Torii, torii, torii!

You will not travel far in Japan before seeing a torii, a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine.

They first appeared in Japan over a thousand years ago, the oldest existing stone torii having been built in the 12th century and belonging to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture.

Torii were traditionally made from wood or stone, but these days you will also find them made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel.  Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate torii in gratitude to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. [1]

Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of torii, each bearing the donor’s name.This is the best place to get your fix of torii.

Left or right?   It doesn’t really matter.IMG_3884A bit of stone thrown in for diversity.IMG_3896

Komainu are a pair of guardian dogs or lions often found on each side of a shrine’s entrance.  In the case of the Inari Shrines, they are foxes (see picture below) rather than dogs.IMG_3894One of many torii gates at the World Heritage Listed site at Nikko.IMG_3249A timber torii at Nikko.IMG_3253This one in a Tokyo park seems purely for decoration.IMG_3301A utilitarian torii in central Matsumoto, overshadowed by the ugliest edifice in the town.IMG_3590

A modern take on the torii gate?  The Mitsubishi shipbuilding shrineyard in Nagasaki.IMG_4199

One of the three top rated scenic views – and possibly the most photographed torii gate in the world? – in Japan.  Itsukushima Shrine is another World Heritage Listed site built over water and its associated torii gate appears to be floating on the water at high tide.  It is less than an hour’s train and ferry commute from Hiroshima.IMG_4272


Lining up to take a photo of the torii.  As one does in Japan.  IMG_4277

Be patient, your turn will come.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



Big brother is not watching you

I regard Sydney as a reasonably safe place.  In public I do tend to keep my handbag either tucked under my arm, or with its contents well hidden from view, but that’s about as much as I feel compelled to do to protect my belongings.

It doesn’t surprise me to see that my city ranks number 12 on a list of the top 15 safest cities in the world.  It surprises me even less that Tokyo is number one on this list.

Japan is well-known for its high level of safety and low levels of crime, making it an attractive destination especially for those travelling alone or with children.  Violent crimes and murders are rare and terrorist acts almost unheard of.  Respect for human rights is high and stringent laws prohibit the possession of firearms.

The 2010 Global Peace Index (GPI) compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) ranked Japan as the third safest place in the world, behind New Zealand and Iceland, countries with much smaller populations than Japan.

In addition to a superior level of safety and security, the general honesty in Japanese society is evident from the number and type of items handed in at Lost and Found counters in the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  In 2008, more than two million items were handed in, among which were umbrellas, clothing, wallets, ID cards and mobile phones.  The amount of cash among the lost property totaled 2.7 billion yen. [1]

We had barely left the airport terminal before evidence of this honesty manifested itself.  When handing over a banknote for a purchase in any other country, one can expect rounding to occur, usually in an upwards direction, before receiving one’s change.  Japan is not like that.  Expect not only to receive change, but to receive the exact amount down to the last yen.  Your wallet will soon be at risk of bursting with an accumulation of unwanted coin.

This environment seems to have fostered a relaxed attitude in locals towards personal safety and the security of their possessions.  In one of the busiest stations in the world, Shinjuku, we regularly travelled on the escalators behind people whose wallets were hanging out of their back pockets or whose backpacks were open for all to inspect the contents within.

And it didn’t stop there.


These bags on a suburban train remained unattended for a full five minutes while their owner was occupied in the toilet.  In some parts of the world, we would have hastily made for the other end of the train or, worse, tried to force a door and take our chances by hurling ourselves from the train before it blew up.  Of course, no such thing was going to happen here.  And the only people paying any attention to the bags were us.


Another example of temporary “bag abandonment”, this time in Starbucks at Matsumoto Station.  Again, the owners had disappeared either to relieve themselves or order a coffee.  Their possessions didn’t warrant a second glance.  Other than from us.


The tasting room of a saké brewery in Yudanaka, the bottles lined up on the counter for a self-administered free tasting.  We could drink as much as we wanted of the available range.  And we did.  The sales person was discreetly occupied in another room, available only when we were ready to make a purchase.  Even the expensive stuff in the cabinet was unsecured.

There is a down side to coming from one of the safest countries in the world, however.  When Japanese travel abroad, their lack of situational awareness can make them easy targets.

In the first few months of 2013, 10 Japanese died in an Algerian hostage crisis, three Japanese tourists were killed in February in a vehicle and knife attack in Guam, while two weeks later, four Japanese were among 19 tourists who died in a balloon crash in Luxor, Egypt.

An article in (the Japanese) Weekly Playboy of 25 March 2013 warned against taking anything for granted abroad and cautioned travellers to hide their wallets and credit cards, and above all to stifle their sympathy for animals and children who could potentially cause them harm.

Whatever happens to Japanese travellers abroad – and I don’t doubt that they’re savvy enough to become street smart – there is nowhere I’ve been in all my years of travel where the level of safety is anywhere near that found in Japan.

Well, to be fair…..perhaps New Zealand.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Weekly writing challenge: mind the gap – should this castle be listed as a World Heritage Site?


The town of Matsumoto, gateway to the Japanese Alps, is defined by its castle.

One of four castles designated as National Treasures, Matsumoto Castle – also known as “Crow Castle” for its contrasting black and white appearance – is the oldest surviving wooden castle in Japan.


What sets this castle apart from others in Japan is that it is built on flat land rather than on a mountain or between rivers.  Its lack of natural defences is reflected in its original layout: important buildings and structures were protected by three different rings of fortifications and three moats.

Construction of the present castle commenced in the 1580’s and the three turreted donjon, comprising the central building and towers, was completed shortly before the turn of the century.

The original surface area of the moats equalled 140,000 square meters.  The inner moat at the foot of the donjon, which for the most part retains its original shape, has a width of 58 meters at its widest place – a distance deemed just out of reach of attackers’ cannon fire – and a depth of 3.2 meters at the deepest point.

Within the area enclosed by the inner moat – the First Circle – were the main castle and four connected buildings, separated from the Second Circle by a Kuromon – or Black – Gate at the south-east.

Inside the U-shaped Second Circle were the palaces – including the residence of the Lord of Matsumoto and his government headquarters – a garden, rice granary and various storehouses.  The front gate to this enclosure was a third double-gated square with Taiko-mon, or Drum Tower Gate, facing to the east side.

The Second and Third Circles were reserved for important samurai officials while lower ranking samurai lived outside the enclosure in the town itself.

The Third Circle was surrounded by a 2.2 kilometre moat.  Four entrances were set up at the fringe of the Third Circle, each bearing umadashi (horse stands) to ensure a strict defence of the enclosure.[1]

Between 1600 and 1868, a series of feudal lords controlled the castle.  The advent of the Meiji Restoration period in 1868 ushered in major change in Japan and almost brought down Matsumoto Castle with it.  Tokyo replaced Kyoto as the nation’s capital and the power of feudal lords came to an end with restoration of the emperor’s power.  Feudal lands were returned to the emperor and in 1869, the last feudal lord of Matsumoto Castle – Toda Mitsuhisa – turned over authority for the main castle complex, First Circle and most of the Second Circle to the Imperial Court in Tokyo.

Due to a shortage of funds, the new imperial government had decided to demolish the castles and sell off the lumber and fittings.  By December 1871, various structures of the outer circles of Matsumoto Castle including keeps, gates and walls were destroyed and the donjon complex sold.  It was only due to the actions of a local conservationist that the entire complex was not lost forever.  In 1878 Ichikawa Ryozo and the local community purchased the castle before the imperial wrecking ball could wreak any further havoc.

But Matsumoto Castle’s troubles weren’t over.  With insufficient funds to carry out maintenance, the main donjon began to tilt dangerously in the early twentieth century.  A local benefactor, Kobayashi Unari, saved the day by raising enough funds to restore it.  The castle managed to survive World War II and was declared a national treasure in 1952.  It has never seen active service. [2]


Google Maps

The castle we know today is a smaller version of the original complex.

While the inner moat remains intact, the third and most of the second moats have since been filled in and developed.  The remaining surface area of the moats has reduced to 30,000 square metres, one fifth of its original extent.  Within the area enclosed by the first moat, the castle survives, but the palaces have disappeared, their footprint barely noticeable in the garden forecourt to the castle


Notwithstanding the paring away of its outer parts, the castle remains the single most important reason for visiting Matsumoto, a towering presence that dominates the landscape.  It is a functional, yet beautiful example of a feudal era Japanese castle, faithfully restored to the way it was in the early 1600’s.


Passing through the first floor one marvels at the massive pillars made of hemlock, cypress and pine, floorboards milled to widths unimaginable in this age of cost-cutting and no doubt several times as thick.


The second floor has largely been turned over to a museum of weaponry.  Some of the tools of war would be familiar to European eyes including a matchlock musket, copied from a Portuguese original that fell into the hands of a feudal lord.

The windowless third floor was unknown to enemies outside and a useful place to keep warriors safe during times of battle.


The fourth floor was where the castle’s lord stayed in times of emergency and the fifth used for tactical meetings by the military officers.


The top floor was designed as a watchtower and requires careful negotiation of very steep steps.  A god named nijuroku ya shin (god of 26 nights) has a dedication in the center of the ceiling to protect Matsumoto Castle.[3] 



As one moves through the various floors of the castle, every opening affords spectacular views of the town below and the mountains in the distance, through trees dappled with cherry blossom if you’re lucky enough – as we were – to visit in March or April.  These openings also let in blasts of cold air, making one ponder what it must have been like for the samurai inside.  This was, and still is, a castle with no creature comforts and if you’re going to make it all the way to the top level, you will have to climb the stairs the way the lords and the samurai did all those centuries ago.  Matsumoto Castle’s authenticity is beyond question.

Which brings us to the central question of this post: should the castle be classified as a World Heritage Site?

The city fathers certainly think so and apparently have mounted their case for its inclusion.  Unfortunately, according to our English-speaking guide, a major stumbling block is the incompleteness of the second moat.  Before the case for inclusion can go ahead, the missing part of this moat needs to be reinstated.


Google Maps

Matsumoto Castle is located about a 15 minute walk across the centre business district of town to Matsumoto Station.  While the castle is well located to tourism, the area is also very well suited to inner city living.



The portion of the second moat that was filled in and developed is currently occupied by somewhere between 60 and 100 dwellings, possibly more.  The housing is modest and while I was unable to confirm from our guide the economic circumstances of its occupants, I would hazard a guess that at least some of them are not well off and would benefit from living close to facilities and services in the town centre.

For the longer term residents among them, bonds of friendship and support are likely to have developed over the years, helping to forge community cohesion and create social capital.  The latter could take the form of knowing where to shop, how to find services, where to find work, even down to helping a neighbour to change a light bulb.

Reinstatement of the second moat would mean demolishing these houses and moving the residents elsewhere.  Whither exactly, our guide didn’t know, but I would find it hard to imagine that they could be relocated en masse to another inner city location.  The lack of available land is likely, at the very least, to prevent this from happening.

Irrespective of where they end up – and 80% of residents have accepted the compensation package offered – it is more likely than not that this community would be dispersed.

Average household size in Japan in 2010 was 2.42.  Assuming that, say, 100 houses are to be demolished, this equates to the relocation of 242 persons.

In a town of around a quarter million people, that represents 0.001%.  Doesn’t seem like many.

Or does it?

You decide.


© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.