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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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….

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“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.”

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto:  Jody’s Birthday at the Robot Restaurant of Tokyo


“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”  ~Mae West

Jody takes leave every year for her birthday, and this year was no different.  Planning a trip to mainland Japan in celebration, I set our trip’s itinerary to be in Tokyo for her actual birthday after a short stay in Kobe.  I must admit, in hindsight, it’s hard to image a better way to rejoice in such a momentous occasion than a visit to Robot Restaurant, what Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown proclaimed as the “the greatest show on earth!”

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Well, no quite, but perhaps one of the greatest shows in all of Japan….

Street-Side Advertising

Street-Side Advertising

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-arriving-at-the-robot-showtokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-robot-masterThe Robot Restaurant, or Robot Cafe, is a short walk from Shinjuku metro station.  It should be, however, more accurately branded as a “robot cabaret” because of the music, costumes and dance, although it is TAME by any standard.  While bento boxes can be ordered to eat during the show, I (and almost everyone else) recommend a pass and instead purchase a large popcorn and canned “Strong” alcoholic drinks to satiate you in the short-term.  In other words, eat dinner in any of the nearby plethora of real, non-robotically-staffed restaurants.  Believe it or not, this is one of the most visited entertainment venues in Tokyo – check it out on Trip Advisor to see for yourself!

Free Pictures Outside!

Free Pictures Outside!

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jody-on-the-way-to-the-showIt’s almost impossible to even begin to describe the show which awaits hundreds of eager visitors and tourists every night in the Shinjuku Kabukicho entertainment district of urban Tokyo.  It’s been said that over 1 BILLION yen has gone into the establishment’s development and design.  And yes, that’s billion with a Capital “B,” equivalent to roughly $10 million USD, no small sum by any stretch of the imagination.  I spare no expense for Jody’s birthday.

Lounge View - I think there is where Liberace's soul resides.

Lounge View – I think there is where Liberace’s soul resides.

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-robot-bouncer-at-the-entranceWhile I may not “buy” the validity of this legendary sum (pun intended), there certainly has been a Liberace-inspired sum spent on floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall décor, the pre-show lounge, costumes for the various and multiple performers, and for, of course, the robots themselves.

Another view of the Lounge

Another view of the Lounge

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-american-military-mighttokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-paradeThe show starts in the very corridors of the labyrinth which leads up to the lounge, then down to the basement, then back up to the show’s exit.  Seriously, every square inch of each of the narrow passages is covered with paint, decals, and 3-D models of everything ranging from geckos to heavily armed American army women in patriotic bikinis to skulls pierced with what else but unicorn horns….  And what may not be covered with what only an interior decorator on acid would devise is plastered with LED lights and video screens of every type.  Being herded tightly through these narrow halls is not for the claustrophobic!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-waiting-area-3tokyo-2016-robot-rest-pre-show-drinks-and-gaudy-seatingThe lounge is, well, one of the gaudiest places I have ever seen.  Two levels down from the street, it is equivalent to perhaps the absolutely worst cruise ship bar from the 1980s….combined with transformer-inspired overboard robotic lighting and displays from some dystopic future.  The place is decked out with gold swivel chairs shaped like gigantic underwater shells, over-the-top crystal chandeliers, wall-to-wall mirrors with Asian animal motifs of every kind, neon sparkle in every overhead recess, and huge seamless video screens playing snippets of the most ludicrous Japanese video montages that one can conjure.

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In a Word: Creepy

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-crazy-interior-decorationstokyo-2016-robot-rest-evil-chic-and-her-heavily-armed-robotHanging out in the pre-show of the lounge is akin, I would think, to a mild trip on hallucinogenic mescaline.  No doubt it’s even more sensory overload when jet-lagged or new to Japan.  It’s really hard to believe or describe.  I imagine the owners providing a small army of 8-year old girls with unlimited crayons, glue sticks, glitter, bedazzles and all the chocolate and caffeine they could consume and let them loose to go absolutely crazy for 48 hours without sleep!  The overall theme seems to be “metallic & mirrored,” and the palette is from a migraine-inducing neon rainbow, if there was such a thing!  There’s live music played by costumed creatures, while two metallic bikini-clad vocalists were doing their best to sing soft ballads to spectators that should have been decked out in polyester leisure suits….  A drink – one cheap one – comes with your ticket.  It’s a dive-bar, longue-lizard vibe that probably can be created most anywhere…but sustain only in Japan.

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By the way, according to some accounts, one of the largest collections of Westerners in Tokyo can be found nightly at the Robot Show.  Be ready for many more gaijin than locals, but of many different tongues.  The place seems to be MUCH more popular with tourists rather than locals, or even visiting Japanese.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-costumed-dancerstokyo-2016-robot-rest-armed-robot-and-evil-princessOnce the show floor is ready for seating, it seems like you go up three or four levels.  Entering a very long and narrow show floor that is much smaller than you expect, visitors are directed to squeeze into assigned but well-designed seating, complete with tabletop and cup holders to safely hold drinks and snacks to enjoy during the show.  Popcorn, booze and other munchies are sold prior to the performance’s start and during interludes in the action.  Oh, and take advantage of the complimentary coat check and lockers at the reception counter located across the street from the show-building itself.  The seating is TIGHT, as is most everything else in Tokyo.

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There is Barley Enough Clearance, Clarence!

The program opens with a huge robot-driven float, topped with bikini-clad troupes of taiko drummers alongside monster-masked characters beating on those iconic traditional Japanese drums.  The robot floats are so large and translate so close to floor-side seating that at times we had to duck to allow various robotic appendages to swing safely over our heads.  The rhythmic music, costumed characters and robotics result in loud, fun-filled, AWESOME sensory overload!

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed....

Gigantic Snake Robot Defeating Evil? The Symbology may be Reversed….

tokyo-2016-robot-rest-dancer-likes-big-buttstokyo-2016-robot-rest-transformer-inspired-robot-in-the-showAnd then the robots come out to play.  Robots of every kind.  Some shaped like huge curvaceous women.  Others akin to something out of the Transformer movies.  Then there are robotic sharks and snakes that battle robotic dinosaurs and futuristic tanks.  Some are commanded by fearsome masked male creatures, while others are ridden by Japanese women adorned in risqué fishnets and showgirl glitter, all flashing brightly colored LEDs and lasers.  Tron-inspired characters dash about in glowing Tron-like single-wheeled motorized bikes, between robots which seem to groove to the constantly beating drums, while Amazonian war princesses from the future vie for power and control.

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In other words, the show descends quickly into utter insanity of a kind to which only pictures can really testify in any believable fashion.  There is no linear story-line; don’t waste your limited time trying to understand, and instead just shake your head in amazement.

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They Really Should Invest in a Godzilla!

While the wildly-costumed performers scream and dance and pound on drums mere feet away, you become overwhelmed and confused.  Really, there is so much going on, seemingly deconstructed and without continuity that you have to ask yourself:  “what the hell is happening here?!”  It all seems ridiculously hilarious in true Japanese style, but also impressively pointless.  It’s what I would simply call “Tokyo Madness,” and it is deliciously enticing.

Birthday Girl!!

Birthday Girl!!

tokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-presents-from-the-robot-resturanttokyo-2016-robot-show-jody-birthday-robot-resturant-chips-presentAt one point a nameplate was brought out to mark “special guests,” and one was put directly in front of Jody.  She looked at me and went panicked and pale, I’m sure after instantaneously considering the measurable probability of having to do something “robotic” for her birthday in front of the gathered crowd.  But instead, a call-out was made to the birthdays in the crowd, and robot presents were delivered in a metallically colored gift bag.  Not wanting to miss a beat of the show, and being somewhat suspect (and even scared) of what we would find inside, we saved opening the bag for later.

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Mr. Roboto, Tron called and they want their Ideas Back!

Part sci-fi movie and part campy Saturday matinée creature feature, it is one of the wildest but weirdest live shows I have seen.  Baffling yet entertaining, this onslaught of stimulation overkill can be one of the more outlandish Far East experiences to have while visiting Japan.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-jodys-frontrow-seats-for-the-showNear the end of the show, colored flashlights are handed out to turn the already confused, drug-induced performance into something resembling an ecstasy-infused rave.  While you might be a little dazed at first to know what to do, by the end of the cabaret you’ll be waving your colored stick in encouragement for more!

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-swingin-guitaristIn the end, the show not so much “works” as it is just “awesome,” in a way that just has to been seen to be truly understood.  This sounds like a cop-out, but it is the truth.  The interaction of the show with the audience, the performing robots, the epic battles of good versus evil (still not sure who won), combined with the background fantasy fairyland videos and graphics and how good the popcorn actually is makes this comprehensively awesome.  Even the over-top-top bathrooms lend to the entirety of the show.

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tokyo-2016-robot-rest-drums-and-robotsWhile the tickets weren’t cheap at 6800 yen per person (roughly $65pp), the laughter than Jody and I shared on her birthday due to this show was and will remain priceless.  We will be talking about this incredibly fun evening for quite some time to come.  Remember, however, to correctly enjoy this bizarrely corny show, one has to be relatively lighthearted.  Don’t expect a cohesive story, or story at all.  Just expect the unexpected, accept the premise, and engage your sense of humor!

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It certainly made for an unforgettable birthday celebration for Jody, one of many we had during our latest Far East Fling (stay tuned for more!).

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Robot Birthday Presents, Oh My!

Happy birthday Jody!  I’m already looking for an Amazonian bikini and taiko drum for you for Christmas for use in the production of my very own birthday cabaret in January!  You can use Roomba as your robot….

Show Closing....I Think....

Show Closing….I Think….

Shukubo: Sacred Stay atop Mt. Koyasan


“The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”  ~Matsuo Basho, 17th century Japanese philosopher and poet

Entering Through Our Temple's Gate

Entering Through Our Temple’s Gate

“Here is our drink menu,” our apprentice monk says as he prepares one of our suite’s tatami rooms for our first vegetarian shojin ryori (vegetarian) dinner.  Picking out a nice white Riesling, Jody and I are quite surprised since we are sitting in the middle of a practicing Buddhist temple atop Mount Koyasan, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites in all of Japan.  In fact, it is the very place where Buddhism took hold many centuries ago in this island nation.  The monks here, in progressive and pragmatic fashion, simply don’s take offense at the idea of alcohol.  After all, as they say, they are not the ones partaking!  And like I say, “what would Jesus drink,” right?  Many sects of Buddhism in Japan are not anything like your Mamma’s Southern Baptist Church, Catholic Cathedral, or Jewish Synagogue.  And that’s exactly why this temple will serve as our luxury hotel accommodations for the next three nights.

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

Quiet and Peaceful Accommodations

28253113885_da4d5c10c8_bShukubo is a type of accommodation in Japan that is actually part of a working Japanese temple or shrine.  But it’s really so much more than that.  Shukubo is about capturing the tranquility and the beauty of Japan, which in large part emanates from that country’s legendary spiritual culture and zen-like harmony.  A temple stay can help calm your body and mind, where Japanese rock garden can be peacefully and privately contemplated, and where healthy yet extravagant vegetarian dishes are served privately in your room by resident monks.

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

Corner Suite, Sun-lit Passages, Garden View

28149079872_44610a4d08_bHistorically, this type of lodging was offered only for worshippers, especially those on pilgrimage.  Today however the clientele have expanded and the temples and shrines have become well-accustomed to foreigners of all flavors.  Koyasan is perhaps one of the best places in Japan to experience a night at a temple, with something in excess of 50 of the 117 temples found there serving as shukubo.  But be careful though; the accommodations run the gamut from in expensive hostel-like digs to high-end ryokan (see Live Fishbowl Prime:  Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan for more), and the staff there may not be proficient in your language, or even English.  Reservations can be made online if you are careful; the typical cost for a stay starts at around $100, although there are cheaper and MUCH more expensive rates.  Those with private bathroom facilities, which only a few offer, can climb up in excess of $300 a night, with luxury accommodations costing even more.  Note that like for the rest of Japan, these rates are quoted “per person, per night.”  Most stays include dinner and breakfast, some served privately while others serving family style in a common area.  Many accept credit card, although be sure to check as some still operate on a cash-only basis, although this is becoming more and more rare in Japan.

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

Warm and Comfy Private Facilities

The wooden temple structures, sparse décor, and tatami covered rooms all promote a warmth of form and function which focuses your energy not on things, but on the moment.  The courtyard gardens of sand, rock and foliage, viewed from the rooms’ long, narrow corridors, dictate the essence of a deep spiritual harmony with nature.  And the floor-centric culture found throughout Japan literally grounds one with Mother Earth, resulting in a renewed perspective and one of the most fabulous nights of sleep, EVER.

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

Futons on Tatami are Incredibly Comfortable!

28253136925_eacb41890e_bTemple lodgings typically offer private, traditional Japanese style rooms with tatami floors, paper-covered sliding doors (fusuma) and shared or communal toilets and sinks.  There actually are very few temple stays in Koyasan that offer en suite washrooms.  Thick futons and rice or pellet-filled pillows are spread on the tatami floor in the evening after dinner, repurposing the room’s dining and living room into your bedroom for the night.  There is sparse furniture, if any.  Some shukubo have typical Japanese air conditioning and heat provided in each room by remote control; other more basic accommodations utilize gas heaters in cooler weather and offer no cooling other than a portable dehumidifier during other seasons.

Living and Dining Area

Living and Dining Area

28253131585_92b4003563_bThe temple we selected (“Sojiin,” booked through Booking.com) went far beyond these average standards, and instead offered facilities more aligned with nicer ryokans, complete with private a private washroom, soaking tub, and lavishly prepared and presented meals in our suite that probably approached the size of smaller houses in Japan.  The Japanese measure rooms by the number of tatami mats, and our living/dining room was 12, and our bedroom area was 8.  Since we had a corner suite with long corridors on two sides overlooking the gardens, add another 16.  Then there was our closet/kitchenette area, separate toilet, sink basin, and washroom (waterproof room with shower and soaking tub), say another 4 mats.  Converting 34 mats into square feet returns a value of roughly 700!

Jody Enjoying our Temple's Zen Garden from our Suite

Jody Enjoying our Temple’s Zen Garden from our Suite

28253133865_57d70b9bc8_bJapanese Buddhist temples serve a kind of vegetarian cuisine called shojin ryori.  This is a cuisine completely free of fish, meat, and many of the stronger spices, like garlic or certain onions.  Our monk explained it all this way:  true Buddhists do not eat any animal or animal product from life that is sentient – the ability to feel or perceive and respond to sensations of any kind.  Monks, however, can eat meats and fish if offered to them.  At shukubo, many small delicately prepared and visually stunning dishes served over a number of courses that span sometimes well over an hour, and are thought to be the very origin of Japanese food which has become so popular.  Prepared by the right chef, the meals can be quite delicious, but certainly are different for most Westerners.

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Meals Served Privately over 90 Minutes and Many Courses!

Since Shukubo accommodations are an integral part of working temples and shrines, guests are usually required to follow a certain decorum, or even some house rules.  While some have curfew hours (usually around 0600-2200), others do not.  But they all will have quiet hours, and respect is required at all times throughout the complex.  However, since ancient times, Buddhist Temples and to a lesser extent Shinto Shrines have been accepting of many peoples while offering little or no judgment.  Regardless of your country of origin or religion of choice, as long as you can respect the religion of others, you remain welcomed at shukubo.

Kevin and an Early Dinner

Kevin and an Early Dinner

27972082880_40392c3e9f_bGuests are also invited to participate in morning prayers, which typically begin promptly at 6:00am.  Go at least once to soak in the timeless traditions of esoteric Buddhism of harmonic chanting, rhythmic gongs, and the thick fragrance of incense permeating the air.  The ceremonies last about 30-45 minutes and are followed by breakfast around thirty minutes later.  During your stay, ask for a formal tour of the temple grounds:  each temple has its own unique cultural treasures, painted screens and Zen garden that the staff will happily share with you.

Suite's Sitting Area

Suite’s Sitting Area

28149071702_f7d029f616_bThen there is zazen.  Not every shukubo offers a zazen experience, but it’s worthwhile to find one which does (see Temple Transcendence:  Zen Meditation in Kyoto for our experience).  Sitting still, eyes closed, attempting to empty your mind in phase with the mesmerizing chants, you can begin to feel that the very essence of time slows and moves around you rather than through you as it so harshly does in our normally overly hectic lives.  Zazen provides much-needed escape, a way to break from the inertia of everyday life, stilling forces which normally compel frenzied thought and chaotic motion throughout the day.  In fact, after just fifteen or thirty minutes of focused, controlled breathing, a measure of tranquility can be felt.  It is said that the more demanding a person’s life is or the more cluttered someone’s mind may be, the more relief which may be realized.  Take this opportunity to refresh and revitalize yourself!

Vegetarian Meals

Vegetarian Meals

But why so many shukubo here in Koyasan?  The mountain top serves sometimes as the beginning, but almost always the end of an important pilgrimage for spiritual Japanese (see Mt. Koya:  A Pilgrimage of “Eat, Pray, Bathe” for more).  And all those pilgrims need places to stay and eat during their spiritual quests.  Further, more and more tourists flock to this area of Japan just a short train ride outside of Osaka since it has been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, in large part due to the important and expansive temples and famous cemetery located here, along with ancient cedar forests, historic gates, local restaurants, quaint cafes and of course discount souvenir shops.

Gates Closed at 2200

Gates Closed at 2200

With a town population of only about 3,000, Koyasan stands at the very genesis of Shingon Buddhism, a Chinese-influenced esoteric philosophical interpretation of Buddha introduced to Japan in the year 805 by a man named Kobo Daishi, one of Japan’s most revered religious figures, who’s mausoleum is also found here.  Kongobuji Temple in the town serves as the headquarters for this sect, which has more than 4,000 temples and missions throughout the world.

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The foot of Mt. Koyasan can easily be reached by train from Osaka station or Kansai airport with one switch.  Your fare will include a final funicular ride up the steep mountainside (the Japanese refer to this mode of travel as “cable car”), where a bus can be taken to the stop nearest your shukubo.

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And be sure to clink together a couple of glasses of wine during your stay; the monks will happily oblige, and besides, what would Jesus drink, right?

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Where’s the Beef? At Maru’s in Ishigaki


If you’ve ever had true Japanese beef, just watching – or even listening to a few seconds of the video above will make your mouth water! Like Pavlov’s dogs, it simply can’t be helped. The beef is every bit that good. Sure Kobe beef is a household name known around the world, but what is it about Japanese beef that makes it so expensive…and so damn tasty?

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, tabletop feast WM

We recently had the pleasure of stuffing ourselves silly with Ishigaki beef for our 4th wedding anniversary, celebrated during a stay at Club Med on that Ryukyuan island. Taking a long and expensive taxi ride into town to a restaurant we ate at during a previous visit in 2014, Maru is a place that you can smell long before you see. Walking through the front door, we were greeted loudly by an obnoxious “mooooooooooooooooo,” broadcast in concert to the closing of the door. Checking in for our reservation, we proceeded to order a full sampling of the moo-cow’s finer cuts, with vegetables, rice and a large salad to serve as sides.

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Wagyu, as Japanese beef cattle are called, is a compound word made up of wa (“Japan”) and gyu (“cow”). Although most Americans know Kobe in terms of beef, what you may not realize is that Kobe is only one type of wagyu found throughout Japan. And most of the others are every bit as tasty, some much less expensive.

But what makes Japanese beef so dang delicious? It’s due in large part to the white marbled fat in the meat known as sashi in Japanese, the beef’s most prized aspect. In fact, cattle farmers spare no expense to help create intense patterns of fat that make the meat literally melt in your mouth. In Japan, wagyu beef is graded based almost entirely on the dispersion and amount of sashi present.

maru steak

As a point of comparison, what sets Japanese beef apart from that found in American is the amount of fat found in the meat. For example, prime beef in the United States only needs 6-8% fat to qualify for the highest USDA grade possible. In Japan, however, in order to be graded the highest quality ranking for wagyu (which is “A5”), the meat must have at least 25% marbled fat! And guess what? The sashi found in Japanese beef is primarily the monounsaturated kind, a “good” kind of fat which can actually lower “bad” levels of cholesterol in human blood. So eating Japanese beef is not just delectable, it can actually be…healthy (wink). The marbled fat results in a tenderness that, when cooked, is much like butter, resulting in an amazing flavor and mouthfeel like no other form of beef. The fat literally melts in the heat of the mouth and doesn’t linger. And even though it’s the most tender form of beef on the planet, wagyu retains a rich, meaty mouth feel.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, happy couple WM

We got lucky this time at Maru, at least after politely rejecting our initial waiter who was rather curt and spoke little English. Fortunately, there was another man who both spoke good English and was entirely personable, two qualities needed for an enjoyable anniversary dinner. Although the restaurant was sold out of a number of cuts and menu items, on our waiter’s recommendation, the food and beer started flowing.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, signage WM

Japanese cattle farmers take great care of their animals. Their cows are fed only the highest quality grains, mixed and blended with additives that each farmer holds as a close trade secret. The animals usually only drink local mineral water, all to help ensure the best quality meat results. Farmers are known to feed their cattle beer and sometimes sake to help fatten them up, and also brush and rub sake on their cows by hand in order to better distribute marbling and keep lice and ticks away.

Mura, a corner restaurant hidden away in a residential neighborhood

Mura, a corner restaurant hidden away in a residential neighborhood

Kobe beef comes from cows raised, fed, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe City is located. In America we now have “Kobe-style” beef, meat which comes from wagyu cattle transplanted and raised in the US. While much more inexpensive than that found in Japan, it is much higher in quality than say, American Angus beef, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with the real Far East thang. Why? Shortcuts are taken in American to help contain cost. As you might imagine, the cattle feed in America is of much lower quality, and the personalized attention for individual cows just doesn’t happen under corporate farming in America.

But some of the Kobe beef actually comes from Okinawa Prefecture, at least indirectly. In the southern stretches of the Ryukyu Islands lies Ishigaki Island, where Ishigaki gyu (“beef”) originates. On the island at any one time are about 35,000 head of Japanese “Black Cattle.” Ishigaki, with a year-round warm climate, provides an expansive and always lush grassland perfect for breeding and raising wagyu. Calves born and raised there are often exported throughout Japan, where they mature and become each area’s prized beef, such as that found in Kobe. In fact, only a limited amount of calves (~20%) are kept on Ishigaki to be matured, making Ishigaki beef somewhat rare and high-priced.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, contemporary interior WM

Maru is, from just about what everyone says, one of the best places to find Ishigaki gyu. The popular and locally famous eatery serves up delectable beef that you cook at your table yakiniku (“grilled meat”) style, with a little help from their friendly staff. Using a mini gas-fired barbeque grill in the center of the table, fresh cuts of meat and crispy vegetables are all cooked exactly to order, by you! One problem with East meets West at Maru is that the menu is not available in English, and very few of the waiters speak English.

Today's Specials!

Today’s Specials!

The prime cuts of Ishigaki beef take center stage at Maru, but there many other choices available. Since the servings are generally small, multiple items can be ordered and shared tapas style. Fillets, rib and sirloin cuts of meat top the menu in price, but diners can also sample beef tongue, beef shoulder, offal, beef sashimi, and yukke – raw beef topped with egg yolk. Maru also has a popular nabe (Japanese hotpot), a soup-like mixture of vegetables, tofu, beef broth and some meat.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, peaceful couple WM

Maru’s interior is eclectic, to say the least. Brightly colored art, featuring deep reds and dark blacks adorns the walls, giving the place a very contemporary feel. One of the best parts of any visit is the “Mooooooooo” cow call which greets each diner as they open the front door! Located only about a five-minute walk from downtown makes it a popular place for a meal, even if it can be hard to find. Maru is so fashionable, though, that any taxi driver will know its location.

Capture

Maru is ever bit worth a visit. Hard on your wallet but easy on your taste buds, Japanese beef must be sampled to be truly appreciated. A map to the restaurant can come in handy, and their website is available, if only in Japanese. Likewise, they have an active presence on Facebook, in Japanese as well. Find them at 26-4 Tonoshiro, Ishigaki 907-0004, Okinawa Prefecture, and ring them at +81 980-82-0030.

Maru Map

Itsukushima: The Shrine over the Sea


Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, overwater shinto shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, tidal pools WMWith its brightly colored vermillion lacquered finish, the shrine is dramatically framed by the salty blue sea below and the lush green forest of Mount Misen rising high above. Although there are conflicting stories about exactly why the shrine was built almost entirely over the sea, it is a stunning sight no matter the reason. The reflection of the shrine in its surrounding waters makes for memorable photos, particularly in the theatrical light of an early morning sunrise or in the duskiness of the setting sun. But it is in sensing the spiritual sanctity of the place that makes a visit here so emotionally moving.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, teapot WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shrine lamps WMSince ancient times, it is said, the Japanese people have worshipped on the beaches below and in the woodlands surrounding Mount Misen (see The Fiery Passion of Mounting Mount Misen for more). With origins from as far back as the late 6th century, the Itsukushima shrine’s boardwalk, over-water construction is a result of the island’s sacred status: commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island and those who wished to visit had to remain offshore, so to speak. In fact, the traditional and still ceremonial approach to the shrine is by sea, passing through the famously imposing great “otorii” in the bay (see Floating Torii of Miyajima for more).  Today, visitors can hire a boat to take them through the otorii by sea, but only when the tide is up; this is an especially inviting excursion if the high tide occurs in the evening when the entire complex is bathed in warm light from the surrounding shores.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, otorii gate across the shrine's tidal pools WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, purifying water 2 WMIt is possible to get some fabulously scenic views of the shrine from the areas that surround it east and west. But, if you have time – and it doesn’t take much, pay the inexpensive entrance fee and enjoy the serenity of walking through the shrine’s many passages where a visitor can truly appreciate the intricate curvature of the rooflines, recognize the different mythical creatures cast into the many hanging iron lanterns, and admire the beautifully finished doorways and woodwork. If you time your visit right, or if you are patient enough, you can experience many of the more remote corners of the shrine almost all to yourself. Take your time wandering through the meandering corridors, and be sure to take in the changing views from an almost infinite number differing angles and varying backgrounds of forest, water and adjacent shrines, temples and a five-story pagoda that can be spied over the treetops. Be forewarned through: the relative beauty of the shrine is much altered by the tides. Unless you visit near one of the highs, the shrine (and otorii) are often surrounded by rather unmemorable mud.  Jody and I decided to visit twice to take in different tidal ranges; I also went back in the rain to admire the quiet ambiance of this historical place.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Shinto Monk walking the shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, protective foo dog 2 WMThe shrine’s present architectural form and style dates from about 1168, the time of its last major redesign and rebuild, when the shrine first started to become popular outside of the immediate region. However, the shrine has, on numerous occasions, been since damaged by fire and typhoon, and each time it was repaired, renovations also occurred which resulted in continual expansion and improvement. As its size and magnificence grew, the shrine’s grandeur eventually caught the imagination of the Japanese Imperial Court.  While there most likely will be some type of repair or renovation during your visit, the shear size of the place makes it easy to overlook such necessities.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, lonely boardwalk WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, light from a chinese latern WMStarting in the late 12th century, the Japanese Imperial Emperor and Court paid a number of visits to the shrine, where the shrine experienced a marked degree of prosperity. But such stability was short-lived as the shrine’s influence declined in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is believed that the present-day layout dates from around 1325. Finally, in the mid-1500s, with regional conflicts settled and civil wars over, the shrine regained its reverence and grandeur of centuries past.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, monk and priest geta (wooden clogs) WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shinto shrine WMThe result of such a long evolution is a mish-mash of stylization which reflects the features of the particular periods when construction occurred. The shrine’s overall appearance, though, is most often considered a splendid example of Heian Period Shinden architecture, some saying the finest in all of Japan. This is the same style used at the time for the residences of the Imperial Court and noble class, and can be found throughout the old Imperial Palace in Kyoto.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, silent boardwalks WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shinto shrine at night WMIt’s interesting to note that no nails are used in the boardwalks, and spaces are provided to reduce any buoyant effect of an extreme tide or tidal surge. At such times, the stone lanterns lining the beaches on each side of the shrine are dismantled and set among the shrine’s corridors to provide additional weight against rising seas.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, red shrine nuns 2 WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, leaving a prayer and wish (shrine ema) WMSince the shrine is built in the sea, its foundation posts are submerged in the water and decay rather easily. It is also constantly weathered and sometimes battered by rough seas and even typhoons. And although continual maintenance is thus required, visitors today are still able to see nearly the same shrine as the Heian Court did nearly 800 years ago when Itsukushima was first built.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, ema boardwalk WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody hide and seekOne of the most notably famous structures found within the shrine is the “floating” nōh stage. Built in 1680, it is unique in Japan as it rests completed upon the sea. Sacred dance (shin noh) is still performed here during the annual Peach Blossom Festival in April when traditional court dances in spectacular costumes and ornate masks are featured.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese foo dog (shisa shishi) WM

Sori-bashi (Arched Bridge)

Sori-bashi (Arched Bridge)

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese foo dog (shisa shishi) 2 WMThis bridge, dating to 1557, also called the Imperial Messengers’ Bridge (Chokushi-bashi), was used by imperial messengers who crossed on important festive occasions. Due to the almost impassable slope of the span’s high arch, temporary stairs were assembled and placed on the bridge to allow for much easier passage. The bridge has been repaired several times since construction.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, oriental-inspired shinto shrine arched bridge WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, empty celebratory sake barrels WMToday, the entire complex is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a designated “National Treasure” of Japan. About 3 million people a year come to see Itsukushima Shrine and its huge “floating” otorii gate on the sacred island of Miyajima. As one of the three great scenic views in all of Japan, you too, should go!  Be it an easy day-trip from neighboring Hiroshima, or have a stay in one of the island’s many ryokan, place this island on your Asian bucket list.  You won’t be disappointed.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

 

Read more about Japan’s Floating Shrine over the Sea:

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/japan/western-honshu/miyajima/sights/religious/itsukushima-jinja#ixzz3nGf4EUKq

http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/culture-and-heritage/spiritual-heritage-temples-shrines/sanctuaire-itsukushima.html

Floating Torii of Miyajima


Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Kevin for scale of the floating torii's base at low tide WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMStanding at the base of perhaps the most iconic torii in all of Asia, it’s easy to feel the divine dimension which seems to emanate from each and every wooden fiber. The Great Torii (Otorii) of Itsukushima, a Shinto Shrine on the island of Miyajima, like all torii (see Trampled Torii for more), marks the boundary of sacred ground, a physical reminder of the split between the spirit and the human worlds. It also remains as the ceremonial shrine entrance for souls of the departed and the still living alike.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Torii Gate through a boardwalk holga WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, self-portrait at O-Torii GateThe first Otorii at this location was erected in 1168, a little more than 200 meters offshore. Since then, the gate has continually served the larger shrine, although the one we see today dates to a reconstruction of 1875, itself the eight Otorii in the shrine’s long history. Eight rebuilds are not too shabby for 950 years of sitting in the ocean exposed to the elements!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

Miyajima 2015, Mount Misen, view of the Floating Torii from the rail up the mountain 2 WMThe Otorii is about 55 feet in height, about 80 feet in length at the arch, and weighs a whopping 60 tons. The main pillars are natural camphor, approximately 500 to 600 years old, a tree type known to be resistant to rot and insects. The smaller supporting pillars are natural cedar. The arch has a roof made of cypress bark thatching. Architecturally, today’s design dates back to 1547, and consists of four smaller torii supporting the larger in the style of medieval Ryōbu Shintō (“dual Shinto”), a mix of esoteric Buddhist and Shinto religions.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody and the floating torii 2

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary view of the floating torii 2 WMArguably, the best time to view the Otorii is during high tide, although one must consider lighting as well. When the waters are high, the gate can appear to float dramatically on or over the sea. At dusk the arch can sometimes be beautifully contrasted against the golden skies of the setting sun and distant mountain ranges. During low tide, the waters recede enough to make a relatively dry trek to the Otorii’s base. While the pictures may not be as beautiful, seeing the gate up close and personal is something to behold. The structure is truly a massive one!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, solitary floating torii WM

Shot in the Rain

Shot in the Rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, large brass chinese latern at dock's edge WMCruises around Otorii can be hired at the Miyajima ferry terminal at night when the gate is illuminated by powerful lights along the shore. And, if you’re lucky enough to catch a high tide, the boat will even pass under and through the gate!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody with the floating torii in the rain

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Jody seated at the shrine dock's edge (floating Torii) WMThe structure itself is not sunk or otherwise secured below the seabed, but stands in place strictly under its own substantial weight. Even though, the Great Torii seems all but impervious to the best that Mother Nature can throw at it: it has survived, with little or no damage, storms, typhoons, and even earthquakes.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, night torii in the rain WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, arched Torii WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating tour gate WM

How is this possible? As an engineer, I found this design rather intriguing…if not unlikely. But if you think back 950 years, the technology and tools necessary to build an under-ocean foundation just didn’t exist. Rather, the architect’s strategy focuses on weight that creates pressure, and on wooden joints that offset any potentially destructive forces encountered by absorbing vibration and small displacements of the gate’s various components.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, Selfie in the Rain at O-Torii Grand Torii Gate

Self-Timer, Tripod Portrait, Shot in the Rain!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating torii WMThe Gate stands on two main and four minor pillars, where the smaller supports act to buttress the larger, giving the structure stability in two dimensions. Its weight acts in the third. Although the pillars themselves are the bases of truly massive trees, another seven tons of weight is added topside by filling the boxed structure below the upper arch with a slew of fist-sized stones that ensure the upper structure stays firmly in place. Then the entire structure is held together by wooden wedges, which absorb motion without unbalancing or otherwise damaging the Torii.

View from the base of Mount Misen

View from the base of Mount Misen

 

Miayjima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, glowing floating torii at night WM

The vermilion color of Shinto Shrines and torii across Japan is believed to help ward off malevolent specters. The lacquer which carries the color also offers some protection from rot and decay, since most torii remain constructed of wood. The sun and the moon are painted on the east and the west (respectively) of the Otorii roof, as implored by Feng Shui in an effort to help further block demons.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, tidal boardwalks WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, chinese lantern and floating torii WMThe theatrical Otorii of Itsukushima Shrine and Miyajima island is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions for good reason, and is no doubt the most recognizable and celebrated feature for most any visitor. As one of three officially designated most scenic views in all of Japan, it is one not to be missed!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, torii gate to the shrine WM

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, shooting the floating Torii WM

For more information on the Otorii and Miyajima Island, please see:

http://visit-miyajima-japan.com/en/culture-and-heritage/spiritual-heritage-temples-shrines/le-torii-flottant.html

Day trips from Hiroshima are easily accomplished. Direct two-way ferry service operates between Miyajima and Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, floating Torii through the shrine WM