Lois Kajiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s Note: Due to COVID-19 pandemic protocols, it’s probably safe to say travelling right now is not the best idea. However, Japan is a favorite destination for many of us who live in Hawai‘i. For those of you who miss visiting the beautiful and diverse prefectures of Japan, we bring to you Hamamatsu located in Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan, which happens to be the home of the Hawaii Hochi, LTD’s parent company Shizuoka Shimbun

Life, they say, is all about making connections. That saying certainly applies to me. Looking back, my decision to work in Hamamatsu, located in Shizuoka Prefecture, turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Hamamatsu is blessed with picturesque natural beauty, rich cultural traditions, and unique attractions. It is a special place that has much to offer if you take the time to explore. Perhaps, as you read this article, you will also find a connection to Hamamatsu in your life! 


Unadon (unagi fillets prepared kabayaki-style on top of rice) was invented in the late Edo period. (Photos courtesy of the Hamamatsu & Lake Hamana Tourism Bureau)

Unagi Paradise

Hamanako (Lake Hamana) is Japan’s tenth largest lake and borders Hamamatsu on the west. It is the source of delicious seafood including oysters, clams, prawns, and its most famous delicacy, unagi (eel). If you’ve eaten makizushi (rolled sushi) that was made with unagi, then most likely the unagi is from Lake Hamana. Tins of Hamanako broiled eels, which are still sold at certain markets in Hawai‘i, can be found either in the canned seafood aisle or the customer service area. However, if you want to eat the freshest unagi, Hamamatsu is the place to experience it.

Based on the belief that it increases one’s stamina and heat tolerance, unagi is especially popular during Japan’s hot summer months. This surge in popularity is due to a tradition of eating unagi on Doyö no Ushi no Hi (Midsummer Day of the Ox), which dates back to the Edo period. This tradition is still faithfully followed today. Unfortunately, the overconsumption of unagi has come at a price. As a result of its scarcity, unagi has become increasingly more expensive. Currently, various methods are being examined to find a solution to this problem.

On a sweet note, Hamamatsu’s signature omiyage (souvenir) is Unagi Pie. This crispy, oblong-shaped butter cookie is made with eel extract, but the eel flavoring is very subtle. This tasty confection, which is handmade by dedicated artisans, has been around since 1961. 

Piping hot gyöza is a perfect complement to your favorite beverage.

Gyöza Wars

In Hawai‘i, gyöza is usually considered an appetizer or a side dish, but in Hamamatsu, gyöza is the star at nearly 80 specialty restaurants. Filled with local ingredients such as pork and cabbage, Hamamatsu-style gyöza is arranged in a circular pattern on the platter and served with bean sprouts for a winning combination that pleases the palates of residents and visitors alike. In fact, a tremendous amount of gyöza is eaten in Hamamatsu! In 2011, Hamamatsu claimed the top spot for gyöza consumption, beating out its rival, Utsunomiya (known as “the city of gyöza”) in Tochigi Prefecture. Since then, these two cities have been battling for the title of Japan’s gyöza capital.


The Castle that Tokugawa Ieyasu Built 

Fans of jidaigeki (period dramas) and history buffs know of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shögun of the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan for over 260 years. Still, it may be a surprise to find out that before he became shögun, Ieyasu built Hamamatsu Castle as his base of operations, residing there for 17 years. 

Although the castle was destroyed after the Meiji Restoration, a three-story donjon (castle tower) was constructed on top of the original stone foundation in 1958. In this tower, there is a small museum that has a display of armor, swords and other relics; a souvenir shop; and an observatory at the top with a 360-degree view of the city. Surrounding the castle is a lush park that features a statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Municipal Museum of Art, a teahouse, and nearly 400 sakura trees. It is one of the most popular spots for enjoying hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in the spring. Conveniently located 10 minutes by taxi from Hamamatsu Station, Hamamatsu Castle Park is a serene retreat from city life where people can enjoy the beauty of each season.

Hamamatsu Castle is also known as Shusse (Success) Castle

A Dynamic Double Feature

During Golden Week, the stage is set for Hamamatsu Matsuri, the city’s premier festival event. Held annually from May 3–5, its popularity attracts over 1 million visitors who are interested in viewing the festival’s spectacular dual attractions: the takoage gassen (kite-flying battles) in the day and goten yatai (palace-like floats) parade at night. The kite-flying festival is said to have originated in the 16th century, when kites were flown to celebrate the birth of Yoshihiro, the first son of the lord of Hikuma Castle (the precursor to Hamamatsu Castle).

Kite flying on a grand scale

The kite festival takes place at Nakatajima Sand Dunes, one of the three largest sand dunes in Japan. It is an amazing sight to see over 170 gigantic kites, each decorated with a town’s unique design, soaring majestically in the sky. The first kites, known as hatsudako, are flown in honor of the newborns but are not used in the battles. The aerial battles begin when the bugles sound, as teams skillfully try to cut opponents’ kite strings using friction. It is an exciting competition that ends when only one kite remains flying high.

At night, the magnificent goten yatai steal the spotlight. Crowds of spectators line the downtown streets to watch the parade of more than 80 gorgeous floats, many of them elaborately carved and illuminated with lanterns. Riding on the floats are children playing ohayashi (traditional music) on flutes and taiko (drums), accompanied by skilled shamisen players. Each float is surrounded by people from the town that it represents. Community members, dressed in traditional happi coats, gather to show their pride for their hometown. The passion and energy in the air will captivate you.

Spectators marvel at the beauty of the floats

Hear the Nightingale Sing

Ryötanji Temple is an ancient Zen temple from the Nara era, founded in 733 by the priest Gyoki. It is the ancestral temple of the Ii family, who governed the region for nearly 600 years. Ii Naosuke, a feudal lord and tairö (great elder) of the Tokugawa shogunate, is known for playing an important role in the signing of the Harris Treaty, a commerce agreement between Japan and the United States in 1858. The significance of the treaty is that it opened new ports in Japan to US trade and exposed Japan to Western culture. 

The garden, best viewed from the temple’s veranda, features a pond in the shape of the kanji character kokoro (heart).

Of special interest is the main hallway’s “nightingale floor,” made from pine trees. Designed as a security measure against intruders, the floor makes a chirping sound like a nightingale when stepped on. The elegant garden, located in the northern section of the temple, is designated as a National Place of Scenic Beauty. It was created by Kobori Enshü, a renowned tea master in the early Edo period. Hawai‘i viewers who enjoyed the 2017 NHK taiga drama, Onna Jöshu Naotora (Naotora: The Lady Warlord), may also be excited to visit Ryötanji, for it was one of the filming locations. 


We are the Music Makers

Music plays a significant role in Hamamatsu’s identity. Yamaha, Kawai, Roland — all world-class, global musical instrument brands — are headquartered in the city. Next to Hamamatsu Station are prominent visuals: a sculpture of musical notes is near the south entrance and Act Tower, the city’s tallest building that was designed to resemble a harmonica, is to the east. In 2014, Hamamatsu was selected to be a UNESCO City of Music, a proud distinction that further elevates the city’s reputation as a hub for music.

Music Makes the World Go Round

Near Act Tower is the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments, housing a permanent exhibition of 1,500 instruments from all over the world. Instruments from Asia, Africa, Central and South America, Europe and Oceania are displayed on two floors. The collection includes traditional Japanese instruments; a saxophone made by the inventor, Adolphe Sax; and a harpsichord from 1765. An unusual opportunity awaits you in the Hands-on Room, where you can play djembe drums and thumb pianos from Africa, a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) from Mongolia, and more. Don’t forget to visit Andante, the museum gift shop, for cool souvenirs.

Fascinating and rare musical instruments are on display at the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments. The motto of the permanent exhibition is “See, hear and touch.”

I think what touched me the most about Hamamatsu were the residents, who were cheerful and very kindhearted. Due to the close friendships I’ve made, my connection with Hamamatsu remains strong to this day. There is a local phrase, yaramaika (Let’s give it a try!), that expresses their enthusiastic approach to life. In the spirit of yaramaika, how about giving Hamamatsu a try?

Note: As of this issue date, the following practices are in effect due to COVID-19: In public, masks must be worn, temperature checks are taken at entrances, and social distancing is necessary. Regular business hours and plans for events may have changed, so please check for any updates before you intend to visit.

Lois’s interest in Japan started with J-pop and martial arts shows. Her decision to study Japanese led to teaching English in Hamamatsu. She enjoys singing and doing creative projects.


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