Sunday, January 18, 2009

Nippon Budokan - Kagami Biraki

Carl here...

Monday 12th January was the Nippon Budokan Kagami Biraki event.

The explanation...
This ceremony which can be literally translated into ‘unveiling of a round shaped mirror’ was originally performed by in the 15th Century by the 4th Tokugawa Shogun before going into battle, The Tokugawa’s won the battle and the ceremony has been popular ever since.

The official program

The ceremony involves an offering of two layers of small glutinous rice cakes to the gods on New Year’s Day to honour and purify a Samurai’s personal armour and weapons. The second part of the ceremony is cracking open a casket of Sake and sharing the contents.

Shiramizu has had these cakes on display in front of the small Shinto Shrine in the dojo for the last few weeks though I haven’t seen any Sake!

On January 11th or a short time after this, these mochi cakes are broken up by hand or hammer (knives aren’t used because they could signify cutting ties with people), and shared with the family or in samurai times, the clan.

This festival is believed to help strengthen family ties and friendship among warriors of the same clan.

The Shiramizu dojo was invited along to take part in ceremony representing the JKF-Wadokai. In true form, Arakawa sensei took 50 students to the Nippon Budokan.

Kudanshita station

We met at Tobu-dobutsu-koen station on the morning and took the train straight to Kudanshita subway station. After a short walk through the grounds of the Imperial Palace, we arrived at the Budokan.

The ceremony was already underway, with lots of people lined up inside the main hall.

What followed after the bow and opening speeches was a large demonstration of traditional Samurai, in full armour. It was a very ceremonial affair where the chief was presented with a feast by his minions.

After this, the giant mochi cakes and the casket of Sake were wheeled into the middle of the hall.

The chief then proceeded to ‘unveil’ the cakes and casket with the help of a huge hammer.

The samurai clan then marched around the Budokan hall and left.

What followed were demonstrations from 9 modern martial arts, I caught the Kyuudo (Archery) and Karate demonstrations which were good and a little of the bayonet demo.

All the Shiramizu people met the rest of the Karate students from some other dojo (sorry, I don’t know which ones) for a photo outside the Budokan. At this point it started to snow which made us all even colder.

Photo taken from the blog of Arakawa sensei

Arakawa Sensei was quite funny, after the photo was taken it started snowing pretty hard but Sensei still wanted to quickly speak to everyone. I don’t know exactly what he said but I think it was something like ‘why are you complaining about the cold? You’re all supposed to be tough karate students!’ with his trademark grin, everyone started laughing and stopped shivering immediately!

Training in the Budokan
After posing for a customary photo with the rest of the Shiramizu and Hideo Takagi Sensei, we had a short wait until we were allowed into the main hall for training.

This was quite a good experience, there was eight different martial arts practising at the same time in the Budokan. The martial arts were: Karatedo; Kendo; Iaido(?); Aikido; Judo; Naginata; Kenpo(?); and Sumo.

Lawrence in front, that's me just behind him...

Karate was in the middle of the hall, with approximately 80 students training in basics, kata and kumite for about 45 minutes. It was a challenge to keep focused on my kata, especially when I was more interested in the Kendo people whacking each other and the Judo people throwing each other around!

Ikimasho – let’s go...!
As soon as the training was over, and everyone bowed out, the Budokan offered everyone Miso soup. Shiramizu was on a tight schedule though and couldn’t partake in the rest of the event. Everyone had to get back to Sugito for the ‘official’ Shiramizu start of year training session that was taking place on the evening. Arakawa Sensei and I were the last to leave the Budokan, so we had to jog to the station to catch up to everyone.

...just another busy day at the office!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hatsumode - Shiramizu style!

Carl here...

At the start of each year, a lot of Japanese people visit shrines or temples to pray for comfort and health in the New Year. Shiramizu held their version of this event on Sunday 11th January, but to make things a little more interesting, Shiramizu walked to and from the temple which is in the nearby Satte City, a journey of approximately 15 km. This isn't a great distance, but it is when you think that some of the kids on the walk were only 6 or 7 years old!.

For us, the day started at 7:30am, when Iwasaki Sensei kindly picked up Amy, Lawrence and I from the Intern apartment and took us to the meeting place, the Sugito Town hall.

The Walk

Arakawa Sensei - leading the way!
Picture taken from the blog of Arakawa Sensei

At 8am, approximately 100 people started the walk to the temple, with a clear blue sky, and a great view of Mount Fuji in the distance.

The boys are back in town...

Everyone was in high spirits for the walk, and it was a great chance to catch up with friends after the holidays.

Yoshihara Sensei (left) and Masatoshi - Arakawa sensei's youngest son, dressed like a Canadian Ninja!

The Shrine

Shiramizu enter the shrine...

We had a short wait at the Sachi Miya Jinja temple whilst a baseball team finished off, and then it was the turn of Shiramizu. Obviously 100 people wouldn't have fit easily inside the temple, so we all waited outside.

We all lined up outside and Arakawa Sensei was invited inside to make an offering, when Arakawa Sensei came back out, the monk came outside to bless everyone.

Picture taken from the blog of Arakawa Sensei

He said some words in Japanese and we bowed, he said some more and we bowed again...

After we were all blessed, we did a short 5 minute training session of basics, which was actually hard work in the freezing cold! Then everyone lined up to pray at the temple, and also made a small offer of money towards the upkeep of the temple.

All the kids were given a lollypop and the adults were given some Sake, I would have prefered the lollypop but never mind!

This is me, getting caught on camera!

Once everyone had finished praying at the temple, we headed back to the start point where we were all given some delicious miso soup.

Soup Kitchen

After finishing the rest of our packed lunch, mine mainly consisting of rice balls, chocolate and cakes, we headed home to warm up!.

It was a really good morning, and everyone enjoyed catching up with each other on the walk, but it also had real significance in Japanese culture. I think events like this explain why Shiramizu has such a great family feel to it, despite the large number of students.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Kyoto - DAY 3

Carl here...

Day Three
For some reason it was decided that we had to have an early start to drive back to Tokyo, I think it was to avoid the ‘end of holiday’ traffic on the roads. In hindsight it would have been better to take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo instead, that way we would have had another full day in Kyoto, and we’d have still got home at the same time!.

We didn’t want to waste our morning completely, so it was decided that Amy, Lawrence and I would walk to the nearby Nijo castle and have a look around. My trusty guidebook (Fodor's Japan ISBN 0-679-00890-X) was consulted for the opening times and we set off. Naturally we got lost, but we eventually found the place only to discover that because of the New Year holiday, it wasn’t yet open – my trusty guidebook had failed me for the first time in six months!

We took some photos of the front gate and headed back to the hotel, again getting lost on the way!

On the way out of Kyoto we stopped on the Kamo-gawa (Kamo River) so that Lawrence could play on the stepping stones. After a short stop we headed off.

The thought of such a long road trip didn’t fill me with much enthusiasm, especially when you consider that I could have had another nice relaxing day in Kyoto instead! We stopped for some breakfast at a service station overlooking Biwa lake, the largest freshwater lake in Japan just on the outskirts of Kyoto. We then hit the highway for journey home.

For a lot of the journey there wasn’t much to see, the road went through colourless grey cities like Nagoya with little of interest. When we hit the mountainous area we marvelled at Japanese engineering. We would drive through a huge 4 lane car tunnel only to come out immediately over a huge gorge on a massive and ultra-modern suspension bridge. Most nations would avoid such difficult routes, but the Japanese don’t seem to see huge mountains as problems to their building plans. Because of this attitude, the road is very smooth and straight making the long journey home that bit quicker.

Once the highway starts to hug the rugged coastline, it follows the path of the historical Tokaido, No, not the karate suit manufacturer – the Tokaido road. Let me explain...

Ieyasu Tokugawa took control of the country after defeating the Toyotomi clan at the battle of Sekigahara. He won because a number of feudal lords changed sides at the last minute and help Tokugawa win. Naturally Ieyasu was a little paranoid about his new found allies so he came up with an innovative way of controlling the other feudal lords. Every feudal lord had to make their way to Edo (Tokyo) in alternate years to have an audience with Ieyasu. Because of their rank, this had to be done in much pomp and ceremony and all at the expense of the individual feudal lords. Also, when the lord left Edo, they had to leave there wife and children behind in their Edo villa’s as hostages to the lords good behaviour.

This system bled the feudal lords treasuries dry and effectively made them absentee landlords undermining their power base. This system led to 250 years of unbroken peace in Japan.

Anyway, back to the topic. The route that the eastern lords would take was the Tokaido, because of the amount of retainers each lord had and the needs of feeding and housing each lord and their entourage, the Tokaido road became very important financially and strategically.

Tokyo Nights

Even with this heritage, the road wasn’t that exciting though we did get some great shots of Tokyo at night.

Kyoto - DAY 2

Carl here...
Day Two
Today we had a busy day of temple seeing, and souvenir shopping lined up. Our plan was to visit Kiyomizu-dera first, then Byodoin, Kinkaku-ji & Ginkaku-ji. I thought the plan was a little ambitious because Byodoin is about 30 minutes drive from Kyoto and Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are in opposite parts of town, this would mean that we’d have to get through the traffic.


Kiyomizu-dera is an unusual temple in that it’s built into the steep hillside of Mount Kiyomizu, in fact part of the main hall is held up by 139 giant pillars.

There is an old saying ‘Have you the courage to jump from the veranda of Kiyomizu?’ which is asked when someone sets out on a new adventure.

Byodoin Temple

I think this is the most beautiful building in Japan,

a lot of people must agree with me because the building is so famous that it adorns the back of the 10 yen coin.

What can I say? I'm a very popular guy!

This temple was originally the villa of the Fujiwara family in the 10th Century, the Phoenix hall was added to the complex in the 11th Century and is all that remains from the period.

The complex now houses an ultra modern museum housing some of the national treasures from the sight and a short film showing the Byodoin in all its former glory.

The inside of the main hall used to be adorned with mother of pearl, gold and silver – all designed to make the inside glow with natural light so that worshippers would leave the normal realm and enter the realm of the Buddha.

They made me do it... honest!


After getting some lunch, and slightly amending our schedule to include the Ryoan-ji temple, we headed to Kinkaku-ji. The golden pavilion was originally the retirement home for Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (1358-1409), it was always going to be a rather grandiose affair because he would use the site as his base of operations for controlling the country through his 10 year old son, the new shogun. Upon Yoshimitsu’s death, the villa was converted into a temple.

The building that we see today is actually a reconstruction dating from the 1955 after a student monk torched the original in 1950!

The idea is to throw the money into the dish, which isn't as easy as you'd think!


This is one of the more famous gardens in Japan, in fact I have a book at home that is filled with pictures from this place. The main feature of this temple is the ‘karesansui’, a dry garden with just 15 rocks arranged in three groupings of 7, 5 and 3 rocks.

The idea is to sit on the temple’s veranda and contemplate the garden, at any one time you can only see 14 rocks. If you move to another position, you can see other stones, but another will disappear. In Buddhism the number 15 represents being complete so the idea is to try and see all 15 rocks, which you can’t ever do. Of course, as we quickly discovered if you stand up then you can easily see all 15 rocks at one time. Though, I don’t think you can cheat your way to enlightenment!

The temple of the silver pavilion was despite the name, never actually silver. It was going to be covered in silver foil to compliment the nearby golden pavilion but Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga (1435-90) never got round to finishing it. It was designed with moon viewing parties, tea ceremony and general romance in mind. Upon the shogun’s death, the villa was converted into a Buddhist temple.

We drove all the way across town, but despite our best efforts, the temple had already closed.

Instead we headed to a hotel (different to yesterday), this hotel was a bargain. Okano got us a great deal, a double room for Amy and I cost a mere 7000 yen AND every room was strictly no smoking and had free broadband.

We freshened up and headed to an izakaya in the Gion district for some food.

Amy's first taste of Nato...

Kyoto - DAY 1

Carl here...

Ever since I first thought about coming to Japan, I have wanted to visit Kyoto, the old imperial capital. The city was Japan’s capitol city for more than 10 centuries, only moving when Emperor Meiji moved his imperial court to Edo, and renamed the city Tokyo in 1868. In all this time, it didn’t always hold the reigns of the country, from the 12th Century until the Meiji restoration, the country was controlled by the baku-fu, or military power commonly known as the shogun. Before and during this time, when the Emperor and his minions had nothing better to do, Kyoto became the cradle of Japanese culture from moon viewing parties to the tea ceremony.

Kyoto has often been the site of conflict which has meant that some of its greatest buildings have been lost over time. A lot of what can be seen today is from the early 17th century when the Tokugawa family restored much of Kyoto’s assets, basically as a show of the family’s power and to keep a check on the Emperor’s minions. In fact, the Nijo castle was built next door to the Imperial Palace, and is somewhat grander – an obvious snub to the Emperor.

Busy busy
Anyway, we managed to work out a free 3 day period where Amy and I could get to visit Kyoto. The only problem was that it was during the Japanese New Year holiday, this was to cause us a few problems later on. We also thought we’d drag Lawrence along, and to make up the numbers Okano-san from Shiramizu decided to come along too!

Day 1
For Amy and me, our day started with a 6:00am train from Wado station. As we headed into Tokyo we were not only greeted with a perfect, cloud free sunrise over the Arakawa River, but also an uninterupted view of Mount Fuji. Lots of local’s were taking advantage of the clean early morning air to go walking or jogging along the banks of the river. It was at this point that we also got our first glimpse of the majesty of Mount Fuji!


Nozomi Shinkansen...

The Japanese bullet train is really cool! Naturally we had to ride the fastest version, the Nozomi, which to build cost a massive almost 5 billion Japanese yen per train, which is around $55 million US. This crazy cost means that even the economy seats are pretty luxurious.

To make the trip even better, we had a perfect view of Mount Fuji in all its glory for a lot of the journey. The speed of the train did make it difficult to get a good picture of the mountain that wasn’t blocked by a random blur of buildings or utility poles.

Lawrence and Okano were travelling the 600 kilometres by car, which meant that Amy and I had to hang around for a few hours before they arrived in town. To pass the time we headed to a few of the places close to the station including:

The Shosei-en Garden, a really nice example of a Japanese garden which belongs to the Higashi Hongan-ji,.

The Higashi Hongan-ji,.a bit of a disappointment because the 2nd largest wooden structure in Japan is currently under refurbishment (note the huge warehouse type building in the photo);

The second largest wooded structure in Japan... No really!

Higashi Hongan-ji, main gate

The Kyoto Tower was ok, but nothing particularly special.

Show me the money
After the tower, we had to find a cash machine which should have been a simple thing in one of Japan’s biggest cities. However, the day was part of the Japanese New Year's holidays so all the cash machines decided not to give us access to any of our money. We must have tried about 20 different companies’ cash machines with both Japanese bank cards and our English bank cards without success. In the end we had to rely on Okano finding us a ‘Seven-Eleven’ store which we knew accepted out English cards.

I’d just like to say that Okano was great, not only did he book our accommodation and drive us everywhere in Kyoto, he also took it upon himself to make sure that we were always having a great time.

After using his trusty Sat Nav (car navigation system) we headed across town through 20 minutes of traffic to find a seven eleven and get some money.

Apparently the trick with the machines was to only ask for 10,000 yen at a time!

The Hotel
Then we headed to the hotel which unsurprisingly had a seven eleven around the corner from it – typical! The hotel seemed pretty nice, in the ‘robby’ there was a huge in-door pond the full length of the room against one wall with huge koi carp in. We checked in and headed to our rooms to get freshened up, agreeing to meet in the ‘robby’ in 30 minutes.

...just to explain, the lobby was actually labelled 'robby' in the elevators, which made us smile. 

We met up with one of Okano’s friends, a local who was going to show us the sights. We headed for food with him, and we worked out a schedule for the places we wanted to see. This actually turned out to be all the places that I wanted to see, because Amy, Lawrence and Okano were happy to go with the flow. After sampling the local cuisine, we wandered around Gion looking for some geisha.

Then afterwards hit a few karaoke places.