Himeji Castle: Top Secret Ninja School??

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ~Gilbert K. Ches

A Castle in the Clouds

A Castle in the Clouds

James Bond:  “Do you have any commandos here?”  Tiger Tanaka:  “I have much, much better. Ninjas. Top-secret, Bond-san.  This [Himejijo] is my ninja training school.” ~You Only Live Twice

kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-armored-door-and-internal-passageway-wmNinja training school or not, Jody and I recently made our way south from our stay in Kobe, Japan, to visit one of Japan’s most iconic castles:  Himeji.  Compared with Nijo castle in Kyoto (see The Last Samurai’s Castle for more), this is much more like castles with which most Westerners would be familiar.  Thick walls full of loop-holes for shooting.  Narrow passages and numerous gates armed with watch-towers and reinforced locking doors.  And a tall, hill-top Keep, full of weapons racks and murder holes through which heavy rocks and boiling oil could be dropped on invaders….


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-couples-selfie-with-the-white-castle-in-the-skyHimeji Castle (姫路城 Himeji-jō) is a hilltop Japanese castle located in the city of Himeji, Japan.  Regarded as the finest surviving example of historic Japanese castle architecture, it is comprised of a tight defensive network of 83 buildings dating from Japan’s feudal period.  The castle is often locally referred to as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō  (“White Heron Castle”), because of its brilliant white finish and resemblance to a bird taking flight – a somewhat vague analogy in my opinion.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-castle-rooflines-wmHimeji Castle started as a small hilltop fort in 1333.  Replacing the fort was first a castle called Himeyama  in 1346, which was then remodeled into Himeji Castle in the 16th Century.  In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the same Samurai that built Nijo Castle in Kyoto, awarded the castle to another feudal Lord, who happened to be his son-in-law.  He, in turn, completely rebuilt the castle in the early 1600s to what we see today.  For over 400 years, Himeji Castle has remained largely intact and well-maintained, even throughout the extensive bombing of World War II and the 1995 “Great Hanshin” earthquake, both which seriously damaged nearby Kobe and the surrounding area.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-climbing-steep-stairs-wmIn fact, the city of Himeji was specifically targeted for bombing in World War II because an important rail terminal and line was located there.  On July 3, 1945, 107 B-29 bombers took off from airfields on captured Guam, Tinian, and Saipan to bomb Himeji.  During the raid, 767 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Himeji, destroying almost 65% of its urban area.  Himeji Castle, however, remained remarkably unscathed, even after one firebomb, which failed to ignite, was dropped directly on its roof.  As word of this seeming miracle spread, the castle became to be known as divinely protected.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-on-the-way-to-visit-the-castleHimeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining martial function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance of white plastered walls, and in the subtlety of the relationships between building dimensions and the multiple layers of rooflines.  In 2015, over 2.8 million people visited, so the castle can be quite crowded.  Our recommendation is stay away during Japanese National holidays and the New Year, and arrive early before tour buses start to que for the afternoon.  On busy days, numbered tickets are issued to control access based on scheduled admission times.  At times, the castle will run out of tickets.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-under-an-internal-gate-wmHimeji Castle was abandoned during the Meiji Period in 1871 and some of the castle corridors and gates were destroyed to make room for Japanese army barracks in the ensuing decades.  The castle was next auctioned to a private citizen who wanted it destroyed in order to redevelop the land.  Demolition proved much too expensive, and Himeji was spared.  However, it’s fate still unsecured since Japanese castles had become obsolete and their preservation costly and not a priority during post-WWII recovery.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-jody-smiles-at-the-castleThe 6-story main Keep has two massive supporting pillars, one standing in the east and another in the west, each originally single trees of fir and cypress with diameters over three feet.  The inside walls of the Keep are literally covered with weapon racks (武具掛け bugukake), originally for holding matchlocks (17th firearms in Japan) and spears.  Numerous openings below windows can be found in the Keep called “stone-throwing platforms” (石打棚 ishiuchidana) strategically situated over the winding pathway up the hill.   Similarly, angled chutes called “stone drop windows” (石落窓 ishiotoshimado) are found here too, enabling stones or boiling oil to be rained down upon the heads of attackers below.  Within the Keep are small enclosed rooms called “warrior hiding places” (武者隠し mushakakushi), allowing defenders to hide and attack by surprise.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-shinto-shrine-on-the-top-floor-wmOne of the castle’s foremost defensive strategies is found in the design of the confusing maze of narrow pathways leading uphill to the castle’s Keep, as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.  Unable to scale up or penetrate through the steep and tall castle walls, attackers are necessarily funneled into a long, spiral pattern around the keep, an approach covered by loopholes and murder holes the entire way.  Originally there were 84 gates to slow intruders, but today only 21 remain.  Roughly 1,000 loopholes (狭間 sama) in the shape of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles are still found throughout the castle today.  Partly due to this focus on strong defense, Himeji Castle was never even attacked.


The castle has been featured extensively in foreign and Japanese films, including the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), and Ran (1985).  In the television miniseries Shōgun (1980) it served as a stand-in for the fictitious feudal-era Osaka castle featured in the series.


kobe-2016-himeji-jo-castle-wooded-view-of-the-castle-wmWhile the castle is exquisite from a distance, and impressive from the outside, touring the Keep’s innards is an exercising in climbing up and down steep staircases.  While a visit here is in no way something that should be skipped, just don’t expect much in the way of explanation…or interesting things to see.  In other words, from an architectural and design perspective, seeing a 400-year-old original structure is amazing.  However, the castle is culturally void, having been stripped bare…which is how it is presented today after an extensive rehabilitation earlier this decade.


That said, Himeji Castle still remains the most spectacular example of an original Japanese castle still in existence.  Even for someone who is not particularly interested in castles or history, a day-trip from Osaka or Kobe to Himeji-jo can be fascinating and well worth the expense and effort.


Even if there really isn’t a Bond-san ninja training school located there….



Hours:  Winter 0900–1700, Summer 0900-1800 (April 27–August 31)

Closed December 29-30

Address:  68 Honmachi, Himeji City

Phone:  079-285-1146 (Himeji Castle Management Office)


Access:  Himeji Castle stands about one kilometer down the broad Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station.  The castle can be reached from the station’s north exit via a 15-20 minute walk, or five minute ride by bus (100 yen one-way) or taxi (about 650 yen one-way).

The Last Samurai’s Castle: Nijojo

“I’ll tell you how he lived.”  ~Nathan Algren, The Last Samurai

A young Japanese Emperor Meiji is featured in The Last Samurai, surrounded by his court in an immense and minimally-appointed tatami-floored hall.  The palace is unquestionably Japanese, with sliding door panels adorned with gilded scenes of cranes in flight and tigers crouched for an attack never to come.  But his is no movie set; these scenes were filmed in the historic 400-year-old castle of Nijo, located in the heart of the ancient Japanese capital city of Kyoto.

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

The Last Samurai as filmed at Nijojo

Nijō Castle (二条城 Nijō-jō) is a low-profile castle built on the flatlands of Kyoto, Japan.  Although nothing like a castle in the Western classic sense of tall turreted guard towers and heavy drawbridges, it does boast two concentric rings of fortifications and thick stone walls, substantial palaces and several gardens.  The complex is sizeable covering about 70 acres, but with only about 85,000sqf of buildings to explore.  It is one of the seventeen Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, all which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

Guard Tower Overlooking a Moat

In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shogunates, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to Nijō’s construction, which was completed in 1626 by his Grandson after the former’s death.  Although Edo (modern-day Tokyo) was considered the country’s capital, this castle served as the Kyoto residence and Court of the Tokugawa Shoguns (basically military dictators).  It continued in this role for 260 years until the Shoguns surrendered power to the Meiji Emperor in 1867, and today it remains an eloquent testimony to a bygone era of Shogun power and prestige.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Founder of Nijojo

Jody and I really enjoyed the expansive, well-kept grounds and gardens, and spent much of our timeat the castle wandering slowly through their various paths.  Groves of plum and cherry trees are found here among peaceful ponds and carefully-placed ornamental stones, and the castle serves as a prime blossom viewing spot in the spring when the time is right in late March and all of April.

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Beautiful Japanese Gardens

Building as the Japanese did primarily out of wood and paper, though, has its drawbacks, as evidenced by a sad history of destructive fire at most old Japanese heritage sites.  Nijō’s original 5-story central Keep was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1750; the foundations can still be explored around the inner ring’s southwest corner.  In 1788, the “Inner Ward,” the area encompassed by the inner moat, was destroyed by a city-wide fire and remained empty, more or less, for the next 100 years.  After the fall of the Shogunate to Imperial rule, an Imperial residence was moved there where it remains today as the Honmaru Palace.

Chinese Kamon Gate

Chinese Kamon Gate

After entering the castle grounds from the outer east gate, visitors will soon find the Chinese style Karamon Gate, the entrance to the Ninomaru outer ward secondary circle of defense.  The castle’s main attraction, the Ninomaru Palace, is located here.  This Palace served as the residence and office of the Shogun.

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Stylized Paintings in Nijojo

Surviving in its original form, the architecture and artwork found at Nijojo are arguably among the best surviving examples of Japan’s feudal era.  The palace consists of a series of separate buildings that are connected by an interestingly clever defensive design, the castle’s famed “nightingale floors,” corridors with flooring specifically designed to squeak aloud when stepped upon, alerting guards and occupants to potential intruders.  The rooms are floored with tatami mats and feature elegantly decorated ceilings, elaborate wood carvings, and beautifully painted screens on sliding wooden-framed doors (fusuma), all intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the Shoguns.


These fusuma paintings, dating to 1626, include some of the most well-known masterpieces of original Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber (as featured in The Last Samurai).  These depictions were painted by artists of the Kano tradition, which employed rich colors and large amounts of golden gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers.  The look and feel of this particular palace is routinely reproduced on Japanese movie and TV sets when there is a necessity to depict a wealthy Samurai, and were also replicated for our own Western-produced mini-series Shogun.


But there is some fact to The Last Samurai’s fiction.  In 1867, Ninomaru Palace, located in the castle’s “Outer Ward,” served as the site of handover of power in Japan from Shogun to the authority of the Imperial Court in early January 1868.  That year also saw the installation of the Imperial Cabinet at Nijojo, and the castle was declared a “detached” palace for the Emperor.  Honmaru Palace served as the location for the enthronement banquet of the Showa Emperor (Emperor Hirohito) in 1928, and is not normally open to the public.  A scamper up the stone foundation of the former castle keep located nearby provides fantastic views of the castle grounds.


In 1939, the palace was donated to the city of Kyoto and opened to the public the following year.


There is a reason why The Last Samurai was shot on location.  Visiting Nijojo, one is transported back to a different time and place, one when powerful Shoguns and revered Emperors ruled Japan in opulence.  One can imagine, indeed, “how one lived…”.



Address:  541 Nijo-jo-cho, Horikawa-nishi-iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City

Phone: 075-841-0096

Access:  JR Kyoto Station/Hankyu Railway Karasuma Station, or Tozai Subway Line Nijo-jo-mae Station

Hours:  08:45-16:00 closing at 17:00

Closed:  12/26-1/4 and Tuesdays in July-August & December-January

Fees:  600 yen, discounts for school children

What a Hoot:  Owl Cafes in Japan

 “Don’t count your owls before they are delivered.”  ~J.K. Rowling


But count them when you see them!  It seems that animal cafes are becoming much more deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.  While still rare on Okinawa, it’s not hard to find a “Cat Café” in most any major city one can visit in the main islands of Japan.  But that’s only where the idea just began.  Snakes, lizards, goats, penguins, rabbits and squirrels all have their places now at cafes where animal lovers can call.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-head-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-owl-pet-carrier-wmHowever, what is NEW, at least to Jody and I, is the idea of an “Owl Cafe.”  Many say the popularity of the Harry Potter series has helped in creating this new expansion.  The Japanese, undeniable leaders in the strange and novel (see Kawaii Monster Café and Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto for more of Japan’s cutting edge culture), have managed another kawaii-cute breakthrough featuring owls!


The BiBi & GeorGe Kobe Fukurou (Japanese for “owl”) Café is a small establishment located just outside Chinatown in Kobe, Japan, and offers a number of different types of owls from around the world.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-automated-ticket-venderkobe-2016-owl-cafe-bibi-george-owl-cafe-signageThe experience of one’s visit begins with attempting to operate a ticket vending machine outside on the ground, street floor.  Here you can purchase tickets and prepay for drinks ahead, but you’ll need help, to which the staff is only too eagerly and happy.  I believe the minimum amount of time is 1 hour, which costs 1,000 yen (about $10 USD), perfectly reasonable for a chance to see rare birds up close and personal.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-purr-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-owls-perch-wmThe cafe has three floors.  Entering the narrow shop, you’ll meet Sakura, apparently the café’s greeter…who is apparently unimpressed with the guests and all passers-by.  The first floor seems to be just an entrance lobby for the café, but does include a varied and eclectic selection of owl-related goods that has to been seen to be appreciated.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-a-petite-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-a-new-feathered-friend-wmAfter climbing a very narrow stairway, the second floor is attained.  Here there are no owls, only seats for guests to enjoy any beverages they may have bought with their entrance.  The prime attraction – owls, await you on the third floor, and after leaving your bags on the second, another narrow set of stairs offers access.  The main aviary is there where about 15 or so resident birds are located.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-owls-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-an-owl-3-wmKobe‘s first owl cafe boasts a wide array of owls, including Western Screech, Eagle, Snowy, Barn and Tawny owls.  The room was long and very narrow, but clean and tidy, and numerous staff were on hand to help with and discuss the various owls, but only in very broken English.  Bright sunlight was streaming unchecked through the room’s windows, and the overhead fluorescent lights seems to be unnecessarily too bright for nocturnal animals with such sensitive eyes.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-proud-tall-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-proud-owl-wmBehind each owl is a montage of kawaii-cute pictures of that particular bird, along with some basic information, like name, weight, and type of owl and their habitat.  Most of the information is in Japanese, but there is some basic English offered.  Each owl is featured on the café’s website, where English can be selected as your language, but most of the detailed information remains untranslated.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-small-gray-owl-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-sleepy-owl-2-wmWe received some quick instructions on how to properly interact with the owls, like only gently pet them on the top of their heads, and leave them alone if they don’t wished to be touched.  The guidance is provided via a handout, in English.  One of the owls was “on break,” and was not to be touched for his/her hour off the clock; still others were sleeping.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-unlikely-owl-house-wmkobe-2016-owl-cafe-squat-owl-wmThe assorted owls have beautiful feathers of all colors and patterns, and are much softer to the touch than I would have imagined.  Although at first you may be timid about their long talons and sharp beaks, there really was no issue of potential harm from either.  While each owl has their own unique personality and responds to touch and attention in different fashion, they all seemed perfectly unaggressive.  A flapping of large and strong wings was all it took for guests to prudently withdrawal their hands!


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-jody-holds-an-owl-friendkobe-2016-owl-cafe-jody-holding-a-new-feathered-friendA staff member will offer you an aviary glove and place an owl on your arm for photos.  Such animals seem to offer an almost universal mystique, and some are adorable while others are downright beautiful.  With their haughty attitude, they really are cats, but with wings.


kobe-2016-owl-cafe-momo-chan-princess-owlkobe-2016-owl-cafe-petting-an-owl-3-wmIt certainly is a unique opportunity to see and touch all these beautiful creatures.  But unlike a cat café, these animals are not domesticated and probably not tame, and it is not normal for them to be kept inside as, well, prisoners, chained at their ankles to bars, negating not only their getaways, but even their movement about the space.  I feel bad enough about keeping my cats indoors (and they are all indoor/outdoor cats), but for these wild animals, it seems, in a sense, juts wrong.  Especially since they are such nocturnal creatures who are forced awake and on display primarily during daylight hours.


The owls seem to be well-fed and well-care for, however, something that can be quite challenging from what I’ve read.  The fact, though, that they can’t fly free, seems so repressive (see Whale of a Time for more on a similar situation).


But the chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures is a novel opportunity that shouldn’t be missed…at least once!


Bibi and George Owl Cafe

Phone:  078-391-2960

Opening:  Tues-Sunday 11am-7pm (last entry 7pm)

Cover charge is Y1000 for one hour

Chuo-ku, Kobe, Sakaemachi-dori 1-2-14, Umifuku Bldg 1-3F, located in Motomachi

Reservations are accepted via the shop’s website or by phone, or you can just show up.

Infamous Infamy:  Prime Minister Hideki Tojo

“At the Imperial Conference on December 1 (1941), it was decided to make war against England and the United States.”  ~Hideki Tojo, General, Imperial Japanese Army

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

Tojo, it seems, was a little bit full of himself. Really? That many medals??

I used to work at United States Southern Command in Miami with a fellow Naval Aviation whose flier callsign was “Tojo.”  He was a Navy Commander, an F-14 Tomcat Radar Intercept Officer, and of 100% Japanese descent and the first generation in his family to be born and raised in the United States.  While he is every bit as American as you or I, he bore a more than a casual resemblance to his namesake, especially when he touted a bushy mustache which is often did.  While I’m sure it was not a callsign of his choosing (they never are), he was rather good-natured about it, going so far as to hold his own “Pearl Harbor Atonement Day” every December 7th by catering in a huge lunch for the entire office.  But who was this man “Tojo,” and why don’t more Americans know about him and his role in Japan’s strike against Pearl Harbor and the expansion of the World War throughout the Pacific Basin?

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into World War II. (AP File Photo)

Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941

Hideki Tojo (1884 – 1948) was a General of the Imperial Japanese Army and the 40th Prime Minister of Japan during much of World War II, from October 17, 1941, to July 22, 1944.  As Prime Minister, he was responsible for ordering the attack on Pearl Harbor (with the Emperor Hirohito’s approval), which initiated war between Japan and the United States.  After the end of the war, Tojo was arrested, tried for war crimes, and sentenced to death by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE).  He was hanged until dead on December 23, 1948.

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Tojo as a Young Army Officer

Hideki Tojo was born in Tokyo in 1884 as the 3rd son of Hidenori Tojo, a Lieutenant General in the Imperial Japanese Army.  He graduated from the Japanese Military Academy in 1905 and was commissioned an Army Second Lieutenant.  In 1909, he married Katsuko Ito, with whom he would have three sons and four daughters.  He began to take an interest in militarist politics during his command of the 1st Infantry Regiment after promotion to colonel in the late 1920s.

Tojo with his Wife and Family

Tojo with his Wife and Family

In September 1935, Tojo assumed a command billet in the field in Manchuria (Northern China).  Politically by this time, he was fascist, nationalist, and militarist, and was nicknamed “Razor” for his reputation of having a sharp and quick mind.  In Manchuria, Tojo was responsible for the expansion of military operations and much wider attacks during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

The Leaders of the Axis Powers - note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

The Leaders of the Axis Powers – note that Hirohito (who escaped execution) is pictures, not Tojo

By 1940 he strongly supported the newly signed Tripartite Pact between Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, and as Army Minister, he expanded the war with China and French Indochina in July 1941.  This latest aggression precipitated a response by the United States who imposed significant economic sanctions in August, including a total embargo on oil and gasoline exports, and demanded Japan’s withdrawal from China and Indochina.  “The heart of the matter is the imposition on us (Japan) of withdrawal from Indochina and China,” Tojo said in a September cabinet meeting.  He continued, “If we yield to America’s demands, it will destroy the fruits of the China incident.  Manchukuo [Manchuria, present-day northeast China] will be endangered and our control of Korea undermined.”


On November 2, under the advisement of Tojo, the Emperor gave his consent to war.  The next day, Fleet Admiral Osami Nagano explained in detail the Pearl Harbor attack plan to Emperor Hirohito.  The eventual plan drawn up by Army and Navy Chiefs of Staff assumed a mauling of Western powers from which recovery would be impossible, leaving the Japanese planned defense perimeter incapable of breach.  On November 5, Hirohito approved the operations plan for a war against the West.  On December 1, another conference finally sanctioned the “war against the United States, England, and Holland” (Holland referring to Dutch control of the “East Indies,” present day Indonesia).

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn....

Tojo in 1942 as the Tide of War began to turn….

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

Tojo as depicted in Marvel Comics of the time

tojo-propaganda-1Tojo continued to hold the position of Army Minister during his term as Prime Minister, and as impossible and improbable as it seems, he also served concurrently as Home Minister, Foreign Minister, Education Minister, and Minister of Commerce and Industry, positions from which he could easily continue militaristic and nationalist indoctrination in the national education system, and totalitarian policies throughout the government.  While Tojo had popular support in the early, victory-filled years of the war, after the Battle of Midway (summer 1942), where the tide of war turned against Japan, Tojo faced increasing opposition from within the government and military.  U.S. wartime propaganda of the time caricatured Tojo as the face of the enemy.

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

Tojo Caricatured in a WWII Powers

After Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur issued orders for the arrest of alleged war criminals, including Tojo.  As authorities arrived at his residence to take him into custody, Tojo attempted suicide by shooting himself in the heart.  However, when American authorities surrounded his house on September 11, 1945, they found him alive but wounded, the bullet having missed his heart and penetrated his stomach instead.  Two Japanese reporters recorded his murmured words: “I am very sorry it is taking me so long to die.  The Greater East Asia War was justified and righteous.  I am very sorry for the nation and all the races of the Greater Asiatic powers.  I wait for the righteous judgment of history.”  Such righteous judgment was never to come.

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

Attempted Suicide and Aid by an American Medic

After recovering from his injuries (after emergency surgery and extensive treatment in an American hospital), Tojo was moved to Sugamo Prison and tried by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East for war crimes and found guilty of waging wars of aggression, and war in violation of international law, as well as ordering, authorizing, and permitting inhumane treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs) and others.  In large part, he is directly responsible for many of Japan’s most egregious crimes of the 1930s and 1940s.

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo on Trial as a War Criminal

Tojo embraced full responsibility in the end for his actions during the war, all-the-while diligently shielding the Emperor from any intimation of guilt, which some claim was the aim of his testimony, on both sides.  The former Prime Minister made this speech during the time of his trial:

Tojo on Trial

Tojo on Trial

“It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so.  Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured.  Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter.  I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false.  To shade one’s words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.”

Hanging Tojo

Hanging Tojo

Tojo's Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo’s Medals on Display (only photo I could find!)

Tojo was sentenced to death on November 12, 1948 and executed on December 23, 1948.  Before his execution, he gave his military ribbons to Private First Class Kincaid, one of his guards, and in an unusual Far East Fling connection, they are now on display in the National Museum for Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, where Jody and I call home and I used to work.  See the National Flight Academy for the facility and amazing experience for young people that I helped to design, build and open.

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo's Granddaughter

Ultra-Right-Wing Nationalists, then and now; Tojo’s Granddaughter Yuko

In his final statements before execution, he apologized for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and urged the American military to show compassion toward the Japanese people.  Tojo is one of the controversial Class “A” War Criminals enshrined at Tokyo’s Yasukuni (see Yasukuni:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead for more) Shrine.  His daughter, Yuko Tojo, a ultra-far-right-wing Nationalist who attempted to rehabilitate her Grandfather’s reputation and role in WWII, claims to have fulfilled a dying wish of the senior Tojo by visiting our Pearl Harbor Memorial in 1999.  “In my grandfather’s will, he said he wanted to hold a ceremony to honor all the war dead, regardless of which side they fought on,” she said. “On behalf of the Tojo family, I’m going to carry out my grandfather’s wish.”

Never Forget

Like my shipmate’s attempts at making amends, we should always strive to atone, but to Never Forget.

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.


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-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-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-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-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.


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-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.



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.


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.


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.



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.


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