From Japan: Nijo Castle Looking Good!

It took a year and a half of renovating, but Karamon gate at Nijo Castle, a World Heritage in Kyoto, is now open and awaiting tourists.

Due to centuries of medieval war, Japan has quite a few castles lying around.  Ask any of the locals which one they recommend checking out, they’ll usually say “Himeji Castle.”  Yes, it’s large and quite beautiful standing majestically with clouds drifting in behind.  But personally, I always felt Himeji resembled a “typical castle’ in Japan.  For me, it’s all about Nijo!

For one thing, Nijo Castle – in comparison to others in the country – doesn’t even resemble a castle, because it’s flatland rather than vertical.  In 1601, immediately after taking over Japan, Ieyasu Tokugawa ordered Nijo Castle to be constructed as the Kyoto residence for the shogun.  A sort of “second castle,” or “a castle away from castle.”  It took 25 years – by then, Iemitsu Tokugawa was in rule – to complete.

Unlike Osaka or Odawara Castle, Nijo is still in its original state.  No museum, gift shop, or elevator inside.  It’s cool to stroll around and imagine “this is where the shogun greeted visitors,” or “that’s where the shogun sat and ate dinner,” or maybe “this is where the shogun would have played the PS3 if they had one.’  Of course, Nijo Castle has been fixed up and remodelled over the last 400 years for preservation, but you certainly get a feel for what it may have been like as a shogun or samurai living there.

What’s also cool, is the way Nijo Castle has been designed to be utterly ninja-proof.  You’ll notice the “sparrow floors” whistling as you walk around.  Each individual board on the floor is connected by a kind of metal latch, designed to squeak when stepped on.  Also, the inner grounds are covered in white stones, making it difficult to tread across silently.  And hidden rooms designed for bodyguards to stand in are arranged sporadically within the castle, where they would await to burst out in case of signs of danger.  Watch out, Shinobi!

So if you’re planning a trip to Kyoto, I’d highly recommend checking out Nijo Castle.  It may not be as well-known as Himeji, but it certainly inspires the imagination.

written by Damon Finos

Cosplayers Take A Walk In The Park

Tsuruma Park, located in the city of Nagoya, was once a popular locale for O-bon dances, bird watching, and performing morning exorcises.  Though in the last few years, the park has attracted a new breed of visitors: Cosplayers.

If we look at the reasons why this new fad has sprung, we may wonder why Tsuruma Park hadn’t been used for cosplayers sooner.

For one thing, we’ve got the World Cosplay Summit which began in 2003, and has since been held annually in Nagoya; a week-long event where people dress-up as their favorite anime and video game characters, marching in a parade and holding a championship to vote on the best outfit.

Then, we’ve got Tsuruma Park nearby, a large open space which features a mixture of both old and modern Western and Japanese-style buildings.  A perfect location for a photo shoot, just waiting for the right models.

Cosplayers Take A Walk In The Park

Then one day, it finally happened.  Word got around of Tsuruma Park’s ideal background for picture taking, and what began as an event surrounding the World Cosplay Summit, has now become a summer-long fad.  Wearing a mecha outfit?  Try posing in front of the Civic Assembly Hall and water fountain.  Dressed as the ninja Kazumi from Dead Or Alive?  Why not use the Japanese garden?  “It’s boring to take photos on the concrete streets,” says one cosplayer.

And besides, considering all the effort these fans and otaku put into creating their costumes, why wear them only during the World Cosplay Summit and Tokyo Game Show?  The summer may be hot and humid, but dressing up as your favorite anime and video game character while posing in Tsuruma Park is cool!  (Well, interesting at least)

written by Damon Finos

From Japan: The Sakura Are In Bloom!

Spring is a busy but exciting time here in Japan.  For businesses, it marks the end of one fiscal year and the start of the next, which means lots of yearly reports and auditing to do.  Companies are saying farewell to retirees, and hiring new recruits ripe from University, while students are starting their next school year.  And in terms of weather, the frigid winds of Winter have finally come to pass, allowing people to escape their homes and enjoy going for a walk or bike ride under the warm sun – before the Summer’s humidity sets in.

The newspapers may report when Spring has officially arrived, but no one really believes it until they see the cherry blossoms in bloom.  The sakura seem to be the symbol of Spring, a sign in Japan that life is beginning anew.

SakuraHow do Japanese celebrate this festive moment of the year?  By drinking!

Friends often gather for hanami, which directly translates as “flower viewing.”  Much like a picnic, people gather in a park filled with sakura trees, lay out a tarp, and feast on snacks and chug down beer and other alcoholic beverages, all within the beautiful view of the cherry blossoms.  But since the sakura only stay in bloom for a week or two, the parks can get pretty crowded – even on weekdays.  If the hanamiis organized by a company, usually they hand one of the new recruits their first assignment – sit on a tarp in the park all day, holding their spot.

If you can’t find a descent space among the noisy crowds, you may want instead to have a yozakura party, which literally translates as “evening sakura,” a hanami party in the evening.  Maybe it’s a bit harder to appreciate the view of cherry blossoms in the dark, but hey, as long as there’s beer…

But is drinking really that much more important than the sakura themselves?

For some, sure.  And there’s even a Japanese proverb to describe such people: “hana yori dango,” which translates as “dumplings over flowers,” meaning such individuals care more about the eating and drinking than the event of admiring the cherry blossoms themselves.

SakuraBut whether you’re there to view the flowers or simply drink with your buddies, having a good time is always the priority.


written by Damon Finos

From Japan: Who Are These “Otaku”?

In past blogs, you probably heard us refer to certain individuals as otaku.  Who are these people, anyway?  Well, it’s a difficult term to translate.  If you look up the word in a Japanese-English dictionary, you’ll find a variety of expressions like “geek,” “nerd,” or even “trekkie,” which gives you some idea.  Though that’s not a clear-cut translation.

In a nutshell, otaku are people with an obsessive hobby.  The word itself is derived from “o” which is originally an honorific term, and “taku” meaning either “home” or “family.”  The term was meant to be uncomplimentary, insinuating these people never go out and socialize, but instead spend all their time at home with their hobby.  Even today, there is a general sense of negativity towards the otaku, with few exceptions.

So, what are they obsessed over?

OtakuA traditional otaku is obsessed with anime, manga and video games.  Though recently, the term geemaa (gamer) has surfaced, separating video games and leaving only the anime and manga part.  So, a stereotypical otaku spends their time at home in a bedroom filled with female anime character posters and figures, watching anime or reading comics, and only going outside to read more comics at a “manga cafe” or spend time with a few other otaku friends, shopping in places like Akihabara.  They normally don’t care about fashion, wear a bandana over their head (usually with anime characters on them) and carry backpacks to fill with whatever manga or anime items they’ve purchased.  They don’t make eye contact, lack social skills, and prefer to be alone with their hobby.  This, of course, is the stereotype.  However, you’d be surprised when wandering around in Akihabara, how many people you see who fit this description to a T.

Over the years, there have been other “types” of otaku.  There’s the densha otaku (train otaku) who love standing around stations and taking pictures of trains as

they go by.  The aidoru otaku (idol otaku) or now more commonly called wota for short, are obsessed with Japanese idols, like AKB48 or Miku Hatsune.  And recently, the rekijo (shortened form of “history” and “women”) can be seen at popular historical sites, taking pictures and copying down notes on famous Japanese Shogun and Samurai.  But despite this variety, when someone announces they’ve spotted an otaku lurking about, it usually means they’re obsessed with anime and manga.

So maybe they’re not the most stylish people, or lack a set number of friends on their Facebook accounts, but they’re happy with their obsessions.  And maybe that’s what life is all about.

From Japan: Kabukiza Is Open For Business!

It took over two years of renovating, but the Kabukiza theatre, located in the Ginza district of Tokyo, reopened just the other day on April 2nd.  A parade of actors, as well as a drum ceremony, took part in the grand opening.

What is kabuki, you might ask?

In a nutshell, it’s a Japanese-style play in which actors – all male – dress up in colorful clothing and act out their performance along with a set of dance moves while drums and flutes set the mood in the background.  The word itself is comprised of the Chinese characters “ka” (sing), “bu” (dance), and “ki” (skill).  The kabuki-style drama originated in the early 17th Century by (gasp!) a woman named Izumo no Okuni.  Kabuki quickly grew in popularity, the main attraction being that all the performers were female.  The shogun weren’t too keen on this, and so twenty years later, female performances were banned – and switched to an all-male cast, a custom which remains even to this day.

The Kabukiza is, by far, not the oldest theater in Japan – constructed in 1889 – but certainly one of the most popular, simply because of its convenient location in downtown Tokyo.

KabukiI had the pleasure of seeing a performance several years ago before the renovations began.  And I can tell you, the tickets are not cheap!  I paid about 12,000 yen (US$130) and I was way up in the nosebleeds.  That price included one long performance (a little over an hour), then a bento (boxed meal) for lunch, followed by two shorter performances.

Did I understand any of it?  Absolutely!  And not because of my Japanese language skills.  Translators are offered, in which you stick a headphone in one ear, and listen to an English narrator explain what’s happening and what the characters are saying.  These translators were also offered in Chinese, Korean, and (believe it or not) Japanese.  Yes, a Japanese-to-Japanese translator.  Why?  Because the dialogue in a kabuki performance is ancient, and stretched out vocally which makes it difficult for an amateur kabuki-goer to understand.  Much like trying to watch a Shakespearean performance as it’s sung like an opera.

While kabuki is about as common to the everyday Japanese as a Shakespeare play is to the common Westerner, it is a major part of the culture.  It’s interesting to watch, certainly very different than anything shown in Stratford, and would recommend it to anyone visiting Japan and has a free day to kill.


written by Damon Finos