Tokyobling's Blog

Sontoku Ninomiya – An Amazing Historical Figure

Posted in Japanese Traditions, People by tokyobling on October 25, 2011

Yesterday I wrote about the Ninomiya Shrine in Odawara City, a shrine that is named after Odawara’s most famous son, Sontoku Ninomiya (二宮 尊徳, 1787-1856). Ninomiya was born in a poor peasant family and lost both his parents while still a teenager. Despite being of low rank and having to raise siblings by himself he grew up to become a respected philosopher, thinker, administrator and agriculturalist. In his twenties his own personal farming enterprise was thriving due to his diligence and ground breaking ideas about agriculture and his local fame led him to be recruited to administer the agriculture of Japan’s elite, starting with the most run down fiefdoms in Japan and turning one after the other into successful enterprises. As a result of his dedication and honest, down to earth had work he is now enshrined in the shrine that bears his name and worshiped. He has also given his name to the town of Ninomiya in Kanagawa Prefecture and to Ninomiya City in Tochigi prefecture.

In addition to agriculture he also taught the ruling classes about the importance of rewarding hard work and successful immigrants, about basic economy, money and lending. He started Japan’s first credit union (basically banks that without the use of leverage lend money only using existing funds at low interest rates and risks shared by all existing members, in essence the only ethical banking system the world has ever seen).

Ninomiyas legacy is most commonly seen, at least to the casual traveler, in the many statues of him all around the country and especially in school grounds. Almost every school in Japan has a statue of him as young, carrying fire wood to support his family while reading a book to make up for his lost school time. The next time you pass a Japanese school, see if you can spot this statue! The statues themselves had a tragic story too, during World War 2 most schools had to give up their statues for the war effort to use the metal in arms manufacturing. Despite most school fighting tooth and nail to avoid giving up their statues most were confiscated even though a few schools managed to hide their statues. These stories are reflected in the greatest book about growing up as a child in war time Japan ever written, the classic autobiography by Kappa Senou, “A Boy Called H”. This was the first book I read in Japanese and it is a young adult book but suitable for anyone, from young to old. It’s an easy read even in the original Japanese. I’d say it is one of the must read books if you ever want to aspire to understand Japan and the Japanese. It’s available at Amazon here.

But back to Sontoku Ninomiya. In essence, Ninomiya life works serves as the essential role model for all Japanese. Utterly humble, utterly hard working his life form the basis of all moral and ethical education in Japanese schools even today, and in all forms of media his successors are highlighted, daily, across Japan. There are countless books, magazines, articles, television programs published or aired daily telling the stories of people who through common sense, hard work and humility turns a school, a family, a friendship or even a multinational business around, and the people who succeed in these things, whether they are carpenters or prime ministers are hailed as heroes here. A far cry from the worshiping of pseudo-celebrities and so called “stars” of the west. People in Japan, since a young age are just fascinated by success stories. When I first came to Japan one of my favorite TV shows was a series reenacting successful small businesses: every episode they would look at one shop, corporation or school that had managed to turn themselves and their activities around by hard work, common sense and high morals. The episode I remember most vividly was one about a hot dog stand and how the owner went from daily losses to a profitable business in a few simple steps that can be copied by everyone. I also have a few personal heroes in Japanese business, for example the founder of Oriental Land, the company that invented and runs the only non-Disney owned Disney theme park in the world (Tokyo Disney Sea). Him and his company turned their business around completely by adhering to a few simple ideas, pioneered by this boy who did a lot of thinking back in the 18th century, Sontoku Ninomiya (other famous examples are the Odakyu line real estate company here in Tokyo, The Nissan corporation, etc). Ninomiya was not a genious, he dind’t have any patents or brilliant solutions or advisors or markets. He succeeded because of his common sense and virtue alone.

If you want to learn the secret of Japan, the secret of success, thinking like Sontoku Ninomiya is a good start.


Hotoku Ninomiya Shrine – Odawara

Posted in Places by tokyobling on October 24, 2011

In Odawara City, Kanagawa Prefecture to the south west of Tokyo, I visited the Hotoku Ninomiya Shrine, one of the first “brown shrines” I have visited outside of Tokyo. Built in the 27th year of Meiji (1894) close to the Odawara castle grounds it is dedicated to the spirit of one historical person, Hotoku Ninomiya, which I will write more about later. The shrine itself is set in an almost wild looking patch of nature in the middle of the city and quite attractive. Of course I made sure to get a new stamp in my “shuincho” and was very pleased with my find. I don’t know about other travelers, but it’s a bad habit of mine not to research too much about any place I visit, instead relying on my feet to find me interesting places. The shrine has a beautiful website, only in Japanese with some gorgeous photos, much better than mine.









Odawara Castle

Posted in Places by tokyobling on September 5, 2011

Last month I finally got to do my belayed trip to the city of Odawara in Kanagawa prefecture to the south-west of Tokyo. Getting there from Tokyo is not difficult at all but it’s a couple of hours by train unless you go by the high speed Shinkansen bullet trains (fast but expensive). Traveling inside and out of Japan is very expensive compared to many other countries, real low cost airlines and bus companies have so far avoided the country and many times a decent domestic vacation can cost many times as much as a comparative domestic vacation in any European or Asian country. This has resulted in a situation where many Japanese avoid domestic tourism due to costs and it isn’t very rare meet people who have never traveled outside of their home prefecture or even home town. For some Japanese the only real chance they have to see the rest of the country is during one of the obligatory school trips during junior and senior high school, usually to Hiroshima, Tokyo or Kyoto. For this reason, Odawara is a pretty good place to visit if you’re based in Tokyo. It is easy to get there, lot’s of history and a few nice beaches! It also feels much more like a southern ocean resort town than other towns in Kanagawa, Chiba or Tokyo.

The main draw of the city’s tourism is the Odawara Castle (). Located on slightly higher ground than the town it was a good defensive spot and fortified by bigger and bigger castles until 1870 when the castle was ordered destroyed like all feudal fortifications as the new imperial era started with emperor Meiji. In the 1950s, after a civil war, a world war and quite a few major earthquakes the castle was finally revived but not much of what we can see today is original. In a country mostly spared the ravages of gunpowder artillery, most castles were originally built in wood, but these days most of the castles are unfortunately built out of concrete, which is one of the reasons I never bother to go inside. There are a couple of original wooden castles left and they are a joy to see from the inside!

However, from the outside the castles look fantastic, Odawara castle is no exception. Looking at the photos, it struck me that it really looks more like a toy than a real building!

Parts of the castle grounds and the many defensive gates have been restored more or less realistically (there is a “cut through” wall section on the grounds where you can see how these castles were actually built, lath and plaster, very much like the old English Tudor style mansions), and if you have the stamina it’s nice to walk around the castle and imagine how it once must have looked.

And I am not sure why I know this, but it seems that the official day for Castles here in Japan is April 6th. Just like the official world day for mathematics is March 14th. Let’s remember this for next year!

If you spend any more than a couple of weeks in Tokyo, Odawara is a must-see. More on this great little city later! If you want to read about other castles I have blogged about, please check out the beautiful Matsumoto Castle, the cute Kakegawa Castle, Shuri Castle in Okinawa, the ruins of Hachioji castle, and of course the papercraft castle!

Oh, and if anyone is keeping count, this is the 900th published post here on Tokyobling! I think I deserve a small cake. And maybe some tea.

Myosenji Temple – Odawara

Posted in Japanese Traditions, Places by tokyobling on August 23, 2011

I don’t know if it has been fully expressed or if most of you dear readers have noticed already, but a large part of this blog is not about the fantastic, but rather the details of Japan, the small things that you’d miss if you didn’t know about it, or the places, streets, back buildings and lesser known festivals you’d never visit as a casual tourist or even as a native of this great country. Tokyobling is as much about details and hidden places (although – hidden in plain view) as the grand, large, cool and fantastic. Take this post for example. Who in their right mind, with a blog that received thousands of visitors every day, would blog about a small temple in a suburb that no one ever visits in a small town that hardly draws the big crowds? Tokyobling – that’s who! Your purveyor of the ordinary!

Myosenji is a very local temple that is happily advertising their main business – the leasing of funeral plots and funeral services (which is true of most local Buddhist temples in Japan), hardly marked out even on local maps and absolutely not on anything a tourist might ever look out. For some reason I was drawn to it, certain that there must be something interesting if only I looked hard enough. Sure, the temple is above-average in terms of grooming and quite well kept. There is even an interesting tombstone commemorating the war dead of the Imperial Army Artillery! Not a common find at all! The mausoleum next to it is built to correspond to the large tree giving the roof an interesting shape. But even that is not enough to warrant a Tokyobling post, until you take a closer look at the Buddhist statuary (the usual demons and guardians protecting the entrance to heaven and hell), and beyond that, to the small granite guardian statues of… Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty. Did I miss a hidden Buddhist meaning in the works of Sanrio and Disney? Who know. Still, I’m glad I found it, and glad I could show it to you, because in a million years, I promise that no readers of this blog would ever chance to pay a visit to the beautiful little secret that is Myosenji, in Odawara City, Kangawa Prefecture, Japan.

Besides, it is really close to the beach. Enjoy!





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