Thursday, February 16, 2012

Frozen Fukuroda No Taki

This year, winter has been particularly cold all over Japan. While the Sea of Japan coast has been inundated with unusually high snowfall, the other parts of Japan, especially Hokkaido and northern Honshu (Tohoku) has received higher than normal snow. 

Last weekend, we revisited Fukuroda no Taki, one of Japan's best three waterfalls.The falls are located near Daigo town in Ibaraki prefecture. Since I have written in more detail about this place in an earlier post, I will not go in to the details this time.

This is our third visit to the place, the earlier one's being in Summer and Autumn. The speciality about this waterfall is the view changes with season. 

This winter, the falls froze for the first time in 6 years. To highlight this spectacle, the falls are illuminated on weekend evenings between 5 pm and 7 pm during February. 
The week before our visit, the falls were reported by local newspapers to be fully frozen. 
Thanks to a few days of warm weather, we missed out this view by 3 days and only got to see the partially frozen waterfalls.  

Things worth mentioning

This post is a collection of few interesting things in Japan. It is not about cultural differences as that is too vast a topic to be covered in one post ! This one is just about a few things that are done differently or not as per the common norm in other countries, primarily the west.

  1. Japanese language : To begin with, Japanese is a language which is not very easy to pick up. The extensive use of phonics, the distinction of polite and formal speech just add up to the difficult. But learning to speak the language is comparatively easier than learning to read and write. To complicate matters, the language makes use of 3 scripts-  Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are phonetic alphabets and are collectively called Kana, There  are no such things as consonants and vowels in Kana. Hiragana is used for words of Japanese origin, while words of foreign origin are always written in Katakana. Katakana is almost never used for words of Japanese origin words while Hiragana may sometimes be used (generally written in smaller script on top) with Katakana for foreign origin words only so that younger children can read it. Kanji is derived from Chinese characters and most Japanese words and names of Japanese people, places and family names are almost always written in Kanji and sometimes accompanied by Hiragana, for ease of understanding. Currently 2136 kanji characters are in use , but not all Japanese know all the characters. The Chinese reading and Japanese reading of the Kanji characters differs a lot. Sometimes Roman alphabets, known as Romaji are also used. To complicate matters, learning just one of these scripts is not sufficient to survive in Japan. Most writings are in a combination of 2 or more of these scripts. Kanji is extensively used in writing and knowing just Hiragana and Katakana may not help much, though it is definitely better to know atleast these two easy scripts.

  1. Continuing from the previous point, an interesting fact is that books and newspapers are usually printed from back to front, like inArabic and Hebrew books and are written from top to bottom and not right to left like in Arabic-Hebrew. Normally when Hiragana and Katakana are used primarily with limited use of Kanji, the books or matter is written from front to back and left to right, like English.

  1. Addresses : Interestingly, Addresses in Japan are written beginning with the Postal code and ending with the name of the addressee. Goes like this : 
                     Postal/Zip code
                     Name of Prefecture
                     House/Building Number
                     Name of Addressee 
        This is also the pattern used in South Korea and somehow this makes more
        sense to me than the regular pattern used in most other countries.

  1. Signatures: As hard as it may be to believe, there is hardly any use of signatures in Japan. Every Japanese adult has a “Hanko” a personal seal which is essential and acts as a signature. The “Hanko” is registered with the local municipality and any change for whatsoever reason requires registering it with the municipality. Foreigners are not required to carry a Hanko, but it is preferred as most offices/hotels or businesses will ask for it. While the Japanese usually have their Hanko crafted artistically or simplistically in Kanji or the other Japanese scripts, a simple English script Hanko is sufficient for foreigners.

  1. Eras: Japanese years are always mentioned in Eras based on the reign of the Emperor. The current year in use is H24, which stands for Heisei 24, meaning this is the 24th year of Emperor Akihito’s reign, the Heisei era. I have written a separate post on this long ago, so am not going into the details this time.

  1. Age: In Japan, the age of a person is calculated based on the period during which they were born. The period begins from April 2nd of a calendar year and ends on April 1 of the following calendar year. The calendar year or actual birth date has little to do with age and age is always connected which period one was born in.

  1. Usage of credit cards: Japan is one and probably the only developed country where people don’t hold too many credit cards. That is because almost any kind of business is done in cash transactions. People carry large amounts of cash in their wallets and may not even own a credit card. Online shopping is also done on “Cash on Delivery” terms. The delivery company “Takkyubin” personnel collects the cash from the addressee on behalf of the seller.
  1. Garbage segregation: While recycle and reuse is clearly the most eco-friendly        initiative in the current world scenario, probably no other country takes it as             seriously as Japan. No one segregates garbage as meticulously as  they do here in Japan.   
    9. Week : In Japan, Sunday is the end of the week and Monday is the beginning of the 
        week. In a country known for its workaholism, makes sense that the first working  
        day of the week is the beginning of the week.   

While these are only a few common differences that I have mentioned, the larger differences are mostly the cultural differences.        

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tokyo: Ginza

We visited Ginza in the second half of Day 2 of our Tokyo trip, After a leisurely lunch in a restaurant close to Hibiya Park, we resumed our walk and intended to take a train to Ginza. To our surprise, we had already reached Ginza and had not realized it till we saw the signboard for one of the exits of Ginza station.    

Ginza is one of the most expensive and popular shopping districts which is also reputed for being one of the most expensive real estate in Japan.
The area gets its name “Ginza” meaning silver mint from the fact that for almost 2 centuries from  16th-19th century, a silver coin mint was actually located here. Suffering considerable damage during the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, the area was reconstructed only to become an upscale shopping area.
Sony building is where Sony showcases its latests products and technology. Kids love the place because they get access to some of the gadgets which are out of reach elsewhere. Serious shoppers can purchase the latest Sony products right from the company outlet.
When we visited Ginza, a temporary foot bath was “installed” just outside the Sony building. An innovative way of marketing one of Hokkaido’s onsens, was definitely a boon for tired feet.
Ginza’s streets shine bright when the lights and neon signs are switched on.

  Wako building is Ginza’s landmark and stands at the intersection of Chuo dori and Harumi dori.
 This building with its iconic clock tower was originally constructed in 1894 and reconstructed in 1932.
Ginza 4 chome is home to some of the biggest brands in shopping and fashion.

Some of the buildings in Ginza have interesting modern architecture.

 Some of the best brands in global fashion have their outlets in Ginza.

Ginza is a shoppers paradise and also has some fine dining outlets. 

Ginza is one place that most visitors to Tokyo would not like to miss.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tokyo: Marunouchi and Hibiya

On Day 2 of our Tokyo sightseeing trip, we took a train to Tokyo station early in the day.
Tokyo Station is the main intercity railway terminus in Tokyo and the busiest station in Japan.
The station is the hub for all the shinkansen high speed lines and is connected by many JR and Tokyo Metro lines.

The station building is a landmark in itself and was modeled after Amsterdam station. The red brick renaissance style architecture of the building was built in 1914. The building lost its dome in the air raids during the World War and was reconstructed in 1947 and the dome was replaced by a polyhedron.  
Recently, there was a news report that the foundation of the building is held by thousands of pinewood pillars. The station building is currently undergoing a major reconstruction which will continue till 2013 .

Our first stop was Marunouchi, an area marked by tall skyscrapers. This is the commercial district of Tokyo, home to the headquarters of some of the most powerful financial institutions and banks in Japan, primarily Mitsubishi Corporation.
Marunouchi used to be a residential area for the nobles during the Edo Period and used to be located inside the outer moats of the Edo castle. It came to be controlled by the army after the Meiji Restoration and was eventually sold by the army to one of Mitsubishi’s founders. The Japanese actually refer to Marunouchi as Mitsubishi township because most of the land remains under Mitsubishi’s control.

Right opposite the Marunouchi Central exit on the west side of the Tokyo station, stand the Marunouchi and Shin Marunouchi buildings. These buildings also go by the names Maru-biru and Shin Maru-biru and . Maru-biru was constructed in 1923, and reconstructed in 2002 while Shin Maru-biru was constructed in 2007. Jointly, both buildings are said to occupy the most expensive real estate piece in entire Japan and are occupied by hundreds of shops and restaurants 
The buildings are flanked by many of Mitsubishi buildings and other skyscrapers.

The road behind the Maru-biru and Shin Maru-biru buildings is known as the Nakadori Avenue. This tree lined street has shops and cafes and boutiques along both sides. The trees are lit up during the Christmas and New Year holiday season. 
Tokyo international forum is a futuristic building which was completed in 1996 and is the venue for exhibitions and concerts. 
This curved glass atrium’s ceiling rises upto 200 ft and resembles a ship’s hull. 
The structure is actually made up of two buildings which are separated by an open courtyard and are connected by overhead glass walkways.
Visitors can walk inside the building to have a look at no cost. 

The best way to tour the Marunouchi area is the free shuttle bus which has a circular route. Shuttle Buses run at an interval of 15 minutes and drive past most of the landmark buildings and is the most convenient way of reaching just about anywhere within the area. Shuttle Buses operate between 8:00-20:00 hrs during the week and between 10:00-20:00 hrs on weekends and holidays. We took the bus from outside the Mitsubishi building and got off near the Tokyo Kaikan stop. From here, the Imperial palace garden is just across the road.

The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) is the residence of the Emperor and the Imperial family. While the Imperial Palace is off-limits to the general public, visitors can stroll in the palace garden and also walk over to the “Kokyo Gaien”, to have a look at Megane-bashi (Eyeglass Bridge) and Niju-bashi (Double bridge) and catch a glimpse of the palace building.  
After the shogunate was overthrown and the capital was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868, the erstwhile Edo castle became the Imperial palace. The Edo castle was damaged in a series of fires over the years and was reconstructed every time. The current Imperial palace was constructed at the site of the Edo castle and the current structure is a reconstruction after the older building was damaged in the air raids during the World War II.

Visitors can enter the inner palace gardens on only two days in a year- the Emperor’s Birthday and during New Year (2nd January to be precise). On these two days, the Imperial family makes an appearance on the balcony of palace and wave out to the cheering crowd below, followed by a speech by the Emperor.

The Imperial palace East Gardens are open to public but closed on certain days of the week and on special occasions.
The area around the palace is a popular place among joggers and walkers.

Walking further from the Imperial palace, we walked towards the Diet Building. Japan’s Parliament is called the Diet and the building houses the legislature of the Japanese government. The Diet was originally established as the Imperial Diet in the Meiji era while the Diet Building was constructed in 1936.
On our way back towards Marunouchi, we passed by some interesting buildings, one of them being this red brick building which houses some Central Government offices.

The Hibiya park, one of the biggest open spaces in Tokyo is located close by. The park was quite deserted except for a few people hoping to spend some leisurely time with their family and interestingly, some homeless people.
A replica of the Liberty Bell, which was a gift from USA to the people of Japan in the post war occupation period, stands over a small hillock in the park.
A fountain stands close to the other end of Hibiya Park, overlooking the skyscrapers of Marunouchi and the Peninsula hotel.

Marunouchi, Hibiya and Ginza are located within easy reach from each other and just a short walk away from each other.

The Skybus Tokyo is Japan’s first open double decker bus which operates from outside the Mitsubishi building in Marunouchi. There are 4 courses, each offering a 50 minute tour and  covers some of Tokyo’s popular sights. Multilingual audio guides are also available. A booking counter operates on the first floor of the Mitsubishi building. Check out the website for more details :

We covered Marunouchi and Hibiya in the first half of the day and Ginza in the second half. More about Ginza in the next post. 

Useful links: