Aomori #5: Tsugaru Shamisen (津軽三味線)

Aomori’s fifth postcard features a man playing the Tsugaru Shamisen. Shamisen is a traditional Japanese instrument with three strings, adapted from a similar Chinese instrument introduced around the 16th century. You can read more about this instrument here. Tsugaru is a style of instrument and playing that originated in Aomori, and grew popular throughout Japan. Read more about the genre here.

I visited Aomori several years ago, but I didn’t know about its connection to the shamisen at that point, so I didn’t pay attention to anything shamisen-related. However I’ve attended a concert of the renowned Yoshida Brothers, who play in Tsugaru style, and it was simply fantastic! I can’t give enough praise to them and their amazing music! I recommend watching a few of their videos… my favorite songs of theirs include Kodo, and a collaboration they did a few years back with Monkey Majik called Change. It’s mostly sung in English, and is a really catchy song (and great for post-writing!)

A few pictures from the Yoshida Brothers concert about 6 years ago… please excuse the poor quality. This was back in the point-and-shoot days!

Program for their Ibuki tour

Shamisen shadow

…technically pictures weren’t allowed, so I didn’t take any of the brothers themselves. Just note, the concert was really great!

If you’re interested in shamisen, there is a lot of opportunities in Japan to learn about and listen to this fantastic instrument! In Aomori, of course, there is the Tsugaru Shamisen Kaikan in Goshogawara, which has daily performances. In Hirosaki, a few izakaya (Japanese-style bars) in the area have performances as well.

In Tokyo, there are occasional performances at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Unfortunately, it’s closed for renovations through March, so information on upcoming performances isn’t reliable. However, if you’re in Tokyo and are interested in shamisen performances, please email/message me and I will help you find some for your dates if it is when the Museum is closed.

And of course, throughout Japan whether the Tsugaru style or others, there are many chances to listen to shamisen. Please give this amazing instrument a try!

Akita #1: Namahage (なまはげ)

Only a few more days until 2015, and I can’t believe the year has gone so fast! Today’s postcard takes us up north to Akita prefecture, whose Namahage demons come out on New Year’s Eve looking for all the children who have been lazy during the year. Will the Namahage come for you? I’m pretty sure I’m out of luck!

Like Namahage? This is a great site with lots of information on the origins and current practices of the Namahage for those interested in learning more, and you can also watch a great video about it here produced by NHK for their great 5 minute Fudoki series.

A namahage wall hanging I bought in Akita, and the Namahage postcard

A namahage visited Tokyo and deigned to pose with people on the street

And another resided until recently in Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi building

Finally, some Namahage themed products from my visit to Akita a few years ago.

My visit to Akita was for the Kanto Festival in the summer, so I didn’t get a chance to see any Namahage, but even if you can’t be in Akita for New Years Eve, there are many opportunities to see Namahage. In Akita itself, in February the Namahage Sedo Festival is held, which gives participants a chance to see Namahage and get some rice cakes from them. (Watch a video about the Sedo Festival with English subtitles here) At the Namahage Museum in Oga you can experience Namahage year-round.

And if you can’t make it out to Akita yourself, consider visiting a Namahage-themed restaurant where you can eat Akita-style foods and be terrorized by Namahage yourself! here’s a short blurb about it in English, and there are restaurants like Namahage in Ginza (English here) where you can experience this. I like this video for a good idea of the restaurant, with some extra information about another Akita specialty also featured on a postcard… kiritanpo! You know, I’ll go to Tokyo in January… maybe I will get a chance to eat there myself?

Anyway, Happy New Year 2015 from Postacollect, and watch out for those Namahage New Years Eve!

Tokyo #2: Tokyo Tower (東京タワー)

We’ve had a long enough break for a new Tokyo post, right? Yesterday a big typhoon came right through the middle of Japan, but luckily it was not so bad in my area. Some heavy rain, heavy wind, and then clear skies and warm temperatures followed. But that’s not what I want to talk about with this post.

Next Monday the 13th is another holiday here in Japan, this time Health and Sports Day (体育の日) which began after the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 to commemorate Japan’s successful games and to promote sports and physical and mental health. Schools all around the country often hold a mini-Olympics called undokai or sports festivals on or around this time of year.

There’s nothing in postacollect about anything related to this day, so I chose to highlight another Tokyo postcard as the next best thing. By the way, in 2020 Tokyo will host the summer olympics again. I wonder if we’ll get a new holiday after that one too?

Iconic Tokyo Tower is the subject of this second postcard for Tokyo Prefecture. Recently eclipsed by Tokyo Sky Tree, it nevertheless continues to be a popular destination and symbol of Tokyo for locals and tourists alike! Built in 1958 it is 333 meters tall and like all new towers, it was the world’s tallest until the title was passed on, as it usually is. Today, you can visit the tower. Check out the official site here!

I’ve never visited the tower up close, but have seen it on all my visits to Tokyo. I especially like the view of it from Odaiba along with the Rainbow Bridge. Unfortunately, I can’t find a good picture of it from Odaiba. I think the night views are the prettiest, but also the hardest to get. I’ll try to get some pictures of it the next trip to Tokyo I take. Meanwhile, visit the official site to see photos and videos

Tokyo 3: Ueno Zoo (上野動物園)

“ANOTHER Tokyo Post?!” you may ask. I’m sorry. I’ve run out of excuses. Content yourselves with the knowledge that this is probably the last one for a long time, as I am pretty much Tokyo-ed out now. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tokyo, but we need a break. Absence makes the heart fonder and all that…

So, yes, Tokyo! Today let’s go to the zoo! Actually, I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually been inside Ueno Zoo. I’m more of an aquarium person to be honest… I could stare at fish swimming around for hours, but the zoo has never held much interest for me. Sure the pandas would be cute, and I’ve caught sight of a few lemurs through the gates before, but usually I’m too busy looking for Mexican food to spend any time inside.

So these pictures are not very informative of what the zoo actually looks like, or the animals they have. From the postcard you can see that obviously there are pandas (Ueno went crazy when we got a mated pair from China in 2011! CRAZY!). There are definitely gorillas and other monkeys. I mentioned the lemurs. I believe there are tigers. I bet there is a petting zoo too. But I honestly have no idea. So go for yourself and see what there is to see! Meanwhile, I’ll be in Shinagawa Aquarium.

I live for these pictures. Really.

These bushes could use a trim… the back animal is definitely supposed to be a gorilla, but the front one just looks like a blob to me.

Sign detailing zoo information outside of Ueno Station

Did I mention the panda craze? There are pandas EVERYWHERE in Ueno. You don’t believe me, I can tell, but I’m really really serious. If you don’t like pandas, don’t go to Ueno!

There are actually a ton of things to see and do in Ueno Park besides the zoo, so don’t spend your whole day in the zoo! Also check out the fantastic museums, shrines, and temples there too!

Ueno Zoo is open from 9:30 to 5PM, usually closed Mondays, and is 600yen. The official site is here, and you can read more about what Ueno has to offer here.

Say “hi” to the pandas for me when you see them!

Tokyo 4: Shinjuku Government Building (東京都庁舎)

I’ve been going to Tokyo a lot recently. Although I really like Tokyo generally, usually I go maybe once every three months, if that, so it’s always nice to go. The past few months, however, I’ve going at least once a month, and this past month twice. It’s exhausting!

It also means that while I’m getting plenty of new pictures for this blog, it’s getting pretty Tokyo-centric around here. I promise to start posting more from other prefectures soon… I’ve just been going to Tokyo too much to go anywhere else!

While I hopefully gather some new material this weekend, let’s talk about the Shinjuku Government Building in Tokyo. Shinjuku is one of the most famous stations in Tokyo (and the biggest station in the world!), and is a well-known tourist destination. There’s a lot to see, a lot to do, and a lot to eat in Shinjuku at all hours of the day and night. While you’re there, consider heading to the Government Building to see not only its unique shape, but the view from the observation platform. If you get lucky, you might catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji!

This past trip was extremely rainy. I grabbed this picture in a light drizzle, but it wasn’t worth going up to see nothing but rainclouds!

So I’m also posting a few pictures I’ve taken before in fairer weather!

The view from the observation platform around sunset

The Shinjuku Government Building Observation platform is open from 9:30AM to 11:00PM, although the times differ a bit depending on which Tower you visit. You can read more about the towers and how to get there here, and if you go, don’t forget to check out the second story as well… if you’re lucky, there may be a fair going on! There wasn’t when I went unfortunately.

Tokyo 6 – Shibuya Scramble Crossing (渋谷スクランブル交差点)

Ahhh, Tokyo. Always filled with thousands upon thousands of people. When you’re a country-living girl like me, going to Tokyo is at once fascinating and stressful. The idea of living jam-packed with people like that is an exhausting one… I like visiting Tokyo because I know I can leave!

One of the best places to people watch the mass of humanity is in Shibuya. Right outside Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit is the famous “Scramble Crossing”… 5 roads meet at an intersection that allows pedestrians to cross any way they wish, resulting in a “scramble” from one street to another in all directions. Standing in the middle is a bit exhilarating. Trying to take a picture in the middle and realizing you have about .5 seconds to get to safety is terrifying. Tokyo traffic means business!

Tokyo Postcard and Shibuya Scramble Crossing

And the crossing without the postcard

There are a ton of youtube videos and pictures of the crossing on the internet, and it has been featured in many a movie, including “Lost in Translation” and “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift” among others. A great place to watch the action is at the Starbucks across from the station. Its second floor has a great view of the entire crossing. I particularly like this article from which perfectly describes the crossing experience.

Tokyo 5 – Tokyo Station Marunouchi Station Building (東京駅丸の内駅舎)

Tokyo Station’s iconic red-brick Marunouchi Station Building is the subject of the 5th postcard in the Tokyo series. This beautiful building was recently restored to its former 1914 glory in 2012, after being damaged greatly by the bombing of Tokyo in WWII in 1945. At that time, the domes were shattered among other damage, and the temporary square roofs became permanent over the years. The renovations took about 5 years, and the Yaesu entrance on the other side of the station is still being renovated. You can read more about it at wikipedia here.

Tokyo station is the busiest in Japan, and because the renovation is still very recent, it is not uncommon to see huge hoards of people photographing the building. As the main station in Tokyo with connections to both airports as well as Shinkansen lines stretching across the country, it is an easy station to visit for tourists and locals alike!

You can read more about what to do and see around this station at Japan Guide here.

Postcard and building on a cloudy day

The building is a striking contrast with the modern skyscrapers around it

There are always people photographing in front of it!

The renovated domes are very beautiful inside too!

It is also beautiful lit up at night