Narita – Worth staying at least 2 nights!


Most folks just pass thru Narita on their way to Tokyo or Kyoto – If they sleep even one night in town, it’s to rest up after their flight – and then to quickly race off to other parts of Japan.

But that’s not fair to Narita. It’s a very famous place in it’s own right! One of Japan’s most famous and most often visited pilgrimage sites is right here in Narita – the Naritasan Shinshoji temple.

This is a huge complex – dating back to the beginning of Buddhism here in Japan – and is well worth a long visit. Particularly special is their three times a day services in the main hall. These feature some amazing drumming – and were very very different from the services we saw in Koyasan.

This temple has been performing a Goma (fire burning) ritual every day for over 1000 years. No matter what your religious affliction – that’s a lot of devotion!

And I had to see it. So we got organized, left our absolutely lovely Air BnB lodging, and went to Temple.

The service started with a brief introduction in Japanese – to a congregation of almost 500 people. There were 4 sections of participants. two large groups kneeling quite near the center alter on the right and left, a much larger group kneeling in front of the altar, and then the senior group. We were sitting on benches that ran along the back wall – with a good view and no kneeling required.

I expected something similar to the morning prayers in Koyasan – but what happened was very different. The service started with the entry of the monks – about 10 of them in formal attire. The main monk seated himself in front of the altar, the gong rang out in the courtyard, the lights dimmed, and a monk sounded a single, extremely loud, Thump on the giant Taiko Drum. That started the service. The monks said some prayers that clearly the gather congregants knew, and then there was some gong ringing and drumming. Suddenly a huge fire burst out in front of the main monk. We were blocked by his body from the bottom of the flame, but the top was easily a body length above his head. This was a signal for everyone to get up and line up to the right and left of the altar.

The Intrepid Traveller and I tried to decide in our own minds, what they might be doing. Comparing notes I thought they were going to do confession, the Intrepid Traveler thought that they were going to a lesson or communion. But it turns out they weren’t doing either. They were handing bags and purses and personal belongings to the helper monks, who were bringing these items to the altar and exposing them – briefly – to the flames.

We had read up on the Goma ritual – and the idea is that the flames represent the wisdom of the Buddha of Unmoving Knowledge – and they burn away the root causes of your suffering. Bu exposing your belongings to the fire, you are allowing the wisdom of the Buddha to impact your life.

Obviously as soon as I realized this was what was happening, I got up with my backpack and joined the line.

After the service ended – folks again lined up – this time to run their hands along a staff that ran in front of the main Buddha. We never figured out why they did this – but it’s been happening for a really long time. The staff was carefully wrapped in ropes to prevent it from being worn away by hundreds of hands, multiple times a day.

Great Service, very interesting Temple, lovely walking meditation garden. This shrine was a definite winner.

We did also had an incidence of ‘Japanese nabbing’. I left the Intrepid Traveller alone for just a minute – and when I got back, she had disappeared. Two older Japanese ladies had grabbed her and forced her to go with them into the tea room for a cup of tea. They spoke no English, so she felt the polite thing to go was to go with with them.

While she was being polite, I spent several anxious minutes wondering where she’d gone when she finally re-appeared to explain that she just had to drink the offered tea – it would have been rude to have refused.

Lunch was in a traditional Eel house. It turns out that Narita is famous for it’s ell restaurants – they are the preferred food of pilgrims – health restoring and considered beneficial after a long trek. And the Eel restaurants in Narita have been serving this dish for over a hundred years. We sat down in a traditional looking restaurant, but with a hole for your legs – no kneeling unless you wanted to – and ordered a meal of eel to share.

It was delicious – and the tea (both hot and cold) was unlimited and free. We were the only westerner’s in the place – it was packed with Japanese – so you know it’s the right place. Delightful meal – and a great way to end our trip to Japan. Tomorrow we are heading for home.

A note on shopping in Narita. We happened into the two largest grocery stores we’ve seen in Japan here in Narita. The land is clearly cheaper – and the shoppers clearly either locals or pilgrims to the shrine – not a foreigner in site.

The sushi selection in the 2nd of the grocery stores we found was unreal. So fresh, so beautiful and so reasonably price. $5.00 Canadian ($6.00 US) got you a platter of at least 8 different sushi option. And need we say delicious?

We are so glad we opted to spend two nights in Narita. It’s a really cool spot – well worth visiting. If you come – check out the Aeon Mall – and buy the sushi. And of course – have at least one eel dinner.

Signing off to get our selves to the airport – our flight home awaits.

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Herds and Hordes – That sums up Nara


In my pre-trip reading – Nara sounded really cool. It was the capital of Japan for about 70 years – starting in 710 – and a backwater of the country every since. But my reading made it seem lovely – several interesting museums, traditional homes to visit (for free – we love that price point), a very intriguing guest host we could stay in at our price level, and it was the birth place of Japanese Buddhism in 703 or so.

What I didn’t know was that despite the fact that it’s a small town, it’s a small town with an agenda. It wants to compete with it’s bigger, more famous, and much more important neighbors – Osaka and Kyoto – and the city fathers are doing the best they can to make it so!

Some things are being doing very well too. Since it’s the original home of Buddhism in Japan – it’s famous among the tour group set – particularly the student tour groups. We’ve seen more student groups on tour than we’ve seen anywhere in Japan. And interestingly enough – some of them still do the ‘Hello’ thing to us as they walk by.

In case you don’t know what the ‘Hello’ thing is – every kid in a long group of students walks by and says – ‘Hello’. One after the other. Some of the kids branch out and say ‘How are you’ or ‘Where do you come from’ or other catch phases. They are clearly very proud that they finally have a chance to practice their English on real live tourists. It’s adorable.

When we were in Japan 20 years ago – all school groups did this. Today it’s one in 10 or so – and we’ve been told that those are the groups from well outside the major cities. Which figures – city kids see tourists constantly – the country kids don’t. So for them – we a treat.

Nara also has one of the best (and basically cheapest) bus systems we’ve run into. For 500 Yen you can get an unlimited day pass that is a small cedar plank. You wear this around your neck and just flash the drivers! Basically all the buses a tourist would care to ride are now free. Even if you aren’t prepared to cough up that much – a single ride is 210 Yen provided you stick to the city limits. But in addition to that – on the weekends Nara runs 3 ‘low cost’ bus lines on the heavily touristed routes. These smaller buses only cost 100 Yen – and they will do the trick if your desire is to arrive by train, visit the critical sites (The Big Buddha and the Deer Park) and then high tail it back to where you came from!

There is one obvious tourist confusing aspect of the bus system here in Nara – some of the bus lines require you to enter from the rear and pay as you exit, other lines work the other way – enter and pay immediately, exit when you want. Locals know which is which, and of course the bus drivers do – but us tourists? Forget about it! We are constantly trying to get on while everyone is getting off! It’s a mess. But I’m nit-picking – it’s still a really great way to get around the city.

Another thing that Nara has definitely gotten right is the Deer Park. This is a total hoot and a half. I didn’t want to enjoy it – but honestly – it’s beyond funny to watch tourists interact with Deer that know perfectly well that a) Tourists have Deer Crackers to feed them and b) Those Deer Crackers leaving the park! So while the deer are willing to bow to get a cracker – and they are even willing to pose for pictures, basically they know they have an easy life of it – and they put up with the constant petting, touching, and teasing with amazing grace.

Some deer have figured out that camping by the ladies selling the deer crackers is a winning strategy. Other deer have staked out their spots, and hang tough in that location. During one of our rest breaks, we watched a deer stand in one spot for at least 30 minutes – bowing repeatedly if needed to get a cracker. We also spotted deer that are just bored by the proceedings or have eaten their full for the day. They gather in the off-limits sections so the tourists can’t get to them.

And there are deer that clearly get off by playing with the tourists. They hang in the center of the pathways, shamelessly begging for crackers – and willing to what ever is needed to get them.

We are not talking deer in the hundreds by the way, we’re talking thousands of deer. And probably about an equal number of tourists. Not surprisingly – one of the big festivals here in Nara is the Spring Fawning.

Given the popularity of the deer park, and the historical significance of the city, and the marketing efforts that the city fathers have made to put Nara on the lists of all tourists – there are a lot of tourists!

Fortunately, they are clustered in the area near the Deer Park – making the Temple of the Big Buddha a tad crowded, and the buses heading to and from the Deer Park area packed. But outside of that space – and a couple of roads leading in and out of the area – the rest of Nara goes on with it’s business without interference.

And it gets worse – a lot worse – on the weekends. I’ve literally never seen this many tourists in one small space in my life.

On the good news side – Nara can handle crowds. In addition to the doubled up bus system on the weekends, the main attraction – The Big Buddha – is in a huge Temple. Plenty of room for everyone. And we arrived in the middle of a ‘classical’ concert! There was a wonderful Soprano with a glorious voice, accompanied by about 4 dozen kindergarten students who gave it all they had. Recognizable pieces included an hair raising version of Ave Maria – and an adorable ‘Take me out to the Ball Game’ – sung with tons of energy by the kids. For the music there was a piano, a violin and a cello. The acoustics were amazing.

Tourist bottle necks included the ‘crawl thru the nose of Buddha’ exhibit – which folks were lining up to do with great enthusiasm, and of course the bus stops. There was plenty of deer to go around however.

Once off the tourist track – the museums were lovely. Quiet, beautiful and generally free. We lucked into a tour of the section of the original Imperial Palace (703- 789 or so) that is being rebuilt in the traditional manner. But first they built a giant outer shell of steel beams, harnessed against earthquakes and Typhoons. Inside the outer shell is the area being used to hand carve using traditional equipment all the wood pieces needed to make the Main Gate of the Palace. Normally this area is closed to tourists – but when we were there it was open for visitors to go in and climb all the way to the top to gaze down from what will be the final height of the gate.

It was wonderful. There were craftsmen there showing us how to carve out the huge cedar columns and beams that will be used to make the Gate. We were told that all the Cedar comes from the Nara area. I was amazed. They are using only trees over 250 years old (the columns are huge), so there has to be a giant forest not too far away.

My other favourite site was the renown Gangoji Temple. While the Temple is beautiful, the highlight for me was the museum space where they had displaced some of the columns and beams they had found during the excavations. These wood pieces have been dated back to 700 AD! That makes them 1400 years old. Incredible.

For a garden walk, we opted for the free Yoshikien Garden rather than paying 900 Yen to visit it’s neighbor, the much better advertised Isuien Garden. We loved our tour of the Yoshikien Garden – we were alone on the paths, able to sit quietly on the deck of the tea house to admire the pond, and generally cool down from the heat and the hordes.

Speaking of heat – it’s been really really hot here in Japan. Over 30 degrees C (that’s over 90 degrees F) every single day. That kind of heat has taken a toll on our ability to get around – so that bus pass was a god-send.

One time we got on the AC bus, and it felt so good, we just rode around twice. The driver got really worried that we didn’t know we had to get off! He even found someone to explain that to us. But we re-assured him we were fine, and got off on the right stop the 2nd time around!

One final note – because of the heat – we’ve been visiting the local convenience stores in search of ice cream. And trying all the different options! I had a fabulous watermelon looking ice thing that actually had bits of chocolate placed into the red part looking like seeds. And the Intrepid Travellers favourite was a mint ice cream version covered in chocolate with crunchy pieces.

We are living the highlife here in Nara.

Signing off to check out a difference Convenience store (maybe their selection of Ice Cream is different) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

We lo

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

War – What is it Good For?


Absolutely Nothing!

And why am I muttering about war? We visited two very interesting museums today – the Osaka Museum of Human Rights, and the Osaka International Peace Memorial Museum.

Both dealt harshly with man’s inhumanity to man – and both reminded us that we really need to be a little more open in our attitudes towards folks that are different from us..

To get to the Osaka Museum of Human Rights was not an easy task, and the museum itself actually tried hard to make it a challenge to find! This is not a museum for folks who do museums for the highlights. Honestly – we don’t think there were any real highlights here. Human Rights is a tough topic – and not one it’s easy to make light hearted. And they didn’t even try. It’s a serious museum on a very serious subject.

Lack of highlights aside, often a museum is more about what you put into it than what the designers put into it – and such was the case with this one. Once we found the entrance (thank goodness for the Japanese habit of trying to direct visitors.- even if they aren’t asking for directions), we were charged admittance and then instead of an English Audio Guide, they gave us a printed plastic notebook with photographs of different sections of the museum along with English text.

I figured that the audio guide system was broken – I didn’t realize how lucky we were to get the printed guide until we saw two other English language visitors trying to navigate the museum with the audio guides. Our printed guide was much much much more informative.

Also highly informative were the movies – offered with English subtitles if you pressed exactly the right sequence of buttons. We discovered these the hard way – pressing random buttons until we figured out how to get it working.

A museum on Human Rights is unlikely to be uplifting – and so we were not amazed to discover that the topics covered include Mercury Poisonings in Japan, the Japan treatment of Koreans living in Japan, and the Japanese treatment of two of their main indigenous tribes. Not very good sums it up.

Which is pretty interesting since Canadians have been beating up their government about our treatment of the First Nations – at least we now know that we aren’t the first – or probably the last – country to try to get rid of folks that just don’t seem to live the way we think they should.

Other topics covered included Gay Rights, the rights of Disabled Citizens, and the rights of Women. Human Rights is a broad topic, and the museum designers did their level best to hit a lot of different aspects of it.

We can’t recommend this museum to anyone else – I know the Intrepid Traveler and I are more willing than most to put effort into figuring out what the museum designers were trying to accomplish, but we did find this museum very interesting.

The 2nd museum of the day – the ‘Osaka International Peace Memorial Museum’ is very new, very well done – and frankly – very oddly named. It traces the history of Japan, Osaka, and the rest of the world from 1890 to just after WWII ended (say 1948 or so). The first two sections painstakingly attempted to give an historical overview of what Japan was doing during the period leading up to WWII. And the quick answer was trying to conquer as much of Asia as they could. These are the days of the Sino-Japanese war, the invasion of Korea by the Japanese, and the occupation of much of China. Give that – it’s interesting that from the Western point of view – we were ignoring Japan.

Instead we were focusing on what was happening in Germany, Britian and France – with some concern about what Russia was doing. It really wasn’t until Pearl Harbour – which most Americans felt was an uncalled for invasion of US territory that the ‘problem’ of Japan became apparent.

From the Museum’s view point, the events leading up to the American’s bombing of mainland Japan were covered quickly – with most of the museum focusing on what was happening in Osaka particularly, and Japan in general during the bombing.

The two most dramatic sections were devoted to a family home being prepared for a bombing raid, and a simulated bombing raid! This section was noisy, exciting, dramatic, eye-catching – and ultimately horrifying. And it was complete with an under ground home-made bomb shelter that featured bombing alert alarms ringing, fire raging around the shelter, and folks screaming. Not very light hearted.

Pictures of sections of Osaka before and after the fire bombing were displayed as well.

And then there were Pictures of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan to complete the journey thru time.

War – What is it Good For – Absolutely nothing.

An interesting way to end our visit to Osaka. After we left the museum, we had to walk in a park – just to get our heads back out of the negative think of the day

Back at our castle we have new guests – lovely young ladies from Calgary. Thank goodness we were able to spend a pleasant evening chatting – then head off to bed. Tomorrow we must move on to Nara.

We are hoping for wonderful things in Nara – Osaka has definitely exceeded expectations. Despite the negative aspects of the two hard hitting museums today, we must admit to absolutely loving several of the museums we visited. The Osaka Museum of History was excellent, the Osaka Castle is not to be missed, the Osaka Museum of housing was great, and we had a lovely time at the Aquarium – that’s another must see. And we really enjoyed our stay with Ken & Mark. It was very pleasant, despite being unable to do more than microwave and toast..

Quick update for those who might be wondering – we are still on our budget – running under $25 a day per person for travel, museums and food. And yes – that includes wine.. (or Saki – this being Japan and all). We’ve managed this by becoming very very good at shopping the grocery stores and convenience stores for food for lunch and dinner. We’ve scored Sushi at 200 Yen off, bread on discount because it’s the end of the day (after 4:00 PM apparently), and done some very yummy tasting. I’ve also tasted some things that honestly – I don’t know what they were, I don’t care to know what they were, and I’d be happy if I never tasted them again!

But Bottom line – there’s lots to see and do in Osaka – we would recommend including it on your next trip to Japan. Great Museums, really nifty neighbourhoods to walk around, including one where houses are a door plus about a foot on each side wide. That’s it – but they are long, at least as far as we could see on the inside. I’m guessing these are housing that were put up quickly after the war, and have survived because they are inexpensive for a single person to occupy. And there are some very classy neighbourhoods as well – so something for everyone.

Signing off on a more upbeat note than we started this blog report – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Osaka Castle and the Museum of History – Must See Sights in Osaka


Our research had showed us that there were lots of interesting things to do in Osaka – and our first task was to decided what to do on what days. As seniors – shopping wasn’t on the list, and we were pretty Shrine’d, Garden’d and Temple’s out after Kyoto. It’s a good think that Osaka is best known for it’s museums, eh? (After the bars and nightlife – but that’s for other travellers – we are museum buffs!)

The list of must see museums here was long and intriguing, but two major Art Museums were closed during our entire visit. Something about having to put in new exhibits. But that left lots of other choices – and we made a list, considered closing days to avoid, and limiting ourselves to just 2 a day. At our speed, more stops would never happen.

Bottom line – Sunday our plan was to hit the two biggest hits in Osaka – the not to be ignored Osaka Castle, and the outstanding Osaka Museum of History nearby. Then Monday, when most museums are closed, we decided to go for the Largest Aquarium in Japan, Tuesday would be the Science Museum and the Museum of Housing, and then on Wednesday we’d do the serious stuff – the Osaka Museum of Human Rights, and the Osaka International Peace Memorial.

Nice solid planning – always an excellent way to start.

After spending some time deciphering the subway map, and deciding if the 600 Yen all day pass was a good investment (it wasn’t) – we headed out for the Osaka Museum of History.

This museum is huge, excellent, informative, has an English Language Guide, and was completely enchanting. I’d rate it an absolute must see.

For kids there were stamp desks positioned around the museum, the idea being to keep the kids interested by keeping them searching for specific items and being rewarded with the appropriate stamp. And this so worked! We were entranced to see how keen even the youngest were to get their books properly stamped.

The first floor of the museum is actually the 10th floor of this huge modern building. It is devoted to a full sized recreation of the oldest Ceremonial Hall in Japan – dating from around 800 AD. The space is very dark, filled with mannequins dressed in traditional robes, and with a movie projected on the dark screens. Then the movie ends, and the windows are automatically opened to reveal the view of Osaka. And right below us is the actual location of the Ceremonial Hall – identified only in 1959 and saved by community action from development. So stunning.

The route spirals downward from floor to floor – past full sized street views of Osaka, animated by a Noh character that moves from screen to screen, explaining as he goes what you should be looking for. Many of the images are 3D cut-outs of scenes from Art of the time period portrayed, other images were intensely accurate scale miniatures with amazing detail. Cats and Kids chasing rats (apparently this was reported in visitor notes from the time), housewives putting out wash on roof terraces designed for the purpose, Imperial messengers on important business, shopkeepers selling their wares – the stunning detail is definitely a characteristic of Japanese model building, and it was bewitching.

The bottom floor of the museum is a full scale replica of Osaka shortly before WWII, and was offering a free ‘wear a Kimono’ event that day. So we dressed up – and gleefully took pictures of ourselves looking lovely.

Once out of the History Museum, we headed over to the Osaka Castle – and were immediately plunged into mob central. Where the Museum of History had a pleasant vibe, the Osaka Castle is a must see on everyone’s agenda – and it was crowded. We had to wait our turn to see each section of the exhibits, and this was a problem because it entailed a great deal of standing and waiting.

Old knees aren’t fond of standing and waiting.

But the exhibits themselves were utterly fascinating. They tell, in intense detail, the history of the original builder of Osaka Castle – and the 2nd great unifier of Japan – Toyotomi Hideyoshi of the Osaka Castle, and of his fights with the man most consider the primary Shogun of Japan – Tokugawa Ieyasu. One entire floor is devoted to a detailed analysis of the famous Screen Painting – The Summer Battle of Osaka Castle. If you are interested in the Edo Era, or find information about the Shogunate period from 1600 to 1868, this is the place.

We are not incredibly interested in this period, but the intensity of the displays made it impossible to ignore them. I’d rate Osaka Castle a Must See.

We dragged ourselves out of the castle, overwhelmed and completely exhausted – and a long subway ride from home. To make matters worse – while the streets were deserted, the subway was packed! Rush hour in Osaka – oh that’s perfect timing.

But we managed to not get lost, and still stay friends. Dinner, a quick chat with our fellow travellers, and bed. Tomorrow is bound to be another long long day.

Signing off to dream of Samurai Soldiers – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

BHAG* Achieved!


Back when I started this blog – back when my husband suggested calling myself Montreal Madame… I set myself a BHAG.

In MBA terms – a BHAG is a *Big Hairy Assed Goal – and it represents something that you really would like to achieve – but think is well outside the realm of possibility.

So I decided getting 500 followers would be my BHAG – And I wanted to get it done by January 2020.

Well guess what – I made it MONTHS early! i actually have officially 504 followers – so the follower that put me over could be one of 4 champions – and I love them all!

So Thank you follower #1 – and #100 and #201 and #350 and #500 to #504… Thank you all in fact!

Couldn’t have done it without you.

For my next BHAG – I’m thinking 1000 Followers by January 2022. That’s a lot in a very short time considering how long it’s taken to make 500 – but I’ve got my fingers crossed and my ‘Muttering’ Boots on!

Signing off – Content for the moment – and celebrating in Japan with a glass of very lousy but I don’t care red wine… The Soup Lady

Nijo Castle – Negative Reviews aside – it’s totally worth a visit


Sometimes I wonder if folks who write those negative reviews have even been to the same places I’ve been. It’s a puzzlement, for sure.

For example – Nijo Castle, one of the most important historical buildings in Japan, got beaten up pretty badly by 2 different reviewers on Trip Advisor. And I can’t even begin to understand why.

The first reviewer belly ached about having to take off their shoes, and how horrid it was to walk barefoot where other folks have been putting their smelly feet. Hello dear reviewer – did you not read up at all about Japan before you came for a visit? Taking off your shoes is the absolutely in thing here. Everyone takes off their shoes to enter most important places – whether they are shrines, temples, historical momuments, or even folks homes. So get over it! And if you really don’t want to put your bare feet on their floors – carry socks! Seriously. How can you tell folks a place as important as Nijo Castle isn’t worth visiting because you didn’t carry socks with you.

The other complaint was about the use of restorations instead of the original painted sliding doors. Again – what was this reviewer thinking. This place is 400 years old – and it’s completely open to the environment. Why would they ever leave 400 year old painted wood sliding doors up in such a location. Be glad that they replaced them with the most gloriously painted panels – using exactly the same techniques and following the same exact patterns. You can really feel how incredible it must have been to be admitted to such a glorious room while you waited on knees and knuckles for the Shogun to hear your petition. And if you want to see the originals – they are housed in a specially designed building – temperature and humidity controlled – right on the grounds of Nijo Castle.

But my annoyance with lousy reviewers aside – Nijo Castle is well worth paying whatever it costs to visit. It’s amazing. And surprisingly open to visitors. Since it’s no longer in use by the Imperial family, except for very special occasions, tourists are allowed inside the castle itself, not just inside the gardens.

And it’s the inside of the castle that is special. From the famous Nightingale floor that sounds like a thousand birds singing as folks walk around to the marvellously painted shoji screens that divide the space into rooms, this is an amazingly beautiful space.

We particularly loved the thick (over 1 foot thick in fact) carved wooden transoms that created an early form of AC for the rooms. One side was carved with Birds, the other with flowers, and between the carvings, holes allowed air to flow from room to room.

The painted shoji screens are stunning, made even more impressive by the fact that the paintings extended above the doors, almost to the ceilings of each room. The effect was both dramatic, and intimidating. And apparently the intimidation factor was an important component. The Shogun didn’t want anyone getting uppity on him, and there were subtle, and not so subtle ways to keep the powerful lords in their place.

Like the Emperor, the Shogun always sat on a higher floor. And the ceiling above him was also raised to make sure everyone knew who was the most important person in the room. Even the paintings were done to focus eyes on him, and him alone. I loved the sheer audacity of the men who commissioned such work. No wondering about who they thought was boss.

Nijo Castle is not only beautiful, it’s of historic importance. It is here that the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family accepted his commission from the Emperor, and it is here that the 15th and last of that line announced that after 266 years of rule, he was returning authority to the Emperor. It gives me the shivers to think I walked on those same floors.

Just a heads-up on the time required to tour Nijo. It took us at least 3 hours to see the entire castle and all of the gardens. It is a vast area, and you really don’t want to rush through it. We wisely paid a bit extra for the audio tour in English, which combined with the well placed English language explanations provided an excellent and informative view of the entire place. And it’s well worth it to take your time. It’s hard to appreciate how magnificent and detailed the paintings are if you just glance into the rooms.

Folks with a different attitude towards touring rushed past us, hardly spending a moment to glance quickly into the rooms. Given the details on the paintings, birds singing, tigers glaring up and down or nursing their young, we can not fathom how they saw anything – let alone appreciated the incredibly detailed work. Well each to their own I guess.

We finished our day at The Museum of Kyoto, which was having a special exhibit on Ukiyo-e paintings of ‘Beauty’. While the collection in the regular part of the museum is nothing exceptional, the special exhibit was outstanding. We were very intrigued by the 111 painted scrolls – all dating from 1700 – 1850. It’s hard to believe that paper that old can still be in such excellent condition, the colours so vibrant, the details so intricately executed. Of particular interest was the wig collection. Over 70 wigs were used to show the different hairstyles – and labeled in both Japanese and English so that we could see what kind of women were being portrayed. Just an FYI – most of the women were Courtesans, Geisha, or similar. After all, the wife of a nobleman, or even a woman of the middle class would hardly pose for an artist.

This was a very interesting, if very long day. We finally dragged our tired feet home for a well earned dinner and relaxing evening.

Tomorrow is the Aoi Festival – a once a year event that I’m greatly looking forward to seeing.

Signing off to nurse our tired feet back into health, The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Loving Kyoto


Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is civilized, friendly, and easy to navigate. Not that it is easy to navigate, just that its a whole lot easier than Tokyo.

And Kyoto is cheaper. We’ve been running under $10 for lunch, and under $20 for dinner – including either Saki or Wine. How are we doing this – ah ha! We cheat.

Lunch is often at a restaurant, where we’ll share one meal between us. It is just lunch after all. And our new lodgings have a lovely kitchen and dining area. Perfect for cooking in. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Putting together meals from a combination of ready to eat stuff from the grocery store, and stuff we have to microwave or the Intrepid Traveller works her magic and cooks.

Tonight we’re having Edamame for tea time, followed by a mixed Tempura Appetizer and then dinner will be Wine, Rice with a raw egg and a tempura shrimp and onion pie, and mixed cooked vegetables. We even decided on a lovely Caramel thing (we hope it’s Caramel – it’s smelled like Caramel) for dessert. Yum.

Kyoto has been an amazing city to visit. I had pre-organized trips to 3 of the restricted Imperial Palaces – only to discover that they aren’t that restricted – you just need to reserve. Good thing too because I blew it on the dates for 2 of the 3. But I digress. The 3 restricted places we are going are the Sento Imperial Palace, The Katsura Imperial Villa, and the Shugakuin Imperial Villas.

Back 25 years ago, all three of these were only available on guided tours, pre-reserved, by foreigners from outside of Japan. No Japanese was able to see them. Boy have things changed in 25 years. Today there is an office of the Imperial Household Agency located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and all anyone, Japanese or Foreign must do is go to the desk and ask about available spaces. If there is space available – you are in!

Because I totally mucked up the dates, this proved to be a godsend. We first toured the Sento Palace and Gardens. This palace is still in use today by the Emperor and his family when they visit Kyoto. Our audio guides explained that the palace has been completely remodeled inside – this means carpets and western furniture. I’m wondering about toilets of course – but I suspect that’s understood to have been done.

Most of the tour consider of viewing the absolutely stunning garden. I want a garden like this. Even a little bit of garden like this. Of course there were 4 gardeners in one tree alone when we were there… so maybe the labor to maintain the garden would be well out of my price range, but still. It was magnificent. And right in downtown Kyoto. I do not understand why it’s not booked solid, but I think the whole – go to the Imperial Household Agency requirement puts people off. In any case – you are alone in the garden, you can pause to reflect and take pictures… it’s wonderful.

Our second tour was the Shugakuin Imperial Villas – and I think they were my favourites. Again – no lines, no crowds, no rushing you thru. And the tickets are free – my kind of price point.

There are actually 3 villas included on the tour – and to me the highlight was how close we could get to the villas. And all the shoji screens were open – so you could see thru to the magnificent views that they were created to showcase. Wandering paths, tinkling water falls, random bridges, glorious plantings, and magnificent moss gardens were there to be savoured. I loved it.

The bad news about the Shugakuin, ignoring my mixup of the dates, is its distance from Kyoto. We had to take a subway and a bus – and then walk. Naturally we got lost on the walk, so a 15 minute walk took 30 minutes – but we did eventually arrive at the Villas. Totally worth it. And the way back to Kyoto proper was much much faster – one bus ride and we were downtown enjoying ‘Kid’s Day’ at one of the major parks.

What a hoot and a half that was. The theme of the ‘fair’ was kid safety – and they had police cars for kids to climb in, big construction equipment that they could push buttons on, a Virtual Reality game that taught you to stop before you hit pedestrians, and a series of the most adorable bike riding courses.

For older kids, there was a biking maze set out with safety cones and policeman signalling directions. For younger kids unable to actually ride a bike, they had those push bikes. Kids mounted them, then either went around in a circle collecting rings from organizers standing on the outside of the circle, or – this was the best part – on a signal they got off the bikes and used special gloves to pop bubbles that the organizers were creating in the zillions.

We loved it and so did the kids.

Today we tried for the Katsura Imperial Villa – but again a date mix-up happened and we discovered it was closed. But all was not lost – we ended up at the Kyoto Aquarium. This is a completely marvellous aquarium, complete with a dolphin show, a seal show that had the young trainers bringing the seals out among the crowd, and a Penguin show. The stunner of the place was right at the entrance. You walk across a virtual tide-pool that ripples under your feet – revealing Giant Japanese Salamanders. These are roughly the size of a 4 year old child – and they are meat eaters. And they are native to the Kamo river that runs thru Kyoto.

I’m so not swimming in that river.

These things are huge – with enormous teeth and extremely ugly. Yuk!

Another highlight was the jellyfish exhibit – all black light and glowing jellyfish floating around in huge tanks.

Speaking of huge tanks – there is a ‘Sea of Kyoto’ Tank that contains Manta Rays, Sharks, and a school of small fish that numbered in the several hundreds. I’m thinking these fish might be the dinner for the seals – but as a school, they created wonderful balls and funnels and odd shapes.

We watched as one of the organizers suited up and dove into the tank – and fed both the fish and the manta rays. I’ve never seen a manta ray eat before – so this was very cool. They have mouths on the bottom, and create a vacuum that sucks any food that passes by into their jaws. So the diver just released the tidbit, and the manta did the rest. It was very cool to watch.

On the way back home, we decided to visit one of Kyoto’s most famous Temples – the Golden Pavilion (also known as Kinkaku-Ji). We’d been warned that it was a mob scene – and figured that hitting the place in the late afternoon might have thinned out the crowds a bit. I think it did to be honest – we were able to get photographs of the Pavilion without having to wait our turn. But compared to the serenity of the other gardens – this place was decidedly unpleasant. I got hit a few times by other tourists trying to get past me in a hurry – one wonders what was the rush, and the number of souvenir stands made it feel tawdry. Worse – we had to pay for the privilege of going in.

Well – I suppose it’s one of the must do things here in Kyoto – but I’m basically glad we crossed it off our list.

We still have a lot more to see and do here in Kyoto – including seeing the Aoi Matsuri Parade, so I’ll be reporting on Kyoto again in a few days.

Meanwhile – I’m the Soup Lady – signing off to help the Intrepid Traveller prepare our dinner. (That means I pour the wine and set the table – she cleverly does the rest).

Edo-Tokyo Museum – A Must See!


We’ve seen hundreds of Museums – seriously – hundreds. So if we love a museum – you have to realize we’re comparing it to some of the best in the world.

And the Edo-Tokyo Museum literally blew our socks off. This is an amazing museum, no matter what your age, your language, your interest level. It is simply stunning.

From the outside, you are already impressed. The first two floors of the massive structure are just the ticket hall, an auditorium, the shops, restaurants, and a special exhibit space. You take an elevator to the 3rd floor – and you are on a massive open air terrace – with the rest of the museum hanging 3 floors above you, supported by just 3 massive pillars.

Stunning.

To reach the permanent exhibit space, you can either take the boring elevator up, or ride an open air escalator up 3 floors to the beginning of the museum proper on the 6th floor.

The interior is simply breath-taking. Directly ahead of you is a vast open space – crossed by a massive wooden bridge 25 meters long. This is a full size model of the original Nipponbashi bridge, but 1/2 the original length. The bridge crosses over the open space – over a full size Noh Theatre on one side and a scaled version of Tokyo from about the thirties to fifties on the other. There are full size rickshaws, bicycles, and similar objects for kids to climb on and be photographed on.

Once across the bridge, there are 3 scale miniatures of sections of Tokyo during the Edo Period. All are done in absolute detail, with incredible precision. Impressive without the explanation, but we had asked for one of the Free (our favourite price point) English guides, and she walked us thru the most interesting parts of the models. I’ve already mentioned the detail – but with her explanation, it was easy to see even more. The rocks holding the roofs down for example, or the tenement housing hidden off the main streets and paid for as an act of charity by the wealthy were just two of the interesting sites to see.

They provide binoculars to help kids (or adults with fading vision) get a closer look at the going ons. The section highlighted is near the famous bridge – which during the Edo Period was a fish market.

Drawings from the period – of which there are lots and lots – spend oodles of time detailing the life of the commoner folk since drawing pictures of the higher court officials including the Shogun and the Imperial Princesses was a crime ending in beheading. So there is ample source material to choose from when doing detailed studies of common life, and the designers of the museum have gone to great lengths to be as accurate as possible.

Another section of the museum is devoted to life in the aforementioned tenements – fascinating. There’s information on the omnipresent fire-brigades – a necessity in Tokyo of the period. The fireman were all tattooed- done so that they could be identified if they were killed in the line of duty. And they carried tall poles with horse hide strips that could be spun to keep sparks off the head fire fighters. They had small water buckets – but the primary way of fighting fires was simply to pull down the houses – carefully in the direction that would not incite more flames.

Another section was full of period correct street vendors. That was where we learned that sushi was 5 times larger in those days – and that 2 pieces of sushi was an entire meal. We also learned that almost all Japanese in those days were Buddhist’s – and thus vegan with the exception of fish. The lack of calcium in the diet for over 250 years goes a long way towards explaining the small size and the hunched backs we’ve seen here in Tokyo. Our guide explained that the Meiji Government recognized the problem, and changing the average diet was for them and the Governments after them an important priority.

A small section was devoted to the Noh Theatre – where our guide explained the logic behind the white painted faces. In the days of candle light, it was hard to see faces distinctly – and the Geisha relied on their faces to entertain. So painting them white made them stand out in a room – and the white faces of the actors performed a similar function on the stages of the time.

One more tidbit I want to share before signing off. There was an interactive display with a pole and two buckets for kids and adults to try lifting. Our guide asked us what we thought was inside the buckets. We suggested water – but she said – no – something much much more valuable – human waste. Yup, it turns out that in Edo times, human waste – particularly the waste from wealthy people was used as top quality fertilizer, and the farmers paid dearly for the privilege of taking your waste from your home. So folks would race home if they had to go – keeping the streets clean and putting money in their pockets. Who knew?

So – if you take a day off from shopping in Tokyo and want to do something really informative and interesting – check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I think you’ll thank me for the suggestion.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Musings on the Dawn of a new Era


When we were planing our trip – one of the key days that we wanted to be in Japan was May 1, 2019. On the day before the old Emperor was formally abdicating the throne, in favour of his son. And on May 1st – the new Emperor was to be crowned. This would mark the beginning of the Reiwa Era of Japan.

It’s a key moment in history. Nothing like this has happened in Japan for over 200 years – and the planning for this was begun over 5 years ago.

So We were keen to see what, if anything, the Japanese would make of this moment.

And the answer is perhaps not surprising.

Not much is visible to the eyes of a foreigner.

Some Museums honoured the transition by having a free museum day – we went to 2 of them in hopes of there being some kind of something – but nope. Just perhaps more Japanese than normal taking advantage of the opportunity to see their National Museum, but hardly earth shattering impact.

There was a crowd gathered at the automobile exit from the Imperial Palace, we assume in hopes of spotting one of the 2600 invited dignitaries. And there appeared to us to be a bit more of a police presence. Certainly seeing 3 of those big police moving vans was a tad daunting. And there were two helicopters circling the Imperial City air space – I’m guessing either as protection or loaded with news cameras. In the US – it would be news cameras – but in Japan – I’m betting on protection.

And there was a much, much later crowd gathered at the Nippon Budokan – that sports center/music venue. But that crowd of young Japanese women buying fan items for their newest ‘hot’ idol was definitely not thinking of the new era.

So – not much to report I suppose. But at least we were here – and we had a marvellous dinner with the son of the Intrepid Traveler. Which was made more delightful after the challenges of trying to find him in the Ikebukuro Train Station. We’d agreed to ‘text’ each other our locations – but hadn’t figured on the lack of WIFI. I need WIFI to use texting here in Japan – I couldn’t afford a data plan.

After asking several restaurants and tea houses if they had WIFI, I finally decided that the safest bet were the restaurants on the 8th floor of the Seibu Department store. And I was right – they had a public WIFI, and I was able to contact my friend’s son. Whew!

Our dinner, during which the dawning of the new era in Japan was not mentioned – even once – we relaxed and enjoyed completely delicious meat slices cooked quickly over a grill. My favourite – no surprise – the Wagu Beef.

So all in all a lovely day – if not the earth shattering one we’d hoped.

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

2 Down – lots to go!


The Intrepid Traveler and I are museum buffs. Serious museum buffs. So rain or shine, English or no English – we are going to visit as many museums as we can squeeze in while we are here in Japan.

Our plans for today were a bit washed out by the weather, and our own stupidity. Last night it poured – and while our home away from home is lovely – it’s also made of wood with shoji screens on the windows and what I suspect is a tin roof. So while we were safe and dry – unless we were trying to navigate that rickety iron staircase down, the noise of the rain was considerable. We woke a bit sleep deprived – but still ready to rock the world – or at least a tiny section of Tokyo.

After a quick breakfast – with a disastrous attempt at coffee (never liked instant – never will) we headed out – making our first critical mistake of the day. We didn’t grab umbrellas. Clearly overly optimistic – and an error we won’t make again. It poured on and off all day – and we were well and truly soaked by lunch time. I took off my socks and spent the afternoon barefoot in sandals – it was that wet. The Intrepid Traveler fared little better – her ‘rain jacket’ is water resistant – and gave up the ghost after noon.

We navigated ourselves around using maps.me (free off-line GPS map App) and by asking a lot of questions. I’ve gotten very good at showing folks the name of where I want to go in both English and Japanese, and the subway officials are very good at grabbing laminated maps and pointing out the correct locations. We haven’t gotten too lost – I think.

We did wander into the Yushukan Shrine – just 150 years old and dedicated to the war dead of Japan. There was a war relics museum on the site – but we just opted to clap our hands 3 times, toss a coin into the offering box, and make a quick prayer. It was a relaxing interval in an otherwise busy day.

But I digress. This blog is about our first 2 museums in Tokyo.

The Showa Memorial Museum was outstanding. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. While it definitely presents a bit of a white-washed view of what life in Japan during and shortly after WWII was like – it was absolutely fascinating – and featured a free (and extremely well worth it) audio guide in English. The museum itself is just a collection of objects and photos dating from that time period – mostly taken in Tokyo – but the slice of life that is represented is interesting, meaningful, and intriguing. My personal highlight was the rising sun lunchbox. Those who have read “Memoirs of a Geshia” might recall her mentioning it. It was amazing to actually see one.

I also found the sections on how schools were impacted intriguing. At first of course – the changes were made to encourage nationalism – textbooks rewritten to praise the Emperor and to inspire children to become good soldiers. As time went on, the need for children to want to be soldiers became more and more intense, and the schools were told point blank to work towards that direction. Eventually the need for factory workers because even more important than the need for soldiers – and school kids were taught how to operate machines. Towards the end, as more and more children were evacuated from Tokyo, the school system shut down.

After the war ended, and the children returned to Tokyo to find most school buildings destroyed or at least severely damaged. Classes resumed – but outdoors or in layered time periods as less damaged schools were used by multiple classes. Eventually textbooks went back to standard formats – but for a while they were only available in heavily censored 1940 versions. Growing up in this time period – which corresponds to when I was growing up – must have been very challenging.

Another section dealt with what happened to the War Widows. At first they were considered war heroes and given a pension. But when the war ended – that changed drastically. Widows were no longer heroes, they no longer got a pension, and many of them had no career training. Life for them was intensely challenging, simple survival because almost impossible.

All in all – the museum was well worth the visit.

A bit dryer, we now had to walk to our next port of call – the Momat – The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. To get from the Showa to the Momat required us to walk past a lovely garden – but given the rain – we opted not to spend time there. We also strolled past the Nippon Budokan – a huge sports center that today was hosting a K-Pop concert. The crowds were considerable – and clearly out for a great time.

Following my open door policy (if a door is open – go in) – we also wandered into the East Imperial Palace Garden – which was having a free admission day. This is the grounds of the original Edo Palace – dating from the time of the Shogun, and while today it is just a lovely garden, at one time must have been a magnificent collection of buildings and flowering paths that the Imperial Court wandered at their leisure.

But eventually we made it to the Momat. After the highlight of the Showa, I must admit that the Momat was very disappointing. I found that given the wealth of Tokyo, and the intriguing public art that surrounds us as we wander the streets of the city, I absolutely expected more – a lot more – of the Momat. The price however was right – it was free to seniors over 65 – and worth exactly what we paid for it. At least we were dry.

So one winner – one loser – and wet feet. The story of our 2nd day in Tokyo.

For dinner we opted to eat in – Fresh Udon Noodles and Fried Boneless Chicken Breast. It was actually quite acceptable as a meal. About half way thru dinner – the guests that I thought spoke no English joined us – and to our surprise the young guy (Trung) spoke excellent English. His friend Anne spoke only Vietnamese and Japanese (Right – only 2 languages… sigh) We had a completely delightfully fun evening getting to know them.

They are from Vietnam, but are currently living here in Japan. Trung (27) is a student in the north of Japan, and is studying Japanese methods of Site preservation. He intends to go back to Vietnam and work there preserving the shrines and other religious sites that abound – and absolutely need preservation. We asked about getting the funds needed to do such work – and he assured us that religious sites have little trouble raising money – at their hearts the Vietnamese are quite religious.

Our conversation was wide ranging – from concerns about aging (another blog) to more political topics. – Trung told us about the Japanese law that restricts building habitation to just 25 years. According to him – and I want to confirm this somehow – After 25 years, homes (I’m guessing new construction only, or perhaps homes that are built quickly – not apartment buildings) are declared uninhabitable and must be torn down and rebuilt. He says that the law was written shortly after the end of WWII – and is based on the fact that there are earthquakes every 10 seconds in Japan. Most are very Mild ones I’m guessing since I haven’t felt any since we’ve been here. Which is a good thing. Anyway – Many homes are built of cheap materials – put up quickly – and just as quickly fall into ruin. He told us that 20% of the homes in Tokyo are currently condemned and thus vacant. And we have seen vacant homes that have clearly fallen on hard times. Even the home we are staying in was in ruins before the current owner (the grand-daughter of the original owner) rebuilt it in 2015. And she has the pictures to prove it.

He also spent quite some time discussing the current history of Vietnam, giving us an interesting if to our minds one sided and clearly a school taught view of the situation leading up to the US involvement. He felt strongly that life in Vietnam was much improved at present – I can only hope he’s right.

Eventually we toddled off to bed. I wore not only my nightgown, but also a long sleeved turtle neck and socks. I’m not getting cold tonight.

Tomorrow is another day.

The Soup lady and the Intrepid traveler – signing off.