Thoughts from Kyo(to)

Thoughts from Kyo(to)

The past few days, I visited Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, that is now only ‘lending’ the capital right to Tokyo, until the turmoil sets and old ways are restored. Being the symbol of geishas, maccha tea and drinking by the river, Kyoto is an amazing city retaining the past atmosphere; which means 1.5 day is definitely NOT enough to capture its magic. Unfortunately, I had only that limited amount of time at my disposal -plus a nasty 21:00 curfew. As I am not a travel guide, I will just mention some points and places that caught my interest.

First things first, I went to Kyoto with the Hikari bullet train. Contrary to my expectation, the ride was smooth, I didn’t notice any sound and I barely even realized when the train stopped at a station.

kyoto_andres (54)

There is an insane amount of temples(tera 寺) and shrines(jinja 神社) in Japan. You can identify which is what by looking for a simple clue: A Buddha statue for Buddhist temples and a torii gate ⛩️ for shinto shrines. Sometimes it is not so obvious, due to religious syncretism. In Kiyomizudera, you pass next to the huge Buddha statue, only to suddenly find yourself caressing some rocks decorated with ropes that will bond you forever with your soulmate. If you pay some extra bucks(~500yen) and write your wish on a wooden block (special shrines come with special designs), you can improve your chances for your wish to be fulfilled. If you are concerned about your luck, there are various ways to better it; you can squeeze your body through a tiny hole on a pillar (I did it, thus I’m lucky for the time being) or walk the holy route under a thousand torii gates (I did it only halfway, but I am already fortunate, so I guess it’s enough).

Nara, the empire capital before Kyoto (around 8th century) is abundant not only in ancient temples, but also in deers roaming around freely. The most famous sightseeing location is the Todaiji-temple. It has been burnt down 2 times and erected 3. In order to avoid the fuss of rebuilding, metal decorative charms shaped as fish tales are mounted on the roof.

If you are tired, a vending machine will always be there for you. Of course, part of a vending machine’s duty is to blend into the background.

The bamboo forest in Arashiyama has recently been on the spotlight, thanks to films with samurais fighting fiercely among the bamboo. Sometimes, visitors mark their presence by scratching their names on the bark of a bamboo tree.

But because winter is not over yet, and we love nature, here’s a traditional technique to protect the young trees in your garden from the ice.


Enjoy the rest of the photos!



MIFA festival &&& stuffs

MIFA festival &&& stuffs

[Featured Image: Puppets from Indonesia]
Every year, for 13 consecutive years already, MIFA (Meguro International Friend Association) organizes a cultural-exchange festival with traditional clothes, dances, food, handmade items and so on. I had the chance to be there as a volunteer teaching my country’s alphabet, and got to participate at the scheduled events at the same time. In the end, I was shouting ‘I am Greek, I am Greek’ while wearing a Japanese kimono and having my hair done in Togo-style dreadlocks. The Japanese said that the combination looked all natural on me, so I guess that’s good enough. 

Afterwards, I headed to Jiyuugaoka in order to buy a birthday present for a friend. If you like weird, cute, absolutely useless but irresistible thingies, Jiyuugaoka is the PLACE-TO-BE. The shops there are insane -the ones that don’t mimic France at least, I can say that I like those much- and sell everything that you never thought you’d want to, but absolutely have to buy. An because we are close to Valentine’s day, a lot of special offers made you want to hunt them all down. (Tokyo Bake Cheese Tart is a dream come true.)

At some point it was time for me to return back home, but two interesting design-related cultural paradoxes caught my attention.  Isn’t Japan adorable?

Cloudy with a chance of hearts

Cloudy with a chance of hearts

[Featured Image: Valentine VR Paradise – a virtual reality store to do all your chocolate shopping, experience it here]

I’ve been living in Japan for quite a while now. I am lucky enough to have experienced Golden week, Tanabata, Obon, Halloween, Christmas and New Year’s. The only thing I am missing yet is the Chinese New Year. Nevertheless, I can strongly argue that freakin’ Valentine’s Day is the biggest commercial celebration in Japan. In the land where if you don’t buy the local-original-unique omiyage (お土産=souvenirs) you are a disgrace, and if you don’t buy a different gentei (限定=limited edition) product every day you are insane, the pink heart celebration is the ultimate gimme-all-your-money shop keeping tactic. Valentine season started a good one month before judgement day, since the 15th of January. We start with the basics, valentine’s cupcakes or coffee and proceed to clothes, towels, electronics, anything you can imagine. That’s the reason why my kiwi’s came as a lovey-dovey couple in a heart-shaped box.


Kiwis in love, inside a heart-shaped box barely containing their passion.

Running late? Prove it.

Running late? Prove it.

Today was a cold, cold day. The coldest day in Tokyo in a period of 48 years, the news read. If you have to work in the morning, you feel the cold piercing through your skin even colder. And then you realize that the trains are late as hell, because a train wagon stopped in Ebaramachi – resulting in two connecting train lines falling into chaos.  So, the “daiya” is interrupted – as the announcer repeats – and I will be late for work. As I get off the train, heading to Shinagawa, the bustling business center, I notice a couple of train employees handing out some small pieces of paper while shouting an announcement to the passengers. I remembered that Japanese companies are strict when employees are late, and for this reason train companies issue apologies and ‘excuse sheets’ when a train is delayed, even for a single minute. I curiously got one of the magic sheets – as I said, I was about to be delayed myself, thinking about handing it to my supervisor.

This is a train delay certificate (遅延証明書  chienshoumeisho) from Tokyou lines. The left hole indicates the delay period (40-60min) and the bottom hole the day of the month (26th). It is more simple than I expected, but what else can you expect from a proof of delay? My first though was how easily you can copy it, print it, and punch holes according to what you need. But someone is probably using the same line as you and words of the delay will spread if it is true, so you don’t want to risk it (they always discuss news about train problems at work). I proudly gave it to my supervisor, but he surprised me by saying that our company is not so strict and that it is the first time he sees something like that up close. Anyway, I’ll keep it as a memento of how even the little things bear enormous consequences in the land of the rising sun.

Greeks in Ueno – Καββαδίας στο Ουένο

Greeks in Ueno – Καββαδίας στο Ουένο

[Greek text]

Πας και χαζεύεις τις ευχές στο ναό στο Ουένο [τοπ τουριστική γειτονιά] και ωπ, σκάει το ποζέρικο καλλιτεχνικό ποίημα του Κυριάκου. Kudos στο ζεύγος που ταξίδεψε μέχρι ‘δω πέρα, αλλά τι ζητάνε, δε θα καταλάβω ποτέ.  *εθνική υπερηφάνεια*
(άμα είσαι στην άπω ανατολή, ε δε θα σκεφτείς ότι μπαρκάρεις σαν τον καββαδία?)

[English text]

All shinto temples in Japan sell rectangular wooden planks, on which you write a wish, and hang it on a wooden frame next to the temple. I guess it is not guaranteed that your wish will be fulfilled, but it never hurts to put some faith in it (Feng Sui, pure auras, etc etc). In most temples you can see all kinds of wishes, for health, money, work. In Kawagoe, in Saitama, you see wishes about finding the love of your life. In Shin-Okubo (Korean town), people wish to attend their fav K-pop band’s concert, or meet their most beloved idol singer in person. In Akihabara, the nearby otakus wish for their favorite anime to get a second season extension. I wonder, what will you see in Ueno? Ueno is a popular tourist spot with the Zoo, big parks and the Ameyoko fish market. The first factor is the key one, and I was happily surprised when I saw a plank written in Greek. No wish unfortunately, only some lyrics from a poem of Nikos Kavvadias[1]. It was enough to make me smirk.

[1] Nikos Kavvadias (Greek: Νίκος Καββαδίας; January 11, 1910 in Nikolsk-Ussuriysky – February 10, 1975 in Athens) was a Greek sailor, poet and writer; he used his travels around the world as a sailor, and life at sea and its adventures, as powerful metaphors for the escape of ordinary people outside the boundaries of reality.  from wikipedia

Day-trip from Tokyo: Odawara castle

Day-trip from Tokyo: Odawara castle

[[Featured image: The Tora (tiger) sign of the Odawara castle.]
[[Image Gallery follows]

It’s been a week now that a university friend is visiting me in Tokyo. He couldn’t have picked a worse time possible. The start of the year comes bearing fruits #NOT: progress reports, presentations, assignments, and so on. Nevertheless, I have to be a good host and entertain my valued visitor, haven’t I? So, one of events that we scheduled was a visit the the Odawara castle in Kanagawa, combined with a short visit to Hakone.

Odawara used to be a powerful city, home of the Houjou clan, that controlled a large part of the Kanto area. The castle was thought to be impenetrable. Then the feudal lords started fighting among each other and hell broke loose. At the battle for the siege of Odawara (which at that time had a coat of arms similar to the Legend of Zelda logo), Odawara castle was sieged by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. For some obscure reason, the soldiers from the disbanded odawara army continued to fight under different clans, while disclosing the castles defense techniques to their new generals, even though the castle did fall to the enemy [because the defense was THAT cool, huh]. Apart from the castle, the main attractions in the vicinity include the seashore and the onsen (hot springs) in Yugawara. 

As soon as we got off at the train station (super easy to get there with JR) we realized that we were hungry. Abiding by the rule ‘no money, no honey’ , we bought cheap sushi bentos and headed straight to the castle, only to stop and eat them outside the main gate. Suddenly, a young lady with a cute child comes talk to us first in English and after judging our ability, in Japanese. I was quite surprised to come across that level of good English (not common for Japanese people) and judging by my prior experience of enthusiastic people of all ages that want to introduce every nook and cranny of Japanese culture and customs to foreigners, we started a long conversation. She offered to show us the castle, and then a small Buddhist temple that had a valuable but unknown statue of Buddha and also teach us some kind of ritual writing. Normally, my head should have started flashing and ding-donging at the first 5 minutes, but my trust in Japanese people must have disarmed the proselytism alarm. We suggested going first to the Buddha and then to the castle, so that we have more time for the later. As we were walking, phrases like ‘The only true god is Buddha and that specific prayer’ and ‘we have so many wars in the world because of all the false religions’ started to appear, managing to re-arm the alarm, and eventually make me excuse myself tactfully. Conclusion: Don’t trust young English-speaking ladies with cute children, they only want to save your soul.

Soon after, we were heading once again towards the castle. This time, we managed to get inside without distractions. It is not as huge and imposing as the medieval castles of the West, but it had a certain charm. White and plain, it looked pretty under the blue sky. We bought a 800yen joint ticket for the castle, the museum and the samurai museum. The exhibits were not so impressive. The important part for me was the castle architecture itself and the wonderful view of both the sea and the Hakone mountainous area, which made clear in mind why that clan had such a power in their hands. However, at that exact moment, I also noticed the smoke of a forest fire on the mountain side and the fire-brigade moving hastily to the rescue. I heard no news about anything serious, and we visited Hakone soon afterwards, so I guess it was not a matter of concern after all. Regarding Hakone, we followed the obvious and usual approach: First visit lake Ashinoko to get a perfect view of Fuji and the red torii gate, and then go to Hakoneyumoto to enjoy onsen. We visited Izumi (和泉) onsen [~1300yen per person], but I consider the onsen at Yoshiike (吉池旅館) hotel [~2000yen per person] a wonderful choice (too many ladies with kimonos in the lounge – I was feeling too dirty and lowly at that point, I wanted to avoid any fanciness). The evening ended with dinner at a restaurant close-by, with tonkatsu and salmon dishes, although when asked for ramen, the onsen receptionist recommended Nisshintei (ハイカラ中華 日清亭).

Fun Japanese history facts:

  • The 3 big unifiers of Japan are Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. There is a phrase  that describes the relationships among each-other:  “織田がつき 羽柴がこねし 天下餅 座りしままに 食うは徳川 – Nobunaga pounds the national rice cake, Hideyoshi kneads it, and in the end Ieyasu sits down and eats it.”
  • Hideyoshi was a nameless peasant that turned to one of Nobunaga’s top generals. But when he rose into power he passed a law that banned class mobility. The samurai right became permanent and heritable.

  • Ieyasu grew up as hostage of Nobunaga’s Oda clan, but despite their rivalry, eventually they became strong allies.

  • Nobunaga had a younger sister. The sister had 3 daughters. One, Chacha, married Hideyoshi. One, O-Hatsu, married Kyogoku Takatsugu (another warlord). One, O-go, married Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son and Tokugawa shogunate heir. But Chacha and O-go’s children, Hideyori and Senhime, married each other. Even in hardships, Nobunaga’s bloodline remained strong and continued to flow quietly underground towards high power concentration.