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Samurai Hotels: Team Shingen!

  As part of a tourism campaign in Isawa Onsen, Yamanashi Prefecture, local hotels are celebrating the 500th birthday of one of the most formidable warlords of Japan’s Warring States period, Takeda Shingen (1521-1573). The Takeda clan, which originated from the Isawa area, became a force to be reckoned with in the early 16th century. Eventually, three generations of the Takeda clan would rule the central part of the Japanese archipelago from Kai Province, modern day Yamanashi Prefecture.

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Japanese Swordsmanship at Hotel Ukai!

  In keeping with the samurai theme, the staff at Hotel Ukai, located just 45 minutes from Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko, is going beyond the usual to adapt to the current realities of Japan’s tourism trends, that is, the number of foreign tourists is quickly increasing. One of the new services being offered by the Hotel Ukai is a delicious dinner featuring their home-grown vegetables and shiitake mushrooms, followed by a unique martial arts demonstration.

  The whole iai (traditional Japanese swordsmanship) experience reminded me of my first Japanese tea ceremony, or “sadō” (the way of tea). The “way” is what matters, not the tea. It isn’t the sword, it is the way of the sword! I didn’t have the patience to enjoy the true meaning of sadō when I was young. Now, I understand that patience, that is, attention to minute details, sharpens not only your swordsmanship, but also your mind. The quiet mind may be your greatest defence against the mundane battles we all face on a daily basis.

  First, just putting on the hakama (a type of loose-fitting trousers) seemed like it would take ages to master! There is only one right way, and a multitude of wrong ways, to wear this essential piece of Japanese martial arts kit. By the time I had managed to get the hakama on, I was already in a state of flow. Your deep dive into Japanese culture begins here. Later, while folding the garment for stowage, I learned that it has seven deep pleats, two on the back and five on the front. Although they appear balanced, the arrangement of the front pleats (three to the right, two to the left) is asymmetrical, and as such is an example of the asymmetry in Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetics. Wabi-sabi is a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

  Using a rigid oak katana (sword) for safety, while our instructor used a real samurai sword, we began to learn the basics of iai. We repeatedly withdrew our swords from and returned them to our imaginary scabbards. All budō (martial arts), including Japanese tea ceremony, are about muscle memory. The Zen is in the perfection that comes from not overthinking things. Once you have done your prerequisite “10,000 hours,” you no longer have to think about what you are doing, you just do it. It becomes pure movement. Even though your movements appear to be highly prescriptive, they are actually pure meditation! One of the highlights of the demonstration was being able to appreciate the monozukuri (craftsmanship) of the instructor’s authentic samurai sword. Watching his hands carefully lubricate and then dry his sword before returning it to the safety of its scabbard, momentarily transported me to a long-lost world that we can now only imagine. It is wonderful to see how motivated the Japanese are to share their culture with the rest of the world.

Geisha Experience at Hotel Kikori!

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  Hotel Kikori, located just 45 minutes from Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko, is quite remarkable with its eclectic collection of enormous, polished tree trunks that appear to be taken from the set of a not yet released live action version of the famous anime film My Neighbour Totoro. Step inside the hotel’s café to admire its massive wooden table, and then head to the hotel’s shop to see its nostalgic collection of Showa-era (1925-1989) household items. This hotel definitely has a very unique interior! However, you will be coming to Hotel Kikori to enjoy something more traditional.  

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  Your geisha experience at Hotel Kikori might include playing a game called tosenkyo (fan-tossing) which entails trying to knock a target like a ginkgo leaf figurine known as the chou (butterfly) off a wooden box known as the makura (pillow) with an opened fan known as the ougi. It is likely that the off-duty samurai of the Edo period (1603-1868) would have played this game to while away their time between encounters with rivals. What was even more interesting than the game itself was the scoring system. To get 100 points, you would virtually have to make the impossible happen. 

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The true show-stopper at Hotel Kikori was the young woman who played the shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese instrument). She really rocked the house! I noticed a spot of blood on the instrument where she must have played till her fingers bled. She even played a tune from a 1960s rock band known as The Ventures. Later, we clapped enthusiastically as two geisha sang and the young woman played her instrument. It was quite entertaining to clap along to this traditional form of entertainment. There was also an opportunity to get photos taken in beautiful, silk kimono.  
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  These days there isn’t as much opportunity to see real geisha in Japan. If you are not willing to pay the exorbitant fees charged by geisha in Kyoto, this might be the best place to have an authentic geisha experience.

  By the way, if you are wondering why geisha wear white makeup when they perform, it’s because it was easier to see their faces by candlelight in the time before electrification. It is strange how the obvious answer is almost always the last one you would stumble upon yourself. Why not experience this centuries-old tradition the next time you head to the Mount Fuji area?

Published on

  • December 6, 2019


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