact, for a while David Bowie stopped playing a lot of his old music in the 90s because he just wanted to play his new material. I was also impressed by the number of songs he did as well, which gave really good value for money.
I had an amazing time, even if security were a bit over zealous. He has a lot of stage presence and it's definitely one of the most impressive gigs I've been to.
You can check out the official David Bowie site here.
Posted by steve at 6:42 am
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Last weekend, I went to the John Lennon Museum in Saitama.
On entering, you are shown a fascinating documentary of his life. Following this, you then walk through various different zones which chart his life from an early age in Liverpool, through to his success in The Beatles and finally to his solo career and death in New York.
It's definitely worth going to and you get to see lots of interesting things like books from when he was at school, original lyrics, clothes and musical instruments. There's also some artwork by Yoko Ono which includes a phone, which apparently she occasionally rings to talk to people in the museum.
He's definitely my favourite Beatle, if only for the sheer fact he never did anything as bad as 'The Frog Chorus'.
The official site for the John Lennon museum is here.
Posted by steve at 2:58 am
Monday, March 03, 2008
Last weekend, I went to the Parasite Museum in Meguro. Here there are about 300 different parasites taken from animals and humans. There are also some quite disturbing pictures.
One of the most interesting exhibits is an 8 metre long tapeworm (Diphyllobothorium nihonkaiense) which was found in the belly of a middle aged man after eating sushi. You can see it here. There is also an interactive map which shows you where you can get parasites in different parts of Japan.
You can see the photos here.
There is also a souvenir shop where you can buy parasite t-shirts and key rings with real parasites in them if it takes your fancy.
The official site for the parasite museum is here. My favourite bit is the parasite of the month section.
After this I went to see the Monet exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum in Ueno. Monet is one of my favourite impressionist painters and some of his greatest works were on display.
This website has lots of paintings by Monet as well as a biography. Click here.
Posted by steve at 9:03 am