High, sacred places

Buddhist PilgrimageIf you’re visiting Japan, you’ll no doubt want to see a few shrines and temples. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are main draws for all travelers, domestic and foreign. Especially if you’re traveling in the Spring or Autumn, however, I recommend you get off the beaten track a bit and take the some of the more scenic routes to these temples and shrines. During these shoulder seasons when the weather isn’t so hot, you’ll find many more opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, and one way is to combine shrine and temple viewing with hiking to your destination.

In Japan, high places are considered sacred and are the abodes of the gods. Thus shrines and temples are often found on top of mountains. While most of these destinations provide a rope-way for easy access, you always have the option of walking up to the shrine or temple instead.

These are the original routes used before the ropeways (or paved roads to the top) and are generally well-maintained. You’ll be able to take in the autumn foliage or the spring cherry blossoms, while listening to birds chirping and rivers flowing. You may also see some wild deer or monkeys.

Here are three famous shrines or temples known for their high altitudes:

Mt Hiei—Kyoto

Mt Hiei offers the Enryakuji Temple complex at the top which is the headquarters of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism. This hike (800 meters) can be completed in an hour and a half. Don’t try this in wintertime, however, as it will be blanketed in snow! Mt. Hiei is famous for the “marathon monks” who wander the mountain.

Mt Misen—Hiroshima Prefecture

Mt. Misen (535 meters) is the sacred mountain of Miyajima Island, a world heritage site and home of Itsukushima Shrine and the Great torii gate in the sea (built in A.D. 593) The hike up takes a couple hours and is moderately difficult. The trail is immaculately groomed. You’ll definitely see deer on your hike! There is a small temple at the top and an eternal flame said to have been lit by the Buddhist monk Kukai after 100 days of meditation and has been burning for over 1,200 years. This flame was used to light the eternal flame in the Hiroshima Peace Park.

Kompirasan—Kotohira, Kagawa (Shikoku)

This shrine is famous for its 1,368 steps to the top! The mountain is officially known as Mt. Zozu, and the shrine known as Kotohira, but most people just call is Kompirasan. Kompirasan has been both a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine over the years and fisherman and those who make their living from the sea come here each year to pray to the deity of the sea who lives at the top. The main shrine is reached after 785 steps (about 30 minutes, 521 meters), and the remaining 583 steps (which seems to be optional) takes another 20 minutes.


JNTO website on Kotohira/Kompirasan

Learn more about the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei in this incredible account by Holly A. Schmid.

Download a Miyajima/Mt. Misen Guidemap

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

On the Peace Trail

Hiroshima-Peace-MemorialMost people who come to Japan will not miss the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (also called the “Peace Park”) in Hiroshima city which commemorates the bombing of the city by the USA in 1945. This first-hand experience with an atomic bomb is largely responsible for Japan installing Article 9 of their constitution which stipulates that Japan will never again go to war.

As a result of Article 9, children have peace education in schools and various “sightseeing” spots around Japan remind people of the dangers of war. “Peace” is still very much in vogue, despite the current controversy regarding Article 9 and the participation of Japan’s Self Defense Forces in Iraq.

While Hiroshima is the main draw for most foreign tourists, the Japanese themselves don’t just stop with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. There are several other places to see and learn more about WWII and the events that led up to the atomic bombing.

The Yamato Museum

Not far from Hiroshima City and still within the jurisdiction of Hiroshima Prefecture, is the maritime port of Kure, where the famous Japanese ship, the Yamato, was constructed. The Yamato, the world’s largest battleship, was used by the Japanese Imperial Navy in WWII. The ship was eventually bombed and sunk on its way to the US invasion on Okinawa. The Yamato museum was opened in 2005 and has been a big draw for Japanese tourists since. There is even a reproduction of the ship inside the museum (1/10th to scale). The brochures says that the Yamato “continues to stand as an appeal for peace to those in the land of its origin, Kure.”

Okunoshima Island

Accessible by ferry from Tadanoumi, a small town near Takehara in Hiroshima Prefecture, this island is famous as a site where they made poison gas for possible use on the enemy until the end of WWII. Such was the secrecy of the site that they took the island off the maps so the enemy couldn’t find it.

Now, school groups and individual Japanese tourists come here to be reminded of the tragedies of war. There is even a museum that details the effects of the poison gas on the people who worked in the poison gas factories. There is a good visitor’s center and a campground as well as a hotel and rental bicycles. You can cycle around the island in about an hour. The only permanent residents of the island are the friendly but wild rabbits which are everywhere and add a nice touch to a still very beautiful island.

English brochure on Yamato Ship


For information on Okunoshima


Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

What is Respect for the Aged Day?

What is Respect for the Aged DayThe third Monday of September is Respect for the Aged Day, a national holiday in Japan. The Japanese call national holidays “red days” because they appear in red print on the calendar. As this will make September 12–14 a long weekend, be prepared for heavier than usual traffic and crowded trains if you are traveling.

Japanese people traditionally wear red on their 60th birthday because 60 years is one cycle on the Chinese calendar and after 60, it is said that you become a baby again. Babies in Japan are called “aka-chan” or “red one.”

Respect for the Aged Day, called keiro no hi, is not quite like “Grandparent’s Day” in the U.S. It is far more serious. Neighborhoods will have volunteers distribute free “obento” boxed lunches to elderly people in the neighborhood and smaller villages will hold keirokai shows where the younger people and school children prepare dances and songs for a special keirokai ceremony. The elderly attendees are also treated to lunch, tea, and sweets after the performance.

As Japan’s nation grays and people get older and older, some of these traditions may change, however. On the small island of 700 people where I live, the keirokai ceremony used to be held for those 60 years old and over. But with so many people over the age of 60 now, the qualifying age to attend the keirokai has steadily increased, and is now 65. As Japan’s society ages and nursing homes become more popular, being old may not be so special anymore—but rather the norm.

Respect for the Aged Day is also a way to honor longevity, and Japanese people have always been some of the longest living in the world. But this is also changing as more and more Japanese people add meat and other western foods to their diets. In addition, city living is seen to cut lifespan due to pollution and stress.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Japanese Summer Vacation

Japanese Summer VacationSchools in Japan break for summer holidays at the end of July. Kids go back to school after summer vacation at the end of August. As a result, Japanese children only have four weeks of summer holidays, as opposed to the US where they have 12 weeks. Universities also follow this schedule, but with six weeks off in the summer. In addition, university students have another four to six-week holiday in the springtime. These two long holidays together give Japanese college students the same amount of holidays as American college students.

Much of Japan’s summer activities are based around the four-week holiday, from the end of July to the end of August, a short window when families can go places together because the kids are out of school. These four weeks are the “high season” for places such as beaches, amusement parks and other family-oriented tourist attractions.

High Season

Plan your trip to Japan wisely. The high season is not a good time to visit crowded amusement parks! On the other hand, the high season may be the only time you can visit a public beach and go swimming, as many of the beaches prohibit swimming outside of the designated swimming season. Accommodation, camping and outdoor activities will also be very hard to schedule during the short summer season. Early booking is necessary.

When visiting tourist attractions during the high season, try to go on a weekday when it is much less crowded. If you must go somewhere on a weekend, try to go on a Saturday. Many Japanese people get only one day off a week, leaving Sunday the and only day for family time.

Low Season

I have not noticed great savings in Japan for traveling during the low season. Where I live on Shiraishi Island, for example (a summer destination with a beach, camping and water sports), the local accommodations do not raise their prices in summer nor drop them in the off-season. So while traveling in the low season may allow you to visit places without the crowds, don’t expect it to be any cheaper. In addition, many places are likely to be closed completely during the low season, as Japan still adheres to a rigid seasonal schedule for certain activities.

List of beaches and waterparks in Japanhttp://gojapan.about.com/od/attractions/a/japanbeachlist.htm

List of Amusement Parks (including food theme parks!)http://gojapan.about.com/od/themeparksinjapan/

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Should you visit Yasukuni shrine?

Should you visit Yasukuni shrine

A recent visitor to Japan told me that she had an uneasy feeling visiting Yasukuni shrine as a foreigner. She reported that there were very few Japanese people there, especially considering it was a public holiday, a time when most shrines and temples in Japan are overflowing with temple tourists. “Not only that, it was kind of eerie and sad,” she said.

Yasukuni shrine is a controversial site in Japan. Former prime minister Yoichi Koizumi was constantly criticized for praying at the shrine and prime ministers have been judged according to whether they visit this shrine or not. The shrine itself was built in 1869, under orders of the Meiji Emperor, but it did not become controversial until the mid 1980’s.

What’s so controversial?

Over 2.4 million soldiers are honored at Yasukuni and their names appear in a special book housed at the shrine. Of those soldiers, 1,068 have been convicted of war crimes, 14 of whom were Class A war criminals.

You can look at a visit to Yasukuni in two ways. 1: That if you visit Yasukuni shrine, you are basically showing your respect for war criminals and the Japanese Imperial Army of that time. At the same time, you are showing disrespect to the countries who were victims of the war crimes. Or 2: That Yasukuni is a shrine that was built as a national shrine to commemorate all people (including aid workers and foreigners) who lost their lives during military service to Japan.

While Yasukuni was at one time under the control of the state, it is now a privately funded operation which also runs a war history museum on the same grounds. For tourists, there are many festivals and rituals year-round, including a daily “Kagura” event.

Despite its apparent right-wing connections, Yasukuni is an important part of Japan’s history, politics and culture. A trip to Yasukuni should bring more awareness to war, its inevitable crimes against humanity, and should be used as another plea for world peace.

Yasukuni Shrine Homepage (includes schedule of events and museum hours)

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Favorite Haunts

Favorite HauntsRecently, there has been an increased interest in Japanese people visiting haunted places. Where are these places? Below are some of the creepiest places in Japan. What makes them so scary? Why not go find out for yourself?!

Osore Mountain —- “Mountain of Fear.”

Though not really a mountain, this area in Aomori prefecture is the traditional gateway to Hell for Japanese people. It is a volcanic wasteland with many sulpher springs that give the place the smell of rotten eggs. Many people do visit the temple and surroundings here, but only in the summer time as the area is snowy and cold in the winter months.

Suicide Forest—bottom of Mt. Fuji

This is a famous place for people to commit suicide and is responsible for nearly 70 deaths per year. The area is dense forest, so not many things grow inside. The place is also popular among sports-minded people who use the grounds for walking, jogging and sightseeing. All you have to do is get off the path, it can be very, very scary and hard to find your way back.

Kotsu Tunnel—Kamakura

This tunnel was dug to connect Kamakura to the city of Kotsu. However, the tunnel was dug underneath a cemetery of “yagura” (graves in the steep hillsides). These graves are said to be the tombs of soldiers. To have the scariest experience, walk through the tunnel at night and climb up the mountain to the graveyard.

Kamakura is also the site of a mass suicide by over 800 samurai who committed hara-kiri in front of Tosho Temple in 1333. The samurai faced being captured by imperial forces and chose the samurai way: suicide over surrender. Harakiri Yagura is a cave where the remains of the samurai were buried. Not recommended that you visit alone or at night….

If these places sound a little too scary for you, then you might want to try some of Japan’s haunted houses. Toei Uzumasa Eigamura (Kyoto Studio Park) is an entertainment park where you can see filming of Japanese period dramas. Inside the park there is a reputedly very realistic and scary haunted house.

Another is Fuji Q Highland Amusement Park’s three-story Haunted Hospital, about and hour and a half outside Tokyo. This was previously a real hospital that was abandoned and afterwards made into an attraction. Some Japanese people believe it is actually haunted.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Japan’s Swimming Season

People often ask me when the swimming season is in Japan. This is difficult question because nearly every beach and pool opens at a different time.


The swimming season officially starts when the Shinto priest holds Umi Biraki (opening of the sea) ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest purifies the sea and water, making it safe to swim. Where I live, on an island in Western Japan, Umi Biraki is always held on the first Sunday in July, which seems a little late for a public swimming beach, but the crowds start coming only after this.

Other beaches open earlier. I have heard of some of the popular Tokyo beaches opening near the end of April and in warm Okinawa, they can open in mid—March. . Most Japanese on Honshu will wait until the official swimming season, even though the weather may be warm enough for swimming before then. July and August are generally considered to be the swimming season months as they coincide with the summer school holidays.

This doesn’t mean you cannot swim before Umi Biraki, it just means that you won’t see many Japanese people, if any, swimming so early as they consider it outside of the swimming season.

Much of this adherence to a “swimming season” may be due to the fact that in Japan, going to the beach is a special event, much like we would take a picnic in the West. While we tend to take a minimalist approach to going to the beach packing just a hat, sunglasses, a book and a beach towel, the Japanese will take everything plus the kitchen sink: A tent to keep out of the sun, a large vinyl sheet to sit on, some beach chairs for the adults, their own BBQ and a cooler to store food and drinks. Going to the beach tends to be a family or a group event.

As a result, most families plan to go to the beach once during the whole summer. Therefore, they’d prefer to go when it is really hot outside and they can appreciate a day of cooling off and lounging by the sea.

August 16th marks the rather abrupt end to the swimming season, which is also the last day of the summer “O-bon,” (Festival of the Dead) holiday. The end of the swimming season coincides with the time of year when jelly fish start making their appearance in the waters so it can be dangerous to swim. To discourage children from continuing to swim after O-bon, adults will tell them that there are “kappa” (water nymphs) in the sea that will come up and grab their legs!

Check with the local beach, or the locals who live near there, to find out when Umi Biraki is.

Swimming Pools

Public swimming pools also have a swimming season but no special ceremony for opening that I know of. The indoor (but not heated) pool where I live is open from June through August, even if it is warm enough to swim before or after these months. Check with the local swimming pool for their times of operation.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Planning for Golden Week

Planning for Golden WeekGolden week, from the end of April to the beginning of May, is one of the biggest travel times of the year for Japanese people. It’s called Golden Week because several national holidays line up during this period and, together with a weekend on both side, means many people can take the entire week off, if not longer.

The dates for 2008 are: April 29 Showa Day, May 3 Constitution Day, May 4 Greenery Day, May 5 Children’s Day, May 6 (Greenery Day observed).

If you happen to be traveling in Japan at this time, however, be warned! Trains, planes and busses are crowded and sometimes it is impossible to get seat reservations on any kind of transport. One good thing to remember is that the heaviest travel days are the first day of the holiday, when everyone is leaving on vacation, and the last holiday when everyone is returning home. If you’re trying to book a flight, for example, try one of the in-between days rather than the first day or last day (or two) of the holiday.

Following are some of the best online tools for planning your trip to Japan during Golden Week or any other time.

Hyperdia Timetable – Want to know exactly what trains to take, at what time, the exact price and the distance in hours and kilometers? This web site has all the plane and train routes around Japan. Just type in your starting point and your destination and let the web site do the rest. Hyperdia is up-to-date and accurate. Make a printout of your search and you’ll have at least 5 possible routes to compare by time, price and convenience. To access the site, go to www.hyperdia.com then click on “English” in the upper left hand corner box. Then type in your starting point and destination. Wallah!

Time and date.com – This is one of my favorite sites that is good not just for Japan, but any country in the world. Time and date.com gives you the current time in Japan as well as helpful planning tools such as a calendar showing all of the Japanese holidays. It also has fun tools such as a customizable count-down till your trip date, sun and moon calendars, a meeting planner and calendars for any date in the future.

Remember, the key to traveling successfully during Golden Week is to make your reservations for transport and hotels early.

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Arm Chair O-hanami

Arm Chair O-hanamiPink is the only color you’re going to see for the next few weeks while it is cherry blossom season in Japan. The good news is that even if you’re not in Japan, you can still do quite a bit of arm-chair cherry blossom viewing. So put your rose-colored glasses on and let’s start some virtual cherry blossom hunting!

To start with, you’ll want to join the crowds of Japanese internet surfers following the blossoms as they first open up in Okinawa in March and travel north where they will finally bloom in Hokkaido in May. You can get the cherry blossom report for over 50 locations in Japan, so you can know exactly where the trees are blooming. Once you know that the cherry blossoms are blooming in a certain area, you can do your O-hanami (cherry blossom viewing) online.

The following dates were predicted for various cities around Japan: Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya: March 26; Hiroshima and Takamatsu: March 29; Osaka: March 30; Fukuoka: March 27; Kagoshima: April 1; Niigata: April 11th.

The cherry blossom forecasts are available on the net at:

Japan’s Meteorological Agency site tracks the blossoms and has weekly updates athttp://www.jma.go.jp/jma/en/News/sakura.html

Weathernews Web site (The Sakura Project).

This is the best prediction and most user-friendly but there is no English page. Just roll your cursor over the part of Japan you want to see and click. Look for the pink leaves!http://weathernews.jp/sakura/

For scenic spots in Kyoto accompanied by photos, see Kyoto Tourism’s page athttp://www.kyoto.travel/events/hanami_seeing_cherry_blossom.html

Learn how to distinguish cherry blossom varieties according to their color and petal characteristics with photos at http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011_species.html

Happy Armchair Cherry Blossom Viewing!

Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com

Bean throwing

Go into any convenience store or supermaket in Japan now and you will see displays of devil masks and dried soybeans. Pick up a set (they’re sold together) and get ready for the annual bean throwing ceremony! Held every year on Setsubun (Feb. 3), the last day of winter according to the lunar calendar, bean-throwing ceremonies take place all over Japan in private homes, and also temples and shrines. The ceremony dates back to to the Muromachi Period (1333-1568), and the purpose is to drive evil away for the next year.

And exactly how does one drive evil away? Easy! By yelling “Devils out, fortune in!” while throwing beans at symbolic devils, represented by people wearing  devil masks (see photo). The very polite and obedient Japanese devils (oni) apparently listen and keep away for the year.

There are several famous places to go to see bean throwing events, such as at Sensoji Temple in Akakusa, Tokyo, where 150,000 people attend. If you’re a sumo fan, visit the Setsubun festival at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine, where they also honor sumo wrestlers with their names etched into the “Yokozuna Stone.” Several sumo wrestlers throw beans and rice cakes to crowds of people. If you catch one, you’ll get a whole year of good luck.

But if you’re not into crowds and would like to participate, ask around at a small local shrine or temples where it is done more as a tradition than an event. Or, tell a Japanese person you’d like to see the ceremony, and they just might invite you to their house for the real thing!

When the festival is performed in the home, the father will dress up in an oni mask, and the family members will throw beans at him while chanting the “Devils out, fortune in!” mantra.

What happens to the beans? You eat them afterward–one bean for every year old you are. This will bring you even more good luck.

If you can participate in the Setsubun event, I don’t suppose you’ll have to worry about running out of luck this year.

Bean-throwing events Feb 3, 2008

Sensoji Temple
2-3-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku (Asakusa station) Tokyo

Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine

1-20-3, Tomioka, Koto-ku, Tokyo

Get off at Monzen-nakacho on the Tozai subway line

Or contact the Tokyo Tourist Information Center

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com