Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤

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A Wild Day at Zoorasia

In the continuing pursuit of enjoying my remaining days in Japan, I decided to check out a local zoo-park called “Zoorasia” here in Yokohama. I read some positive reviews, it is closer to my share house than anything else on my remaining wishlist, and it’s cheap. So after a strange bout of weather induced lethargy, I woke up yesterday and hit the streets to see the creatures. Don’t forget to check out all the photos on Facebook!

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Summer is probably the worst time to do anything in Japan outdoors. It’s hot, humid and in August all the kids are out of school. I’ve become committed to the humid sweaty days, but pretty much every time I go out I can’t help but think, “Wow, this would be amazing in the Spring/Fall!” On top of that, animals aren’t super keen to be active on hot summer days either. I had some hopes that the overcast sky and slight drop in temperatures might help, but mostly it’s just a use it or loose it problem. Two buses took me straight to the front gates of the zoo, which is not on any of the train lines around town. The ticket counter was automated and took me a moment to figure out since there was no English option, but it was a good sign that I was off the beaten tourism path.

20150827_144124The entrance to the zoo was only 800 yen, or about 6.50$ and it’s totally worth it. The lush greenery is everywhere, making the zoo more like a forest path walk interspersed with animal enclosures. The omnipresent trees shielded visitors and animals alike from the sun, and really made me feel like I had left the city behind, even though I was still in a very urban area. The sounds of birds and insects filled the air, completely overpowering any lingering noise from traffic. The trees themselves were themed to each of the geographical regions of animals, and most of them were labeled as well, making the experience more like a zoo+botanical garden.

The larger animals were all in pleasant open air enclosures with running water or waterfalls built in and plenty of growing plants. The smaller animals or birds that were caged were widely spaced and the plants growing inside the cages were a match to the ones growing outside giving an illusion of spacial continuity beyond the cage itself.

20150827_132709I got to see a family of tigers, a mother and two older cubs. Tigers are normally quite solitary so it was fun to see the three of them interacting socially. I spent way too long staring at the posing penguins, and really enjoyed a walk through an aviary that contained a wide variety of ground dwelling birds that were free to roam around the same space as the guests. Many of the animals were asleep, but to be honest I’ve been to so many zoos in my life that I generally don’t focus on the animals as much unless there is a special enclosure, new babies or educational shows.

There were several signs at various enclosures that seemed to indicate that something happened there at scheduled times, but they were all between 9-11am, so I missed out. 20150827_131830One thing I was particularly impressed with was that at each larger enclosure, there were plexi-glass panels installed in the fence that allowed smaller children to approach and get a clear view of the animals inside without their parents having to lift them or any temptation to climb the fences to get a clear view.

The paths were lined with resting benches and there were usually multiple viewing points for each of the larger enclosures allowing patrons to find the best vantage point wherever the animals were resting. In addition to the resting benches, there were picnic areas, plentiful restrooms, water fountains and vending machines as well as a couple hot food restaurants.

20150827_140545There were three separate places in the park that were entirely dedicated as nature walks including a flowering river valley complete with a misting waterfall that children could walk close to and get sprayed, a deep forest trail, and a wide open lawn with statues of the animals for children to play on or pose with. And just when I started thinking that what the place really needed was a great playground, I turned the corner and ran into one. Apparently there were also pony rides and a petting zoo, but I admit I did not make it through the entire park before closing time.

20150827_131311In addition to the plants and animals, there were museum like displays dotted around the park as well. Many of the sections included statues, decorations, carvings and displays that told about the people and animals of that region. Some of the animal enclosures had molded paws that people could compare to their own hand sizes for scale. Many of them included beautiful art or historical replicas, like the Inuit kayak next to the penguins (ok wrong pole, but hey). The penguins were especially playful, posing for the camera on land and following people around underwater, skimming by at eye level to catch a glimpse at us.

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The Japanese section included a lot of historical artifacts from ancient times in Japan like farming equipment, wooden carts, and a charcoal burner’s hut. The Japanese animals were also amazingly cute. Most zoos only have one or two unique Japanese species so this was an area I paid more attention because they were animals I had not seen before. There was a leopard cat that was no bigger than a large house cat. There was a creature called a raccoon dog that kind of looked like that sounds, but tiny. There was a fox playing hide and seek with the visitors. And even the badgers were adorable, less than half the size of western badgers and very playful, chasing each other around the enclosure like kittens. I have a much better understanding of the cultural obsession with cute tiny animals after visiting that section, because apparently, that’s all that lives here!

20150827_153923I decided to forgo Africa in favor of a nature walk, which in hindsight may have been poor planning. Although the forest was absolutely beautiful and very peaceful, it got to a point where any time I paused to take a picture or admire a view, I was instantly mobbed by a million tiny insects. Toward the end of the trail I actually had to break out my umbrella to clear the trail of spiderwebs ahead of me. I’m getting much better about my dislike of spiders, but I’m still not quite up to charging through full webs. I imagine that like so many things here it would have been absolutely idillyc in Spring or Fall. It wasn’t horrible or anything, but I got tired of the bugs pretty quickly even though none of them bit.

As closing time drew near I headed back toward the main gates and bus stop, pausing to enjoy the air-conditioned gift shop for a while and pick up a small penguin themed omiyage for my sister who may or may not have a serious arctic aquatic bird obsession. I think the Zoorasia is a big win. There’s so much to do and see for people of all ages. In addition to families with small children, I saw young singles walking around and older folks with expensive cameras practicing candid wildlife photography. I expect a full day might enable one to see the whole park, but I can’t imagine getting bored with it after only a single visit, and I’m sure if I lived here longer it would have really satisfied my need for a nice day outdoors in nature without the long trip out of the city.

Two Festivals in Japan

Recently I had the opportunity to attend two very different festivals here in Japan. On Saturday, there was a small local lantern/ancestor festival in my neighborhood, and on Tuesday I went to the largest Hanabi (fireworks) festival in all of Kanagawa prefecture. Both events had plenty to offer in their own right, but being able to compare them so close together was especially cool. Also, I figured out how to embed videos today, so you get so see and hear some of the sights, too!

Aoba-ku Matsuri 20150801_185608 My neighborhood here is Aobadai (or Aoba-ku) and matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. The manager of the share house that I live in also does lots of event planning, so there’s usually some posters up in the common room about whatever is going on locally. I won’t claim to be fluent in Japanese, but I do have a chronic reading addiction, which basically means that I’ll try to read anything I see that has letters in a language I’m familiar with. I got enough out of the poster to see it was a festival (probably put on my some local schools) and it was in my area, so I asked for more details, since the location was given as “second park” and I couldn’t find that on Google Maps, even using the Japanese.

However, I have the coolest Japanese hosts, so they arranged for all of us here to go together Saturday evening. 20150801_181747We walked up about a block and left another two or so (maybe 5 minutes?) and came across a tiny little park all decked out in fair tents and lanterns. There was a lovely entrance gate with paper flowers and many messages (prayers?) written in Japanese. The park itself was fairly small. I think we could have walked the whole thing in 3 minutes if it wasn’t so full of people, but everyone there was really enjoying themselves. There was also a tower set up in the center where a taiko drum was being played live to accompany the recorded traditional music.

There were stands for juice and beer, as well as traditional festival foods like yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, candy floss, and shaved ice. The lines were very long, but our hosts took turns standing in line to bring delicious goodies back to us so we could share a little bit of everything. I tried in my faltering Japanese to explain my childhood memories of the yakitori stands I had enjoyed when living at Yokosuka with my family.

Sometimes those of us who have chosen the life of travel and adventure just stop in wonder that what we are experiencing is real, and for me that moment on Saturday was standing in the sweltering heat of a Japanese summer, listening to the mingled sounds of cicadas, traditional music, and chattering attendees, holding a beer in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other, completely unable to stop grinning like an idiot.

20150801_182411We wandered around, taking pictures and (for me at least) making delighted squee sounds at the adorable little girls running around in traditional yukata (like a kimono, but lightweight for summer). I saw some kids gathered around kiddie pools of water with floating balloons. The game was a kind of fishing with a hook on a string and the object was to loop a balloon without popping it on the hook. I think the balloons were pretty tough though, because I also saw kids who had won them bouncing them on the elastic bands fairly hard and they didn’t break. There was also a local celebrity, an older lady who serenaded us with some traditional Japanese songs that we were told brought the ancestors down from heaven to celebrate with us.

At some point, some of the ladies doing traditional dancing around the taiko tower dragged us into the dance area and helped us learn the dance. 11823928_923624031042646_1655739058_nThey were so excited to have the gaijin (foreigners) dancing with them, that even though our steps were awkward and unsure, they showered us with praise when the song ended. One of them had a daughter who had studied in Canada and spoke English well, so she called her daughter up and had a couple of the group talk to her on the phone.

20150801_181445She was so excited that she wouldn’t slow down, so I couldn’t catch every thing that she said in Japanese, but when she started talking about the taiko drum, she asked one of the Brits if he knew how to play. I sort of had to translate for both of them, but the conversation basically went that no, he didn’t know how, but would love to learn. Later on, as we were getting ready to leave, she ran up to us, waving frantically and saying “taiko OK”. So it was that he got to ascend the tower and have a brief taiko lesson, playing along to the music as the dancing started up again. I have to say I was a little jealous, but mostly I felt happy that I was able to help facilitate this experience for someone who so clearly enjoyed it and would not have been able to navigate the language on his own.

Finally, as the festival was winding down, we headed toward the exit and I noticed a group of children staring intently at something on a tree so I went closer to investigate. 20150801_210423There on the tree, hanging off a small twig was a cicada emerging from it’s larval shell and drying it’s wings in the warm night air. I was no less enchanted than the children, and took my turn to get up close for some photos before backing up to let the shorter people have the view. The cicada are as much a part of Japanese summers as yukata, lanterns and fireworks, so I felt very lucky to be able to see this one emerging under the spotlight of a nearby paper lantern.

Kanagawa Hanabi

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This was the 30th annual Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival, held in the Minato Mirai harbor. It is said to be the largest fireworks festival in the region, and since Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan (next to Tokyo) that’s saying something. “15,000 bursts of fireworks, the largest of which will be 480 meters in diameter” according to the website. So, you can imagine I was excited to learn it was less than an hour by train from my home, and free to attend! (“premium seating extra”)

20150804_182930Now, going anywhere abroad without a native guide means I automatically double the amount of time I think it should take to get there. That day I learned that for festival days, it should really be more like triple. The fireworks were set to start at 7pm, so I left home around 5, thinking this would give me enough time to get to the nearest train stop and make my way to a nice viewing area. I expected it to be really crowded, but fireworks are up, so it’s hard for people to obscure your view. I also didn’t eat much before I left because I figured there would be lots of yummy festival food once I arrived.

20150804_184459_Richtone(HDR)The train ride out started smoothly enough. I noticed more and more people in yukata boarding the train heading the same way. And then just as I was thinking if I got lost I could always follow them, a whole bunch of them got off at a totally different stop than I was expecting. It’s possible they knew something that I and Google Maps did not, because when I got to my last transfer station, the train to the stop I wanted was closed! After about 10 minutes of standing in the underground, dripping with sweat, I gave up on the idea that it would be open and went back to find another route to my destination.

20150804_183945_Richtone(HDR)I made it eventually, only about 15 extra minutes, and emerged from the train station to HUGE crowds of people being herded politely by squads of police officers with glowing red batons. They herded us up an escalator and into a huge shopping mall (which was insanely obsessed with Pikachu), then through a public square and onto a skybridge and through a carnival, and over a regular bridge, 20150804_185350and… it was a really long walk, and although I enjoyed the sights, including the famous ferris wheel, I began to be concerned that I would not make it to the waterfront before the fireworks started. Additionally, there were no food stands, just the regular restaurants in the area (all of which had huge lines).

The fireworks started while we were on one of the bridges, and I personally would have been happy to stop there and watch, but the police kept shuffling the crowd along. I told myself that it was a great part of Japanese life that I was experiencing this event as part of a huge crowd. I’m still not sure if I buy that completely, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water, and everyone was very excited to applaud the fireworks, so it was hard to be unhappy.

The show would go on for about 5-10 minutes, then stop again for as long, so we had some time to keep marching toward our destination without missing too much. There was a short time where the harbor was blocked by tall buildings and I couldn’t see the fireworks at all, but I could hear them and feel them. It was a very curious sensation, being out on the streets with huge crowds of people and police cars everywhere managing the crowds while having the sensation of being in a bomb zone.

20150804_191013_LLSFinally we rounded a corner and had a clearer view of the sky over the water. And there we stopped. I was pretty confused because it was just a street full of people, many of whom were sitting on mats on the pavement, enjoying the picnics they’d brought. But everyone seemed happy enough, and the crowd had really strong reactions to each fresh burst of color. There were lots of phones held aloft to try to capture the spectacle, mine among them, although my camera work may have been a little shaky, since I held the phone up really high and watched the fireworks under it rather than on the screen.

I noticed that some people were gradually edging forward in the crowd, so on the next break in the show I slid along behind one such group, using their crowd busting to my advantage. 20150804_192753_2I gradually made it closer and closer, pausing whenever the fireworks started again to watch and enjoy. I finally emerged on another street that was far less occupied. It was the street that lined the waterfront park. And yet, not only was there a chain link fence set up to keep “non-priority” folks from sitting on the grass, they had put tarp up to keep us from even looking through the fence.

20150804_194119_2Even so, at periodic breaks in the trees, small clusters of people gathered to peek through the cracks in the tarp or watch the fireworks that could be seen over the fence. I kept wandering down the mostly empty street until it looped back around toward the carnival, and finally settled down at the gates to the park. I asked one of the staff about entrance tickets, because it would have been nice to see the show on the water as well as the one from the air, but it turned out you had to get the tickets in advance. Ah well. I still managed to see a bit (and catch some of the music) of what was happening on the lake through the gates, but I couldn’t get any decent pictures.

So, the crowds were huge, there were no food stands (although a couple enterprising folks had set up buckets of ice to sell cold drinks out of) and there were really no events aside from the fireworks. As far as festivals go, I think I preferred the smaller local one. BUT,

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The fireworks were probably some of the most impressive I have ever seen (and I’ve been to the 4th of July on USAF bases, so that’s saying something). I admit fully that my poor little phone just does not do them justice, so after you check out my Facebook page for my own pics, do yourself the favor of an image search and see what the pros have captured. It wasn’t just the sheer quantity (part of the finale actually filled the whole sky with light), but the epic size of the fiery blooms in the air. It’s so hard to portray perspective in photos, especially at night, and I know I sound like a broken record of “you have to see this for yourself” but as beautiful as the pictures are, there is no substitute for the real thing.

This video is only about 5 minutes long, and the whole show lasted over an hour. The finale is really something, so don’t skip the end!

Despite the fact that I sweated about 2 liters out, didn’t get to eat anything, and spent hours and hours crammed in trains, lines or subways to get there and back, I do not regret it for one second. The two festivals could not have been more different, and going to one was certainly not a substitute for the other. It just goes to show that big or small, every corner of the world has something to offer.