Gaijin on Getas Blog

10 Big/Best Things in Japan – Part 1

Posted on July 22nd, 2015 by Mike Roberts

Recently, I wrote a blog about 10 small things that Japan should be proud of. To be honest, most of the items in that blog were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Well, there are many big/best things that Japan has to be proud of. So, once again, with my apologies to David Letterman, here are the 10 big/best things that Japan has to be proud of – Part 1.

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Posted on March 15th, 2015 by Mike Roberts


Shinto, a term that embraces a diverse body of beliefs and practices is an anachronism among the religions of modern societies, one that would seem to have little relevance to Japan today. Upon comparison with more organized religions, Shinto is characterized not by scriptures and buildings but by myths, a concern for purity and defilement, and a combination of shrines and rituals. It revolves around the rites and festivals of the community, not of the individual, in a way that can only be described as tribal. In other words, Shinto is not so much a matter of personal belief as it is of being Japanese. To most Japanese, Shinto is part of the backdrop of daily life. It is a set of ancient customs handed down from generation to generation that are to be followed more or less, but not to be pondered deeply.

Shinto, or “Way of the Gods”, only received its name in the sixth century to distinguish it from the newly arrived Buddhism. But Shinto was firmly entrenched in Japan long before Buddhism arrived. Gods (Kami) are felt to be present in natural phenomena (e.g.; mountains, trees, waterfalls, strangely shaped rocks, even in sounds). But Shinto is more than just a nature worshipping faith. It is a combination of attitudes, ideas and ways of doing things that for more than 2,000 years has become an integral part of what it is to be Japanese. Shinto is a personal faith in the Kami, a communal way of life in accordance with the mind of the Kami and a spiritual life attained through worship of and communion with the Kami. People are believed to be the children of both their parents and Kami and therefore owe their lives to both society and nature. In return for the love and protection they receive, they are obliged to treat both of them with loyalty and honesty, and to continue the family line showing kindness and guidance to their descendants.

Throughout most of Japanese history, Shinto did not play a particularly important role in state politics. This all changed, however, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when Shinto was deemed the dominant religion, largely to re-establish the importance of the emperor, as the emperor is considered to be a living Kami. At the same time, Buddhism was suppressed. This started the most sinister episode of Japan’s religious and political life called State Shinto.

State Shinto ushered in a period of extreme nationalism which lasted from 1890 to 1945. During this period, Japan’s mythological origins were taught as historical fact and people were encouraged to believe that all Japanese descended from Kami according to Shinto beliefs. At the same time, the traditional values of loyalty, inner strength and self-denial expressed in Bushido (Way of the Warrior) were promoted as desirable personal qualities. Such sentiments were milked by the 1930s military regime to foster a national sense of superiority. Ultimately, this created a highly dedicated nation on the eve of World War ll. After the war, Emperor Hirohito was made a mere a head of state, and the State Branch of Shinto was abolished.

Shinto Shrines

Shinto Shrines are called jinja (Kami Dwelling), although you will also see the suffixes -jingu and -gu. These terms, and the Torii gates are the easiest way to distinguish between Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples. The shrine provides a dwelling for the Kami, who are felt to be present in the surrounding nature, and it is also a place to serve and worship them. Although there are many styles of shrine architecture, initially they were traditionally built from unpainted cypress wood with a grass-thatch roof. After a time, they were painted a bright vermillion, and roof decorations were added.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a shrine is the Torii gate which marks the gateway between the secular and spiritual world. Traditionally, these were plain and simple wooden structures consisting of two upright pillars and two crossbeams. Gradually various styles (such as the distinctive vermillion paint) evolved on the same basic design until there were over twenty different types of Torii. Today, they are also made of stone, metal and concrete, in which case they tend to remain unpainted. Once you pass under the torii, you are considered to be spiritually “purified.”

Inside the Shrine compound, you often find pairs of “Lion Dog” statues on the approach to the shrine building. One of the “lion dogs” has its mouth open, and the other has its mouth closed. The “lion dog” with its mouth open, is said to be saying “Ah” (the last letter of the Sanskrit and Japanese syllabary), and the one with the closed mouth is said to be saying “Un” (the last letter of the Sanskrit and Japanese syllabary). This is said to symbolize a beginning and end, or birth and death. You may also find animal messengers of the Kami, such as the fox messengers of Inari Shrines, the deity of good harvests. Somewhere in the compound you’ll often see a sacred object, denoted by a twisted straw rope (Shimenawa) sporting zigzags of white paper tied around it. In the past these objects were believed to be the special abode of a Kami.

A large shrine complex may also include many other buildings including subordinate shrines, on oratory, offering hall, abolution pavilion, shrine office and shop, priests’ living quarters, treasure house, a platform for sacred dances, a Noh drama stage or a sumo arena. It’s also worth noting that in some cases there will be no shrine building as such, but simply a Torii and a straw rope around a tree or rock to indicate a kami’s dwelling place.

Shinto Rites and Festivals

The Japanese pray at shrines for many different reasons, and this may determine which shrine they go to. It may be just to offer thanks to their local or clan Kami for their protection and blessing, or it may be to pray for something special (e.g., a successful childbirth). Kami are sometimes specialists in a certain type of blessing, so it’s no use going to a Kami who specializes in health if you want to pray for success in a forthcoming exam.

When visiting a shrine, there are three elements of worship. Of these, purification is perhaps the most important as it indicates respect for the Kami. Traditionally, anyone suffering from an illness or open wound, menstruating women or those in mourning are considered impure and are forbidden to enter the shrine. At the abolution pavilion (a water trough near the entrance), ladle some water over your hands, pour a little into your cupped hand and rinse your mouth with it. Afterwards, spit the water into the gutter below and raise the ladle above the handle allowing the remaining water to run down the handle and clean the ladle. Now physically purified, you can proceed to the shrine itself and the offering. This normally consists of throwing a coin into a box (a five yen coin is considered luckiest). Depending on the occasion, food, drink, or material goods are sometimes offered to the Kami. The third element is prayer. Pull the rope to ring the bell, bow twice, clap your hands twice at chest level, pray, and bow once again.

In very special occasions, a sacred feast will follow a special service or festival. It sometimes takes the form of consuming the food and drink offered to the Kami once the Kami has had its symbolic share. The feast starts with a formal toast of sake.

At the shrine shop you can buy charms (Omamon) against all manner of ills, fortune papers (Omikuji-If a person receives a good fortune, they will take it home with them. If they receive a bad fortune, they will leave the fortune somewhere at the shrine so the Kami can take care of the bad fortune. They will tie the paper fortunes to tree branches or racks designed for this purpose, etc.), and wooden votive tablets (ema). A person’s wishes are written on the tablet and tied up alongside the others.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Shinto for the visitor is its lively and colorful festivals. All shrines have at least one annual festival which is well worth hunting out. During the festival, the Kami is symbolically transferred from the inner chamber to an ornate palanquin (portable shrine). This is its temporary home while young men hurtle around the local area with it so that the Kami can bless the homes of the faithful. The passion with which they run, turning the portable shrine this way and that, jostling it up and down has to be seen to be believed, especially in rural towns where festivals are usually conducted with more gusto.

Spring festivals are designed to coax the Kami into the village and,

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more important, to the rice paddies, where it transmits its powers to the seedlings. In autumn festivals, the Kami is given thanks for the harvest. Before the festival can begin, priests and other direct participants spend several days purifying themselves and the ritual sites, and offerings of food and sake are prepared. The festival begins with the head priest invoking the Kami’s name. The Kami is greeted, escorted through the villages and fields, offered sake, a sticky rice cake called mochi, and other foods. The purified participants also partake of these offerings, in an important communion with the Kami. Then the Kami is entertained. There are offerings of sacred dances, sumo, archery or plays.

Language 101 – Please and Thank You

Posted on March 15th, 2015 by Mike Roberts

Language 101 – Part 2

The Japanese have taken formal and polite language to a whole new level. The Japanese call it keigo, or honorific language. If you understand the rules of keigo,

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when listening to a conversation between Japanese you can determine the relationships within the group. Many factors come into play that affects the level of language to be used such as relative age, family relationships, working relationships, the situation, etc.

I’m often asked what level of formality to use. Fortunately, as foreigners, we are not expected to understand the rules of keigo, so you will not be expected to use the appropriate speech for the situation. Having said this, a little understanding of the basics can come in handy.

Thank You

There are many ways to say “Thank You”. I have listed a few of them below in increasing order from informal to more formal.



Domo arigato

Arigato gozaimasu (current tense) or Arigato gozaimashita (past tense)

Domo arigato gozaimasu (current tense) or Domo arigato gozaimashita (past tense)

There are even more formal ways to say thank you, but they are for very formal occasions only and you won’t have to use those. As a foreigner, a simple Domo or Arigato will be sufficient in all cases. However, if you wish to sound more “Japanese”, you can use Arigato gozaimasu or Arigato gozaimashita. This is more formal, but not too formal and can be used for everyday speech.


Once again, there are many ways to say “Please”. I have listed two of them below in increasing order from informal to formal.


Onegai shimasu

Kudasai is sufficient for everyday speech. Onegai shimasu is normally reserved for more formal occasions.

I’m also often asked the difference between Dozo, and Kudasai or Onegai shimasu. Dozo also means “Please”, but is used differently. When asking for something, such as asking for a glass of water at a restaurant you should use Kudasai or Onegai shimasu. If you are offering something to someone, such as offering a seat on the bus to someone or offering someone to enter an elevator before you, you should use Dozo.

10 Small Things Japan Has To Be Proud Of

Posted on January 7th, 2015 by Mike Roberts

The Japanese love to create lists of different things. There are the Nihon Sankei (Three Scenic Views: Miyajima Island, Amanohashidate and Matsushima), the Nihon Sanmeien (Three great gardens: Korakuen, Korakuen and Kairakuen), the Hyakumeizan (100 great mountains), etc. Most lists contain the largest or greatest. But since Japan is a small country, I thought it might be interesting to explore the small things that Japan has to be proud of. So (with my apologies to David Letterman) here are the 10 small things Japan has to be proud of.

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Kumano Kodo Trek – Day 2 – Takahara to Tsugizakura

Posted on December 3rd, 2014 by Mike Roberts

  • Total Elevation Gain: 1,650 Feet (500 meters)
  • Total Elevation Loss: 1,300 Feet (400 meters)
  • Net Elevation Gain: 350 (100 meters)
  • Total Distance: 8 1/4 Miles (13.2 kilometers)

Nakahechi Trail

During the night it rained heavily, which meant one thing for today’s walk. It would be very humid. After having an excellent breakfast at the minshuku, I set out for Day 2 at about 8:30 for Tsugizakura-Oji.

For the first kilometer or so, the trail was over pavement, and then changed to dirt trail. For the first 5 1/2 kilometers, the trail steadily climbed past several important Oji to the former site of the Uwadaya-jaya Chaya. At about 700 meters (about 2,300 feet), this location is the highest spot on the trail between Takijirioji and Hongu Taisha Shrine. At one time, there were numerous chaya (literally translates to tea house) along the Kumano Kodo. These were places of rest, drink and food. Some chaya also offered lodging. These chaya were an important part of the Kumano pilgrimage infrastructure. In addition to a place of rest, they also served as centers of exchange between pilgrims and the locals. These chaya were not only found on the Kumano Kodo, but were also common along major highways in Japan such as the Tokaido and Nakasendo.

From here, the trail descended into a small river valley to the Osakamoto Oji. It is thought that the Oji got its name from the fact that the Oji is located at the base of what was once known as Osaka Pass. In his pilgrim’s diary from 1109, Fujiwara Munetada wrote “On the Osaka Pass, there is a tall tree on which a snake-shaped object is hung. It is said in the past, a woman was transformed into the object.” It is also thought that in the old days, at the site of the Osakamoto Oji there was an inn for lords. Read the full post »

Kumano Kodo Nakahechi Trek – Day 1

Posted on November 11th, 2014 by Mike Roberts


Nakahechi Trail

Nakahechi Trail

I set out for my Kumano Kodo trek from Kyoto as did pilgrims more than 1,000 years ago. At that time, it was common practice to visit Jonan-gu Shrine just south of Kyoto near Fushimi. Here, pilgrims would stay for about a week and perform “misogi” (Shinto water purification rituals) and maintain a strict vegetarian diet to purify themselves before starting their pilgrimage. After leaving Jonan-gu, they would travel down the nearby Yodo River by boat, and then walk along the Kiiji pilgrimage route along the western coast of the Kii Peninsula. After arriving at the present site of the city of Tanabe, they would follow the Nakahechi along the river until reaching Takijiri Oji. I visited the Jonan-gu shrine before today, but I didn’t stay for a week, and I didn’t perform any water purification rituals or eat only vegetables. Read the full post »

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Routes

Posted on October 28th, 2014 by Mike Roberts

Entrance to Hosshinmon Oji

Entrance to Hosshinmon Oji

Rather than one trail to one destination, the Kumano Kodo is a network of trails crossing the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. However, if you look at the map of the trails below, you will see that all of the trails lead to the Hongu Taisha shrine, or rather to Oyunohara (the old location of Hongu Taisha Shrine). That is because Hongu Taisha is both the physical center of the pilgrimage routes and the spiritual center of the Kumano Kodo.

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Tokyo Sky Tree

Posted on October 8th, 2014 by Takako "Tammy" Ota

Tokyo Sky Tree 2The Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) is a digital broadcasting tower and a new landmark of Tokyo. At a height of 634 m, Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world. It is the core of the Tokyo Skytree Town, near Asakusa. Read the full post »

Akihabara Maid Cafes

Posted on May 11th, 2014 by Takako "Tammy" Ota

Akihabara Maid Cafe Ad

Akihabara Maid Cafe Ad

Akihabara is a paradise for electric appliance and anime subculture fans. Akihabara started as a place where radio parts were sold just after the Second World War. Today Akihabara is famous as the cheapest place in Japan for electric appliances. It’s also well-known as a place of ‘otaku’ (Japanese word for geeks) including comic-book devotees, video-game fanatics or anime figurine colletctors. Among all the shops, maid cafés attract attention, especially to men. If you spot girls dressed in a waitress costume delivering brochures on the street, they are the maid café waitresses who attract customers to their shops. They wear a maid dress, petticoat, and apron and frill accessory. At a maid café, they act as customers’ servants and entertain them just as the customer’s own servants. When customers enter a maid cafe, they will be greeted with ‘Okaeri nasai mase, goshujin sama!’ which means ‘Welcome back home, my lords!’ Read the full post »

History of the Kumano Kodo (Part 2 of the Kumano Kodo Series)

Posted on April 24th, 2014 by Mike Roberts

Kumano Kodo NewKumano has been considered a sacred area since prehistoric times. Shinto, the native religion of Japan, started during prehistoric times as nature worship. And it was during this time when the sacred sites of Kumano were first created. When Buddhism was introduced into Japan in the 6th century, Shinto and Buddhism merged together. It was during this time when the belief that Kumano as a Buddhist Pure Land became prevalent (in the 9th and 10th centuries), the sacred sites as we know them today were formed. Read the full post »