Hikone is a small city in Shiga Prefecture situated on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, the biggest lake in Japan. This pleasant city has a population of 110,000. As well as the beautiful lake there are mountains close by where people can enjoy skiing in winter. Hikone is most famous for it’s Castle, one of the most important in the country. The Castle attracts many tourists from around Japan and overseas.
The city of Hikone was first inhabited 8,000 years ago during the Jomon period. During the late 16th century the city was a battle ground for opposing forces in the Feudal War. On September 15th 1600 the ruling Lord of Hikone was defeated. The Lords castle was demolished and the new Tokugawa government built another one in it’s place. Construction of the new castle and surrounds was completed in 1622. Hikone was governed by a strict Shogunate and Feudal system during the Edo period (1603-1867). During this time Hikone grew and prospered with the building of roads linking the city to surrounding areas and a system for shipping rice to major ports on Lake Biwa. When the American Commodore Matthew Perry brought his ships to Japan in 1853 it caused great change in Japan. The people were divided between those who wished Japan to remain a closed society and those who wished to open it up to international trade. Despite being heavily criticized at the time Hikone’s Lord Nasuke Li signed a free trade treaty with the United States. He was later assassinated as a result.
Statue of Lord of Hikone in his distinctive battle helmet
The new Meiji government was established in 1868. This brought to an end the Shogunate era and caused great changes to Hikone. Samurai and townsmen were forced to find new occupations and left the city to find work. Hikone’s population decreased greatly as a result. But over time the city adjusted to the change and attracted people back because of it’s convenient rail line, strong educational tradition and industrial focus.
Lake Biwa from Hikone Castle
Mountains from Hikone Castle
All Japanese towns and cities (and many districts, villages and even shopping areas!) have a mascot. The mascot for Hikone is ‘Hikonyan’ and he is one of the most popular mascots in Japan.
Castle street is an ancient looking street but was actually built in the 1990’s and has many shops and restaurants for tourists to explore.
Hikone is well worth a visit. It’s just 90 minutes from Osaka and 50 minutes from Kyoto by Express train on the JR line.
The 11th March will mark the first anniversary of the terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami which claimed the lives of more than 15,000 souls. Much of the resultant media reportage - especially in the west - concentrated on the problems of the nuclear plant at Fukushima. Though this was undoubtedly scary it must be remembered that the tsunami was responsible for almost all deaths. Anyone watching TV who saw the terrifying waves sweep inland engulfing anything in their path will never forget it. One can only imagine the psychological scars suffered by people who were actually there, those who lost loved ones and whose communities have been decimated.
Those affected by this disaster have shown great stoicism in the face of terrible tragedy and suffering. Much of the debris has been cleared but some of the communities may never be rebuilt. The towns and villages which will rebuild face many more years of work before things are back to normal. In the meantime the people will continue to show great dignity and pride as they get on with the business of rebuilding their lives. They will prevail.
Akihabara is an area of central Tokyo famous for it’s many electronics stores. The district is also known as Ahihabara Denki Gai (Akihabara Electronic Town) or just Akiba for short. It’s a good area for foreign visitors to buy goods as a lot of the stores employ staff who speak different languages. In the side streets there are also many stores selling second-hand electonic items. More recently Akiba has also become known as the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture, with many establishments devoted to anime and manga now in the district.
Bunka no Hi (Culture Day) is celebrated every November 3rd, the anniversary of the newly ratified Japanese Constitution in 1946. The aim of the national holiday is to promote culture, the arts and academic success. People who have excelled in these areas are awarded merits from the Emperor at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. One of the highest of these awards is the Order of Culture.
Even before 1946 November 3rd was celebrated in the Japanese calendar for a different reason as it was the birth date of Emperor Meiji. But from the date the new constitution was signed the meaning of the day changed.
Bunka no Hi activities include playing traditional music, tea ceremonies, martial arts and Yabusame (horseback archery).
Obon is a very important Japanese tradition. During the time of Obon people believe their ancestors’ spirits return home to be reunited with their family. Although not an official holiday many big companies close during Obon or people take time off to return to their hometown.
In most regions of Japan Obon is celebrated on 15th August with the festivities beginning on the 13th and ending on August 16th.
In preparation for Obon people clean house and offer a variety of foods to the spirits of ancestors’ in front of a Buddhist altar (butsudan). Lanterns and arrangements of flowers are usually placed by the butsudan.
On the first day of Obon lanterns are lit inside homes and people go to family graves to call their ancestors’ spirits back home. On the final day people take their ancestors’ spirits back to the grave. During Obon the smell of senko (Japanese incense sticks) fills homes and cemetaries.
Bon Odori (folk dance) is often practiced on Obon nights. People go to Bon Odori held in various temples, parks and gardens, often wearing Yukata (summer kimono).
Racing around turn two with the conveniently located Amagasaki station in the background
On several previous visits to Japan I had often taken the Hanshin Line train between Kobe and Osaka and seen the grandstands through the window. They looked like the facilities for a large horse race course but the only difference was the water in front of the stands! I was informed that it was a stadium for ‘Kyotei’ - power boat racing. I was surprised that there were such large spectator facilities until told that Kyotei is just as much a betting event in Japan as horse racing..
Having some time to myself on my most recent visit to Japan in January I decided to have a day at the races and took the train towards Osaka. Alighting at Amagasaki station it was a very short walk through an enclosed walkway to the stadium entrance. Price of admission was just 100 Yen (around 75p) and for that I could sit pretty much anywhere in the grandstands.
Leader passes the huge screen on back straight
Just like a horse racecourse there were many TV screens and betting windows but like most countries outside of Britain you could only bet with the Tote system, there are no private bookmakers. Because of this a lot of the profits go back into the sport rather than to private companies. The minimum bet is 500 Yen and it seems that 75% of turnover is paid back in winnings and the other 25% goes to the local governments who operate the stadiums. Just as in horse racing in Japan (and many other countries) that is the reason for cheap admission as they want people to come through the gates to increase betting turnover.The various betting methods (win, quinella, trifecta etc) are very similar to the Tote in Britain or betting on the horses around the world.
My visit was on a weekday but there was a pretty healthy attendance without the feeling of being overcrowded. There were twelve races (it seems that’s the norm at Kyotei) interspersed with practice runs for competitors in later events, this to give the betting public a chance to observe the drivers whilst studying the form guide. Each race consists of six boats with drivers identified by a different coloured jacket and flag at the front of the boat. Races are all run anti-clockwise over three laps of a 600 metre circuit.
Despite the close racing there were other distractions..
In Japan there are around 1,500 registered drivers who can race at any of the 24 Kyotei stadiums around the country.
This magnificent statue of the famous robot Tetsujin # 28 go (Iron Man) was erected in the city of Kobe in 2009. Standing 59 feet (18 M) high and weighing 50 tons this new landmark is fittingly made completely out of iron. Funded by local businesses, several large companies and the city of Kobe Tetsujin #28 go stands in Wakayama Koen Park in Nagata ward, one of the areas worst affected by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake.
Tetsujin #28 go was created by Kobe native Mitsuro Yokoyama (1934-2004) and made it’s manga (comic) debut in 1956 before becoming an anime (cartoon) character in 1963. The stories of a young boy controlling a large robot which defends the world were turned into the American character ‘Gigantor’ in 1964.
Wakayama Koen Park is within easy walking distance of Shin Nagata station, which can be reached on both the Kobe subway and JR rail system.
Late April/early May is the time of Golden week in Japan. Golden week is a series of national holidays which usually result in a week off for many people, even though a day of two in between are not holidays. Japan actually has many more national holidays than other countries such as Britain. When Japan became an economic power the government asked the corporations to allow more holidays for the workforce but the employers failed to do so. Because of this the government imposed national holidays throughout the year. Golden week has the most frequent series of national holidays. Unfortunately in 2011 the weekends are placed unfavourably to create two separate three-day holidays with a working Monday (May 2nd) in between. Although many employees can book the day off the schools will be open and so people with children can’t get away for the week. And it must be galling to have to go back to work on Friday May 6th as well…
There are many local festivals during Golden Week
Here are the Golden week dates for this year:
April 29th: Showa Day (Showa no hi)
Showa Day is the birthday of Former Showa Emperor Showa (Hirohito) who died in 1989.
May 3rd: Constitution Day (Kenpo kinenbi)
The new post war constitution was put into place on this day in 1947.
May 4th: Greenery Day (Midori no hi)
Greenery Day is dedicated to the environment and nature.
May 5th: Children’s Day (Kodomo no hi)
The Boys Festival (Tango no sekku) is celebrated on May 5th. Families pray for their sons and hang up carp streamers and dispay samurai dolls, both symbols of strength, power and success in life.
Dotonbori is situated in the Namba district of Osaka. The street lines both sides of the Dotonborigawa Canal, which was completed in 1615. In those days this was the main theatre area of the city but the last of the theatres were destroyed by bombing in World War Two. These days Dotonbori is best known for it’s kuidaore food culture. Roughly translated kuidaore means ‘eat until you can’t move’ and Osaka as a whole, and Dotonbori in particular, is famous for it’s dining.
The dozens of restaurants are enlivened by some large billboards and neon signs. The Glico Man sign was first installed in 1935, the giant neon athlete is the symbol of Glico Candy. The huge mechanised crab on the front of the Kani Doraka restaurant was built in 1960 and it’s arms and eye sockets move. The crab spawned many other mechanised imitators which can now be seen on other restaurants in the area.
Huge sign above Don Quijote store. The penguin is the Company mascot and beside him is Ebisu, the Shinto God of commerce.
Sign for a Fugu (Blowfish) Restaurant
Hmmm... Maybe we'll have takoyaki (octopus dumplings).