Category Archives: Japan

Cherry Blossom, Tokyo and all points east and west

Life in Colour 24 – Red

Connected to Jude’s Life in Colour here.

Just two more days before the end of this month’s challenge and I offer some reds from Japan. I rather belatedly remembered that it’s a country where red is a favourite colour. It’s taken me ages to downsize them as I seem to have lost my ‘Optimize button for web use’ in the upgrade of the programme I normally would use for this purpose, so I’ve had to do each one individually. A few more tomorrow.

Hachikō – Tokyo’s Iconic Dog

I’d like to set the scene as Maria in Sound of Music suggests “Let’s start at the very beginning” but maybe it’s better if I tell you first that this is Hachikō, the most famous dog in Japan, and that people come from all over Japan to visit his statue in central Tokyo. We tourists also come, led by guide books and the moving story of the faithful dog who waited at the train station for his owner to return from work, every day for nearly a decade.

Hachikō was a golden brown Akita born in November 1923 in Japan’s Akita prefecture: a year later, still a puppy, he was acquired by Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor who taught at Tokyo Imperial University and lived in the Shibuya neighbourhood of the city.

The pair formed a close bond and their life became one of routine. In the morning Professor Ueno would walk to the Shibuya Station, Hachikō trotting alongside, and take the train to work. After finishing the day’s classes, he would return by train arriving at the station at 3 p.m. on the dot: there Hachikō would be waiting for him.

This continued until May 1925 when the Professor died suddenly at work, having suffered a brain haemorrhage while teaching.

Hachikō, who had come to meet his master as usual on that day, was left waiting at the station. Day after day for nigh on ten years the dog returned to the spot where he had always waited for his owner, patient and loyal despite not being welcomed by the station employees.

The loyal dog, one of only 30 purebred Akitas on record at the time, never gave up hope and although reportedly given away after his master’s death, he regularly ran off to Shibuya Station at 3 p.m. hoping to meet the Professor. Days turned into weeks, then months, then years, and still Hachikō returned to the station each day to wait.

At first, the station workers were not all that friendly to Hachikō, but his fidelity won them over and they began to bring treats for him and sometimes sat beside him to keep him company. Soon, the lone dog and his story began to draw the attention of other commuters. His presence had a great impact on the local community of Shibuya and he became something of an icon.

It is thanks to one of Professor Ueno’s former students, Hirokichi Saito, who also happened to be an expert on the Akita breed, that we know much of this story, because when he got wind of the tale he took the train to Shibuya to see for himself. When he arrived and saw Hachikō there, as usual, he followed him from the station to the home of Ueno’s former gardener, Kuzaburo Kobayashi. There, Kobayashi filled him in on the story of Hachikō’s life.

The student wrote articles about the situation at the Shibuya station one of which was published in the national daily Asahi Shimbun in 1932. The tale spread throughout Japan bringing nationwide fame to Hachikō and people then began to arrive from all over Japan to visit the dog who had become something of a good-luck charm. Many travelled great distances just to sit with him.

For the next nine years and nine months, Hachikō came to the station every day at 3.00 pm on the dot. He was found dead in the street in March 1935, the cause of death (not discovered until 2011) later found to be a cancer. His death made national headlines and after cremation, his ashes were placed next to Professor Ueno’s grave in Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo. His fur, however, was preserved, stuffed and mounted and is now housed in the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo.

The stuffed Hachiko in the National Museum of Nature & Science, Tokyo

The original bronze statue of Hachikō was raised from donations and erected in the exact spot where he had waited for his master for so many years but after World War ll erupted the statue was melted down for ammunitions. In 1948 however, the current statue was erected in Shibuya Station.

The death of Hachiko: Credit Shibuya Folk and Literary Shirane Memorial Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a similar statue, erected in 2004, in Odate, Hachikō’s original hometown, where it stands in front of the Akita Dog Museum.

On the 80th anniversary of Hachikō’s death, in 2015, the University of Tokyo unveiled yet another brass statue of the dog.

Among my (Japanese) Souveneirs

Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels.  I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.

And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.

The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.

Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art.  Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed.  The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.

The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger.  I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food.  There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.

However, here are some pictures of the food.  Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.

All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion.  I think it shows in his compositions.

There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person).  Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.

As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating.  The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.

Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.

And now, for something completely different.

The Bamboo Forest of Kyoto

I’d done my research and I knew about the 17 UNESCO Heritage sites in Kyoto, the 1,500 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, the ancient traditions that still inform the daily lives of the people, the tea ceremony, the flower arranging, and of course, the geishas, that in Kyoto showcase the heart and soul of traditional Japan.  All of that I saw and wondered at, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the green bamboo glade through which we walked on our second day in the city, the tranquillity, the sighing of the leaves and the faint sounds of birds hidden in the branches.

Bamboo-forest,-Arashiyama,- (2)

If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you will have gained some idea of what this place is about:  I found it totally magical.  Higashiyama is the main tourist area with the best shopping, the major artisan shops and the top heritage temples and shrines to visit, but because of this, it is mostly bustling and busy.  So a short bus ride to Western Kyoto to Arashiyama to experience the wonder of this bamboo forest is the perfect antidote to the crowds.

Bambool Trail


Infinite stalks of thick, green, bamboo stretch endlessly ahead, a forest of trees unlike any other forest you will see.  There is a sense of otherworldliness in the place and a strange quality to the light which is impossible to capture in photographs.

From Green to Black - Under the Bamboo

Everyone I spoke to was disappointed with the images they produced from their cameras, but it’s just impossible to capture something so intangible.

Kimona Clad Locals sightseeing in Bamboo Forest


Japan has many natural beauties, the cherry blossom in spring, the dazzling palette of red and gold leaves in the autumn, and the scenic splendour of the snow-covered Japanese Alps, but the Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, a city that moves to an entirely different rhythm from the rest of Japan, is my choice for top attraction in that land of much beauty.






An article in The Guardian (UK) a few days ago alerted me to the fact that the world’s biggest fish market is about to close.   This is the Tsukiji wholesale Market in Tokyo where Japan’s obsession with seafood is transformed into an operation worth almost 2 billion Yen a day (about £15.5 million).

But Tokyo’s new governor, Yuiko Koike put a halt to the move to the new premises in Toyosu, about a mile south along Tokyo Bay, as rumours have arisen that the new site, built at a cost of Y588 billion, is contaminated with dangerous toxins.


Let’s get the stats. out of the way fist.  The current site handles more than 400 varieties of seafood a day and sells nearly 300 varieties of fruit at stalls around the periphery.  Approximately 200,000 vehicles pass through its gates every day and it is estimated that about 60,000 people depend on the market for their livelihood.  Those are the numbers that put the market at No. 1.

The auctions at Tsukiji start at dawn and by the time they have ended, hundreds of thousands of tuna, prawns, lobsters, crayfish, octopus and squid, will have passed through the market on their way to fish stalls and restaurant around the country and beyond.  The Japanese eat more fish per head than any other developed country, about 27 kg. compared with the global average of 19 kg. and they consume 80% of the bluefin tuna caught.

When I went there I was struck by how this very old market was equipped with the most modern technology on the floor, from the automatic carts and floats that buzzed around to the ice-making machines, and how huge blocks of ice were loaded into a hopper which then disgorged crushed ice to be rushed along to the dispatching area to be packed around the fish.

Like the London markets which were forced to leave their hallowed premises, the Tokyo move to new premises is acknowledged as necessary.  At the same time, it is recognised that something is always lost when atmosphere and charm are swapped for modernity and clean lines.

Although the outer market is being spared – good news for the thousands of tourists who flock here for the most refreshing sushi breakfast in Japan – for the thousands of people with an emotional attachment to the Tsukdji Market, the city planners are ripping the heart out of Japan’s food tradition.

The jury is still out on the move.  We must wait and see.


Below, a slideshow of some of the photographs I took inside the market. They are not pretty, but then this isn’t a retail market, it’s a very busy wholesale market where the fish are inspected, bought and shipped out within an hour.  The knives were in a shop that sold only fish knives like these: I feel sure I could gut a fish if I had one of these, but then I’d have to close my eyes as I’m squeamish and I might cut off a finger!

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The Japanese Doll Studio

It was the window full of beautiful dolls dressed in exquisite kimonos that stopped me in my tracks as we strolled along Sanjyo Avenue, an area with many Meiji and Taisho-era buildings in Kyoto, former Imperial capital of Japan. This is a city where traditional arts and crafts flourish, where the scent of green tea drifts from the many long-established tea shops, and where it is customary to hire a kimono in which to stroll around and even to have matching make-up applied.


Lured into the shop, Doll Studio Tomo, by the window display, we found a veritable heaven full of dolls, each one exquisitely dressed in costumes made from antique kimonos, each with a slightly different facial expression and posture. The dolls are the product of carefully selected materials and technical skills and have the faces, forms and postures of young children, projecting the image of an ideal child.  These are not dolls for children, but ‘collectables’ for very sophisticated grown-ups.


Speaking to the proprietor of Studio Tomo, a member of the family that has been making these dolls since 1983, he explained that the dolls, which measure 26cm – 64cm, are the product of the maker’s awareness of the feelings of those who will look at them and enjoy them in their everyday lives, or as we would say, someone who knows his customers.


The uniquely patterned costumes of these traditional Japanese dolls are made of priceless antique kimono fabric dating from the late Edo period (1600-1867) to the early Showa era (1926-1989).  The heads and bodies are made of pulverised seashells combined with a heated natural glue, which is poured into moulds until it hardens.  After this, the moulds are removed, the parts are polished with soft cloths, and the eyes, mouth, and other features are individually incised with a chisel.


The eyes are made in the same way as artificial human eyes, then they are fixed in position to give the dolls a slightly shy, downturned glance.  The hair should sway naturally, so Tomo Studio is as careful in its selection of hair as it is in all other aspects of doll-making and the hair moves so that it evokes the image of the child doll.


The costumes for all Tomo dolls are made from antique fabric. According to my research into the subject, Masako Morishige, who produces the dolls’ clothes, says that

“the history of these textiles goes back as far as the Momoyama period (1568-1600). Most of the dyed and woven cloth for the kimonos was made from the later Edo period to the early Showa era. The vivid reds and purples that are striking even in a dim exhibition hall cannot be produced by modern industrial methods. The patterns and design of traditional kimonos are reworked into fresh new creations. Valuable silk crepe from the Edo period and examples of Yuzen dyeing are also used”.


Antique kimonos sell for huge sums, and £10,000 is nothing to spend on a garment, hence the high price of the dolls.  Alongside one of the dolls photographed above, is the price of 850,000 Yen and this is fairly average. The costumes are made from the undamaged parts that can be cut without ruining the original embroidery and the patterns in the cloth, a skill that demands artistic insight and an ability to be able to see the completed figure. Nothing is wasted, tiny pieces left over are used to make accessories.


Doll Studio Tomo occasionally has exhibitions outside Japan (they were in London in 2015). Contact the Japanese National Tourism Board to enquire as to when they may be in your area.

Doll Studio Tomo Gallery, First Floor, SACRA Building, 20 Nakanomachi Saniyo Tominokouji, Nakagyoku, Kyoto, Japan 604-8083

Tel: +81 (0)75 211 5914

MIYAJIMA – Beautiful Island in Japan

dsc00776Miyajima is considered to be one of the three most scenic spots in Japan and I’m not going to argue with that.  I was bowled over by it: besides, it is a World Cultural Heritage site and is regarded as a holy shrine of Shinto by the Japanese.

Part of the city of Hatsukaichi, Miyajima is located in the Seto Inland Sea and is easily reached by tram, train, and boat from Hiroshima for those wishing to experience a complete contrast to that city.   The journey from Hiroshima takes approximately 1 hour.

Floating Torii Gate from the Ferry Boat
The Floating Red Torii from the Sea – Mari Nicholson

The island, for the Japanese, is a place of natural worship, stemming from its ancient history, the mountains in which Gods are still said to reside with Mt. Misen at its peak, and the primaeval forests which, even in daylight, appear dark and forbidding.  As the entire island is an object of belief, it has remained untouched and in a natural state. Massive rocks are scattered along the coast and on the mountains of which no one knows the provenance and in the forests is a diversity of plants said to be the epitome of Japan.

Deer in the centre of Miyajima

A Deer Takes its Rest in the centre of Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

From the forests and wooded slopes come the deer that one sees wandering through the town.  Over the years they have become used to people and they are perfectly happy living in close proximity with humans.   At night they sleep by the river that runs through the town.

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine on Miyajima - Mari Nicholson

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Miyajima - Mari Nicholson

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

But what attracts most of the Japanese to Miyajima are are the several temples dotted around the island, one of which houses the eternal flame lit approximately 1,200 years ago and part of which was used as the pilot light for the eternal flame in the A-Bomb Cenotaph in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

Temple on Miyajima  2 - Mari Nicholson

Temples, Miyajima – Mari Nicholson



Temple on Miyajima - Mari Nicholson


Street scene Miyajima - Mari Nicholson

Street Scene, Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

Away from the quiet sea front with the amazing Torii gate and the gentle animals wandering around the paths around the inlet, lies the main tourist area.  This is real tourist land, swarming with day trippers and weekenders, who surge up the main street lined with restaurants, noodle shops, ice-cream parlours, souvenir kiosks and shops specialising in kimonos, fans, artwork, and embroidery.

Looks good, even though I can't read the Menu

Fascinating shop with fascinating figures outside – Mari Nicholson

From the beach, boats ply for hire to take one around the famous giant torii gate which, at high tide, seems to float in the sea (a perfect photo-opportunity) but it is advisable to know the tides if you want to take advantage of this trip.  A good photograph can be taken from the beach but with today’s digital use, selfie sticks and video cameras it can sometimes be difficult to take that perfect picture, and you may have to queue patiently while others take their time posing.

Path around the Inlet - Mari Nicholson

A Walk Around the Path that skirts the water and leads to the town – Mari Nicholson

As well as temples and shrines within walking distance, the centuries old Itsukushima (the former name of the island) shrine in the small inlet where the ferry arrives, is one of the most popular on the island – and it includes a small Noh stage.  Most of the shrines on Miyajima, like the famous red torii gate, are built over the water, lending the image an ethereal feel especially on a misty day – of which there are many in this area.

Decisions, decisions.  Food is everywhere.
Decisions, decisions: food is everywhere

Conger Eel Buns for Sale - Mari Nicholson
Conger Eel Buns for Sale – Mari Nicholson


Fancy a sea eel bun, anyone - Mari Nicholson
Fancy a Sea eel bun, anyone? – Mari Nichoson







A visit to Miyajima is a perfect day out if you want to see a part of Japan that will overthrow preconceived ideas, and a place where you can sample as many different dishes as you can imagine. Bearing in mind that Miyajima is noted for its oysters, be sure to try these: they are served in many different ways.fried, boiled, grilled, and au naturel.  Dumplings are another favourite on the island, as is the ice-cream served in a Brioche bun: western food from hamburgers to fish and chips is widely available, so everyone can find their particular comfort food.

The Island is one of the most popular places for weddings and these are well worth seeing – and photographing – as the bride and her immediate entourage are dressed in the most elaborate kimonos, all of which will have cost many hundreds of pounds (or they may have been hired as we in the west hire morning suits and top hats) while the groom and his attendants are also dressed in the male equivalent.   The transport too will be elegantly laid out, usually rickshaws in the lucky colours of red and gold – quite a sight.


Bride and Groom on Miyaima Island – Photo Steve Moore

Rickshaw and Driver Awaiting the Bride - Mari Nicholson

A Rickshaw with Driver (in black) awaits the Bride – Mari Nicholson

If you can stay overnight it is even better because after sundown the shrine and gate are illuminated until nearly midnight, a perfect backdrop to a walk along the paths around the inlet.

Ferry departing from Miyajima

Ferry Departing Miyajma – Mari Nicholson

Ferryboat on Miyajma
Ferry at Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

Many walks on the Island - Mari Nicholson

Strolling around Miyajima =  Mari Nicholson


When the Tide is Out one can Walk out to the Torii but it looks perfect from here .                    Mari Nicholson


SAKI – photo by Steve Moore