Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Yojimbo and Sanjuro

I watched these two Kurosawa movies this past weekend. They were recommended to me and I found them at the Little Tokyo library in downtown Los Angeles. Both of them were very entertaining samurai movies from Akira Kurosawa.

Yojimbo is from 1961 and is about a masterless samurai (Ronin) who works to rid a village of two corrupt samurai clans. Yojimbo means bodyguard in Japanese. The ronin, played by the great actor Toshiro Mifune, plays the two clans against each other to his own advantage. He does this by displaying is incredible sword skills and then offering to be their bodyguard.

This film was remade in America as A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. This was a great film and it also had me laughing many times. It is a humorous film but also vey intense and violent. I knew it would be interesting when in one of the early scenes, the ronin enters the village and a stray dog walks by carrying a severed hand.

Sanjuro is a companion film to Yojimbo from 1962. Mifune again plays the ronin and he helps a group of young and idealistic samurai weed out their clans evil influences. Sanjuro is the name of Mifune's character. I liked this film even more than Yojimbo. It was less humorous but more intense. The final sword fight scene was shocking. All I will say about this last scene is that as soon as I saw it I said "holy crap."

I recommend both of these films very highly. If you want to see some incredible and classic Japanese samurai films, watch these two or any of the other Kurosawa films.

Ronin Gai

This is another samurai film that I saw a while ago. This film was directed by Kazuo Kuroki and is a story about a group of masterless samurai (ronin) who defend a small village from abusive Tokugawa government samurai. This film was entertaining but it was not at the same level as a Kurosawa film.

The movie takes place at the time that the Tokugawa Shogunate was nearing collapse and the number of ronin were growing. In the small village, a group of low-life ronin spend their time getting drunk and basically wasting away their lives. The story centers around a brothel where the villagers and ronin hangout getting drunk at the end of each day and enjoying the company of the girls of the brothel.

Eventually, one by one, the girls of the brothel are killed by unknown swordsmen as they conduct their business during the late hours of the night. Soon the villagers and the ronin learn that it is the Tokugawa samurai that are committing the murders. But the villagers fear and desperation increase as no one seems brave enough to confront the Tokugawa samurai or to report it to government authorities.

Finally the group of ronin can take no more of seeing the village and the girls being terrorized by the band of government samurai. The ronin's long-lost notions of honor and valor, the samurai code of bushido, returns and the ronin confront the evil Tokugawa samurai in a final epic sword battle.

The film has a similar storyline as that of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Although not as good, it is still a worthwhile film to see in my opinion.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


This is another movie from the great director Akira Kurosawa.  The 1985 film depicts an aging warlord from the Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States Period, between the 15th and 17th centuries.  In the movie, the warlord Hidetora decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons.  The story is based on legends of the daimyo Mori Motonari, as well as on the Shakespeare tragedy King Lear.

This movie is considered Kurosawa's last Epic with a budget of $12 million.  The movie is a classic depiction of the lust for power and how this lust can destroy even close families. The three brothers all compete with each other for more power, eventually fighting with each other and destroying the family including their father Hidetora. The movie follows the plots, schemes, and betrayals of the brothers and how the three quickly began to distrust each other.

Kurosawa originally based his story on the Sengoku era warlord Mori Motonari who also had three sons. Kurosawa imagined what would have happened had these sons gone bad. Apparently, Kurosawa, although similar to Shakespeare's play King Lear, Kurosawa only became aware of the similarities after he had started pre-planning the movie.

I have read that according to Kurosawa, the film was also metaphor for nuclear warfare. In the movie, the equivalent for nuclear destruction and technology in warfare is the arquebus, an early firearm that was introduced to Japan in the 1500s. Arquebuses revolutionized samurai warfare, forever altering the historic use of swords and that of the individual samurai warrior. Now, samurai warfare would often be conducted by massive armies engaging each other at a distance. Several battle scenes show this new type of warfare. In one battle, arquebusiers destroy a cavalry by firing from a forest where the cavalry was unable to navigate. In another scene, one of the brothers is assassinated by a sniper using an arquebus.

I loved this movie as much as the other Kurosawa movies I have seen. Ran, which means chaos or revolt, is a major theme of the movie. The plots and betrayals make the entire movie very interesting.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blowfish poisoning sends 7 to hospital in Japan

From the AP.


Blowfish testicles prepared by an unauthorized chef sickened seven diners in northern Japan and three remained hospitalized Tuesday after eating the poisonous delicacy.


The owner of the restaurant in Tsuruoka city, who is also the chef, had no license to serve blowfish and was being questioned on suspicion of professional negligence, police official Yoshihito Iwase said.


Shortly after, they developed limb paralysis and breathing trouble and started to lose consciousness — typical signs of blowfish poisoning — and were rushed to a hospital for treatment, Iwase said.


"It's scary. If you go to a decent-looking restaurant that serves fugu, you would assume a cook has a proper fugu license," Iwase said, using the Japanese term for blowfish.


Blowfish poison, called tetrodotoxin, is nearly 100 times more poisonous than potassium cyanide, according to the Ishikawa Health Service Association. It can cause death within an hour and a half after consumption.


First of all, I don't think I want to be eating testicles from anything. Second, I don't think I want to eat anything that is 100 times more poisonous than potassium cyanide.  It is amazing that a chef without a Fugu license was serving this. It would make sense that Fugu licenses should be prominently displayed in restaurants authorized to serve this type of fish.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mishima's Sword - Travels In Search Of A Samurai Legend

This book, written by Christopher Ross, is about the adventures of the author in searching for what happened to the samurai sword once owned by Yukio Mishima and used for Mishima's famous seppuku in 1970.

I briefly described Mishima is a previous post here.  The book is really about what the author goes through in Japan while researching Mishima and trying to find the missing sword. It was an interesting book as it explains some of the bizarre qualities of Mishima's life.

Some of the experiences the author had seemed to be a little hard to believe or amazing coincidences. One such experience was when the writer returned to England and encounters a homeless person who he describes as a family member of some deposed royalty from some African country or something (?). The author walks by the homeless person and then the homeless person suddenly shouts out something about Mishima. There is know hint that the homeless person knew the author or what the author was currently writing about. It just seemed the most incredible coincidence.

Another time the author describes a meeting with a former gay lover of Mishima to interview him about Mishima and that they met at an S and M club in Tokyo. The author describes how he had to take off all his clothes and wear only one of the Japanese cloth diaper type things and wander around the club looking for his contact while witnessing some bizarre sex acts.

Another adventure by the author involved Yakuza who were looking for a friend of the author. They "took" the author to their HQ and asked him some questions about his friend. The author said he did not know where his friend was and that he was in Japan to write a book and was trying to find Mishima's sword. The author gives the impression that the Yakuza helped him eventually find the sword. Again, maybe it happened but an incredible story nonetheless.

It was still an interesting book regardless of some of my skepticism of some of the Author's adventures so I would recommend it if you are interested in Mishima.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tochigi Bound

I am coming to Japan.

February 15th to the 28th I will be in Otawara, Tochigi. My wife and two little boys have been there for a while visiting Ojichan (Jiji) and Obachan (Baba). Now I will come out for a couple of weeks before we all return back to Los Angeles. I can't wait to see everybody.

Otawara is a small city in Northern Tochigi. There is not much to say about it but I really like it there. I love the small city atmosphere and the rice fields and the simplicity of Otawara. Here is the Wikipedia article about Otawara, which I wrote the majority of.

I will also be visiting Nikko where the rest of my wife's family lives. Nikko is my favorite place in Japan and it is about 30 or 40 minutes West of Otawara by car. I have been there so many time I know the route from Otawara to Nikko by memory. It is not like jumping on the highway or freeway in the US. There are many different small Japanese streets and roads on the way to Nikko. But I am pretty certain I could make it from Otawara to Nikko without help if I had to.

There are no specific plans for after I arrive. But one thing I will do when I get a chance that I always do everytime I visit Japan is I will go for long walks around town and exploring the neighborhoods.  By now Otawara is so familiar to me that I can walk pretty much anywhere and I know exactly where I am. 

I remember the first time I came to Japan, I went for a walk by myself but I was so worried that I would get lost so I just went to the main road near my in-laws house and walked one direction and then back the other direction.

There is one new thing that I will be doing for the first time while in Japan. Driving. I am going to get an international drivers permit so my wife and I and the boys can go places on our own. She can't drive in Japan because she did not get an international license so I will be doing the driving. I am a little nervous about the driving on the left side of the road though. If any of you are in the Tochigi area, better watch out on the roads for some foreigner driving on the wrong side. It might be me.

Maybe I will drive to Nikko.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sumo obsessed and poor? Go to the back gate.

From the Los Angeles Times

For obsessed sumo fans who can't afford the tickets to the sumo tournaments, the best place to go for seeing your favorite wrestling stars is the back gate.  The Los Angeles Times often has interesting articles about Japan.  In the Friday edition of the Times is an article about the best place to view sumo wrestlers for those who can't afford the tournament.  It is the same in the US as well. People who hang out at the entrance to the secure parking area of a sports arena hoping to catch a glimpse of Kobe Bryant or Ichiro.  Although you will probably never see any sports star in the US get "dropped off" by a taxi or private car at the stadium or arena.

According to the article, the sumo wrestlers will exit right out of a taxi cab at the sidewalk already dressed in their colorful robes.  Yokozuna Asashoryu of course does not enter the arena like this.  He and other top stars enter in limousines and are not seen by the fans out on the street.  It is the lower level wrestlers that often arrive by cab, private car, or even the subway but that appears to be ok for the many fans waiting outside the back gate.

Most tickets for the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament start at $35 (approximately 3500 Yen) which does not seem too expensive but I guess due to the recession and the cost of living in Tokyo, that is more than many people can justify paying. 

Back in the late 80's, early 90's, I did this after attending some Los Angeles Laker games at the old Forum.  Magic Johnson and the other big Laker stars parked in the secure parking area under the Forum. I once saw Magic drive out in a large dark Mercedes.  But some of the lower level players had to park outside.  A few times I waited by the exit to their parking area and got a couple of autographs.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

No Touching, or Licking, at Tokyo Fish Market


The Tsukiji Fish Market had been closed to tourists for several months but now recently sections of the market have been reopened to tourists.  The official reason for the original closure was due to the busy year-end trade.

However, Japanese media had been reporting that the real reason was due to tourists getting in the way and not following the rules. "Bad Manners" by foreign tourists mainly.  This problem apparently had been growing recently due to the increasing popularity of the market as a tourist attraction, especially for foreigners.

Some fish traders had long complained of the tourist disruptions.  I have never visited Tsukiji but have known of it for a long time. I was always surprised that tourists were ever allowed to wander around the market.

The MSNBC article has a link to a video of a visitor to the market licking a very expensive tuna before it was sold at auction.  Apparently this being the final bad incident that led to the closure.

Now that the market is open again to visitors, precautions have been taken including etiquette flyer's and security guards during the auction.  Some are very happy of the return of the visitors however, including owners of the many small counter-only restaurants such as Oedo.

So, remember, when visiting Tsukiji.  DON'T KISS THE FISH. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


This past weekend, I watched Rashomon, another great film by Akira Kurosawa. Once again, just like the Seven Samurai, this is an incredible film by Kurosawa that I highly recommend.

The film is about the rape of a samurai's wife and of the four very differing accounts of the crime described by four witnesses, including bizarrely, the murdered samurai through a medium (this scene was very strange but also very interesting).

The lighting, the acting, the writing, all classic Kurosawa. One of the greatest directors in history.

I did not understand the significance of the Rashomon temple to the movie however. I porbably am just missing something so someone maybe can explain the significance of the temple. I understand that the monk in the film belonged to the Rashomon temple and the temple was the setting of the characters who were describing there recollections of the crime. But I am not sure why the film is called Rashomon just based on that.

I highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Last Weekend I watched the 1985 Japanese movie "Mishima, A Life in Four Chapters", directed by Paul Schrader and produced by Francis Ford Copola and George Lucas.

The movie is about the life of Yukio Mishima. Have you heard of Mishima? He was one of the most famous Japanese authors of the 20th century. I am not going to go in great detail about Mishima's life. Mishima had a very interesting, bizarre, strange, let's say, "unique" life. And the movie portrayed that well.

Mishima is most famous for what he did at the end of his life.

Picture this. Imagine one of the most famous writers, directors, actors, celebrities in your country. Imagine that this celebrity was extremely famous and unique, maybe a little bizarre, quirky, whatever, and this is probably why he or she was so talented. Then imgaine this very famous celebrity, in an effort to change things or change his country, committed a most extreme and bizarre public suicide.

This is what Mishima did. Mishima wanted to bring Japan back to where it was before WW II. He wanted Japan to revere the Emperor again. He wanted the Emperor to regain control. In 1970, at the age of 45, Mishima went to a military base in Tokyo to meet with a general. The general assumed it was a normal social call. But when Mishima and some followers showed up for the meeting, they quickly tied up the general and demanded that the base soldiers assemble in front of the building.

Mishima climbed out on to the second floor balcony to give a patriotic speach to the soldiers pleading with them to join him in restoring Japan and restoring the Emperor. But the soldiers jeered and heckled him. Police and news helicopters circled overhead drowning out Mishima's voice.

Dejected, Mishima climbed back into the room where the general was being held. He kneeled on the floor, removed his shirt, pulled out a knife, and committed seppuku, plunging the knife into his belly. Done exactly the same way as the samurai did centuries before in old Japan before the Meiji Restoration.

It was the duty of one of Mishima's followers to act as Mishima's Second, to cut off Mishima's head after Mishima cut open his belly. But his Second was terrified and began shaking terribly. After Mishima cut his belly, his Second attempted to cut off Mishima's head. But he missed his neck. Instead slicing into his shoulder. The Second tried again, but he was off the mark again and hit Mishima's jaw with the samarai sword blade cutting into his jawbone. (These suicide events were not depicted in the movie but come from a book I am currently reading about Mishima).

Finally, one of the other followers took the sword and with one swing cut off Mishima's head. Then, as was planned, he cut off the head of Mishima's Second.

This was a good movie. If you are familliar with Mishima's story, then I recommend this film. Also, I recommend reading the book, "Mishima's Sword, Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend", especially if you are not familiar with his story. I am currently reading this book which was written by Christopher Ross.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa


What a great movie.  Probably one of the greatest samurai movies of all time.  And one of the greatest movies created by the great director Akira Kurosawa, widely considered his greatest piece of work.  The characters, the story line, the filming. Amazing. One of my favorite films of all time. 

I first saw this film in 2006 and I recently watched it for a second time.  It takes place during the Warring States Period in Japan, around the late 1500s.  It is a story about a village of farmers who are terrorized by vicious bandits. The village hires a group of seven masterless samurai, ronin, to help them fight the violent criminal bandits.

The film is in Black and White and was the single largest undertaking by a Japanese filmmaker at the time. It had a major influence on the Western film, The Magnificent Seven, which was adapted from The Seven Samurai.

I have seen several samurai movies including some others by Kurosawa and this was by far the most impressive. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I am John Manjiro

Have you heard of John Manjiro?  He is somewhat famous in Japan.

My first name is Jon and my wife and her family used to call me John Manjiro.  I did not know why but I just thought it was some funny name they made up and I did not think about.  But then several years ago while I was surfing the net about Japan, by chance, I came across the story of John Manjiro.  I caught them.

In 1841 at the age of 14, John Manjiro, whose fishing vessel was wrecked in Ashizuri-oki, landed on Torishima Island, where he was rescued by a U.S. whaler ship and brought to America. 

He became the first Japanese to set foot on American soil.

Manjiro, taking the name "John Manjiro," was welcomed by the citizens of Fairhaven and New Bedford Massachusetts where he disembarked.  He became the first Japanese student to receive an American elementary and intermediate education as well as a high school education in English, Mathematics, Navigation and Shipbuilding, History, and Geography. He also acted as First Mate on a whaling ship's 40-month journey around the world.

At 24, his thoughts turning to the importance of opening Japan and to his mother, he resolved to return to closed Japan, even at the pain of death. He departed Hawaii and landed in the Ryukyu Islands in 1851. Undergoing investigation there, he then went further in the Ryukyus and on to Nagasaki and Tosa, where he was repeatedly interrogated for the crime of contravening the nation's policy of isolation. He was finally permitted to return to his home in Nakanohama in October of 1852, and mother and son enjoyed a moving reunion after their 12-year separation.

Manjiro had the dream of appealing directly to the Shogun and becoming a force for the opening of Japan, but the urgency of the times demanded the technical and general knowledge that Manjiro had brought from America. Manjiro had just three days and nights with his mother before he was called back by Yamanouchi Yodo, Lord of the Tosa Domain. He became a teacher at the Tosa School, lecturing on American democracy, on freedom and equality, and it is said that he greatly influenced Sakamoto Ryoma and Goto Shojiro.

There are some books on John Manjiro that I plan to read so I may write a little more about this man who was one of the inspirations for Sakamoto Ryoma.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Dog Shogun

The Dog Shogun

By Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey

This book was pretty good.  What I liked about it was how it portrayed what I believe is a more accurate image of the The Dog Shogun, the fifth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709).  He has long been ridiculed by historians for being a tyrant and eccentric. Extreme, unorthodox.  Tsunayoshi was the fourth son of Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun.  Iemitsu was the son of Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada and the grandson of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tsunayoshi's Laws of Compassion, which made maltreatment of dogs an offense punishable by death, earned him the nickname Dog Shogun.  However, his rule coincided with with the great Genroku era, a period of incredible cultural growth and prosperity that Japan would not experience again until the mid 20th century. 

It was the first time in Japanese history that vast numbers of ordinary townspeople were in a financial position to acquire an education and enjoy many of the amusements previously reserved for the ruling samurai elite.

The book explains how Tsunayoshi's negative image was actually the work of samurai historians who saw their privilages challenged by a ruler sympathetic to commoners.  A shogun who was for the first time raised by his birth mother, a daughter of a commoner.  A shogun who deeply followed the confucian philosophy of a benevolent ruler.  As well as the Buddhist precepts of compassion for all living beings.

Tsunayoshi was not only the first ruler to decree the registration of dogs, which were kept in large numbers by the samurai, but also the registration of pregnant women and young children to prevent infanticide.  He decreed that officials take on the onerous task of finding homes for abandoned children and caring for sick travelers.

The author did a good job of countering the widely held negative views of Tsunayoshi.  I highly recommend this book. It can get a bit tedious at times with a lot of names of officials and extensive descriptions of Tsunayoshi's confucian beliefs and origins. But overall, it was a good book that I feel rightly protrayed Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in a more accurate light.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Japan is so interesting

Japan is so interesting to me.  Why is Japan so interesting? Maybe it is because it is the only real "foreign" country I have ever been to. I have been to Mexico. But living in Califonia, Mexico is really not very foreign. I have been to Canada. But come on. Is Canada really that different then the United States, other then being able to watch Seinfeld in French, it really is not that different.

Japan is just so different to me.

I consider myself a very observent and visual person. I like to see things. When in Japan, I notice very clearly the most unique things that I have never seen before in California. The Buddhist temples. The Shinto shrines and their torii gates. The Shinkansen rocketing above the rice fields in Tochigi. 

But I also notice the most minute things that are still so different and interesting to me. The family restaurants like Flying Garden seem the same, but they're not. 

The cinder block walls that surround so many homes seem the same as back home in California. But they're not, they are different. They are narrower. They are slightly covered in a black mildew from Japan's humid and wet environment. They are just not the same.

The employees who shout out their greeting as you enter the store, like UNIQLO, and hand you your change on a little tray in the most polite manner you will rarely see in Los Angeles.

How everyone backs their cars into their parking slots in the parking lot at the local Tobu or Aeon shopping center.

Who cares about the cinder block walls, or how Japanese people park their cars, or how they greet you in stores.

But to me it is these little, and big, things, that make me so excited and interested everytime I visit Japan.

Premium tuna fetches $100,000 at Tokyo auction

From MSNBC.com.  This must be some damn good tuna.  I have never had such expensive tuna before.  The best I have had was from Nobu in Las Vegas.  Very, very good.


Two sushi bar owners paid more than $100,000 for a Japanese bluefin tuna at a Tokyo fish auction Monday, several times the average price and the highest in nearly a decade.

The 282-pound (128-kilogram) premium tuna caught off the northern coast of Oma fetched 9.63 million yen ($104,700), the highest since 2001, when another Japanese bluefin tuna brought an all-time record of 20 million yen, market official Takashi Yoshida said.


Yoshida said the extravagant purchase — about $370 per pound — went to a Hong Kong sushi bar owner and his Japanese competitor who reached a peaceful settlement to share the big fish. The Hong Kong buyer also paid the highest price at last year's new year event at Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the world's largest fish seller, which holds near-daily auctions.


A slightly bigger imported bluefin caught off the eastern United States sold for $15,400 in Monday's auction.


"It was the best tuna of the day, but the price shot up because of the shortage of domestic bluefin," Yoshida said, citing rough weather at the end of December. Buyers vied for only three Oma bluefin tuna Monday, compared to 41 last year.


Typical tuna prices at Tokyo fish markets are less than $25 per pound. But bluefin tuna is considered by gourmets to be the best, and when sliced up into small pieces and served on rice it goes for very high prices in restaurants.


Premium fish — sometimes sliced up while the customers watch — also have advertising value, underscoring a restaurant's quality, like a rare wine.


Due to growing concerns over the impact of commercial fishing on the bluefin variety's survival, members of international tuna conservation organizations, including Japan, have agreed to cut their bluefin catch quota for 2009 by 20 percent to 22,000 tons. 



I have made some more additions to my list of Japan Blogs I visit on the left.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Geiko's Journey

The Geiko's Journey series.

This was an interesting series. It is my understanding that a Geiko is a Geisha in Kyoto dialect. But it was also my belief that when a Geisha or Geika performed, they always performed in their white makeup. But most of the performing the Geiko in this series did was not in white makeup.

I like the Matron or head mother of the Geiko. She has a smokers voice but a funny and outgoing personality.

Part one

Part two

Part three

Part four

Part five

Friday, January 02, 2009

Executions in Japan

I think most people in the United States, and possibly in other countries as well, believe that the United States is the only wealthy democratic nation that still has capital punishment.  That the only other nations to utilize capital punishment are nations like China, Iran, North Korea or other regimes in places like Africa.

Many people would be surprised to hear that Japan also has capital punishment as well.  Although I have known for a while that Japan conducted executions, I was surprised that there were 15 executions in Japan in 2008.  I had thought there were only a few each year at the most.  This I discovered from a Daily Yomiuri article.  I was also surprised that these 15 prisoners were executed after spending only an average of 4 years on death row.  In the United States, I believe the average is probably closer to 15 to 20 years.

The article stated that 2008 was the first time since 1976 that more than 10 people were executed in one year.  It also stated that the relatively short time on death row was due to the Justice Ministry's goal of making the waiting periods shorter.

I have doubts about capital punishment in general with the many stories I have read about of prisoners being released after 15 or 20 years after new DNA or other evidence comes out proving their innocence.  It is scary to think of any prisoners executed who may not have been guilty but that DNA technology did not exist at the time.  Because of this, four years on death row before being executed seems to be not a good idea.