Hanzômon – 半蔵門

Our school is located in the Hanzômon area of Tokyo. But what is Hanzomon, and where does the name come from? Well, let’s find out! ^_^

The Hanzômon Gate in the 2007. (Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia)

The Hanzômon Gate in the 2007. (Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia)

Hanzômon, or 半蔵門, means “the gate of Hanzô”, and was a gate to the old Edo Castle, or today’s Imperial Residence. It was located in Edo Castle’s westernmost part. The gate led straight on to the Kôshû Kaidô, one of the “Five Highways” of Edo Period, and connected Edo with today’s Yamanashi Prefecture. This gate has given it’s name to the area of Hanzômon, as well as the Metro Station in it’s vicinity.

The Hanzômon Gate in the Meiji Period. (Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia)

The Hanzômon Gate in the Meiji Period. (Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia)

The area inside of Hanzômon was known as the Fukiage (吹上, “clean blown”) in the Edo Period, and was where previous Shôguns and their families were housed. Today, this area houses the Fukiage Imperial Gardens, the Imperial Palace, the Biological Research Institute, and much more. The Hanzômon Gate is mainly used to accessing the residences of the Emperor and his closest family. It is not open for the general public, however. During WWII, the original gate burned down, and in it’s place stands the Wadakura Gate (和田倉門).

Hattori "Hanzô" Masanari. (Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia)

Hattori “Hanzô” Masanari. (Photo courtesy of Japanese Wikipedia)

The gate itself got it’s name from the famous samurai and ninja Hattori Masanari, and his son with the same name. They often used the name “Hanzô” (半蔵) to refer to themselves, a tradition that has been used at least three times before the father/son duo. Another theory is that during a Sannô Matsuri, the statue on top of the float, or “dashi”, had to be cut in half in order to be able to pass through the gate, as the statue was too big. Hence, “half statue” becomes 半像, which is also read as “hanzô”. However, the established theory is the former, as the Hattori family and their vassals, about 200 men from the Iga Clan of ninjas, built a large mansion outside of the gate, and were in charge of patrolling and securing the area from Yotsuya (四谷) to the Kôshû Kaido.

So why not book a class with us, and while you are in the area, you can take some time to enjoy the history and beauty of the Hanzômon area. ^_^

Edo (江戸)

Our school is named Cosmos Tokyo, because it is where we are: in Tokyo. But what about the history of Tokyo? It wasn’t the capital all the time, and wasn’t there something called the Edo Jidai. How did Edo change into what we know today?

Pocket Map of Edo (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Pocket Map of Edo (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Let’s start with Edo (江戸). The name means literary “bay-entrance” or “estuary”. It started out as a small fishing village in the 15th century, when it came under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). The village was built around a central castle, like most towns and villages were at the time. The area surrounding the castle was mainly for high lords’, or Daimyos’ (大名) residences that they used when visiting Edo, and the area was known as the Yamanote (山手). (This is where the JR Yamanote Line got it’s name from.)

The system of Sankin Kôtai, or “alternate attendance”, brought many Daimyos to Edo, together with their samurais and vassals, sometimes for long periods of time. This large presence of Samurais contributed largely to the character of Edo, which set it apart from Osaka and Kyoto. None of the other two cities were ruled by a Daimyo, or had such a large presence of Samurai. Kyoto was mainly dominated by the imperial court and the Buddhist temples, and Osaka was the country’s commercial centre, and therefore dominated by the merchant class, or chônin (町人).

Nihonbashi (日本橋) (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Nihonbashi (日本橋) (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The “centre” of Tokyo was Nihonbashi (日本橋, “Japan bridge”). This bridge was, and still is, in the commercial centre of Edo, an area known as Kuramae (蔵前, “in front of the storehouses”). Here fishermen’s, tailors, craftsmen and other merchants would sell and buy goods and produce. This good were either coming in to Edo, or going out from it, on either ships to Osaka or other cities, or along one of the five main roads of Japan. Two of these main roads that connected the country are Tôkaidô (connecting Edo with Kyôto) and Hokkaidô (connecting Edo with… well the north). These main roads were all considered to have their start at Nihonbashi.

Edo was the centre for the Shoguns power from the establishment of the Tokugawa bakufu (幕府, “government”) until the fall of the bakufu, known as the bakumatsu (幕末, “end of government”). Since it was “only” the Shogun, and not the Emperor, it wasn’t the capital. That right was reserved for Kyôto. After the bakumatsu, in the second year of his reign, the emperor Meiji moved to Edo, and the city changed name to Tôkyô, or “the eastern capital”.

If you want a more detailed look into the life in Edo, and how it developed and turned into the Tokyo we know today, I really recommend a visit to the Edo Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku.

Awa Odori (阿波踊り)

Awa Odori in Tsukishima (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Awa Odori in Tsukishima
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Between the 12-15 August, in Tokushima Prefecture (徳島県) on Shikoku Island (四国), and part of the Obon celebrations, Awa Odori (阿波踊り) is held, and is ranked as the largest dance festival in Japan. “But, why are you writing about this now? I wanted to see that!” you might be yelling at the screen. Just stay calm, because the second biggest Awa Odori event in Japan is held in Koenji (高円寺) in Tokyo in late August every year. So it is just in the right time. 🙂

So what is Awa Odori? And where does it come from? Well, as with other Japanese dancing, groups of choreographed dancers and musicians dance through the streets, usually accompanied by Shamisen, bells, flutes, and Taiko drums. “Awa” (阿波) is the old feudal administration name for Tokushima prefecture, and odori (踊り) means dance.

The earliest origins for Awa Odori is the dances that Buddhist priests performed during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). However, the modern dance grew out of the traditional dance of Obon, the Buddhistic festival of the dead where it is believed that the spirits of deceased ancestors come to visit. The term “Awa Odori” was first used in the 20th century, but even before that, the Obon celebrations in Tokushima was notorious for their size, exuberance, and anarchy since the end of the Sengoku Period (戦国時代).

Dance of Fools (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Dance of Fools
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

During the daytime a restrained dance called “Nagashi” (流し) is performed, but at night the dancers switch to a frenzied dance called “Zomeki” (騒き).

Men and women dance in different styles. For the men’s dance: right foot and right arm forward, touch the ground with toes, then step with right foot crossing over left leg. This is then repeated with the left leg and arm. Whilst doing this, the hands draw triangles in the air with a flick of the wrists, starting at different points. Men dance in a low crouch with knees pointing outwards and arms held above the shoulders. The women’s dance uses the same basic steps, although the posture is quite different. The restrictive kimono allows only the smallest of steps forward but a crisp kick behind, and the hand gestures are more restrained and graceful, reaching up towards the sky. Women usually dance in tight formation, poised on the ends of their geta sandals.
Video for men’s dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olv-QhjvrmY
Video for women’s dance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLJNiAQgjWM
The videos are in Japanese, but the instructions given are pretty much the same as in the text above. Just watch and follow along. ^_^ )

In May 2015, Japanese production company Tokyo Story will produce a substantially big version of Awa Odori in Paris by bringing there hundreds of dancers from Japan. “Awa Odori Paris 2015”, as the event is called, would reproduce the “fever” of Awa Odori. This event will be a first step to promote Awa Odori and the Japanese “matsuri” culture abroad.

I don’t know about you guys, but I really want to get dancing right now! “Yattosa! Yattosa!” (^_^) Keep your eyes peeled for info about Awa Odori in Kouenji in our events page, or search for local events. See you in the crowd, perhaps!

Awa Odori dancers.

Awa Odori dancers.

Gundam – “The Star Trek of Japan”


The RX-78-2 Gundam, life-sized statue in front of Diver City mall in Odaiba, Tokyo

After reading the title you might be going “Hang on a sec!! Isn’t Gundam an anime about giant robots and war? Kinda exactly the opposite to what Star Trek is about?” Well, I see you already know a bit about Gundam then, but hear me out. ^_^

Gundam is, as we mentioned above, an anime about giant robots used instead of tanks in battles. The original anime is from 1979, and tell a story about how humanity has spread out into space, and are now populating space colonies. Some of these colonies join together as the Principality of Zeon, and start a battle for independence from the Earth Federation. This war claims almost half of the population on both sides, and quickly end up in a stalemate. It is in this stalemate that we are introduced to the main characters, and the anime Mobile Suit Gundam starts of.

The RX-78-2 Gundam watching over Tokyo

The RX-78-2 Gundam watching over Tokyo

After the original anime, several other animes, as well as spin-off work, has been produced, and the story is either built on further, or set in parallell universes with different stories, but all connected in that they use “mobile suits” and that the “Gundam” suit is in there somewhere.

“Well, that is nice and all, but how is this related to Star Trek?”, I hear you ask. Well, in the west we have Start Trek to thank for a lot of influences in our culture and in our technological advances: Such as the first space shuttle being named “Enterprise” after the space ship in the series and the films, the design of Palm PDAs and mobile phones, as well as Google Earth being inspired by the Tricorders mapping ability in the series. In the same way, Gundam has had a major cultural impact in Japan: Japanese Self Defence

A poster for the Japanese Firefighting corp, with the help from Gundam.

A poster for the Japanese Firefighting corp, with the help from Gundam.

Force code-named its developing advance personal combat system as Gundam, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution appearance is influenced by the Gundam mobile suit, and some products have special “Char Custom” editions in Japan, which are normally a red version of a product, imitating the custom red mobile suit, used by Char Aznable, a Zeon faction main character in the first few Gundam series. Such examples include a red Nintendo Gamecube and Game Boy Advance SP.

So whether you are a Gundam fan or not, it is still a huge staple in the current Japanese culture. And if you are a Gundam fan, or want to become one, or just want to know more, I can recommend the animus, but also a visit to Odaiba, Tokyo. Here you can see a life-sized statue of the titular mobile suit in front of the Diver City mall. And on the 7th floor of the mall you can either visit the figure shop, the clothes shop, or experience the Gundam Universe even more in Gundam Front Tokyo.

IMG_2586 IMG_2580


So why not get more acquainted with the Gundam universe, and take a trip to Odaiba while you’re at it? ^_^

Kawagoe, “Little Edo”

Before Tokyo became known as Tokyo, it was named Edo. And it is from this name that we get the name of the entire era known as the “Edo Jidai”, or Edo Period (江戸時代, 1603〜1868). After Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, and becoming the new Shogun, he moved the capital to Edo, his strategically placed castle town.

6500_01The Edo period was characterised by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, environmental protection policies, and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. Ukiyo-e printing became more and more popular, and so did also normal printing and book making. Water works with underground wooden plumbing was developed and maintained, and aqueducts were built to transport drinking water to different parts of Edo. And western teachings in fields such as medicine, geography, astronomy etc was introduced through the Dutch settlement on Dejima in Nagasaki.

Store_of_the_godown_style,Kawagoe-city,JapanThe Edo period is the last of the “samurai” periods, while the society as a whole was slowly moving forward in it’s own pace. This gives Edo a special “air”, a feeling that is attractive to Japanese and foreigners alike. If you want to dive more into this time period, I warmly recommend a visit to the Edo Tokyo Museum here in Tokyo.

If you already been there, or want to get away from Tokyo, but still want to feel that Edo Period feeling, Then Kawagoe is the place for you!

Located in Saitama Prefecture and also known as “Little Edo” (小江戸 “koedo”), it is a 30-minute train ride from Ikebukuro in Tokyo. Famous for its sweet potatoes, the local “Candy Street” sells such treats as sweet potato chips, sweet potato ice cream, sweet potato coffee, and even sweet potato beer, brewed at the local Koedo Brewery. Kawagoe castle was the headquarters of the Kawagoe Domain and occupied by close aides of the Tokugawa shogunate.

KawagoeTowerCommonsThings to see here includes the Bell Tower. Originally built in the 1600’s, the current structure is from the 1800’s, because of the Great Fire of Kawagoe. The tower has been telling time to the city’s residents for 350 years and has been deemed as a symbol of the city. Currently, the bell can be heard four times a day: 6 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.

The Kurazukuri Street is also worth a visit, with the street lined with Edo-style warehouses known as “kurazukuri” (蔵造り). The Kawagoe Kurazukuri Museum is located in a traditional warehouse built in 1893 and allows its visitors to walk around inside and experience the life of Edo merchants.

So if you have the time, and want to get out of Tokyo, and into “Edo”, why not set your sights on Kawagoe?

What is Kofun?

Up until last Sunday, you could go to Tokyo National Museum and look at an exhibition of wallpaintings from Asuka Kofun. Unfortunately, the exhibition is over, but you might be thinking “What’s a ‘Kofun’, and what is an ‘Asuka’?”. Well, here is a short explanation of what a Kofun is:

The word Kofun, or 古墳, literally means “ancient grave”, and are megalithic tombs in Japan. (“Megalithic” means that it’s monument made out of large stones.) These graves were built between the early 3rd century (or the 200’s if you want) and the early 7th century (the 600’s), a period in Japanese history that has gotten its name from these graves: the Kofun Period.

Daisen Kofun, Osaka, the largest Kofun. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The kofun has taken many shapes through-out the years, but the most common one is a keyhole shape, like the one on the picture above, with a rectangular and a circular shape together (前方後円墳 “Zen-pou-kou-en-fun”). But they can also be only circular (円墳 “En-fun”), rectangular (前方後方墳 “Zen-pou-kou-hou-fun”), and squared (方墳 “Hou-fun”).

Asuka is a village in Nara Prefecture, where in the ancient times the Asuka Palaces were built, and a lot of graves of this type can be found. Two of the more famous tombs in Asuka are Takamatsuzuka Tomp (高松塚古墳 “Takamatsuzuka-kofun”), and the Kitora Tomb (キトラ古墳 “Kitora-kofun”).

The exhibition at Tokyo Natonal Museum was about wall-paintings found in the Kitora Tomb in Asuka. Sadly, I could not go myself, although I really wanted to. Will keep my eyes open, in case they show this exhibition again, or another similar one.