12 March 2016

Karate Lesson in Nihonbashi

I recently had the pleasure to experience a Karate lesson in the historic Nihonbashi area in Tokyo. It’s a wonderful way to experience some traditional Japanese culture and get a really good workout too! Nihonbashi is located in shitamachi (downtown) and seems a perfect setting since there is so much history and cultural focus in that area.  

My liaison for the appointment, Yuko from Lifull TraveRing, met me in front of the building and was very helpful in setting up the appointment and making sure everything went smoothly. All I had to do was simply show up and that was easy to do since Yuko provided me with great directions and instructions. 

I arrived at the 4th floor dojo a bit early for the lesson, but I was allowed to sit in the waiting area and observe the class that was just finishing. What struck me immediately was the good energy I felt in the room. The clean, bright décor of the room combined with cheerful laughs during the instruction created a relaxed, yet energetic atmosphere. The class I observed really seemed to having fun!
With instructor Ayuko Kaji of Manabiya HYOTEN
After being greeted by the instructor, Ayuko san, I was provided with a karategi (uniform) and after changing, we started the lesson with a warm up and stretching. The warm up was thorough and I felt much looser and ready to being the lesson. Ayuko san even assisted me with some of the stretches since I was very tight! Although I felt OK with receiving the lesson in Japanese, there is translation available if needed, so don't worry. Since Ayuko san uses some English phrases during instruction and with the movements being taught visually, language really wasn’t an issue, thankfully.

Karate practice consists of the parts, kihon (basics), kumite (partner sparring), and kata (movement sequences). Participants will experience all 3 during the lesson. For the basics, we focused on the correct stance and technique for punching (tsuki) and kicks (keri). I was surprised to learn how much the stomach and torso muscles are involved in creating power in punching and kicking. Ayuko san really made this concept clear and it really made a difference! 

After basics, we then moved on to partner sparring. Using the techniques we had just learned, both partners take turns throwing full-power kicks and punches while the other holds the sparing pads. I really liked this part. It’s important, however, to know how to hold the pads correctly to avoid injury and we were shown how to do this. 
Kumite (Partner sparring)
A friendly word about our instructor, Ayuko san: Don't let her sweet and friendly demeanor fool you. This woman is super strong and a total bad-ass! With over 25 years experience in Karate and holding a 4th degree blackbelt, she is the real deal. Ayuko also does beautiful Japanese calligraphy (shodo), which seems to fit with the esoteric nature common to all the Japanese arts. 

The last part of the lesson is the kata, or putting all the moves together into a flowing sequence.  Not being a very good dancer, I was a bit concerned about having to memorize all the punches and kicks in sequence. Ayuko san made it easy for me by first demonstrating herself, and then all together at the same time, just in case I forgot.  For me, it felt like just the right balance of helping, but also letting me do on my own.  

The session closed with our host performing the kata herself (enbu) and it was really beautiful and inspiring to watch. You can sense the amount of training and effort that is required to get to an advanced level such as hers. I was really great to watch.

Being a personal trainer myself, I was really surprised and excited to learn how important elements such as balance, core strength, flexibility, speed, power, and accuracy are essential to Karate. It was a great workout for sure!

I can fully recommend this experience to both those totally new to karate and just want to have a fun and interesting Japanese experience, as well as those already experienced and wanting to learn some of Karate’s finer points. Ayuko san’s instruction style can benefit both and you can make the class as fun or serious as you like, it’s entirely up to you!

If you would like to try this lesson, you can make a reservation here. Give it a try!

Karate Lesson in Nihonbashi at Manabiya HYOTEN from marc keen on Vimeo.

20 November 2015

Kaiseki at Ise Sueyoshi

I had the pleasure to visit Ise Sueyoshi in Nishi Azabu for their kaiseki lunch course recently and wanted to share my experience. Ise is a famous city in the Mie prefecture of Japan and is famous for Ise Jingu Shrine (the most famous shrine in all of Japan), as well as its very fresh seafood fare and distinct culture. With seating capacity for just eight people, it’s a very private, intimate dining experience. All of the Ise-inspired course selections consist entirely of farm to table ingredients and selected personally by the owner and chef, Yuuki Tanaka.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by Mari-san, my hostess for the kaiseki experience. Kaiseki is a very traditional, multi-course meal created with Japanese aesthetics in mind, as much as taste. Originally from Kyoto, it’s the highest form of dining in Japan.

Luckily for me, Mari-san provided an English menu explaining all the courses in detail, as well as verbally during the meal. Being able to hear about the tradition and highlights of each dish in English makes it a really entertaining and interesting experience, especially for those with limited Japanese.

The first course is named Ikkon, which means ‘first sake’.  The sake was very smooth and warm, which was nice since it was a cold day.  Next came Hassun, a seasonal appetizer and included many flavors of autumn such as fried taro with crispy rice, ginko nuts, sweet potato dumpling, deep-fried fish, garnished with maple and ginko leaves. A true fall medley!

Following Hassun was Muko-zuke, a sashimi course which included Spanish Mackerel and Turban Shell varieties. I tried them with both the konbu-salt and homemade shoyu. Both were delicious.

Next was Wan, a simmered dish using dashi (fish stock) and seasonal mushrooms. Delicate and aromatic, the scent should be enjoyed before tasting.  A most interesting seasonal Tempura course came next and included maitake mushroom and tofu created from corn. It was very light and tasty. Be sure to eat it while it’s hot!

 Traditionally served at the end of the meal in Japanese kaiseki, the Meshi (rice) and Tome (soup) course consisted of red miso soup and seasonal rice with sea bream. I especially liked the rice that came in its own clay pot and was very flavorful, yet light. The dessert course, Kan-mi, was a delicious matcha-chocolate fondant, which preceded the final course of traditional matcha green tea. Be sure to eat the sweets completely before enjoying the matcha tea to get the full sweet and bitter balance. It was a great closing to a wonderful culinary experience!

I would particularly recommend Ise Sueyoshi to folks looking for a very intimate and traditional dining experience that is also very English-friendly. Many thanks to Chef Yuuki san and hostess Mari-san for a great kaiseki experience. If you would like to have this experience, you can reserve through Lifull TraveRing as I did. They took care of everything and was very easy. Enjoy!

07 May 2011

Shoganji Temple: Saganoseki, Kyuushuu

Golden Week is over and I just returned from a week-long trip in Kyuushuu. I thought for something different, this time I would try staying at a zen temple (something I've always been interested in doing) and that  it might be a good way to revive a rusty zazen practice, as well as just relax in country life, surrounded by nature.

I found Shoganji temple (in pics above) on the web while searching for zen retreats. The temple is located in a small village (Ojuki) which is part of a fishing peninsula called Saganoseki, not far near Oita. It offered accommodations to foreigners or nationals, regardless of zen experience (although some experience is recommended).  They've hosted visitors from the US, Germany, Canada, Croatia, and many other places. Prices were reasonable and it was rather last-minute so I figured "why not?".

The man sitting next to me is Jiho Kongo, the head monk in charge of the  temple. Shoganji is over 600 years old and has been in his family for over 100 years. He speaks great English and is very friendly, as well as a wonderful cook! Here we are getting ready for lunch.

Above are some more shots around the temple. It's totally surrounded by trees and mountains and can hear frogs and birds singing all the time. The rightmost pic is of a well where that we got drinking water from for daily use. It was really good!

Daily schedule was: up at 5:30 and zen practice until around 7, gardening/chores from 8-10, Lunch at 12 and afternoons were basically free until dinner at 5:30. Lights out around 9 or 10. We did take some trips to local sento (baths) a few times, as well as some other walks/excursions.

One of my most memorable experiences was that I got a chance to help make mochi! I've seen this done a few times, but this was first time participating. I love eating mochi (too much) so was really looking forward to it. Some friends and family of Jiho-san came over for the mochi making. Above is a shot of 2 of us going at it, pounding the rice and yomogi mixed together.

The pic farthest left is yomogi (mugwort) and we picked it fresh around the temple grounds. Mixing it in when pounding the sweet white rice makes it turn green and adds flavor. After the rice mixture turns completely green as gets really sticky, its then stuffed with anko (sweet red bean) and covered with kinako (soybean powder), as is seen in the pics on the right. Man... heaven on earth for me, if you knew how much I loved this stuff! I restrained myself to 2 (sometimes 3) daily : P

If you like simple, fresh regional Japanese dishes, you won't be disappointed. Fresh fish, vegetables, fruit and rice make up most of the dishes. Kyuushu is especially known for citrus fruits and amazing fish. From right to left: Sashimi with negi, takenoko (bamboo shoots), udo (bitter mountain vegetable), sazae (a shellfish kind of like conch), and takenoko, fuki and aburage. We picked the takenoko right outside the temple on a mountain path and had it as side dish throughout the stay. 

There were many other dishes during my stay including grilled fish and squid, oshinko, nanbanzuke, salads, fruit, rice and of course, mochi for dessert. Jiho-san believes in simple style (ie not too much flavoring or sauces to let the freshness of food be tasted). Its true, with food this fresh, you really don't need it.  

I did try no breakfast for the whole time, which is part of the health system observed there. I must say I was skeptical at first (as most people are according to Jiho-san), but after few days not only did i survive without it, I found that i had more energy and didn't even miss it. Drinking lots of water is important in lieu of breakfast though.

In addition to the local foods, there is of course the sea, which is so accessible. I think i walked down to the beach (which is only 10 min walk from temple) around 3 or 4 times a day. Water is clear and can see some reefs/coral too. One thing I noted during these walks was that every person i passed, child or adult, greeted me. I found it amazing since I almost never experience it in Tokyo. I guess that is a normal part of village life. Local people were very friendly.

Unknown to me, I came during a matsuri time and so the town was in festival mode on the 3rd and 4th. I get the feeling in such a remote village, they don't get too many foreigners here, which I think was confirmed upon entering the festival area. The kids, having no fear of course, ran right up to me and started asking me lots of questions, very curious and jumping all over me which lasted pretty much all day..lol. We had a lot of fun. The adults eventually loosened up when they heard I could speak Japanese and offered me some beer and snacks for which I was grateful. The kids were a riot though, so genki!!

Friendly people, beautiful scenery, great food...couldn't ask for much more. Hope to go back for a visit again! Many thanks to Jiho-san, Okaasan and Obasan for their warm hospitality. ありがとうございます!

26 July 2009

LA/VFX blog

Just wanted to direct those who might be interested to a blog I'm doing while in LA about taking Visual Effects courses and the 3d scene there. It's called 2LA43d. Hope you check it out!

I will continue Let's Good Times once I'm back in Japan. For now enjoy this new one. : )

I Miss Japan soooooooooooooooooooo much. sigh....

03 July 2009

I'll be back ...

Today is a warm, rainy, breezy day in Tokyo and I'm at one of my favorite lunch spots, Hibiki. Being on the 49th floor, there is a great view of the city to gaze at while enjoying my Chirashizushi. It's rather sudden, but after over 2.5 years here, I'm leaving tomorrow to move back to the US for the time being. Freelancing isn't working out the way I'd like and I think to shake things up a bit, make some kind of change. I will be living in Los Angeles, CA and taking some advanced 3d training at a facility in Hollywood for about 9 weeks.

I really wish I wasn't leaving, honestly. Most of you know how much I enjoy living here. Of course I miss my friends and family at home terribly - that goes without saying. Just in terms of a place to live that I feel comfortable in, constantly stimulated, and suits me in various ways, Tokyo is it. I love living in a city where the public transportation is clean, on-time, and a car is not even remotely needed, which removes the whole parking/traffic hassle. I can't imagine there being another city in the world the density of Tokyo that is so clean and safe. Apparently that stuff is important to me. I think a lot of cities can learn a thing or two from Tokyo.

But, another important value is to be working in an environment that suits me and where i feel I can express myself and feel good about while making a decent living. That too is so important and thus, it's been a hard decision.

I know I will be back, if not as a resident, then at least as a frequent visitor. I guess for some this place can get in their blood after a while. I guess its better to leave while feeling so lucky and positive about the experience rather than jaded and negative as I have heard many do. I owe so much to so many people who made my stay here easy and fun. I can't even begin to say how much i appreciate all I have received from everyone. I hope I can repay some of what I have received someday.

Although I know I will talk with my girlfriend frequently, that is going to be very rough. Skype will be getting a lot of use I think...

Looking forward, the school I will be attending is called the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood. All of the instructors work in the industry at major studios, so not only will it be great instruction, but a networking opportunity as well. I hope to get something going after it ends, but will keep options open and just focus on working my arse off for the next few months and hope something good comes from it.

So I guess we'll see. If I can get my name in some movie credits somewhere, that would be cool too. Maybe I will start an LA blog too. I'll keep this one open cause Japan is not over for me, not by a longshot. As the infamous gov of California once said, "I'll be back".

04 June 2009

Nara and the Buddha's Nostril

After a looooong delay, i finally made some time to upload those pics from my Nara trip a while back. Nara is one of the most important cultural areas in Japan with many famous shrines and temples. In addition to that, it's a wonderful nature spot where the deer are aplenty are roam free. Just as in Miyajima, they aren't shy in the least. In fact I'd call 'em downright hostile...hah. The pics below are from Kofukuji. This temple has the tallest 5 story pagoda in Japan and is next to Nara deer park.

Next was Kasuga Taisha. To reach the shrine requires a bit of a hike through some forrests. The deer of course is the god-protector. Very cool, quiet, and mossy : )

Lastly is Todaiji, which might be the most famous temple in Japan, famed for housing the largest sitting Buddha. This is tops on the list for sightseers in Japan and it's worth the trip. One of the pillars has a hole going through it called the 'Buddha's Nostril". it's quite narrow and if you can fit through it, all good stuff will come to you. Kids have no problem, but sometimes you see the zealous adult give a go, which must be fun to watch. As with everywhere in Nara, be careful of deer gangs. : )

06 January 2009

Kyoto 京都

Well, first off HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone! And to my Japanese friends, 明けましておめでとうございます。今年もよろしくお願いします。That's basically just "Happy New Year and please treat me nicely this year as well", kind of. Sometimes phrases just don't translate well. Anyway. I am super behind in my posting, so here is one from a trip at the end of last year, the Osaka-Kyoto-Nara trip. I will cover Kyoto in this one. It's actually my 2nd time there, but there is so much to see in Kyoto I think one could go many many times and always find new treasures.

First stop was Tofuku-ji. Rebuilt in 1890, it's famous for its 4 zen gardens (one on each side) designed by some famous landscape designers in 1939. The gardens represent an abstraction of the 8 aspects of Buddha's life. It's so serene there since the temple is surrounded by nature on all sides. Very peaceful atmosphere.

Next was a trip to Tenryu-ji, which is in Arashiyama part of Kyoto on the eastern side. This temple is a World Heritage site, also known for its gardens. What I enjoyed most was the famous bamboo forest (Chukurin no michi) nearby. A bamboo forest is such a different experience, I can't describe it really, just very cool and completely green. I really loved visiting there.

From there visited Fushimi-inari Shrine, noted for its thousands and thousands of closely-spaced red 鳥居(torii). These red torii appear in many photos/postcards/advertisements. It's one of the most known visual symbols of Kyoto, I think. Also, the route is veeeeery long, and mostly uphill, so be forewarned. Not a good spot for the high-heel-ed. Bring water too. :P

After all that sight-seeing, it was nice to relax at a 旅館 (ryokan-japanese hotel). I actually messed up the reservation and went to the wrong hotel, but fortunately the one I went too still had a room. Turned out to be a great place to stay in a very charming, traditonal part of Kyoto called Gion, where you can spot 舞妓(maiko) from time to time. Maiko are not geisha, but most visitors can't tell the difference. Their kimono, hair, makeup, and even sandals are different, acutally. The women kind enough to pose in the photo above were neither Maiko or Geisha, just visitors getting into the feel of Kyoto, probably.

The 懐石料理(kaiseki ryori or many japanese dishes served in courses) was really very nicely done. You could see the late fall theme in the pic on the far left. Kyoto's kaiseki is most famous in Japan, being the historical center of culture. Also 京野菜(vegetables grown in Kyoto) are known thoughout Japan for being supremely tasty. I can't disagree with that...everything was wonderful. I especially liked 'hamo', which is a white fish, served in a broth famous in Kyoto.

On the morning of the last day, took a quick visit to Nishiki Market, which is a busy, popular market for the locals. You could see many of Kyoto's specialties here and sample as well. They had some grilled scallops-kabobs that looked too incredible to pass up. It was hard to leave here!! haha....

I would like to return to Kyoto again someday and explore more of this city that has so many different attractions, as well as more of it's delicious foods! :P

Next: Nara

15 December 2008

Thanksgiving in Philadelphia

Well, as many of you might know I was home visiting for 2 weeks over the Thanksgiving holiday. I was glad I chose Thanksgiving over Christmas to come home for a few reasons, one of which is I missed Thanksgiving foods! The other is the general level of crazy is a wee-bit less and travel a bit easier perhaps. I had a great time visiting family and it was great to see everyone, especially my Mom, Dad and Sister's family. I really missed them. Also I saw some former coworkers and friends and that was great too.

One thing is for sure, I ate a LOT of pizza..i think I averaged about 2.5 slices a day, which helps account for the 5 lbs gained (no extra charge at airport). Turkey was great (as usual) and got to see the new Comcast building featured above. I gotta say, I was pretty impressed..go Philly! Largest HD screen in the world at a cool 1 mil. Nice little building they put up, those Comcast folks.

Well, guess I am way behind on posts now. Still have Kyoto and Nara to do. Right. Just let me take a little nap first...still jetlaggin a bit : )

27 October 2008

Tokyo Disneyland

Quick sidetrack from Kyoto/Nara trip since I wanted to blog about day trip took to Tokyo Disneyland. Not really high on my list of Japanese places I expected to visit, but suffice it to say I found myself in the position to go and my curiosity to compare/contrast was too strong to pass up the chance :P (thanks Kayo!)

I have to say the Tokyo version was more similar to the US one than I expected, albeit much smaller. But then again, with Disney never leaving any room for error and is so strict with their branding, I guess that it's really no surprise. I felt that Disney in the setting of Japan was somehow fitting, while at the same time starkly in contrast to the US one. On the similar end of things, with Japan being the land of 'cute', its a no-brainer that Disney would be a big hit here. It's almost more fitting here than in the US in that respect perhaps. But something about seeing all those so American figures and cultural references in the context of Japan/Japanese was surreal for sure. Old west and pioneer stuff (and the cultural context inherent in that) must be so strange and hard to relate to for the Japanese, just as some very old traditonal Japanese cultural elements are completely lost on me. But as I find that stuff so interesting, perhaps its that same contrast that draws the crowds.

And when I saw crowds, I mean crowds. I went on a weekday and still all the fastpass rides were sold out by about 2pm. The average wait time for popular rides was about 1.5 hours. But just like everywhere here in Tokyo, people just take it in stride and make no big deal about it. Nonetheless, I wouldnt want to see what weekends are like there.

I gotta say, listening to Disney characters talking in Japanese was pretty strange and kind of funny : )

Up next (for real): Kyoto

18 October 2008

Osaka is all about the food!

Hey all! 久しぶりだね!Haven't blogged in a while, but I'm still alive so....I've been working these days at a French animation company here in Tokyo called Aoki . I am helping with lighting and rendering for a commerical to be shown in China and it's a very nice style they are using. It's like an old Chinese painting becomes 3d and can move through it, but still looks like painting. I can't say too much more than that, but I'm happy to work with some really talented artists on an interesting project. Well, now to the main point of this post : )

I went on a short trip to Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka recently. I've been to Kyoto before, actually, but there is so much to see there, it's for sure worth going more than just a few times, I think. Although Osaka was the last stop, I'll start with that first. As the title says, for me it was all about the food!

Osaka is in the Kansai region and is Japan's second largest city. The dialect and culture is quite different than in Tokyo. Generally Kansai people are thought to be more outgoing. talkative, and generally go at slower pace than in Tokyo/Kanto region. Of course this is a stereotype, but it's generally accepted as a characteristic. Their sterotype of Tokyo people is they are always in a hurry and not so friendly. Kind of like America's East vs West Coast deal. Most of the comedians in Japan come from, or at least can speak, in the Kansai accent, as it seems to be the comedy capital. People say jokes are funnier in Kansai dialect. I' m still trying to understand basic Japanese humor, so its above my head for sure! lol... I think humor is one of the hardest parts to understand in a foreign culture, and perhaps a true sign of fluency. But again, I digress....back to the food!

The image at the top of the post is the main dish I wanted to try in Osaka. No, its not a hamburger. It's お好み焼き (okonomiyaki) and it's the centerpiece of food favorites there. Basically its a grilled mixture of chopped cabbage, green onion, egg, flour, and various topping and styles like pork, beef, chicken, with a dallop of mayonaise for good measure. The name kind of means "grill to your liking" indicating that you can design to your own taste/liking. It's placed on a 鉄板 (teppan, or steel grill) in front of you and just let it cook and cut pieces off and eat while its goodness is sizzling in front of you. Yum!

Anyway you can get okonomiyaki anywhere in Japan, and I even had Hiroshima's version of it before (Hiroshimayaki) and Tokyo's "monjyayaki", but for the real deal, you gotta go to Osaka. For sure, it's worth the trip. すごく美味しかった!

Ok, some more Osaka treats in the above pic. Far left is the area where most of the goodness can be found, the Dotonbori district. Here there are countless eateries, restaurants, and pubs so if you want to eat, this is the place to come. To the right of that was a sushi bar that had the BIGGEST sushi I have ever seen. It was almost funny, and the pieces were too big for one bite (that's big if it cant fit in my big mouth!). I put a mug of beer in the pic for scale. Mammoth! Center pic is the crown-jewel as I already talked about, the heavenly (angels singing in background here) okonomiyaki. The last two images on the right are of No. 2 in my book and just as popular, たこ焼き(takoyaki, or fried octopus dumplings). It's mostly a flour and octopus mixture, lightly fried, and topped with kastsuobushi (bonito fish flakes), seasoning, and mayo. Piping hot, so be careful (I burned my mouth).

As far as the town of Osaka itself, not much in terms of sightseeing aside from Osaka castle, which I heard is essentially now a big museum. I was happy just to take a gourmet tour. ^_^

Up next: Kyoto

12 August 2008

Got me some wheels..

Just picked up bike last week and i gotta tell you, I am loving getting around Tokyo by bike : ) For one, Tokyo isn't really that big (which you don't realize if travel by train all the time) so everywhere is within striking distance. But the biggest plus by far is I can ride it to work which means NO MORNING PACKED TRAINS! woo-hoo! Sweaty-bodied salarymen pressed against you in sardines-packed rush-hour trains are a probably my (and most people, it seems) least favorite thing about summer in Tokyo. Anyway I digress...

I didn't get a mama-chari, but a regular mountain bike and it folds in half for easy storage. Its not a high end one, but seems fun to ride and not bad for what i paid for it. Pretty much EVERYONE has a bike here and since bikes ride on the sidewalk with pedestrians (bad for them) instead of the street, its less dangerous and easy to get around. I think its the best mode of transportation in this city : )

20 July 2008


A Bonodori is a summer festival where a tradtional dance is performed by all those who wish to strut their stuff, most wearing yukata (light summer kimono). There are many during the summer so I went to go check out one near my place in Yotsuya Sanchome . All japanese summer festivals kind of have similar elements: yakisoba, yakitori, kakigoori, and lots of beer! I saw a few familiar faces from the festival in which I helped carry the omikoshi a few posts back. That was kinda cool and one of the guys that recognized me hooked me up with some yakitori and a beer, on the house which I thought was really nice of him.

Below is a some video of what the dance is like. Basically people do the dance while moving in a circle around a stage. Check out the Taiko drummer on the stage's top platform...pretty cool : )


14 July 2008

Ise Jinguu

Ise Jinguu is regarded as the most holy shrine in all of Japan as it's considered the birthplace of Shinto. The shrines are taken apart and rebuilt every 20 years, thus promoting central Shintoist ideas such as impermanence and rebirth. There are actually two shrines, the Geku (outer shrine) and Naiku (inner shrine) which are separated by a great forest, about 20 min apart by bus . Both shrines are protected by a series of four gated walls, so no one can get any closer than the first gate. I started at the Geku (below) which is just a few minutes walk from Ise station.

The Geku (outer shrine) dates from the 5th century and honors Toyouke no Omikami, the god of human necessities like food, clothing and shelter. As I mentioned above, no one is allowed to go past or take photos inside the first gate (above far right). I didn't really mind so much, because just like at the Atsuta Jinja in Nagoya, the atmosphere in and around these shrines was, for me, the most special part. If you get there early in the morning before the crowds arrive, you can enjoy strolling and exploring in the cool, quiet, lush forest among the towering cedars. It can be quite a spiritual experience, I think. The Geku is a nice warm-up for the star attraction, the Naiku, and I headed there next.

The Naiku (inner shrine) is about 200 years older and is the formal home of Amaterasu no Omikami, the primary deity of the Shinto religion and the traditional ancestor of the Imperial family. Also it's significant since it houses one of the three sacred objects of the royal family, a mirror which has reportedly not been looked into for over a thousand years.

Naiku seems to get much more crowded than Geku so I would suggest avoiding weekends or holidays if you can. In the first part of the journey, you pass through the toori and cross a long cedar bridge, said to span the physical and spiritual worlds. From there you can see the beautiful Isuzu river that runs through the shrine environs.

Being such a oppressively hot day, it seemed irresistible to everyone (myself included) to take off the shoes and dangle their legs in the cool river water for a few minutes. A murmured "kimochi ii~" could be heard by those that ventured in. Even this little girl (with parents close by) curiously investigated the cause of everyone's grins : )

After leaving the wide, expansive views of the bridge and river area, the environment quickly changes back to the now-familiar dark, cool green forest. Here, there is also a bridge and the river finds its way to this point as well, but it's a totally different feeling. Mossy cedar-plank bridges, dewy leaves and glistening stone-steps form the approach to the main shrine (pic above, far right). No pics or entry inside here either, but I was fine to just soak in the forest's coolness on such a hot day. Very close by and just a few mintues walk is an lively, historic shopping area called Oharimachi.

Oharaimachi (and the more recent Okage yokocho) contrast the stillness and solemn feeling of the shrine area and a great way to recharge your batteries after some long walking most of the day. This edo-style shopping village has all the usual souvenir stuff you can find just about anywhere in Japan, but also some local specialty sweets and microbrews : ). I tried Maccha Kakigoori (green tea flavor shaved ice) for the first time while here (the pic above 2nd from left). It's pretty common summer treat like our water ice.

Another local specialty is akafuku which is anko (sweet red bean paste) with o-mochi (sweet glutenous rice) inside. It's a lot better than it sounds and it's veeeeery sweet, so eating while drinking some green tea (to add bitter taste) seems to balance well. Turns out they are best eaten after one day so if you bring them as omiyage (souvenirs), keep that in mind :P. Neat place to stroll around for a few hours and lots to eat and enjoy. Both shrines and the shopping area takes the better part of a day I think.

Well, overall great trip and really glad I went to visit. Starting the new contract from tomorrow, so I'm just glad to have been able to get a short summer trip in before getting busy. Alright, it's time to work! : /

13 July 2008


There are 3 main areas to visit if you go to the Ise area: Ise, Toba, and Ise Shima. I planned to just visit Toba and Ise since there was plenty to see in both those spots in just 2 days. This entry will be about my time in Toba. The picture above is of the "meoto-iwa" or 'wedded rocks' as they are known as in the nearby town of Futami. Joined by a thick rope, they are said to represent the founding gods of Shinto, Izanagi and Izanami according to Japanese mythology.

Toba is mostly a bayfront resort-area, dotted with small, nearby islands in Toba bay. There are ferries that visit the islands throughout the day and are reachable within 20 to 50 minutes. Mostly they are fishing islands with some very remote parts, undisturbed nature, and unique festivals. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to visit any due to weather and time constraints, but maybe next time. In the picture above you can see one of the islands, Sugashima in the background and to the right is the Mikomoto Pearl Island where i did make a short visit.

Kokichi Mikomoto invented the cultured pearl process in the late 19th century and much of the fame of Toba comes from this heritage. On the island there is a museum showing the technique he invented, antique pearl jewelry, pearls for sale (of course) and even an all-pearl replica of the Liberty Bell that was created for the 1939 World's Fair in New York. I'm not so crazy about pearls, but it was interesting none the less to learn about it.

One cool thing they had was a show featuring "ama", who are women oyster divers. Before the cultured pearl process/pearl farming, the white-suited ama would dive and, just by holding their breath, search the floor of the bay for oysters and bring them to the surface. You can see an ama diver in the picture above, 2nd from the right. They can really hold their breath a long time, trust me! :P

I also visited another attraction which is close to Mikomoto, the Toba Aquarium. It was interesting and really huge with lots of displays. For me though, aquariums are like 'if you've seen one, you've seen them all', so I didn't spend loads of time there. Plus there were screaming kids everywhere so I had to get out of there :P. Good for a family trip, for sure and lots to see. Now, on to a more interesting attraction Toba has to offer...SEAFOOD! : ) : ) : )

Toba is really a small town and like most resort areas, the local people take life easy and more slowly, especially compared to a hectic-paced, open 24-hour place like Tokyo. That means restaurants closed early (like 7 or 8) and I had a lot of ground to cover, so no time to waste! With the help of a map (and some recommendations by the hotel staff), I thought it might be fun to do a little 'tabearuki', or walking around and just sampling a few things from each place. Basically the thing to get in Toba is grilled shellfish. The area's most famous dishes are Ise-ebi (spiny lobster), awabi (abalone), and tekonezushi (vinegar soaked rice with katsuo sashimi and nori).

As you can see by the picture above, I hit a few spots and went for their recommended seafood platter with a cold beer (or two). For the freshness and quantity of shellfish you receive, the price is absurdly low. I couldn't let such a bargain go to waste, so let's just say it was a good night for the restaurant/bar owners on that street...lol.

In the pic above on the far left is a tiny bar called Kyubei , where I spent a few enjoyable hours and was typical of most of the places I visited that night. The owner/chef and his wife really welcomed me, as well as the local regulars, and were very curious to know about gaijin visitors to their small town, let alone Japan (see pic below). Although no one spoke any English, I got by OK with my Japanese and we had some nice conversations and warm exchanges over cold beers and shared food. Incredibly, I had similar experiences in almost every place I went. That kind of small town friendliness, you just don't find in big cities and it was a nice change.

Also my stay the Toba International Hotel was just great. Fantastic service, friendly and helpful staff, food, great views ... 4 stars all across the board, so I highly recommend it for anyone who makes a trip to this region.

Up next: Ise Shrine