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Bijinga – The World of Shoen Uemura’s Beautiful Women

Whenever I host foreign visitors in Tokyo, they invariably comment on the meticulous appearance of Japanese women. Depending on their viewpoint, my friends see this adherence to a particularly Japanese idea of beauty – elegant, modest, and feminine – as (usually) something admirable and aspirational, or (occasionally), evidence of a patriarchal society in which women are encouraged to conform to a tightly-defined aesthetic standard. Regardless of whether you think a focus on appearance is liberating or restricting for women, I… Read more »

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Snow-capped Peaks and Flower Gardens in Hokkaido

The first time I heard the name Biei was when we were driving through an expansive landscape of rolling hills and open skies in the middle of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island that is famous for its powder snow, rugged terrain and unspoiled nature. Not only had I never heard of this small town, the name, like those of many areas in Hokkaido, sounded distinctly un-Japanese, giving the place an exotic feel, even though all the signs were in Japanese and… Read more »

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Navigating the Hills and History of Nagasaki

At the top of a particularly steep hill that leads to the historic foreigners’ quarters of Nagasaki, there is an unusual traffic sign with an illustration of a bicycle and a diagonal line running along either side of it, indicating “no bicycles.” It isn’t that the flagstone-paved street is reserved for pedestrians. There are plenty of cars going up and down the hill, known as “Oranda-zaka” or “Hollander Slope,” after the foreign residents who could be seen walking to and… Read more »

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Jinya – Home to Totoro’s Tree

Tokyoites in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of city life usually head to the hot springs and scenic comforts of Hakone or Izu, which are within easy reach of the megalopolis by car or train. But relatively few of them may know that there is an onsen, or hot spring town, which is even closer to Tokyo than either of the city’s best-known getaway sanctuaries. Tsurumaki Onsen is a small town in Kanagawa prefecture, which has… Read more »

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Shodoshima – a Scenic Sanctuary in the Inland Sea

The trees along the mountaintops were just beginning to show hints of autumnal gold and vermillion, the villages dotting the narrow road that wound its way inland from the coast were deserted, and everything seemed as one would have expected on a secluded island long after the summer crowds had gone. But Shodoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea off the southwest coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu, turned out to hold a few surprises when we visited… Read more »

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Stylish Ceramic Tableware and More at Utsuwa Kenshin

Despite being the capital of a nation obsessed with ceramics and contemporary design, Tokyo hosts surprisingly few shops that specialize in contemporary ceramic ware made by artists who, rather than following a time-honored aesthetic tradition, have developed their own distinctive style. So, it is always a joy to visit Utsuwa Kenshin, a small store located halfway between Shibuya and Omotesando in Tokyo. Here, the owner, Kenshin Sato, displays a carefully curated selection of handcrafted ceramics by artists whom he has… Read more »

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Azumino

The man from the bicycle shop was standing at the street corner waiting for the lights to change, when he saw us waving energetically in his direction. He was clearly puzzled by our outbursts of greeting, but nonetheless smiled broadly and waved back enthusiastically, arms flapping in the air. We had actually been waving to friends walking a fair distance behind him who had not noticed our presence across the street. Soon enough the traffic lights changed, the misunderstanding was… Read more »

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In Search of Autumn’s Fiery Palette

Admiring nature’s colorful transformation in the fall is a time-honored ritual in Japan that draws crowds from far and wide to distant mountainsides, hidden valleys and traditional gardens famed for their fiery autumnal palettes. While Kyoto is, without doubt, everyone’s favorite spot for enjoying fall foliage, there are plenty of other less crowded sites that offer the chance to be mesmerized by the myriad hues of yellow, orange, red and brown that make autumn such a special time in Japan…. Read more »

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Au Depart – a stylish wine bar inside Karuizawa station

On a stopover in the fashionable mountain resort town of Karuizawa in southeastern Nagano prefecture, we noticed a stylish new wine bar that would easily win the award for “most ingenious use of a disused railway platform” – if there were such a prize in Japan. With its understated shop front, Au Depart is conveniently located just outside the Karuizawa station building but within the station compound. The brainchild of some local winemakers and a wine-loving entrepreneur, the goal of the… Read more »

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Trekking in the Forests of Yakushima

Even when our car drove up right beside them, the two monkeys sitting on the side of the road pretended to ignore us. The larger one continued to pick fleas off her smaller companion as she cast a surreptitious look our way. But on the whole the monkeys seemed untroubled by our presence. “It’s a mother and child,” our guide informed us. “Monkeys on the island don’t bother people because we don’t feed them,” was his explanation for the animals’… Read more »

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Mashiko Pottery Fair – a Crafts Lovers’ Paradise

For most of the year, Mashiko is a sleepy little town of kilns, pottery shops and vegetable farms that seems to have been forgotten by the rest of the world. The last time I visited, a few years ago, the main street was deserted, many of the shops appeared to be closed and there were few indications of the legendary fame the town enjoys as the adopted home of Shoji Hamada, a leading figure of Japan’s folk art movement and… Read more »

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The Slow-Paced Charm of Nara

Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, is the Yin to Kyoto’s Yang. While Kyoto abounds with grand temples and flamboyant shrines aimed originally at flaunting the wealth and power of the lords and monks that ruled the day, Nara is a quieter, more relaxed and down-to-earth city, perfect for weaving your way through back alleys on a rented bike or taking a leisurely stroll through the old part of town, known as Naramachi. Nara certainly has its share of tourists,… Read more »