Strolling with the Spirits: Okunoin Cemetery


“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ~ Stephen King

monsters-are-real-and-ghosts-are-real-too-they-live-inside-us-and-sometimes-they-win

“Spirit, are you there?” I find myself tentatively whispering in my mind not wanting to ignore the screaming silence as Jody and I stroll the depths of the massive and picturesque cemetery in Japan called Okunoin.  I have always wanted to experience a “ghost.”  Not a poltergeist or the terrifying experiences as depicted in TV’s A Haunting, or like those in the book The Amityville Horror, but an interaction that could easily and with some certainty confirm that there is something more to this life than the here and now….

28129902416_153d5ae922_b

My inclination was no different when Jody and I visited Okunoin, one of Japan’s most popular and largest of cemeteries located in the sacred mountaintop town of Koyasan (see Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan for more).  Along a meandering cobblestoned-path surrounded by immense and enchanted ancient rustling cedar forest, I hoped for an encounter with souls of those departed long ago.

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost....

If it only was the easy to catch an apparently playful ghost….

27882656570_c8ce23b86d_bI have always been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural.  I was the kid that would take the creepy shortcut at college through the cemetery in the rolling hills not far away from campus.  I am that guy that seeks out the reportedly most haunted places in New Orleans, and then goes to them, taunting spirits to appear.  But my intrigue didn’t stop there; while flying and at sea with the US Navy during my 20-year military career, I was constantly scanning the skies and heavens for something not of this world.  I guess you can say that I want to believe.  But I remain doubtful.

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

Tombstones and Rock Memorials at Okunoin

According to the Shingon sect of Buddhism, there are no dead in Okunoin, only spirits.  Spirits awaiting the arrival of Miroku, the proclaimed “Buddha of the Future,” at which time Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Shingon religious community will arise from his eternal meditation and raise all those around him in order to realize enlightenment.  The number of graves in Okunoin, well in excess of 200,000, continues to increase, making it the largest cemetery in Japan.

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

My Thai Spirit House, in Pensacola ~2006

27548767373_602d8d1b0c_bThe idea of spirits and the spiritual world is very different in the Far East.  I first was drawn to the Thai Buddhist idea of “spirit homes,” structures one can find place property lines of domiciles and businesses alike.  Literally, the edifice is a “house” in which spirits can live, and to which offerings are brought to appease those spirits.  In other words, spirits are everywhere, so might as well live peacefully and respectfully among them.  This resonated so well with me that I purchased one that has stood in every home I’ve lived in since 2000 (except for my time in Japan).

27882633150_b70e229930_b

28109931581_ec74da80b2_bAnd at the highest point within the graveyard is found Okunoin (奥の院) Temple, the most sacred site for followers of the revered Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, the central pillar of their faith.  His mausoleum is located here, but the monk is said to not have died but instead entered a deep and eternal mediation, praying for collective salvation, awaiting the Buddha of the Future.  Eons ago, Okunoin was a gathering place for samurai warriors.  Today it is one of the region’s primary tourist attractions and as one of the most sacred places in Japan it is a very popular religious pilgrimage origin and destination (see Pilgrimage of Eat, Pray, Bathe for more).

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs!

A Spirit House Combined WITH Protective Lion-Dogs (Thailand)!

In other areas of the Far East, specifically China, Japan, Okinawa and to some extent Korea, the idea of protective lion-dogs is ubiquitous.  These are referred to by various names, including Shi-shi, Shisa, and Foo depending on the region; see Guardian Shisa for more.  While in Japan, my spirit house is replaced by shisa (see Intimidation for my latest set of protectors).

Sorry, Couldn't Find a Good English Map....

Sorry, Couldn’t Find a Good English Map….

28129834416_23d80c1afd_bThe walk through the cemetery starts with the crossing of the Ichino-hashi (一の橋) bridge (first bridge), the historic and traditional entrance to the site.  Prior to crossing, visitors should join their hands together and bow to show their respect to Kobe Daishi.  This bridge marks the entrance and the start of a pleasant two kilometer walk through the enchanted cedar forest found here which lines the well paved cobblestone path.  The neatness of the trail however is surrounded by the ordered disorder of the cemetery’s vast and varied collection of moss-covered gravestones.

28164143505_76242bc4cf_b

Across the bridge starts Okunoin‘s cemetery, where a quarter of a million tombstones line the winding approach to Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum.  Wishing to be close to their religious leader in death to receive early and constant salvation, many people, including prominent monks and feudal lords, have had their tombstones erected here over the centuries.

27548665703_8be4ed0050_b

28083984472_5a00a5e330_bOnce across, the atmosphere changes dramatically.  The dizzyingly-tall cedars on either side of the cemetery’s main twisting pathway blot out much of the sky and obscures what lays ahead.  The almost countless graves, tombs and memorials vary tremendously in style, creating a scenic sensory overload in every direction.  While the finer details of the graves can be easily lost to the sheer size of the place, the most spectacular cenotaphs do demand attention.  Massive monuments and tall memorial pagodas of famous and powerful feudal lords and samurai warriors from across the ages are sprinkled here for those who wish to seek them out.  But then there are also the unexpectedly interesting ones, such as a monument one insecticide company dedicated to all its termite victims.

28129839056_a9bb7181d9_b

Innumerable excursions can be taken from the main path via trails left and right, where visitors can venture among seemingly forgotten tombs, constructed of now eroded stones, covered with thick, moist green moss.  At their furthest recesses, nature is well on her way to reclaiming what remains ultimately hers.

28085692971_ddd222452c_b

Conversely, the site’s more modern entrance, located across from the Okunoin-mae bus stop, not only shortens the journey through the place by about half, but also transverses the more recent additions of the dead, complete with refined granite polished to mirror finish, quite incongruous with the feel of the more ancient aspects of the graveyard.

28164233735_1bf8aaafb9_b

There are various accessories which adorn the almost incalculable number of Buddha statues found here.  Most often found is a vermilion bib, an offering left by mothers to help protect their living children in this life, and to bring them luck in whatever comes next.

27972191980_36a2661990_b

The two paths through the cemetery both lead the to the Gokusho Offering Hall where a row of Jizo statues called Mizumuke (water-covered) Jizo are found.  Jizo is a popular Bodhisattva (enlightened being) that looks after children, travelers, and the souls of the deceased.  Pilgrims and the faithful leave paper and wood offerings here at their feet and then throw water upon the effigies while praying for departed family members and loved ones.

27637760644_993b398edb_b

28164150725_4469ec55db_bThe Gobyo no Hashi Bridge crosses a stream which runs immediately behind the Mizumuke Jizo, and serves as not only the cleansing waters used at the temple, but as a physical separation between the innermost grounds of the temple from the rest of Okunoin.  In a very real sense, it is a break between the spiritual realm of the dead from the sacred dominion of Kobo Daishi.  Visitors should again clasp their hands and bow before crossing, and photography, food and drink are strictly forbidden beyond this point. To the left of the bridge are a group of wooden markers placed in the stream as a touching memorial to unborn children and those lost to drowning.

28085704561_23da96cb01_b

28085563811_9b3ae63336_bLeaving the bridge, a short way down the path, visitors will find on the left a small wooden cage-like structure that houses the Miroku Stone.  Legend has it that this stone, when lifted, weighs the sins of the person lifting.  Through small gaps in the walls, the stone can be manipulated; it is customary to lift it with one hand only and move it from the lower platform to the upper shelf.  The stone is said to be much heavier to those who sins bear burden, and much lighter to those who remain more saint-like.  In what I will consider a good omen and not a testament to either my American heft and strength or any pretense of sainthood, the stone was, for me, relatively easy to move.

miroku-stone

The Miroku Stone…which made me a saint…of sorts….

Leaving that test behind and continuing up the path, the temple’s Toro-do Hall (燈籠堂), the main area for worship, emerges through the trees.  Originally built by the second generation successor of Koyasan, Shinzen Daitoku, it was further enlarged and refurbished in 1023 to its present-day appearance and size by Fujiwara no Michinaga.

Torodo, the Hall of Lamps/Laterns

28059896532_15b162f49d_bThis “Hall of Lamps” houses tens of thousands of luminous lanterns, some of which are said to have been burning continuously for almost 1,000 years.  Many if not all of the lanterns found here were donated by worshippers, some which include past Emperors and members of the Royal Family of generations past.  Such lamps include the Kishinto, a lantern offered by Kishin, the Shirakawato, one offered by Emperor Shirakawa, and also the Showato, a lantern dedicated by the Emperor and Royal Family during the Showa period.

27548664823_1ffefe5b84_b

27572325303_5945aebc52_bBut perhaps the most moving involves Hinnyo-no-Itto, a poor Japanese woman of age-old times who cut and sold her precious long black hair to purchase a lantern to donate to the temple; it remains proudly and prominently displayed to this day. The lanterns all remain lighted 24/7, and together the lamps create a sacred shimmering space, the last area visited before visitors reach the holy heart of the complex, the ultimate destination of one of Japan’s most famous pilgrimages, the mausoleum and eternal dwelling of Kukai, the Kobo Dashi.

28164148025_689451d1f0_b

Behind the Toro-do is the mausoleum called the Gobyo (御廟), which houses the famous monk in deep and eternal meditation.  Each day, meals are deposited at the Gobyo’s door to provide sustenance for the monk within, while living monks and laymen reflect in silent support while chanting sutras in a low voice.  It is not uncommon to see pilgrims in deep reflection here.

27637757704_9e530a2187_b

28085560281_0883df3543_bWe found that one visit wasn’t enough to grasp the extent and discover even a handful of its secrets.  That and our first visit was at night, a time I would highly recommend if you want to wander among the spirits completely alone!  I found the nocturnal tranquility of the complex very soothing, for not just me and the residents alike.  In the day expect to find many visitors; at night after about 2100, expect no one to be visiting (we were there in July).  A night time visit indeed provides a special atmosphere that is quite different from that of a day time visit, but note that some parts of the path are poorly lit.  It is possible to venture all the way to the mausoleum during the night none of the temple halls are open.

27548661743_e58bd3dd9a_b

Although there was no paranormal activity noted at Okunoin, I need look no further than inside to find all the ghosts I ever need to worry, and sometimes indeed they do win.  However, here there is a spiritual energy collecting from wishes and prayers that has the power to cleanse souls.  A stroll through this Garden of Stone is a must if you visit Koyasan, and a stop I would make even if you find yourself visiting only this region of Japan.

28153817686_ffb84ec377_b

Ryūkyūan Glass:  An Account of War, Hardship and Okinawan Rebirth


“A rebirth out of spiritual adversity causes us to become new creatures.”  ~ James E. Faust, American religious leader

The accounting of the development of Ryukyu Glass is one crafted out of war, hardship and Okinawan rebirth.

The Nearly Complete Devastation of Okinawa in 1945

The Nearly Complete Devastation of Okinawa in 1945

The craft of glass blowing was still in its infancy when war finally arrived on Okinawa’s shores in the spring of 1945.  Prior to that time there was relatively low demand for glass, with pottery being the mainstay trade supporting needs for crockery.  Homes and businesses of the time still lacked windows as we know them in our modern, western sense.  Pragmatic items, such as gas lamps, medicine bottles and sake or awamori jars were the extent of glassware items which were locally manufactured.

Typical Post-War Okinawan Dwelling

Typical Post-War Okinawan Dwelling

Thus, the very few highly skilled glass makers who made up the trade on Okinawa were likewise devastated during the fierce Typhoon of Steel suffered by the island and its people.  Upwards of fully 1/3rd of Okinawa’s civilian population was outright killed, with probably upwards of another third injured or disabled; almost every single survivor was internally displaced, having lost their homes and most of their belongings.

Kadena Traffic Circle circa August 1945

Kadena Traffic Circle circa August 1945

The demand for glass, however, suddenly spiked during Okinawa’s recovery and occupation by allied (American) forces immediately following Japan’s surrender.  Those tradespeople left returned to their shops in the hopes of rebuilding, but often found little more than piles of burnt rubble so iconic of the complete devastation visited upon the Ryukyu Islands.  Desperate times almost always call for desperate measures, and Okinawans were forced to make use of whatever structures, fuels and raw materials which were available.

The Soda-Lime Composition of War-Era Coke Bottles Still Provides Beautiful Sea Glass on Okinawan Beaches Today!

The Soda-Lime Composition of War-Era Coke Bottles Still Provides Beautiful Sea Glass on Okinawan Beaches Today!

The Okinawan people began collecting bottles discarded by occupying forces.  Legend has it that Coca-Cola bottles tossed from ships and found in the many military’s camps’ trash heaps fueled the initial glass boom on Okinawa immediately after the war.  I can tell you this:  scuba divers routinely still find Coke bottles dated “1945,” and sea glass is a full-time hobby for many since there seems to be a never-ending supply of smoothed and rounded glass washing up on the Okinawa’s shores.  Lucky for the island, there was a steady and sustained stream of cast-off glass courtesy of the Americans.  One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

The Vivid Colors and Intricate Designs of Ryukyuan Glass Today

The Vivid Colors and Intricate Designs of Ryukyuan Glass Today

These discarded soda-lime glass bottles were melted down and re-blown on Okinawa into what slowly morphed into a unique type of recycled glassware:  Ryukyu Glass.  This locally made glass quickly became popular with American GIs who bought them in some cases as vestiges of far-away civility left behind, or as souvenirs for girlfriends or family.  So, not only did the occupation of Okinawa supply raw materials for this new industry, it also became its largest economic base.  Prior to Okinawa’s reversion and return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, 60% of the glass fashioned was exported to the United States via troops stationed in Okinawa, 20% went to mainland Japan, and the remaining 20% was sold locally within the Okinawan prefecture, which includes the majority of the islands in the southern half of the Ryukyu Island chain.

Ryukyuan Glass

Ryukyuan Glass

Since those hard, early times of the late 1940s and 1950s when this vocation was struggling for a stable foothold, the Okinawan art of glass-making has blossomed into one of the island’s proudest, yet youngest traditional craftworks.  Now known throughout Asia, visitors come from far and wide to buy exceptionally ornate pieces selling for thousands and thousands of dollars.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-making-glassware-is-fun

For her birthday this year, I treated Jody to a weekend get-away centered on a hands-on glass-blowing experience, something we’ve been meaning to do for over three years now.  Staying at the Okinawa Renaissance Hotel for two nights, the local glass factories in Okinawa’s Onna area were within easy driving distance.

The Glass (Foreground) We Decided to Attempt

The Glass (Foreground) We Decided to Attempt

The first location we tried is called Okinawa Kougei Mura.  A large glassware showroom is found here, along with an adjoining and rather disorganized glass-blowing studio largely open to the elements.  The sales area displays a huge array of glass pieces of every design, but be warned that there is only a small selection of items (mostly cups and a few vases), that you can try your own hand (and mouth) at producing, which are found outside next to the factory floor.  Further, the experience here includes only a minimal 2 steps of hands-on during the glass forming process.  On the flip-side, this is an inexpensive and relatively quick encounter.

Our Wedding - Hard to Miss THAT Color!

Our Wedding – Hard to Miss THAT Color!

7396101154_9fb381e9e1_b7395692146_cf91e76b9e_bHere we decided to make a set of Ryūkyūan glasses in roughly the colors featured throughout our wedding – blue and turquoise.  We selected a rather unique design, a wide-mouthed tumbler with a bumpy-textured base and flared top.  The craftsmen on the studio floor apparently speak very little English, so Jody and I made it very clear exactly what we wanted to the always polite and over-dressed sales woman, who then reminded the glass-blowers at least 4 or 5 times about the flared rim we so eagerly wanted!

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-with-a-completed-drinking-glass

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-necking-a-glass-3jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-blowing-glass-2Jody was to make two glasses, and I would make the remaining two.  Instead of each making two and then switching roles between artisan and photographer, for some reason the shop had us alternate one at a time.  Not a big deal, except for having to don – and then slip off all the protective gear an extra time!  The glasses turned out beautifully, except for the one birth defect I forced during one of my attempts.  Forming the flared top was perhaps the most delicate part of the entire process, and of course this was one of the hands-on elements!  For one of my prenatal glasses I was, let’s say, a little too eager.  I’ll leave it up to the reader to see if you can spot my “special” glass, which already provides an amusing story and priceless memory of our weekend.  Be advised that you are the master of your glass’ destiny, and being hand-formed each and every time, no two pieces are alike.  Which is exactly what makes this all so uniquely charming!

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-with-a-completed-glass

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-things-you-can-makejodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-things-you-can-make-2Since we wanted to make something more, well, special, we decided to go to another location, a factory with a much more extensive showcase and workshop called “Onna Glass Studio.”  Here we were not disappointed.  But we were overwhelmed!  There is a substantial room, separated from the store’s high-end showcase, literally crammed full of glass pieces, consisting of what seems like every type and color of glass vase, cup, bowl, and drinking glass you could imagine.  And any one of them was fair game for production on the factory floor.  It was actually really difficult to select something that we desired to make; the options appeared almost endless.

Models of What We Were to Create!

Models of What We Were to Create!

I think I might have spotted my glass desideratum first.  After probably a full thirty minutes scouring through the showroom, I saw it:  an oddly proportioned long-neck, crackled vase/bottle with a flared top in the most interesting color of blue, historically the rarest color in glass as I understand it.  It’s a bottle that one would imagine from which a genie would appear.  Proudly bringing it up to the counter with a huge smile on my face, the saleswoman immediately shuts me down with a dismissive “no have, no color, cannot make….”  Did she have any idea how hard that was to find!?  I settle for a very similar design but in a slightly less-attractive fluorescent green.

Winding Molten Glass on the Iron Blowing Pipe

Winding Molten Glass on the Iron Blowing Pipe

Jody selects a rather fascinating bottle with a twist.  Literally, a bottle with a twist.  Like a twisted bottle – very cool!  The model we contemplated was rather asymmetrical, something that she also found very alluring.  Her bottle’s color gently faded along the bottle’s length between a bright red and a diminished yellow.  After negotiating price – and this place is open and even encourages haggling, a rarity for Japan – we were off to the factory floor.  Be ready to spend a few dollars here if you select a larger piece of unusual design.

Keeping the Molten Glass Formed

Keeping the Molten Glass Formed

At the Onna Glass Studio, you “the creator” are much more involved in the birthing process, from conception to delivery.  Yeah, sure, the three staff members surrounding you the entire time are helping (quite a bit actually) like midwives, but you certainly feel like you are doing the work.  Did I mention how much you have to spin the blowing bar and molten glass – constantly – the ENTIRE time??   Both Jody and I were counseled, gently at first and then with more eagerness, a number of times to “keep spinning, fingers only,” which we found nearly impossible.

Blowing Glass between Collection from Various Kilns

Blowing Glass between Collection from Various Kilns

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-picking-up-molten-glassjodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-molten-glassMolten glass is first wound on an iron pipe, a hollow bar that is used to collect, blow, shape and form your creation.  Constantly spinning the bar, its tip is carefully placed into kilns operating at over 1,300C/2375F to pick up molten glass.  The heat in the vicinity of the furnaces is oppressive, and once its protective cover is opened, a wave of heat radiates and seems to strike you much like a physical shove.  Multiple stops are required at various different kilns to get the right amount and the right types of glass, all of which is white-hot when wound.  There is a small amount of blowing in-between to shape the glass and keep it spherical.  Did I mention yet that during the entire time you have to constantly spin the bar??  The glass at this point is more liquid than solid, and it can’t be neglected for more than a short heartbeat or two.

Blowing Glass to From in a Mold

Blowing Glass to From in a Mold

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-drinking-glass-moldjodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-molten-glass-to-become-a-glassNext it’s off to blow the glass into a mold.  A heavy-duty, thick-sided iron mold is placed on a sheet of steel on the floor, squarely behind a heat shield designed to protect lower bodies of craftsmen.  We are directed to finally stop spinning the pipe, and place it carefully vertically straight down into the open mold.  The mold is then closed, and you blow through the pipe until the molten glass entirely fills the confines of the cast.  Things happen quickly now because the design must be completed before the glass starts to chemically fuse and cool back into a solid – a process which is already happening.  From what I understand, glass is an unforgiving medium, and re-firing cannot be used to fix many mistakes.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-blowing-glass

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-with-his-finished-bottlejodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-blowing-his-bottleMy piece has a crackle design near its base.  Taking the formed glass from the mold, still on the end of the blowing tube and glowing red-hot now instead of white, I dipped (with guidance) my piece into cold water just for an instant or two.  The sharp temperature difference produces cracks only on the surface of the glass, which remain only as a subtle design element not interfering with the glass’ functionality.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-spinning-glass-montage-2

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-necking-her-bottle-2jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-cutting-kevins-bottle-at-the-neckNow we sit in the finishing chair.  We were both involved in flaring our bottle’s lips, a technique that involves placing outward pressure with metal tongs on quickly cooling glass, now barely glowing, while the piece is rotated horizontally on guides.  After the flare is finished, we score the specimen’s water cool water is applied, creating a natural fracture point in the crystalline structure.  Lifting the bar slighting, we bring it down with some force and the bottle gentle is released from his metallic captor.  The area, on the bottom of the glass, is quickly re-fired and smoothed by the shop’s staff.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-kevin-necking-his-bottle

Cooling Kiln

Cooling Kiln

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-forming-a-drinking-glass-2Now that the pieces are done, they are placed into another larger not-so-hot-but-still-freakin’-hot kiln for controlled cooling.  Jody’s bottle actually fell over, which initially I thought was a mistake, but something the craftsman who placed it that way wasn’t overly concerned about.  In hindsight, this is probably how the additional asymmetry of that particular design is introduced because Jody and I both noted its equal proportions when molded.

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-shaping-the-neck-of-her-bottle

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-masterpieces-the-bottle-we-coundt-make-but-still-scoredjodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-masterpieces-kevins-crackled-bottleReturning the next day to pick up our masterpieces, we were amazed to see our completed works!  Jody, however, noticed a sharp spike of glass on the very top of the rim of her bottle’s neck.  When we asked if there was anything that could be done about it, a woman working the showroom took sandpaper and attempted to “erase” the issue.  As you might guess, this did blunt the defect, but more so scratched the glass….  Realizing we were unhappy with that result, she tried to just give us the model we had initially selected from the floor to show the craftsman what we wanted to create.  “No, no, no we don’t want that, we want the one we made!”  Jody, being coyly smart and fast on her brainstem, went and got the blue bottle that I had wanted to make, which the ladies working there were only too happy to part with.  They couldn’t make it anyway.  So, we walked away with our two hand-made pieces, AND with the fabulous sapphire decanter.  SCORE!

Our Bottles!

Our Bottles!

Reservation is not required at either location.  Neither was very crowded.  We waited behind a group of three at the first location, and had no wait at all at the Glass Studio.  Once your piece is selected and the factory floor is ready for you, the process takes roughly 15-20 minutes, but you are required to leave your masterpiece overnight for proper cooling, so make sure you allow for pick-up the next day.  And be forewarned that these pieces are NOT commercially produced and therefore should not be exposed to heat or hot foods or drinks, and cannot be used in the oven, microwave, or dishwasher.

Our Glasses!

Our Glasses!

Go and experience this corner of our Far East Fling.  Rebirthing these glass creatures anew provides a spiritual connection to Okinawa, her history and her people which will last through time.  But their emotional essence – the soul of Ryūkyūan Glass, just might help you overcome an adversity or two of your own in the future.

 

jodys-birthday-2016-glass-blowing-jody-with-a-completed-drinking-glass

Okinawa Glass Studio

Hours:  Daily from 0800-2200

Phone: 098-965-3090

Sorry, Yen Only, but Cards Accepted

Address: 85 Fuchaku, Onna Village, Okinawa 904-0413, Coordinates: 26.4590571, 127.81162829999994

Directions:  From Kadena Gate 1, go north on 58 (right) past Kadena and Yomitan.  Pass the Renaissance Resort, and then the Kafuu Resort further up the road.  Onna Glass Studio is on the right hand side, almost directly across from the Sun Marina Beach and Hotel

Dinner at Ar’s of Shiodome, Tokyo


“All four elements were happening in equal measure – the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the overall ambiance. It taught me that dining could happen at a spiritual level.” ~Charlie Trotter, American chef and restaurateur

Modern Shiodome City District

Modern Shiodome City District

Shiodome (汐留) is a district in Tokyo recently developed at the turn of this century, redeveloped and remade into an attractive, somewhat upscale area full of shops, eateries, and businesses.  Its spectacular skyscrapers are the home of the headquarters of Nippon Television, but more importantly for tourists to the city, a large variety of cafes, theaters, hotels and the subject of this blog – “Sky-View” restaurants.

Shiodome (pronounced shee-oh-dome-eh, meaning “halt the tides”) was originally a tidal marsh sitting between the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Bay.  During the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867), the marshes were dried up and reclaimed as land for the then many feudal lords hungry for space.

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

Redevelopment and Revitalization of Shiodome

In 1872, Shiodome was chosen as the site of the Shimbashi rail station, originally the Tokyo terminal of Japan’s first railway line.  When the modern site of Tokyo station was developed as Tokyo and rail in Japan grew, Shiodome was basically converted into a train freight yard, a state and function in which it remained well into the 1980s.  Today the district is unrecognizable, featuring all the modern aspects of city planning with motorized pedestrian traffic, elevated walkways, and underground passages that connect most of the densely packed buildings in the area.

ars-2

Ar’s Italian Cuisine, one of the Sky View restaurants located in Shiodome, was recommended to us by our hotel’s very helpful concierge.  A short but cold walk away, our journey was made easier by the pedestrian ways connecting all the buildings in the area.

ars

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-jody-and-a-viewshiodome-sky-viewAr’s is located in a modern skyscraper above the 40th floor, providing amazing views of Tokyo and the famed Tokyo Tower from a warm and tastefully decorated space.  But there is a much richer experience to be had here than just enjoying the view.  Ar’s is an upscale eatery, and although there were only a couple of other groups there upon our arrival at about 2000, everyone was dressed in business formal, all men wearing coat and tie and ladies in dresses and heels.

Jody with Our Sky View

Jody with Our Sky View

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-dinner-with-a-viewtokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-delicious-kobe-beef-with-a-fancy-knifeOur wait staff was headed by a man who spoke actually very good English.  Tatsuhiko Tochimoto, the establishment’s Assistant Manager and true professional in terms of service, acted as our interface to the rest of the facility, providing detailed explanations of our menu in terms of ingredients and preparation.  We had reserved a table by the windows, not realizing that almost every table had a fabulous view.  Jody and I both ordered full course meals (see their menu for more) and a bottle of wine, and while the food was absolutely delicious and presented as creative works of art, what will stay with us for the rest of our lives is not the food but the way we were treated.

Appetizers

Appetizers

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-conger-eel-souptokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-baked-fishThe service at Ar’s was outstanding and very attentive.  It seems that there was a staff to customer ratio of about 1 to 1, which meant that we never asked for anything.  Water and wine was poured as if on que, and Tochimoto-san stopped by often between courses to chat, and with each course to explain our food in great detail.  While at time I would find this overbearing, especially being during date-night with my lovely wife, Tochimoto-san made us feel warmly welcome, much like family would.

Fabulous Friends & Food

Fabulous Friends & Food

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-seafood-pastatokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-picture-souvenior-with-dessertAt one point he came up with a camera, and asked if he could take our photo.  “Sure,” we said, somewhat confused.  What does he want with our photo?  He mentioned something about taking pictures of their special guests….  An hour later, delivered with our courses of sweets and dessert, was a small framed photo of me and Jody there at dinner; the staff had printed and framed the photo as part of our dinner!  Such a uniquely fabulous touch to an already first-rate dinner.

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

Our Framed Keep-Sake with Dinner

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-kiss-in-the-wedding-chapeltokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-fancy-dessertsThen, after we finished dinner, Tochimoto-san asked if we had a few moments.  Again, “sure” we said, this time with some eager expectation.  He brought us to an area down the hall from the restaurant, into a wedding chapel that they work in combination with.  This chapel is “special” we were told, because it overlooks both the Tokyo Tower AND the newer, taller landmark, Tokyo’s SkyTree.  He offered to take photos of our quickie wedding ceremony over the city lights of Tokyo.  His business card states “A to Z Dining,” and that is no exaggeration.  Such a fabulous night in Tokyo for us both!

Wedding Chapel with a View

Wedding Chapel with a View

Full disclosure:  this level of service and quality of food does not come cheap in Japan.  And while we spent a relatively enormous sum eating dinner at Ar’s, both Jody and I will tell you, without hesitation, that our experience there was worth every single dollar.  And email Tochimoto-san directly at “tochi0905@gmail.com” to reserve your own unforgettable spiritual dining experience.

tokyo-2016-dinner-at-ars-sky-view-dining-in-the-sky-in-shiodome

Ar’s Italian Cuisine & Sky Bar SPADE

Lunch starting @ 3,000 JPY, Dinner @ 10,000 JPY

03-5537-6431 (+81-3-5537-6431)

Dinner 17:30-23:30 (last order 22:30) and Lunch 11:30-15:30 (last order 14:30)

Rail:  Toei Oedo Line to Shiodome Station, take Exit 4-minute walk

Address:  41F, 1-5-2, Higashishinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 105-7102

http://ars-dining.com/

Yushukan…or…Just a Nationalistic Scam??


“Each article displayed in this museum is filled with the wishes…and sincerity of enshrined deities who devoted themselves to building ‘a peaceful nation’.” ~ Passage from the Yushukan museum’s brochure discussing the “Noble Spirits of Fallen Heroes”

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials - not such a peace-loving guy....

Tojo at the Tokyo Trials – not such a Peace-Loving Guy….

Wait, what?  “Peaceful Nation”??

There is good in the world.  Over 2,466,000 souls are enshrined as kami at Yasukuni Jinga (see Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more), a total which includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones in the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.  Remember the dead of those cherished but lost is a good thing.

Prayers to the War Dead

Prayers and Respect for the Dead

But there is bad in the world as well.  At immediate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, this may not suffer much cause for concern.  The wider, larger, more looming issue in the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those deeds entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are worshiped as gods.  Some, maybe even many, suffer concerns of varying degree over such passive pardon.

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

Class A War Criminal #1. How did THIS GUY escape judgment??

And then there is ugly, what I’ll classify as an insidious evil.  Central to the Yushukan is that it actively attempts to whitewash Japan’s history of crimes against humanity and wars of aggression of the first half of the 20th century in classic Nationalistic fashion.

I have discussed in other blogs the importance of remembering and even honoring the dead when warranted (which holds the bulk of the time), and the situation in Japan, with all its complexities rife with ethical dilemmas (think our own country’s heated debates over Confederate memorials), is no different.  No matter your politics or religion, I argue that the vast majority of the almost 2.5M souls enshrined at Yasukuni were poor, uneducated “Joe-Jui-Jitsu Six-packs” who died for the cause, a cause to which they were shamelessly indoctrinated from birth.  When the rich wage war, it is the poor that suffer and die the most.  In this vein, the crimes of the very few should not outweigh the ignorant innocence of the many.  The greater good, in my opinion, should take precedence.

However, I am not so compassionate, understanding or forgiving when it comes to the Yushukan museum of war history, a museum operated by the shrine.

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum's Lobby

Japanese A6M Type 0 Fighter in the Museum’s Lobby

This museum, and in more modern times their website, make clear and unequivocal statements criticizing the United States for “convincing” the Empire of Japan to launch an attack on the United States in order just to justify war with Imperial Japan.  There is no discussion of a wider world war in the 1930s and 1940s; rather, Japan’s war of aggression throughout the Pacific is referred to as the “Greater East Asia War.”  A documentary-style video portrays Japan’s conquest of East Asia during the 1930s as an effort to “save” the region from imperial advances of the colonial Western powers.  Japan foresaw a “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,” a moniker for their own expansionist agenda.  Displays portray Japan as a “victim” of foreign influence and meddling, especially the undermining of trade by the United States.  It goes on to highlight what it considers “the negotiations to avoid the war with the United States,” an accidental admission which in and of itself insinuates a forgone conclusion to go to war!  Notably missing, the museum fails to acknowledge any of the many atrocities committed by the Japanese, including the Rape of Nanjing (see Japan’s War Crimes for more), the abhorrent treatment of POWs, and the sacrifice of the Okinawan people and culture writ large.

A Steam Engine used on the Thai-Burma "Death Railway," the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians

A Steam Engine, used on the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” displayed in the museum’s lobby.  This was the cause of death of over 12,500 Western POWs, and over 100,000 Asians used as slave labor in its construction.  The museum only mentions what an incredible engineering feat it was, and accomplished by the Japanese….

For instance and specifically related to Okinawa and the Typhoon of Steel which was endured there, there is a moving display of “articles left behind” by the Kinjo sisters, who served as part of the famed Okinawa “Lily Corps”.  These high school students were drafted to serve as nurses’ aids and were assigned to cave hospitals around southern Okinawa.  These girls, in reality, were abandoned by the Japanese military, and many were pressure to end their lives through mass suicide.  However, the museum submits a revisionist version that Okinawan’s roil at:  “On June 18, 1945 an order to disband the student corps was issued during a severe cleanup operation by the American forces.  However, the Third Surgery bunker was besieged and more than 40 staff members lost their lives.”  High school students can barely be thought of as “staff,” and this particular loss of life is egregious by any measure.  The monument to these lost girls is one of the most-visited and moving places today on Okinawa, exactly because of Japan’s cold-blooded desecration of her most valuable treasure – her youth….

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives

Monument and Cave where the Lily Corps Girls Lost their Lives.  They were pressured and brain-washed to kill themselves rather than face rape and torture by the Americans.  Or so they were told….

The museum clearly portrays Japan as diligently negotiating to avoid war at every turn – even as they planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor and throughout the wider Pacific basin, and America as being the unreasonable bully hell-bent on controlling and containing Japan.  There is no portrayal of aggression by the Japanese.  In its place is only a weak, flaccid claim of Japanese self-defense against American and European Imperialists.  The museum goes on to claim that Japan went to war with the intent of creating a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” for all Asians, with aims of ejecting various Western powers who had colonized parts of Asia and the Pacific.  This argument is nothing more than a thin, transparent veil attempting to cover their unjustified expansionist wars of the 1930s in Korea and China, and the 1940s in Burma, Indonesian, the Philippines, and throughout the Pacific.

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Japanese Artillery Pieces used in the Battle of Okinawa

Because of this Nationalist stance and odd-ball justification of the slaughter of over SIX MILLION (some estimates put the figure over 10M) Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, Indochinese, and Western prisoners of war, the Japanese Government has been widely criticized by China, South Korea, and Taiwan as being revisionist and unapologetic about the events of World War II.  My experience throughout Japan and the Ryukyu Islands has been one of peace, gentleness, and wholesale value for life, but my visit to this museum provides a hint at underlying currents of gross nationalism still present in many dark corners of the Japanese psyche.  And while I appreciate being able to see the rare military hardware on display here (sorry, pictures inside not allowed), and many of the relics of those lost are quite moving and well displayed, it is the general feel of this place that lives me, a Westerner, questioning what many Japanese really know about the War, but more importantly, how they feel.

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Weird Nationalistic Homage to Dissenting Judge at the Tokyo Trials

Finely, and perhaps in one of the most insulting aspects of the museum, outside of its main entrance is a memorial plot that one might easily miss.  It is homage to Dr. Radha binod Pal, the judge representing India at the Tokyo Trials in 1946.  The pamphlet provided, in English, goes on to state, “Dr. Pal detected that the tribunal…was none other than formalized vengeance sought with arrogance by the victorious Allied Powers upon a defeated Japan.  Consequently, he submitted a separate opinion recommending that each and every one of the accused be found not guilty of each and every one of the charges….”  The text further characterizes the trials as “…the Allies’ craze for retaliation….”  While there is some argument about the due process afforded those accused during the war crimes trials in the East (as compared and contrasted against the Nuremberg Trails held in the West), the top Japanese leadership found guilty as Class A War Criminals were, beyond a shadow of a doubt, GUILTY of crimes against peace through the planning and direction of war.

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World

Nationalism is Alive and Well in Japan, like most other Nations Today in the World.  Picture at the Yasukuni Shrine, 2015.

But regardless of politic viewpoint or an inherent revulsion at revisionist history, there is no other comprehensive venue in Japan where someone – Ministers and Emperors included – can pay respect to the fallen in such an embracing fashion.  In other words, for many Japanese there is a strongly compelling reason to visit this shrine.  And what about those who find the conflict in the adjoining museum’s nationalistic point of view and alternative account of dirty deeds so troubling?  Well they can deliberately avoid entering the museum so that their visit remains religious rather than political.

Liberalism and "Truth" are Sometimes a Scary Combination.

Liberalism and “Truth” are Sometimes a Scary Combination.  I’m pretty sure Japan started a War of Aggression with the United States….

Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently visited the shrine which sparked wide admonition from Asian governments.  In an official statement, Abe explained that he wished to “report before the souls of the war dead…the pledge that Japan must never wage a war again.  It is not my intention at all to hurt the feelings of [other Asian] people.”

Monument to War Widows

Monument to War Widows

Can’t fault the man for that.  There is good in the world.  And it’s high time for the curators of the Yushukan museum to do their part in fulfilling Abe’s pledge.

Yasukuni Shrine:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead


“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  ~Colonel Curtis LeMay, Chief Architect of the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign against Japan

tokyo-2016-yasukuni-shrine-shrines-approach-shishi-protector-and-torii-wm

As Jody and I approached the Shrine from the west, my instantaneous thought was that its impact, physically, spatially and emotionally, was effusively worthy of its purpose.  Its entrance protected by two large, intimidating shishi lion-dogs, our journey through the shrine’s grounds took us under not just a single torii (shrine’s normally have one, which designates sacred ground; see Trampled Torii and Floating Torii for more), not even two, but three.  And they are perhaps the most impressive I have seen in all of our travels throughout Japan.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-kevin-at-the-middle-torii-wm

First Torii (Steel)

The Daiichi Torii (Otorii), imposing in size, is the first of the three, found at the immediate entrance of the shrine’s grounds from the east.  First erected in 1921 and rebuilt in 1974, it was for a time the largest torii in Japan at over 75 feet tall over 100 feet wide.

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

The second Daini Torii (Seido Otorii) is encountered next.  Built in 1887, this remains the largest bronze torii in Japan.  Passing under this torii, a massive wooden cypress gate called the shinmon is confronted.  A commanding 20-foot-high structure built in 1934, each of its two massive swinging doors boasts an over-sized Chrysanthemum Crest, a symbol of imperial royalty.

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Just feet beyond and through the final Chumon Torii built of cypress, Jody and I found ourselves at the apparent confluence of Shintoism and nationalism within all of Japan.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-just-a-peek-from-a-passing-priest-wm

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-entering-through-the-shrines-main-gatesYasukuni Jinja is a Japanese Shinto shrine, but one unlike all the others.  Dedicated to eirei, “hero spirits” who died in service of the Emperor of Japan during conflicts from 1867 to 1951, the shrine was specifically built to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, loosely translated to “spirits souls,” or what could be considered lessor deities.  Enshrinement is strictly a religious matter since one requirement post-WWII placed on Japan was a forced separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government (“Church & State”).  The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur.  It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible by the current clergy, even though some surviving family members have formally requested removal of descendants.  In my opinion, what people can do – as in enshrining the dead, people can undue – as in removing souls previously enshrined.  People can get so lost in dogma….

tokyo-2016-yasukuni-shrine-visiting-the-main-hall-at-dusk-wm

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-nationalism-at-the-shrine-wmtokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-ground-rulesThere certainly are some unusual facets to visiting this shrine, even to the very casual foreign gaijin visitor with limited experience or knowledge of such locations.  First, there is a Japanese flag flying not only from an official flagpole towering over the shrine, but also near the main hall, where visitors come to pay their respects and pray, on a religious structure selling shrine-related tokens, talismans and amulets.  Second, there are posted warnings in multiple languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English) about what is and what is not permitted on shrine property.  Finally, and most surprisingly for Japan, there is posted and uniformed security here, which didn’t allow us to loiter or pause for photos of the main hall where those who came to commune with the dead pray and pay their respects.

Prayers for the Dead

Prayers for the Dead

Yasukuni enshrines and provides a permanent residence for the spirits of those who have fought on behalf of the Emperor, regardless of whether they died in combat, and eligibility is extended to government officials and even civilians as long as they died in service of the state.  Interestingly and fittingly, all civilians who died in Okinawa during the war, and Okinawa schoolchildren who died during evacuation from the island are also eligible and enshrined.

Paying Respects

Paying Respects

At proximate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, the enshrinement of those individuals may not be such a bad thing – but please note that is not my claim.  The wider, larger, more looming issue throughout the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those exploits entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are all worshiped as equal gods.

Fortunes

Fortunes

There are over 2,466,000 enshrined kami at Yasukuni.  This total includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones at the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  Yasukuni has enshrined 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the nearby Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.

Themes on the Shrine's Lanterns

Themes on the Shrine’s Lanterns

The Chinreisha is a small peripheral shrine constructed in 1965, and is dedicated to all those killed by wars or conflicts worldwide, regardless of nationality, but who are not “eligible” for enshrinement proper.  Most visitors who wish to balance their respects for all those who suffered, especially during WWII, make it a point to prayer here as well, just as Japanese Prime Minister Abe did very recently.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-inner-torii-and-main-hall-wm

There were not too many visitors on the Tuesday afternoon we visited.  Most were Japanese, many solitary visitors, but a few in smaller groups, who would approach the main hall almost one at a time.  The altar, draped in large white curtains adorned with the Imperial crest, hides details of the hall from everyone less those at prayer in front of the small opening in the drapes.  The Honden, built in 1872 and refurbished in 1989, is the main area where Yasukuni‘s enshrined deities reside and is generally closed to the public.  Behind the Honden is another smaller structure called the Reijibo Hoanden which houses the “Symbolic Registry of Divinities,” a handmade Japanese paper document that lists the names of all the kami enshrined.  Interestingly, this particular structure was built of quakeproof concrete in 1972 with a private donation from Emperor Hirohito, Imperial Emperor of Japan during the whole of WWII, himself.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-bronze-hoofed-dragon-creature-on-lantern-wm

Those praying would clap their hands loudly, and then pause, some with heads bowed, some with hands held together in front in the internationally recognized symbol of prayer.  One gentlemen prayed for many, many minutes, standing stoically still, deep in thoughtful meditation.  I can only imagine the loss that this man was trying to reconcile.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-shrine-lantern-at-dusk-wm

The word Yasukuni, taken from classical-era Chinese text of Zuo Zhuan, literally translates as “Pacifying the Nation.”  It was chosen by the Japanese Meiji Emperor when the shrine was founded in the latter half of the 19th century.  For many Japanese, it is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-shinto-priest-wm

 

During the allied occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, a much-needed separation of church and state was forced on Japanese culture.  However, the shrine’s authorities and the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare established a somewhat clandestine system in 1956 for the sharing of information regarding deceased war veterans.  Most of Japan’s war dead who were not already enshrined at Yasukuni were done so in this manner by April 1959, without much fanfare.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-at-the-main-gate-entrance-to-the-shrine

Japanese war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (MTFE), better known as the “Tokyo Trials,” were initially excluded from enshrinement.  But as time went on, government authorities began considering their enshrinement, along with providing veterans’ benefits to their survivors.  This movement gained significant momentum following the signature of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 which effectively returned peace between Japan and the Unites States, opening the way for a return of Japanese sovereignty.

tokyo-2016-yasukuni-shrine-protection-for-the-shrine-shishi-shisa-dog-wm

During Allied occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, the Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) planned to burn down the Yasukuni Shrine and build an entertainment venue in its place.  Lucky for Japan, and perhaps because of Divine intervention, two Western Priests Fathers Bruno Bitter and Patrick Byrne insisted that honoring war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere, even for the Japanese, and cooler heads prevailed as the decision was made not to destroy the important and sacred site.  At that time, the Health and Welfare Ministry began forwarding information on Class B and Class C war criminals (those not involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) to Yasukuni Shrine authorities in 1959.  These individuals were gradually enshrined between 1959 and 1967, often without permission from surviving family members or wide knowledge within the government, or the public, and even of the Emperor.  As an independent religious institution, the governing Shinto priests were free to unilaterally do what they considered spiritually most appropriate.

An Unhappy Visitor

An Unhappy Visitor

In 1954, some local shrines started accepting enshrinement of war criminals from their local areas.  However, no convicted war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni until after the parole of the last remaining incarcerated war criminals in 1958.

tokyo-2016-yasukuni-shrine-massive-lantern-lighting-the-way-wm

Information on the fourteen most prominent Class A war criminals, which included the prime ministers and top generals from the war era (but not the Emperor himself, a mistake in my opinion), was secretly forwarded to the shrine in 1966.  Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a secret meeting in 1969 that Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trials were “able to be honored.”  The secrecy of these meetings however points to moralistic problems that those involved had or feared, especially since these same people decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine the worst of Japan’s convicted war criminals.  The actual timing for enshrinement was left to the discretion of the then Shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba.  Tsukuba, not being entirely comfortable with the notion of elevating the worst of the worst to deity status and therein providing complete absolution for their horrific crimes and sins, delayed the enshrinement and died in March 1978 before giving his approval.

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

But things quickly changed.  The priest’s successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, personally rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts and enshrined the war criminals in a secret ceremony on October 17 of that same year, proclaiming them as “Martyrs of Showa.”

tokyo-2016-yasukuni-shrine-giant-lanterns-wm

Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor during WWII who was allowed to retain his position and status, visited the shrine as recently as 1975.  However, after finding out about this most questionable enshrinement, he was “displeased,” a finding held in private until memoirs were published after his death, and subsequently refused to visit the shrine.  His visit in 1975 was the last visit by a Japanese Emperor.

Purifying Waters

Purifying Waters

While Hirohito’s stance may seem prudent for the cultural leader of the nation, I suggest it’s for much more selfish reasons.  Hirohito’s evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he has claimed that the atomic bombings of Japan “could not be helped” imply strongly that he may have been more afraid that the enshrinement would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war…and the fact that he should have been tried and judged as Class A War Criminal No. 1.  But that’s just my opinion.  The details of the war criminals’ enshrinement eventually only became public only in 1979, but only minimal controversy resulted for the next several years.

tokyo-2016-yasukuni-shrine-bronze-statue-of-masujiro-kimura-wm

Today there is burning outrage in some quarters about the controversy surrounding Yasukumi Shrine.  No matter where you fall, It would indeed be shameful to erase a memorial to literally 2.5 million dead solely because of 14 very bad people.  Indeed, there are many, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people enshrined there that committed truly horrific acts of violence and depravity during the war, but who escaped prosecution and justice.  The very fact that Hirohito escaped justice throughout his life reflects the fallacy belittling the great many, the overwhelming majority, for the sins of the very few.  Remember, in any way, those that suffer the most are the poor, uneducated, and predominantly the innocent….  Remember, General LeMay, the American Army Air Corps Commander who directed the bombing of Japan resulting in 300,000-350,000 civilian dead and many more wounded, framed the debate best:  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  In other words, objective judgment of right and wrong is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, while waging war.

tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-kevin-at-the-middle-torii-wm

Now, the adjoining war museum, operated by the shrine, that is another story altogether.  But that subject is for another dedicated blog.  Stay tuned!

Kawaii Monster Café: Monstrously Adorable!


“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality.”  ~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Masuda

Masuda

The Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku opened not too long ago, but apparently it’s already become a “must-see” stop for locals and visitors alike in Tokyo.  Created by well-known Japanese avant-garde artist Sebastian Masuda, the mastermind behind the famous “cuteness-fashion” store 6% DokiDoki (see the video below), the candy-colored, monstrously darling café has become a top competitor for the title of Japanese Queen of Cuteness.

For just a 500 yen cover charge (a little under $5) visitors can spend 1 ½ hours inside just gawking at the overboard, overwhelmingly cute designs and décor inside.  No purchase necessary.  But you’ll buy something if you go in – it’s all just so…enticing.

68324480ce1544b59a9d4d864baffbd5

I have to admit this establishment was Jody’s “find” online.  I think she searched for something like “uniquely obscure places to eat” and this café of cuteness topped the list, every list, although maybe just behind a vampire themed – and staffed – restaurant.  It was her birthday, I mean actually her birth day, so we had to have a party, right?  What better place than one with a larger-than-life birthday cake turned merry-go-round?  I’m not sure what’s coming out of those lips on the top, though.  And that’s just the start of the cute oddities that, like the Robot Restaurant (see Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto for more on our visit to that iconic Tokyo venue), can only truly be produced and experienced in Japan.

Entry with "Choppy"

Entry with “Choppy”

We went on a late afternoon, and were pleasantly surprised to only have one small group (of Americans) ahead of us waiting to get inside.  I have read reviews of people waiting well over an hour….  There is a waiting lobby, crazily decorated, but that’s just a hint, just a small taste (pun intended!!) of what’s to come.  The café’s monster mascot, “Mr. Ten Thousand Chopsticks,” or just “Choppy” for short, is first seen here.  The entrance to the café is through doors shaped like his tongue.  As the staff warned us, we were about to enter the belly of the beast!

Selecting Your Eating Area

Selecting Your Eating Area

The hostess will take your name and ask you what “area” of the café you’d like to sit in.  Not knowing much, and quickly reviewing a video screen with a named picture of each area, we picked the “Mushroom Disco,” an odd choice since we are both NOT fans of mushrooms…of any kind.  In a disco, however?  HELL YES!

Jody with the Sweets-Go-Round and Monster Girls

Jody with the Sweets-Go-Round and Monster Girls

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-monster-hostesses-to-our-seating-in-the-mushroom-foresttokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-kevin-selfie-with-a-monster-hostessWhen your table is ready, double doors open and you are greeted by one of the five resident “Monster Girls”!  All I can say is WOW.  This is where the weird journey down the rabbit hole really begins….  Keep in mind that this café is square in the middle of Tokyo’s Harajuku district, which is well-known as Japan’s mecca for zany fashion and alternative youthful culture.  Seriously, there is such a thing as “Harajuku Lifestyle,” and the “Monster Girls” are prime examples.  From the café’s own website, Harajuku is described as “a colorful and crazy town that has been creating its own original culture by engulfing the world’s most trendiest fashions and cultures.”  One of Japan’s most famous pop and fashion icons of the moment, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, was in fact a repeat customer of DokiDoki, and a close collaborator with Masuda.

kawaii-monster-01-860x480

The shop is hosted by five of these so-called “Monster Girls” in all their hallucinatory glory —name Sweet Baby, Selfish Dolly, Happy Candy, Sexy Nasty, and Moody Crazy, names hopefully divorced from their ideas of customer service.  These young girls are carefully selected, embodying the eye-popping lavishness of the café’s very essence.  Their characters where developed by Masuda himself to reflect the different personalities of the café, and to help promote the idea of Japanese Harajuku “cute culture” abroad.  We only had three attending to the café during our visit; I would image all five are present during rush times.  It’s hard to tell if they role-play their character per their name; there is very little English spoken here, so we didn’t have much interaction other than various photo ops.  They do walk the floor and stop and chat with most everyone.  Oh, and it’s hard to figure out who’s who, unless you have the cheat photo from their website!

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-one-of-the-monster-hostesses

There are four main seating areas splayed throughout the interior.  The “Mushroom Disco” includes larger-than-life, neon-colored shrooms of all types, surrounded by alien vegetation, which makes for quite a psychedelic-drug induced dining experience.  According to the shop’s website, this area is “a big forest with its ceiling covered with poisonous colorful mushrooms and space plants.  There is also a secret room for gossip ladies further inside!”  I’m not sure how “disco” fits the motif, but hey, it’s Japan, and it’s CUTE (kawaii!!!).  And gossip is always fun.  For ladies apparently.

9516_ext_02_en_0

Milk Stand

Then there is the “Milk Stand,” a corner of the café where massive heads of giant rabbits, sheep, and unicorn adorned with large non-descript creepy unfeeling lights for eyes drink milk from tubes emanating from oversized baby bottles hanging from everywhere the ceiling.  I honestly am at a loss here; this is unlike any nursery I’ve ever seen.  The website describes it this way:  “It’s a crazy baby room where the animals drink their milk.”  Okay….

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-jodys-birthday-monster

“Bar Experiment” is another area, and reserved for adults (mostly).  The motif here is ocean, but maybe a darker side of the deep sea, including a somewhat sinister black lit flickering jellyfish engulfing the countertop bar.  It’s a bit more sophisticated and offers silly drinks that have a rather adult silly effect.  The café says this:  “The bar counter is surrounded by mysterious glowing jellyfish and is the experiment room for lurking adults in the deep sea….”

Mushroom Seating

Mushroom Seating

Finally, there is the “Mel-Tea Room,” a more open and spacious area of sweets-on-parade where “ants will lead the way through the sugar signs and will take you to a tea party with melting ice cream, chocolate and macarons.”  How can this level of Alice in Wonderful-esque bizarreness possibly be resisted?  Regardless of where you’re sat, walk around and experience all the other areas, each with a crazy twist of their own.

Sweets-Go-Round

Sweets-Go-Round

The café centers on an actual revolving merry-go-round in the shape of an extravagantly decorated cake, appropriately dubbed the “Sweets-Go-Round,” which serves symbolically to capture the very essence of any visit.  Obviously the perfect place for a photo, and Jody’s birthday cake for 2016!  “This cake shaped merry-go-round going round and round is the symbol of KAWAII MONSTER CAFE and also a photo spot.”

capture

Don’t expect your typical diner fare.  The food is certainly as cutesy and colorful as the eye-popping décor, and varied to an acceptable extent.  The menus themselves are absolutely adorable touch-screen cakes, easy to navigate and with screens provided in English.

Electronic Cake-Shaped Menus!

Electronic Cake-Shaped Menus!

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-jodys-kawaii-pasta-lunchtokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-monster-burger-for-lunchJody opted for the totally fun pastel-colored pasta (“Rainbow Palette Pasta”) cleverly arranged on a painter’s palette and flanked with swishes of differently flavored sauces which appear as paint.  I selected the special that day, a monster burger of curry, chicken and pork with fries.  Literally, shaped and decorated as a monster!

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-jodys-picaso-birthday-lunch-pasta

The food was okay; Jody like hers, and mine was not bad, but our meals came out at least 20 minutes apart, and mine was not very hot.  And I had to ask a couple of times about getting my meal.  There are other varied and whimsical selections, all of which are heavily dosed with food colors certainly not found in nature, but be prepared to pay for this level of cuteness.  Apparently being so cute is not cheap.  The fact is, I’m pretty sure people don’t come here for the food.

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-jody-with-her-experimental-cocktail

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-kevin-with-one-an-experimental-cocktailWe ordered some adult beverages as well.  Alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions are offered of each drink, the booze served in mock test-tubes.  While we can’t recall Jody’s kawaii-cute fruit-based concoction, mine was listed as “Druggy Cocktail (Experiment).”  I poured and mixed my two test tubes with a measure of foreboding, not knowing exactly what to expect.  The drinks were fairly good, but failed to deliver drugs (and their effect) on any measureable scale.  Waiting for our food, we wandered wide-eyed and with mouths open around the café’s various zones.

Monster Girl Show

Monster Girl Show

There was a “show” after we finished our meal.  Theatrical lights came on, the music and bass started pounding (ah, finally the disco!), and we all knew something was in store.  Everyone gathered around the Sweet-go-Round, and the wait staff came out and started clapping.  After building a good measure of suspense, the Monster Girls paraded about, boarded the carousal and started some type of “cute” performance!

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-kevin-with-the-monster-girls

After their couple of songs, there was an invitation to join the Monster Girls on the Sweets-Go-Round for pictures, but only after buying a 500 yen lollipop as your ticket.  I attempted to encourage Jody up for a birthday photo, but I was the one who ended up hanging with the girls!

Jody's Monster Cupcake

Jody’s Monster Cupcake

For dessert, I ordered a completely over-the-top ice cream sundae named nothing less than “Colorful Poison Parfait Extreme.”  It was killer kawaii and certainly a monster to eat!  I didn’t finish it.

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-kevin-with-his-monster-dessert

Jody ordered the special, a new addition to the dessert menu with a much more pedestrian name of “Monster Cupcake.”  It was less-than impressive, covered with what we thought was rather tasteless icing, but which turns out to be sweet potato paste.  Only in Japan.

kawaiimonster

In the final analysis, if you are on the fence about what to do in Tokyo, GO TO THIS PLACE.  Weird, campy, but fun, and have I said “cute!” yet?  Hitting this and the Robot Restaurant in the same day is part of a Japanese Trifecta that probably can best be completed by unwinding in a cat café….  Remember, the Kawaii Monster Café not cheap, and the food and drinks are spectacular presented, but this is all about ambiance, and perhaps captures part of the very essence of what makes Japan…so Japanese!

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-monster-girl-merry-go-round

Oh, and for my birthday girl armed with an active imagination aimed at battling a more mundane reality of the common birthday?  Couldn’t have been better.  Happy Birthday Celebration and blog #2 Jody!  There’s still more to our celebration of Jody’s birthday in Tokyo.  Stay tuned.

tokyo-2016-kawaii-monster-cafe-jodys-birthday-monster-2

Choppy says “Happy Birthday Kawaii Jody!”

Kawaii Monster Cafe

Open Mondays to Saturdays for Lunch from 1130-1630 (LO 1600), and Dinner from 1800-2230 (LO 2200).  On Sundays and Holidays, the café is open 1100-2000 (LO 1930).  Reservations are NOT taken on weekends and holidays.

Cover:  500JPY / person

Address:  YM square building 4F, 4-31-10, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo-to

Address (Japanese):  東京都渋谷区神宮前4丁目31‐10 YMスクエアビル4F

Phone:  +81-03-5413-6142