Event notice: Kobe beef luncheon Sat. May 14

 

maeda

Kobe beef is one of Japan’s most famous foods, known all around the world. But what makes it different from other beef? Is it true that the cows are fed beer and given daily massages? Find out — and try Kobe beef for yourself — at this gourmet 7-course “kaiseki” style lunch, in which seasonal ingredients are beautifully presented in small, healthy portions, at one of the few restaurants in Tokyo certified as serving genuine Kobe beef.

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While Chef Maeda prepares us a special menu, your guide (yours truly; me!) will explain the fascinating history of Kobe beef. Fun and delicious, this excursion is great preparation for entertaining those out-of-town visitors who ask for Kobe beef.

sushi

Date and time: Saturday May 14, 12:00-14:00

Cost: 10,000 yen per person for a 7-course lunch including dessert and coffee or tea, and tax, service and lecture fee. Wine and champagne can be ordered separately, including by the glass (800 yen and up for wine, 1,000 yen for champagne).

Location: Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511, 4-3-28 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Closest station: Akasaka Mitsuke

If you’d like to join us, send me a msg through the contact form on this blog, or an email to gordenkeralice(at mark)gmail.com.

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Night Museum: Hang with me and the ‘saurs, Friday June 3 in Ueno

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Update: This tour is now full.  So sorry to disappoint those who aren’t able to participate. I will try to organize another one of the permanent exhibition. Let me know if you’d be interested.

Come join me Friday evening June 3 at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno Park for a tour of Dinosaur Expo 2016, a special exhibition that is held just once every three years. Our guide will be Dr. Makoto Manabe, the museum’s chief paleontologist, who speaks English fluently and is a wonderful educator. He’s also the rock star of dinosaur study in Japan, as I discovered when he tried to lead me through the exhibition for an advance look-see — fans kept stopping us and asking to have their picture taken with him!

If it’s been a while since you updated your knowledge about dinosaurs, this tour will offer plenty of surprises. Highlights include the newest reconstruction of Spinosaurus, the largest known carnivorous dinosaur, shown here for the first time in Japan. Spinosaurus was first discovered by a German paleontologist in 1912, but the fossils he brought back to Munich were destroyed during World War II.  As a result, the dinosaur was almost completely forgotten until 2008, when new remains were discovered in Morocco.  Now, based on studies of these and other newly discovered Spinosaurus bones, scientists believe the animal moved on four feet and was semi-aquatic, hunting in the water as well as the land.

TyrannosaurusLooksAtSpinosaurus (1)

We’ll also get to watch Dr. Clive Coy, a paleontologist in from the University of Alberta, as he cleans the fossils of a small dinosaur called Saurornitholestes, which he uncovered in the Canadian Bad Lands a few years ago. It’s slow, careful work, to say the least, and he’ll chat with us about what he’s doing.

clive

The exhibition will be open to other visitors when we visit, but Friday evening is less crowded than other times. To be sure everyone can hear well, we’ll have earphone head-sets connected wirelessly to Dr. Manabe’s microphone.  Other topics we’ll cover will include baby dinosaurs — we’ll see a baby skeleton visiting Japan for the first time — origin, endothermy, herbvivory, flight, aquatic adaptation, and dinosaur calls.

Date and time: Friday June 5, 6:30 to 8:00 pm
Meet: 6:20 pm at the entrance to Dinosaur Expo 2016, National Museum of Nature and Science, Ueno Park, Tokyo
Cost: 2,000 yen for adults, 1,000 yen for children (elementary to high-school kids welcome)

Tour is now full –space was very limited.

And if you’ve got 15 minutes to bone up on spinosaurus, check out this nice talk by German paleontologist Nazir Ibrahim.

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Discover Another Kanagawa: Join Me in Ashigara, Feb. 11

Yabusame

Gracious…this trip booked up entirely in less than two hours after sign-ups opened. I’m very sorry for those who didn’t get the chance to sign up before it filled.  I think this shows what a need there is for quality trips that are accessible to foreign residents and visitors — we need to find a way to make more of these. I will make a manual waiting list, so please contact me (with email address) if you’d like to stay on hold in case someone cancels. And thank you very much for your interest.

If you’ve never seen yabusame 流鏑馬 mounted archery, or even if you have, you should definitely come along on our next “Discover Another Kanagawa” excursion! We’ll enjoy VIP access to this exciting event, held once a year in the historical Soga-no-Bairin plum orchard, which should be full bloom.  And that’s just one part of this fully guided  day-trip in English to the Ashigara valley region. The date is Thursday Feb. 11, which is a national holiday. Other highlights include a chance to try your hand at traditional aizome 藍染 indigo dyeing, a very special tea tasting, tours of two traditional thatch-roof houses as well as a sake brewery, AND a stop at one of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan!

If you’re already convinced, you can go straight to either of the registration pages: Tabee Japan, which is all in English, sort of, but is finicky. Start by clicking on the circle on Feb. 11.  If you read enough Japanese to sign up for things online, you can try Kanagawa Chikatabi, where the tour description is in English but the instructions are in Japanese. Otherwise, read on for the full tour description; these sign up links appear again at the end.

Imagine hundreds of plum trees in full bloom---with Mt. Fuji!

Imagine thousands of plum trees all blooming at once—that’s  Mt. Fuji in the background!

The historic Ashigara valley is located in the western-most part of Kanagawa Prefecture, very close to Mt. Fuji.  The area was settled very early, with nearby rivers providing plenty of water for rice cultivation, and important roads passed through the area. Ashigara appears frequently in haiku and other traditional poetry, and is said to be the birthplace of the legendary folk hero Kintarō.

Our group, which is limited to 25 people, will meet at 8:45 am at Shin-Matsuda station on the Odakyu line (train information below), and head to a typical old thatch-roof farmhouse. There,  we’ll learn about indigo, a traditional crop in the Ashigara region (along with rice and plums and tea, which we will also experience on our trip). We’ll try our hands at dying with indigo; you can take home a handkerchief or tenugui towel that you’ve dyed yourself.

aizome_closeup

The farmhouse is home to an NGO that recycles old kimono and obi and makes work for people with disabilities from the local community. So you can pick up vintage kimono and obi, as well as handbags and cushions made from them,  at very reasonable prices. The highest price I saw on these bags made from gorgeous obi from prestigious Kyoto weavers  5,000 yen. If you’re not interested in shopping, you can wander around upstairs and look at interesting relics from earlier lifestyle.

Next we’ll walk three minutes down the dirt lane to another traditional house known as the Seto Yashiki. This one is older and more impressive because it was the hereditary home of the village head, or nanushi 名主. There’s a lot to see and learn about traditional architecture here, from the water-wheel and thatch roof, to the iron hearth for cooking and guest privy. We’ll also see evidence of  how the explosion of Mt. Fuji in 1707 affected the area. (Hint: the entire valley was covered in volcanic ash, which is not exactly healthy for either people or crops.)

Seto-yashiki in Kaisei

Seto-yashiki: in the Edo period, the village head lived and dealt with village business and the authorities. Those functions affect the architecture.

Hanging "tsuribina" decorations for the Doll's Festival

“Tsuribina” decorations for the Doll’s Festival

We’ll be too early for the Doll Festival (March 3) festivities there, but some of the decorations will already be up, most notably the tsuribina hanging decorations. These charming, colorful hangings are made out of scrap cloth by the local women’s association, and a representative will be on hand to talk to us and answer questions.  If we’re lucky, we’ll also be able to see a large display of old dolls. The main event here, however, will be a mini-seminar about susuri-cha すずり茶, the rather unusual local way of enjoying Ashigara tea.

For lunch, we’ll have a special “sato-ben” 郷弁 (hometown box lunch) made especially for us by the ladies at Tsukasa Sozai, and presented in a woven box made from local bento. I chose for us the “Ashigara tea bento,” which includes rice cooked in tea instead of plain water. It makes the rice a really pretty color. I can’t wait to try the taste!

Our lunch will be made of entirely local ingredients. Even the box!.

Our  “hometown” lunch features local rice cooked in local tea.

Next stop will be the Soga-no-Bairin 曽我梅林 plum orchard, which boasts 35,000 plum trees. Seriously — you can’t imagine what a sight it is to see so many plum trees in bloom, particularly when Mt. Fuji is visible in the background. I checked it out the other day, when only the earliest blossoms were open; it should be in full bloom when we’re there. This is the venue for the yabusame mounted archery.  It’s a very special ritual, held here just once a year, so lots of people are expected. But we’ll be given a special place from which to observe, and a rider who can answer questions, so we should be able to see better, and learn more, than at the yabusame held in more known locations such as Kamakura and Nikko.  There will of course be time to photograph the plum blossoms, and shop for local products, if you like.

After the plum orchard, we’ll move on to the nearby Ishii sake brewery, where Mr. Ishii himself will treat us to a private tour and tasting.  February is the height of the sake-making season, so we’ll see actual sake in the making. Afterwards, we’ll be able to (freely!) sample their award-winning Soga no Homare  曽我の誉 (“Pride of Soga”) sakes — and plum wine made with plums from the very orchards we just visited!  The plum wine is made with plums from the orchard we'll visit.I’m pretty fussy about plum wine, and I promise this one is good.  You can purchase whatever you want right at the brewery, and it’s a good opportunity to do so, because Soga no Homare is only sold within the prefecture. You can’t get it in Tokyo, and you certainly can’t get it in New York or Frankfurt or Milan! That makes it a nice gift for sake-loving friends, especially those overseas.

The Shasui no Taki in Yamakita

The Shasui no Taki in Yamakita

To sober everyone up before we get on the train, we’ll get a little fresh air at the beautiful Shasui no Taki waterfall, which is on the official list of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan.  It’s a very pretty place, and just a short stroll through green woods, which should do us all some good. The “minus ions” in the air around waterfalls are supposedly good for your health, too.

This fully guided tour in English is organized in cooperation with Kanagawa Prefecture and local governments,  and with a grant from the national government that makes it possible to offer it at half the actual cost. The fee of 6,000 yen per person includes lunch, the indigo dyeing workshop, the tea seminar, transportation by private bus within Ashigara, and all admission charges during the tour. Please pay your own train fare to and from Shin-Matsuda  station.

(Train information: From Shinjuku station on the Odakyu Odawara Line, there is a “Romance Car” limited-express, which is a very nice train with all-reserved seating, departing at 7:30 am, arriving Shin-Matsuda at 8:31 am. (61 mins, 1,470 yen). This is the fastest, most comfortable way to get to our meeting point. You’re guaranteed a seat and you can buy or just reserve your ticket in advance here.  (Ask for the Hakone #3 train on Feb. 11. The link for making reservations and purchases in English is on the tour sign-up page.)  Or save a little money by taking the Odawara-bound regular express train, also on the Odakyu Odawara line, boarding at Shinjuku at 7:11 am to arrive in Shin-Matsuda at 8:35 am (1 hour, 22 mins; 780 yen).  This train can also be boarded at Yoyogi Uehara at 7:16 (1 hr, 19 mins; 720 yen), but you’re unlikely to get a seat when you board. If you’re coming from Yokohama, there is “tokkyu” special express on the Sotetsu Line dep. 7:30 bound for Ebina station; arrive at Ebina at 7:54 and change to the Odakyu Odawara express train that departs Ebina at 8:00 arriving Shin-Matsuda at 8:35. (1 hour, 5 mins; 680 yen). The group will return to Shin-Matsuda station at the end of the tour, at approximately 5:45 pm, earlier if traffic allows.)

The group is limited to 20 people and should fill up quickly. If you’re interested please sign up as soon as possible. You’ve got two options: Tabee Japan, which is all in English, sort of, but is finicky. Start by clicking on the circle on Feb. 11.  If you read enough Japanese to sign up for things online, you can try Kanagawa Chikatabi. The text about the tour is in English but the instructions are in Japanese. When you enter your name, do it all in capital letters, which I’ve heard works better. If you have any trouble, please let me know through the contact page on this blog and I’ll get you signed up.

 

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Registration for “Discover Another Kanagawa” Trip Opens Friday

Yabusame

This is just a quick “heads up” post to let you know that sign-ups for our next “Discover Another Kanagawa” day-trip will open this Friday, Jan. 15.  This time we’ll visit the Ashigara region in western Kanagawa. The date of our fully-guided excursion is Feb. 11, which is a Thursday and a national holiday.

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To dye for! The Monzo family farm house in Kaisei.

Highlights include VIP access to a demonstration of “yabusame” mounted archery, a workshop in “aizome” indigo dying, visits to a sake brewery and two traditional thatch-roof houses!

satoben

Our lunch will be made of entirely local ingredients. Even the box!.

We’ll also learn how to not only drink but also eat our tea, enjoy a bento lunch of local foods and get a sneak preview on the Hinamatsuri Doll’s Festival. There will be some special shopping opportunities, acres of plum trees in bloom, one of Japan’s 100 most scenic waterfalls and if the weather is clear — beautiful Fuji views.

Fuji and plums

Imagine hundreds of plum trees in full bloom—with Mt. Fuji!

We expect this tour to book up quickly — we only have 20 places — which is why I’m giving blog readers this early heads-up. I’ll post full details here on the blog on Friday. Hope you can join us!

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Sashimi sides: field-guide to raw fish garnishes

daikon_tsuma_AG

In my Nov. 29 column in The Japan Times, I wrote about what a reader described as the “the stringy piles of daikon radish” that come with sashimi.  As I explained, the daikon is called “tsuma,” written with this character: 褄.

It used to be that learning to prepare these super-skinny strips was a rite of passage for everyone aspiring to the job of sushi chef. First, you’d have to learn how to use a knife to turn out a paper-thin, continuous roll of radish.  This way of cutting is called “katsura muki” and requires hours of diligent practice.

If you managed to master that, next you’d have to be able to do this:

Alas, things aren’t what they used to be. Now there are machines that can handle the job in seconds. This one brags that it can turn out daikon for 100 in just five minutes:

Unless you’re dining upscale, chances are your daikon strings will have come out of a machine, or a bag from a food-processing factory. But daikon isn’t the only garnish for sashimi. All sorts of vegetables, flowers and seaweeds can be used to pretty up raw fish, and all are referred to as tsuma. It’s a generic term.

First, let’s look at the veggies. Carrots are popular — they’re cheap, colorful and hold up well.

carrots

Less familiar are murame ムラメ, the sprouts of the red shiso plant.

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And here they are in situ — they’re the purple and green leaves, up front on the right.

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I’m very fond of myoga, the buds of the ginger plant. They have a crisp texture and unique taste, quite different from ginger root.

myoga

Here you have a nicely chopped pile of myoga, tucked attractively under leaf of green shiso (beefsteak plant, Perilla frutescens).

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Not all garnishes are vegetables, of course. Chrysanthemum flowers (kiku 菊) are a perennial favorite. Yuk, yuk.

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Another flower that often turns up often is kasui  花穂 (spicata),  a member of the spearmint family.

kasui

And then there are the seaweeds. First up, tosaka トサカ (Meristotheca papulosa).

tosaka

Next, wakame ワカメ (Undaria pinnatifida).

wakame

This one’s called ogo オゴ (Gracilaria vermiculophylla). If it’s got a common name in English, I couldn’t find it. Despite that nice green color, it’s a red algae. Go figure. And it’s listed in the Global Invasive Species Database.

ogo

One last weed — igisu イギス (Ceramium kondoi).

igisu

I’ll add more as time allows. Put a bookmark in your phone for handy-dandy reference while dining! Bon appetit!

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Discover Another Kanagawa: Join Me in the Tanzawa Mountains Nov. 28-29

2012写真コン 推薦 三ノ塔

Need a get-away into real nature? I’ve got just the trip for you! Come with me on an easy overnight excursion — fully guided in English — to the nearby Tanzawa mountains. We’ll learn about the area’s fascinating natural history while enjoying fall colors, Fuji views and hiking — and, of course, traditional culture and food.  Thanks to a government subsidy, we can offer all this at half the actual cost (25,000 yen per person; 21,000 yen if you can share a small room and bed with a loved one).

The Tanzawa mountains covers most of northwestern Kanagawa Prefecture, and borders Shizuoka to the west and Yamanashi to the north. The highest peak is Mt. Hiru, which stands at 1,673 metres (5,489 ft). Sacred Mt. Oyama, which some of you visited on an earlier trip in this series, is also part of the Tanzawa range.  Much of the Tanzawa area is now protected as a nature park, and is popular year-round with hikers for its easy access as well as spectacular Fuji views.

Fujiview

Our group, which is limited to 20 people, will meet at 9:15 am  on Saturday Nov. 28 at Hadano station on the Odakyu Odawara Line. (Train information below.) Hadano was once famous for tobacco and peanuts; tobacco’s now a lost industry, and peanut growing is on the decline, but I have to say that Hadano peanuts are some of the best I’ve tasted. There are lots of interesting peanut confections in the station stores, too.

visitor

We’ll begin our adventure in the foothills, at a visitor center with lots of useful exhibits about the natural history of the area.  A scale model of the mountains will give us a quick overview, and we’ll learn how the Tanzawa mountain range was formed — and why they are full of fossils of sea animals! (I don’t want to give away the whole story, but all of the Tanzawa mountains were once islands that got shoved against Honshu by shifts in the earth’s plates.  Even today, the plates are still exerting pressure on the mountains, pushing them up a little higher every year. ) The tectonics of Tanzawa are complex; the ground under this part of Kanagawa is one of the few places in the world where three of the earth’s plates converge.

nanohana

Next we’ll head on our private bus up into the mountains towards the Yabistu pass. On the way, we’ll stop for at the Nanohanadai View Point for a bento lunch break. If the weather is clear, we’ll have a good view of Mt. Fuji. There’s a wooden tower to put us well above the treeline; that climb will be a nice warm-up for hiking, and the structure itself makes for a nice picture. See what I mean?

coil

Now, what’s a trip into the mountain without a little hiking? (One of the luxuries of having our own bus is that we’re not constrained by the limited schedules and crowded conditions of the public buses!) Our first afternoon is set aside for a guided hike along a portion of the Omote-Ohne trail, walking from the Gomayashiki natural spring (elevation 725 m) up to the Ninoto peak (elevation 1,185 m) and then on to the Sannoto  peak (elevation 1,250), where we can get an unobstructed 360-degree view over the entire area.  If it’s clear, we’ll be able to see most of the Kanto plain, including the island of Enoshima, the Boso coastline, and of course Mt. Fuji! (For those who have been on my previous trips, we should also be able to see Mt. Oyama and the Manazuru peninsula — a great way to knit all the trips together.)

stairs

Total distance is about 4.4 kilometers with a significant elevation gain; most of the way up, we’ll be climbing on stairs built with logs.  We can take our time, taking advantage of the local guides who will accompany us to learn about the plants we’ll see along the way. They can tell us about changes in the mountains caused by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake as well as efforts to control damage from deer overpopulation — a big problem throughout Japan as humans encroach on the deer’s natural habitat, forcing them higher into the mountains. At the same time, their natural enemies, notably wolves, have disappeared, meaning there are more deer competing for scarcer food.

shika

Now, for  our overnight lodging, I decided to opt for privacy over traditional charm, on the theory that most of us prefer not to sleep with strangers. (In Japanese-style inns, groups are usually put all together in large rooms, with everyone sleeping on the floor lined up to one other.) The Manyo no Yu hotel is in town, but offers the right combination of lots of single rooms (everyone gets their own small Western-style room with private bath and toilet)– AND Japanese-style amenities: a tatami banquet room for our dinner and lots of onsen baths to enjoy nearly any hour of the day and night.  (If you’re joining the tour with a loved one and don’t mind sharing a small double bed in tight space, we can offer you both a reduced rate. )

Dinner and breakfast are included in our stay; we’ll have a Japanese dinner together, including free drinks (both alcoholic and soft). Breakfast you can take on your own anytime from 7 am, with a choice of either a Japanese “teishoku” tray or a semi-Western breakfast of eggs, meat, juice and rice. (Don’t ask me why, but the hotel says they can’t manage bread). In either case, there’s coffee, my personal requirement for a happy morning.

temizu

On our second day, we’ll start with a walking tour to Hadano’s many springs. The whole Tanzawa area is full of water; in fact, there’s half again as much water underground as in Hakone’s famous Ashinoko lake, and it seems to bubble up all over in not just the mountains but in town as well.  In fact, the waters are listed among the “100 Notable Springs of Japan” and certified by the environment ministry. People come from all over to take home the water, and there are interesting legends associated with the springs. One spring supposedly burst forth, like a miracle, when the legendary priest Kobo Daishi knocked his staff on the ground.

spring_town

Our quest for water will take us to two fabulous but very different Shinto shrines: first, the Izumo Taishi Sagami Bunshi, a branch of the famous Izumo Taisha shrine in Shimane Prefecture that was established in the Meiji period. Check out the jumbo “shimenawa” rope over the entrance there.

Izuma_Taisha_Honden

This is a famous place to pray for better luck in love, and there are even heart-shaped places to tie your wish. No wonder this has become known as one of the more powerful “power spots” in all of Kanto, drawing lots of young, female tourists.

hearts

As something special, we have arranged for our group to view a special performance of “kagura” shrine dance. This is not something you get to see everyday.

kagura

After the first shrine visit, we’ll go to a lovely farm-like setting, with a water wheel and local produce for sale, where we’ll get a lesson in how to make soba noodles.  Soba is an important food in mountainous areas where it’s difficult to grow rice, and making good soba requires good, tasty water –something we’ll know by now that Tanzawa has plenty of.

soba_dough

We’ll mix and roll and cut and work up an appetite for our lunch of soba noodles and vegetable tempura. They’ll even send us home with a recipe in English so we can make soba again for our friends and family.

soba_lunch

The last stop of the day will be the Shirasasa Inari Shrine, one of the the three most important inari (fox) shrines in the Kanto area.  Of particular interest here is their lovely new ceiling, painted recently by an artist as an act of faith and using all sorts of ancient symbolism. We can try to puzzle out together what all the panels mean. There is also a very curious custom here involving spearing strips of fried tofu, as a form of prayer, and they have very cute “randoseru” (school backpack) charms for just 500 yen each.

shirasasa_interior

We should be back at the station around 4:30 pm on Sunday. For those who want to pick up some local produce or presents before heading home, there are some shops at the station.

This fully guided tour in English is organized in cooperation with Kanagawa Prefecture and Hadano City, and with a grant from the national government that makes it possible to offer it half the actual cost. The fee of 24,000 yen per person (21,000 yen if sharing a room) includes our private bus and driver for transportation within Tanzawa, lunch, dinner and drinks on the first day, hotel (with as many baths as you want), and breakfast and lunch on the second day. It also includes donations to the shrines, the fee for the kagura shrine dance and soba-making lesson, and fees for any exhibits we visit. Please pay your own train fare to and from Hadano station.

randoseru

Train information: To travel in comfort from Tokyo, I recommend the Odakyu Odawara Line’s limited express “Romance Car” with reserved seating that departs Shinjuku station at 8:10 and arrives in Hadano at 9:07 (train name Sagami #59, 57 minutes, 670 yen fare + 620 yen for the express ticket; total 1,289 yen one way). You can buy your seat ticket in advance at any Odakyu station and use your Suica or Pasmo for the basic fare.  Or, you can take a regular express train on the same line, departing from Shinjuku at 7:51 (1 hr, 12 minutes, 670 yen).  From Yokohama, there is a special express on the Sotetsu Line dep. 8:00 bound for Ebina station; arrive at Ebina at 8:26 and change to the Odakyu Odawara line, dep. 8:42 and arriving Hadano at 9:03. (1 hr, 3 mins, 590 yen). The group will return to Hadano station on Sunday at approximately 16:20.)

odakyu-romance-car-10

A word on the level of strenuousness: we’ve set aside four hours on the first afternoon for hiking.  Anyone with a reasonable level of fitness should be able to do the climb we’ve planned, but keep in mind that it’s real hiking and will involve some exertion.  I did it with huffing and puffing but no problems or muscle soreness afterwards. And I was passed on the trail by climbers who were at least in their seventies, and families with young children. If necessary, we can divide into two groups, each with guides, with one group taking an alternate, easier hike. I’ve even planned a “chicken out” point along the way, so you can sample the incline along the main route for 15 minutes, and if at that point you think it’s too much, you can still opt for the easier hike with less climbing.  The main route I’ve planned goes up and down the same path, so it’s also possible to stop at any point and head back to the bus or wait on a bench for the group to finish and return.  If you have any doubts about your hiking ability, send me a message through the contact form on this blog and we can talk about it. Also, please contact me if you’re a vegetarian or have a food allergy, and we’ll discuss how we can accommodate you. For sure let me know if you have a peanut allergy!

This tour is limited to 20 people and should fill up quickly. If you’re interested please sign up as soon as possible.  You’ve got two options: Tabee Japan, which is all in English, sort of, but is finicky. Start by clicking on the circle on Nov. 28.  Alternately, if you can read enough Japanese to sign up for things online, you can try Kanagawa Chikatabi. The text about the tour is in English but the instructions are in Japanese. When you enter your name, do it all in capital letters, which I’ve heard works better. If you have any trouble, please let me know and I’ll get you signed up.

One final note: We’re also organizing a day-trip in early February (probably Saturday Feb. 6) to Gotanda, near Mt. Fuji, to explore the connection between sake and Shinto. We will be visiting shrines and sake breweries, but you don’t have to be drinker to enjoy this tour.

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Discover Another Kanagawa: Join Me in Oyama, Oct. 31

Praying for Hits in the Waterfall of Answered Prayers (1863), Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III)

This trip is now full; it booked up less than a week after registration opened. Let me know if you’d like to be on the waiting list in case of cancellations, and please consider joining our upcoming trips to Tanzawa (Sat-Sunday, Nov. 28-28) and Gotemba (Sat. Feb. 6). Details to follow.

What’s more fun than tattooed men frolicking in a waterfall? Our next “Discover Another Kanagawa” excursion! This time we’re planning a day trip to fascinating Mt. Oyama. The date is Saturday October 31 and you’re invited to join us. Highlights include a ride on the latest in cable cars, a 2-star Michelin view over the Kanto plain, and special access to see how a 1,100-year-old temple gets restored.

大山全景

Mt. Oyama is a beautiful, pyramid-shaped peak located pretty much in the center of Kanagawa Prefecture.  It may have been a schlep to get there 150 years ago when Tokyo was Edo, but it’s easy now via the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku.

Afuri Shrine at Mt. Oyama, 1858. By Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide.

Afuri Shrine at Mt. Oyama, 1858. By Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide.

Mt. Oyama has long been an object of worship, but during the Edo period, when common people first gained the means and freedom to travel, Oyama became a popular pilgrimage site. It would  attract as many 200,000 pilgrims in the space of a few weeks during the summer — that’s a tenth of Edo’s entire population. People would organize by neighborhood or occupation into groups and travel together on foot.

Detail from

Detail from “Praying for Hits in the Waterfall of Answered Prayers” (1863) Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III)

See the figure in the middle holding a board? That’s actually a famous Kabuki actor and the object he’s holding is a kidachi 木太刀, or large wooden sword. Pilgrims would carry these swords all the way from Edo as an offering at Oyama’s Afuri Shrine. They were often elaborately carved, several meters long and HEAVY! Can you imagine what a spectacle it would have been to see a band of men identically dressed in matching pilgrim’s clothes, probably drunk and carrying a giant sword on their shoulders?  Yes, for while the Oyama pilgrimage was ostensibly a spiritual journey, the pilgrims had a lot of fun and drink along the way: the mountain was a center of Noh theater and comic rakugo performance. Oyama was Edo’s Disneyland!

Oyama's ultra-modern cable cars debut on Oct. 1. A must for transportation fans.

Oyama’s ultra-modern cable cars debut on Oct. 1. A must for transportation fans.

Oyama_cablecar1Our group, which is limited to 20 people, will meet at Isehara station on the Odakyu Odawara Line at 8:10 am. (Train information below.) We’ll ride on Oyama’s brand-new cable cars to the Oyama Afuri Shrine, where we’ll take in the fabulous view over the Kanto plain and ocean. (The Michelin Guide justifiably gives this view two stars, because on a clear day you can see Enoshima and all the way to the Boso Peninsula.) The young priest of the shrine, 27th generation in a hereditary line, will be our guide us, telling us about the surprising and often colorful history of the Oyama pilgrimage. Be sure to bring a water bottle so you can fill up with the shrine’s auspicious fresh spring water.

After, we’ll head back down the mountain to visit with one of the last craftsmen still making Oyama’s famous wooden “koma” (spinning tops), Suzuki Yuji. He’ll show us how he makes the tops and demonstrate his skilled hand at spinning them, too.

oyama_koma

Oyama is also famous for tofu, so well have a fancy tofu lunch served at an old inn that once served only groups of pilgrims. The owner will tell about the inn’s history, and perform for us the Shinto ceremony that protected generations of pilgrims when they left the inn for their climb up the mountain.

This sumptuous tofu lunch is included.

Afterward, we’ll go to Oyama’s unusual Noh theater, which is built over water, for a special back-stage and on-stage tour. We’ll get a brief demonstration and have a chance to try on a real Noh mask, too. It’s interesting to experience how little the actors can actually see when they are wearing a mask.

Finally, we’ll head up another side of the mountain to Hinata Yakushi, said to have been founded by the Buddhist priest Gyoki in 716. One of Japan’s three great Yakushi temples and an Important Cultural Property, the wooden main building is currently undergoing a 7-year renovation.

P1170129

We have been granted special access into the actual construction site, where we will learn about the restoration process and traditional building techniques.

We will also have a chance to see, up-close and in good light, the temple’s 25 Buddhist images, including the main images of Yakushi Nyorai and its guardians Nikko and Gakko.  If you have even the slightest interest in Buddhist imagery, this is a chance not to be missed.

薬師如来

This fully guided tour in English is organized in cooperation with Kanagawa Prefecture and Isehara City, and with a grant from the national government that makes it possible to offer it half the actual cost. The fee of 8,000 yen per person includes lunch, all transportation within Oyama, a donation to the shrine, the Noh demonstration and the admission fee to see the Buddhist images. Please pay your own train fare to and from Isehara station.

(Train information: From Shinjuku station, there is an express train on the Odakyu Odawara line departing at 7:11 am, arriving Isehara at 8:10 am. (59 mins, 590 yen). This train can also be boarded at Yoyogi Uehara at 7:16 (54 mins, 540 yen). From Yokohama, there is an express on the Sotetsu Line dep. 7:21 bound for Ebina station; arrive at Ebina at 7:54 and change to the Odakyu Odawara line, dep. 8:00 arriving Isehara at 8:10. (49 mins, 530 yen). The group will return to Isehara station at the end of the tour, at approximately 5:20 pm.)

A word on the level of strenuousness: Oyama is very popular for casual mountain climbing, but we won’t be actually hiking. However, there are a lot of steps involved, getting up and down to the cable station. And we’ll be climbing construction stairs at the temple restoration site. Please wear comfortable, closed shoes and loose clothing.

The group is limited to 20 people and should fill up quickly. If you’re interested please sign up as soon as possible. I have to apologize because the online reservation system  is not as user-friendly for foreigners as it should be. You’ve got two options: Tabee Japan, which is all in English, sort of, but is finicky. Start by clicking on the circle on Oct. 31.  Alternately, if you can read enough Japanese to sign up for things online, you can try Kanagawa Chikatabi. The text about the tour is in English but the instructions are in Japanese. When you enter your name, do it all in capital letters, which I’ve heard works better. If you have any trouble, please let me know through the contact page on this blog and I’ll get you signed up.

One final note: We’re also planning an overnight trekking trip in Tanzawa in November (fall colors! probably the weekend of Nov. 28-29) and a tour of sake breweries around Gotanda in February.

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