A Place of Awe and Wonder
The animations of Studio Ghibli, by founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and their protegees, are amongst the very best in the world. If you haven’t seen a Ghibli film we can’t emphasise enough quite how magical they are. For fans of anime (Japanese animation) and films in general, the Studio Ghibli Museum is top of the list of places to see when visiting Tokyo.
A teenage witch, her hair ruffled by the wind, rides her mother’s broom through the open skies. A giant robot unleashes molten destruction on the soldiers who have awakened him from centuries of slumber. A city worker recalls her childhood growing up in the 1960s. The skies above Kōbe are filled with buzzing agents of death, raining down fire upon a terrified population. A burgeoning writer seeks inspiration from a quaint antiques shop. A travelling warrior becomes infatuated with a feral wolf-child in a land scarred by war. A group of young people discover love and loss during their turbulent high-school years. A girl’s parents are turned into slobbering pigs. A father turns superhero, if only for a moment, when he stands up to a local biker gang. Two elated girls soar through the air inside a grinning cat bus, its headlight eyes tracing yellow streaks in the sky above the forest.
Gods and monsters. Love and loss. Jubilation and despair. The horrors of war. Childhood wonder. The passion of life. Welcome to the heart-soaring, euphoric, whimsical, terrifying, compassionate and, above all else, emotional world of Studio Ghibli. The remarkable films of Studio Ghibli show, without a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be art. Often the terms ‘art’ and ‘cinema’ result in products that distance audiences, but Ghibli makes films that touch the soul, that can enrapture and delight everyone from toddlers to pensioners. Studio Ghibli Kamera Book.
It’s not possible to visit the studio itself. That’s just basically an office building. But Miyazaki and Takahata commissioned a museum dedicated to the art and technology of the animated form in 2001 and it is one of the most delightful museums we’ve ever visited.
Practicalities to Visiting the Museum
If you want to visit the Ghibli museum you can’t just turn up. The museum is so popular that you have to pre-book your tickets and also arrive at a specified time. The process for getting tickets is a bit convoluted especially if you don’t live in Japan or have contacts there. So (deep breath)…
If you are Japan you can buy tickets at Lawson konbini (convenience stores). The tickets go on sale from 10:00am (Japan time) on the 10th of each month for the following month. So really you have to be in Japan for several weeks to stand a chance of getting any for yourself and they WILL sell quickly.
If you can’t get tickets via the link there are other options. A number of travel agencies can get tourist tickets which you can purchase directly from them in your home country. The Ghibli Museum – Ticket System (jtbgmt.com) describes how to get tickets, you need to click on the link to select your country of origin.
Other travel agencies often have staff in Japan who may be able to go to Lawson to get tickets on your behalf. But book early! We’ve used services such as these in the past and it has worked very well. However, over the years, demand has increased and many travel agencies may also want you to buy other services, for example, they may request that you purchase your Japan Rail Pass from them, or book a couple of nights’ accommodation in Tokyo. This is frustrating, especially if you have already made your plans or can purchase these items more cheaply elsewhere. For example, we always search for the best deal for our JR Passes and usually stay in Japanese Business Hotels which are cheap and comfortable (if small), especially in Tokyo because, frankly, when you’re in Tokyo you don’t really care too much about your accommodation as there’s so much fun to be had in the city.
The tickets state a specified date and time of entry and, as a result, you will need to arrive on time. The face value of the tickets is an extremely reasonable ¥1000 for those over 19 years of age, with lower costs for children. But there is likely to be a handling fee if you purchase your ticket from an agent.
On Arrival At The Ghibli Museum
The museum is located in Mitaka, on the Chūō Line. There are direct trains from central Tokyo and you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one. It’s a short walk from the JR station. There is, however, a bus service which, for around ¥300 return, will take you directly to the museum. It’s easy to spot the bus stop.
On arrival, walking along Kichijoji Avenue, which is adjacent to Inokashira Park, at the entrance of the delightfully colourful building you are greeted by a giant Totoro, which is the best possible welcome anyone could want, before you walk around the building to the real entrance.
On arrival you exchange your voucher for a real ticket which has a film strip from a Ghibli animation inside. There is no time limit on your visit and the policy of limiting admissions means that the museum never feels crowded. You can wander freely through the building but you are requested not to take photos. This is actually a really good idea – it ensures that you enjoy the experience rather than try to record everything that you see. It also means that there are no (or at least minimal) spoilers from zillions of photos of the museum on the internet. If you wish, you can buy a book or a set of postcards of the museum from the shop – so that you have a memento.
Miyazaki’s principle for designing the museum was ‘Let’s lose our way, together’. It’s a brilliant philosophy. There is no set route around the building and there are all sorts of spiral staircases, internal bridges and nooks and crannies to explore – some at a low level, suited to children… or adult sized children who are prepared to crouch and wiggle into small spaces. Just go wherever your curiosity takes you.
The first room after the entrance contains a Ghibli-inspired history of cinema technology. Periodically the lights are dimmed and a flashing Totoro zoetrope starts up – it’s a magical display as characters from the film rotate around a central point illustrating about how animation can create the illusion of movement. (Be aware that this is a stroboscope effect if you are sensitive to flashing lights.) Amongst the other exhibits in the room is a delightful display of the Laputa robot surrounded by doves. It truly is a room of wonders.
Upstairs there are further rooms to explore. Some of these have permanent exhibitions – such as the life-sized cat bus (from My Neighbour Totoro). Adults be aware that you are only allowed to play inside cat bus if you are under eight years of age, something that we feel is most unfair. There are a couple of rooms which represents an animation studio so that you can understand the technicalities and process of animation from start to finish.
The studio also has a number of temporary exhibitions which often showcase the work of animators from around the world. Isao Takahata, in particular, did a lot to promote the work of film-makers from around the world. We have enjoyed exhibitions showing the works of Pixar studios (themselves huge Ghibli fans) and Michel Ocelot’s remarkable animations.
Don’t forget to follow the steps to the roof – there you will find the gentle giant robot and mysterious control cube from Laputa, Castle in the Sky. (It’s okay to take photos outside the museum’s main building.)
Exclusive Ghibli Films!
One of the biggest attractions about the museum is the opportunity to attend the screening of a short Ghibli film. You cannot see these anywhere else in the world and they are not available on DVD or on streaming services, they are totally exclusive to the museum. The films are around 20 minutes in length and there is a board outside the Saturn Theatre on the ground floor, indicating screening times. It’s worth getting to the waiting area a bit earlier than the start time to make sure you can get into the screening you wish to attend. (If you miss a screening there is plenty to keep you occupied until the next one.) We have been lucky to have visited the museum five times and have never seen the same film twice. You can buy picture books of the films as a memento.
Shop Till You Drop
There is a bookshop where you can buy books and DVDs related to the films
And there’s also a souvenir shop where all sorts of gorgeous and tempting merchandise can be purchased. If you are a fan of the films, pack an extra suitcase for all the goodies. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of souvenirs.
The bags are from the film Porco Rosso and are a souvenir in themselves.
It’s worth noting that Ghibli merchandise is also available throughout Japan. We managed to buy the biggest Totoro soft toy that we felt we could get onto a plane without having to buy an extra seat – bought at the very end of a long trip (which had involved lots of travelling on the shinkansen and it really wouldn’t have been practical to transport him all over Japan, gorgeous as he is) at a department store in Tokyo just before we headed out for the airport. And yes, we did get lots of funny looks from security guards at the airport, but Totoro has pride of place in our living room.
The design of the museum is so intricate and detailed, even outside the main building.
There is a café, The Straw Hat Cafe (featuring Mei’s hat from My Neighbour Totoro), adjacent to the museum which sells ice-cream, drinks and snacks.
It’s become something of a tradition for us to enjoy a hot-dog and a cold beer – yes, you can even enjoy a bottle of Nausicaä beer! – at the end of the exploration.
The Ghibli museum is emphatically one of the most wonderful places we have visited. It’s a triumph of imagination and design and is genuinely a place of wonders. Even if the process of obtaining tickets is somewhat convoluted, we can’t recommend this museum highly enough. We’d go again in an instant.
If you are interested in the films of Studio Ghibli – and they are all amazing – here are some links:
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Kabocha is a type of squash, often called a Japanese pumpkin. It is small-medium in size (around 25-30cm diameter). Its flesh is bright orange which contrasts beautifully with its dark green skin. They are also pretty easy to grow. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that home-grown vegetables are always more delicious than shop bought ones.
This year we grew three of the beauties in our little garden and the very first thing we wanted to make once harvested, was ‘korroke’, a Japanese version of croquettes (the word is spelled in katakana, the phonetic alphabet used for words of international origin). It’s the sort of dish that you would find in a Japanese izakaya (a bar that sells alcohol and tasty snacks/small dishes). They are simple to make and utterly scrumptious. Here’s our recipe for Kabocha Korroke – Pumpkin Croquettes:
1 kabocha pumpkin. If you can’t get a kabocha, other squash can be used. Pumpkin might be a bit too squishy but something like a butternut squash would work well.
1 egg (vegans can use corn starch mixed with warm water in an approximate ratio of 1:3)
50g (approx) Plain flour
50g (approx) Panko breadcrumbs
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying/spray oil for baking
Tonkatsu sauce to eat with (Brown sauce will work well if you can’t get tonkatsu)
Cut the pumpkin in half and then into slices. Remove the seeds (we kept loads of seeds and dried them so that we can sow them next year).
Arrange the slices into a steaming bowl. We tend to use the Asian style bamboo baskets as they stack very nicely and can just sit on top of a saucepan of boiling/simmering water.
Steam for around 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft – a knife should easily sink into the flesh. (If you don’t have a steamer you can bake the pumpkin slices in the oven for around 40 minutes.)
Although the skin of the kabocha is edible, for the purposes of the korroke it is best to remove it. (You can treat yourself to pumpkin skin snacks – once they have cooled down a bit – while you continue the preparation.)
Add a pinch of salt and mash the pumpkin using a potato masher. It is possible to add other flavourings at this stage if you wish. Some recipes add sautéed onions, others lashings of butter, yet others include shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix). We just seasoned with the salt, which brings out the natural flavour of the kabocha, in this instance.
Form into patties.
Panko are Japanese breadcrumbs. They are crispy and super dry, usually made from white bread. You can buy panko in most supermarkets these days but ordinary breadcrumbs will be fine if you can’t find them. Set out three bowls. One for flour, one for an egg, lightly beaten, and one for the panko.
Dip each patty in the flour, then the egg, then the panko. This process can get a little messy (especially if you are a clumsy cook). Do not attempt to take photos using your phone if you have sticky fingers.
There are several options for cooking. Bear in mind that the pumpkin is already cooked so the korroke don’t need long. We’ve recently invested in an air fryer so thought we would use that. Just spray the patties with oil and cook at 190C for 4 minutes on each side. You can also bake them in the oven for about 8 minutes. Or you can fry them the old-fashioned way in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes on each side or until the panko are golden.
Then it’s time to scoff! Korroke are often served with tonkatsu sauce. This is a sweet and tangy sauce that perfectly complements the pumpkin. If you can’t find tonkatsu, brown sauce (the type you eat with a cooked breakfast) is a good substitution. Other accompaniments can include mayo or a soy based dipping sauce. Best served with a nice, cold beer. Or two.
The remarkable Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s top tourist attraction and many trips to the islands start out from Quito. The city itself has plenty to offer the visitor. We were lucky enough to undertake a largely land-based Galapagos tour but gave ourselves a couple of days on the Ecuadorian mainland before and after this trip, predominantly to give ourselves some days in hand in order to make sure we could catch our connecting flights, but also because we wanted to explore the city and surrounding area. There are all sorts of day trips available in and around Quito.
Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, located virtually on the equator and at an altitude of 2850m above sea level. If you’ve not spent time at that altitude it is really important to take it easy, even climbing a flight of stairs can leave you a little breathless when you first arrive. Many hotels in South American countries offer coca tea which is supposed to help with the effects of altitude sickness, although if you do feel ill make sure you seek medical attention.
The Centro Histórico is a great place to stay. San Francisco de Quito was founded by Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and the colonial architecture is considered to be so important that the city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site (along with Krakow in Poland). It also has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Our hotel had a good view over Santo Domingo Plaza, one of many colonial plazas.
It is very pleasant just wandering through the city.
Basílica del Voto Nacional – Basilica of the National Vow, a Roman Catholic church, is located atop a hill. Apparently it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas and is still officially unfinished. There is a local legend that when it is finally completed the end of the world will be nigh.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, known locally as la Compañía, is a Jesuit church which was completed in 1765. Its interior is decorated with wood carvings, gilded plaster and gold leaf in an astonishingly ornate style.
The Plaza de Indepencia is a focal point with its expansive square.
There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area but, notably, just around the corner from the Plaza is a chocolate shop which offers the most amazing chocolate delicacies. To be fair, there are loads of chocolate shops offering amazing chocolate delicacies (Central and South American countries are quite rightly famous for their chocolate), but it was in this one that we discovered Pacari chocolate. The chocolate isn’t cheap but it’s the best quality we’ve ever tried. The company is really ethical as well; a fair trade organisation they support local farmers in Ecuador by paying a good wage and working with them directly. The chocolate is also 100% organic and absolutely stonkingly delicious.
We brought home a multitude of different chocolate bars: the ‘pure’ choc – at 60% cacao – but also some of the flavoured ones. Many are flavoured with fruits: passion fruit and cherry really captured the flavours of the fruit, lemon verbena’s zing was a lovely contrast with the smooth, silky chocolate. We had enjoyed corn in various guises throughout our trip so toasted corn kernels in the chocolate added a satisfying crunch and the corn flavour also came through very well. Of course we had to try the chilli chocolate. It’s surprisingly subtle – the first flavour you taste is that of dark chocolate then, after a few seconds comes a gentle warmth (definitely not the fiery heat of a chilli) that lingers on the palette long after the chocolate has gone.
It is possible to buy Pacari chocolate around the world (they also try to offset their carbon footprint) but we’ve found that it is significantly more expensive than in Quito (and it’s pretty expensive in Quito, but emphatically worth every cent), so if you do find yourself in Ecuador, we recommend stuffing every square centimetre of spare space in your luggage with the chocolate before you travel home.
City Tour – In And Around Quito
There are lots of city tours available and most hotels will be able to put you in touch with a company that can suit your budget, whether it’s a group tour or a private guide. Some of the guides are very flexible and can adapt a standard tour to suit your interests so it’s definitely worth asking what options are available.
The Equator is one of the most popular tourist attractions (after all, the word Ecuador means ‘equator’) and it’s difficult not get excited at being able to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. There are two sites, located a short drive of around 25km outside Quito. Amusingly, the official equator site at La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) isn’t quite on the equator itself, thanks to an error by a French expedition in 1736.
It seems it was the Incas who, several centuries earlier and without the use of GPS, managed to locate the correct location for the equator so we headed over to the Intiñan museum which is just a few minutes away from the incorrect official monument. The museum has an official equator line and also some exhibits showing traditional culture. You can also undertake various activities such as looking at the Coriolis Effect (whether waters swirls down a plughole clockwise, anti-clockwise or straight down depending on which hemisphere you are in – it won’t make a spot of difference), balancing an egg on a nail or walking along the equator with your eyes closed. It’s all ridiculous and hugely touristy but it’s enjoyable fun nevertheless.
Anyway, whether you are standing on the real equator or not, it’s great to take photos astride a line – whichever one it is.
We made a brief stop to view the Pululahua Crater. It’s a caldera (from an extinct volcano) although you can still see a couple of volcanic cones. The area has plenty of fertile soil so farming here is profitable. It’s possible to walk in the area – the caldera is about five km across – but we only really had time to enjoy the view.
Back in Quito, the Teleferico offers a cable car lift to the top of Cruz Loma which affords fantastic views across the city as well as ‘Volcanoes Avenue’, a splendid vista revealing fourteen peaks across the Andes… if the weather is co-operating. Otherwise it’s a nice ride up and down a mountain in a cable car! It’s located in Pichincha and the site also offers an amusement park, restaurants, a shopping centre and other activities, so there’s plenty to do if the views aren’t spectacular.
A slightly more unusual stop was a visit to the Fundación Guayasamín Museum, the house with an adjacent art gallery of local artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, widely considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. The house is located on a hill overlooking Quito in the Bellavista neighbourhood and has been left as he lived in it. It contains many artworks; his own as well as an impressive collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art, and you can also see his studio. We were invited to watch a video about the artist so that we could learn about his life and works. The adjacent gallery, known as the Chapel of Man, has an exterior on the form of a massive cube with a conical dome atop. Inside it offers multiple levels in which to explore a range of artworks. Guayasamín’s art is big and bold and very much reflects Ecuadorian landscapes and culture. He was also particularly interested in the inequalities in society and many of his works are powerful – and moving – representations of injustice. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the gallery.
Day Trips Further Out
There are loads of day trips to explore the area surrounding Quito. Again, your accommodation will likely be able to help you find and book a trip that suits your interests, even if it might be at quite short notice. (We arrived from the airport late in the afternoon and managed to organise a day trip for the following morning.) Many companies offer coach trips that can pick you up from your accommodation (and a whole bunch of other tourists up from their accommodation, so bear in mind that the first hour of the trip could well involve sitting on a coach collecting people – which was fine for us as we could doze for a bit to catch up with the jetlag). But the greater the number of people that join the excursion, the lower the cost, and it’s often nice to have company on a day trip as well. Full day trips usually include lunch at a local restaurant.
Quilotoa Crater Lake
This was a full day trip, primarily to see the crater lake, which is located some 180 km from Quito. The journey takes a couple of hours direct from Quito, so other activities were incorporated into the trip to break up the day.
First stop was a market where we could see local produce for sale…
…And then onto the lake itself. It’s a caldera caused by the collapse of the volcano when it erupted in 1280. The crater filled with water over the years and now forms a lake, some 3km in diameter. It is possible to walk around the rim on a trail (it’s about 7.5 km) but we didn’t have enough time for this, so there’s a pleasant half hour stroll to the lake itself. It’s worth remembering that you are at altitude so the hike back up to the rim may take longer if you have not yet acclimatised. Also bear in mind that the sun is strong, even on a cloudy day, so make sure you have sun protection. The caldera itself is beautiful.
We also stopped off at Tigua to visit a local family home.
And in the late afternoon, as we headed back into Quito to do the reverse of the hotel pickups, we just happened to pass by the Cotopaxi volcano at sunset so the driver stopped off to let us all have a photo stop. Well, with a view like this it would have been rude not to.
It’s also worth noting there are lots of trips and activities at Cotopaxi – from climbing up it to mountain biking down it (at vast speed) as well as horse riding and jeep tours. Local tour operators and hotels will be available to find something that suits.
Bellavista Cloud Forest
We had long wanted to visit a cloud forest and booked directly with the organisation. They arranged a pick-up from our hotel in the central district – very early in the morning – to take us and a group of other people on a drive to the cloud forest that took a couple of hours. After breakfast at the lodge we embarked on a guided walk. Unfortunately the best time to see the birds is around 6:30am – about the time of our Quito pickup. Some people stay overnight in order to be able to take the early morning walks in order to get a greater chance of viewing the birds. It’s also worth noting that we found the experience to be expensive. Still, the walk was lovely and the guide knowledgeable. These are actually colour photos but the forest was so wonderfully cloudy they have an evocative black and white feel to them.
It was also nice to be able to see gorgeously colourful and beautifully iridescent hummingbirds, and other birds, using the feeders that were located around the lodge, flitting, darting and hovering.
Even if the Galapagos are your primary reason for visiting Ecuador, there are loads of activities in and around Quito – whether wildlife, activity or cultural – and it is definitely worth incorporating these into your itinerary if you have time.
The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a splendid day at the sumo in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE).
The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.
There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.
The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.
The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.
Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.
The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.
There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!
Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.
Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.
The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.
On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.
Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.
You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.
One of the wonderful things about the sumo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.
When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.
The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.
The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.
And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.
If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.
And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight. The first and final day’s events are also shown live.
If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.
The red crowned cranes of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern – and second largest – island, are so famous that they feature on the country’s banknotes and as the logo for Japan Airlines. Half of the world’s population of these distinctive and beautiful birds, amongst the rarest cranes in the world, reside on the eastern part of the island. The cranes mate for life and are known for their ‘dancing’ together as part of their courtship ritual. Many red crowned cranes are migratory but the ones that reside in Hokkaido are resident all year round.
It isn’t always possible to see wild cranes – wildlife being wildlife can be somewhat elusive – but the Akan International Crane Sanctuary is located close to the town of Kushiro and offers the opportunity to see these marvellous birds up close. It can be enjoyed as part of a day trip visiting the beautiful countryside surrounding the town.
Kushiro is the last stop on the line. If you’re using your JR Pass and travelling from Sapporo, the train has a logo at the front that is highly appropriate.
The sanctuary has information about its work which is mostly in Japanese but, like a lot of Japanese information, it uses plenty of graphics as well.
The cranes almost became extinct during the 20th century and remain on the endangered list. The centre acts as a feeding location for wild cranes and also has a number of captive cranes which are held in as natural an environment as possible making it possible to see the cranes all year round.
If you want to see them dancing in the snow you need to visit in winter but be prepared for loads of tourists with very expensive cameras who are all vying to snap that elusive shot of the crane couples’ fascinating dances.
The birds are able to breed. It was rather lovely to see one of the newest arrivals.
And what point is there in a visit to a local tourist attraction without indulging in some edible souvenirs? Made from local ingredients, you can buy ‘crane egg’ omiyage (souvenir gift), which come in presentation box.
Each cake is individually wrapped with a crane logo and, on opening up each wrapper the eggs don’t look as though they survived the journey home! However, any cracks in the shell caused by a slight crushing in our rucksacks as they endured a 24 hour journey home just added to their charm.
The egg’s shell is chocolate which coats hollow cake, and a soft smooth bean paste moulded into a sphere represents the yolk. The flavours are very subtle and not over-sweet. Our only complaint would be that they are much smaller than actual crane eggs and vanish in just three bites.
Kyiv is a great city for a walking tour. Its size is such that it is possible to see many of the sites on foot but it also has a great public transportation system. The metro, like many underground subways constructed during the Soviet era, has beautifully ornate stations.
Arsenelna is the deepest underground station in the world. At 105m below ground level it has two escalators and it takes over 5 minutes to get to the surface from the platform.
A 10-15 minute walk from this station conveniently takes you to Pechersk Lavra, the oldest and most important church complex in Ukraine, originally founded as a cave complex in the 11th century. There are a number of churches and museums across an extensive site. You can visit the caves located below and explore the catacombs.
Also located in the complex, and totally unrelated to the religious buildings, are a number of museums connected with Ukrainian cultural history. Additionally, there is the remarkable micro-miniatures of Mykola Syadristy museum. The exhibition comprises a large number of micro artworks, so teeny that you have to view them through a magnifying glass.
Leaving Pechersk Lavra the walk then took us through the nearby Holodomor Memorial Park commemorating the famine which killed millions of Ukrainians at the hands of the Soviet Government in 1932-33 and is now considered to be a genocide.
Just across Poshtova Square is the Kyiv river port complex on the bank of the Dnieper river. The passenger terminal has typically Soviet architecture and the central turret is meant to represent the tower of a steamboat. This is a historic part of the city that also has a large number of shops and restaurants in the area. There’s also a funicular that will take you up the hillside to give a great view of the city and river.
Continuing the walk, heading northwards, there is a lot of interesting street art to enjoy…
…before climbing the hill to the churches of St Andrew and St Mark.
And on to St Sophia’s Cathedral with its beautiful bell tower.
The Golden Gate, a reconstruction, was the main gate of Kyiv’s 11th century fortifications. It was named, apparently, for the Golden Gate of Constantinople. This isn’t The Great Gate of Kyiv, made famous by Mussorgsky as the 10th and final movement of his Pictures at an Exhibition suite; that piece of music actually celebrates The Bogatyr Gates.
Gotta know when you are walking past the former KGB offices.
And finally, Independence Square, located on Khreshchatyk Street, the main street in Kyiv. This square is where Ukrainians have gathered for various rallies and political events over the years and is named for the Ukrainian Declaration of Independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union disbanded.
There was so much to see that the tour took around nine hours, including a generous stop for lunch, but mid-walk snacking seemed to be a very necessary part of the tour, so we popped into a supermarket beforehand. It’s always fun to explore shops that local people use for their everyday groceries to discover a plethora of new foodie offerings – whether they are staples or something more unusual. This particular shop offered a range of products including packets of dried cheese, which were not only intriguing but seemed to be ideal snacking material.
What was interesting was that these were not typically Ukrainian but cheeses that originated from other countries. Of course we purchased extra packs to bring home as souvenirs.
The Gouda looks like holey popcorn. Gouda is a very hard cheese, originally from Holland. This dried cheese retains its mature flavour but isn’t as crunchy as you would expect from its appearanace.
Mozzarella seems to be entirely the wrong sort of cheese to dehydrate. From Italy, it is best known for adorning pizzas because it melts in the most delightfully gooey, stringy way. The dried version looks a lot like the Gouda – holey and slightly crunchy. But the flavour is much more mellow. It’s tasty enough but somehow feels wrong!
Sulguni is a cheese from Georgia. Like Mozzarella, it’s a soft cheese, made in using a similar process and has similarly melty qualities but with more flavour than Mozzarella, which can sometimes taste a little bland. While the other dried cheeses were eminently scoffable, this one was in a whole different class. The pieces look like the sort of woodchips you would put on your garden to suppress weeds and as soon as you open the packet the smokey aroma assaults your nostrils. They are quite chewy and the taste doesn’t disappoint either – this is the one that would last an entire nine hour walking tour of Kiev as you would only need to eat a couple of pieces per hour. Smokey, salty and unbelievably intense, the flavour lingers for a very long time.