Josiah's Japan Travelogue #4
June 8 - July 9, 2014
|Sunday - Monday (June 8th - 9th): Back in Tokyo|
If you're reading this without having read my China Travelogue, I headed to Japan after a two week trip through some of China's major cities. The reason for going to Japan? Touring and visiting friends, much like last year (though this year's trip will be a bit shorter, at just one month). Plus, I was already in the right part of the world and I just really enjoy being Japan, especially Tokyo, whether or not I've got any big plans.
|Tuesday (the 10th): Robots!|
|Tuesday afternoon (after making up for some missed sleep), I met up with my friend Ida in Shinjuku. We got lucnh and spent quite a while chatting about all sorts of things before she had to head off. Since I was already in Shinjuku, I decided to check out an item on my touring list. If you read my Japan travelogue from last year, you may remember that I mentioned seeing a truck driving around Shinjuku advertising the new Robot Restaurant. Well, back then I dismissed it but after seeing it featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain, I decided it would be a worth a visit.
Here's a couple of interesting signs I spotted along the way. The first is for a couple of theme restaurants that can be found in the area and the second is for one of the country's newer fads, cat cafes, where you can pay to spend time with lots of cute cats (and that's it).
If you're in the right area, Robot Restaurant is fairly hard to miss. I didn't have a reservation, but I got there fairly early and was able to get a ticket without problem (that said, by the time the show started the place was nearly full). Despite the words restaurant in the name, its not really a place to eat (though there is a food and drink menu). You start off in the lounge, were you can sit and order drinks and snacks while waiting for the show to start. There's also a pre-show, featuring some rather talented musicians dressed as robots (or maybe the knights from St. Seiya). I thought the flute player was especially good. Eventually, everyone is led out of the lounge and down into the basement for the main show.
The show itself is pretty hard to desribe. I'll try, but you really need to look at the pictures and videos. So anyway, the show has multiple parts, each with its own theme. Robots of sorts are involved, as are flashing lights and lots of cute girls. The first part of the show has a Japanese vibe with taiko drums, dancing demons and tengu, and the like. On an odd side note, I couldn't help noticing that a couple of the girls had tattoos which, in Japan, are usually reserved for Yakuza members. Do they come from that kind of family? Or maybe the tattoos were fakes drawn on for the show?
After an intermission with the pre-show musicans, it was on to robot boxing! Followed by a loose attempt at a story with a whole bunch of copyright infringing characters battling a hoard of invading alien robots. For example, here we have some robots vs. a magical girl with Captain American's shield, Thor's hammar, and Sailor Moon's intro speech (not all are show in the clip). She had trouble with that last guy, but fortunately Jaws was around to help. And that's barely scratching the seruface as fas as pop-culture references go. Then there was the part with lots of different robots and vehicles running around. That transitioned into dancing robots (really, I think this video is a great representation of the show) which then moved on to dancing girls.
All in all, the show was quite the experience. A bit goofy, but fun, zany, and the over the top. Certainly worth a stop if you have part of an evening to kill and don't have any serious object to lots of girls in somewhat skimpy costumes.
|Wedneday (the 11th): Akihabara|
|I was bound to do a big shopping trip in Akihabara eventually and the high chance of rain made this a good day for it. As before, you don't need to hear about all the stuff I bought, but you might find this amsuing. You figure that, if they're using Dragonball Z to advertise hair wax, it might be some pretty awesome wax.
|Thursday (the 12th): J-World|
|It was another rainy day, so I wanted to do something indoors if possible. Last year, a little before I left Japan, I heard about a brand new indoor theme park based on Shonen Jump (the weekly manga magazine which runs many famous series such as One Piece and Naruto). I didn't get a chance to go then, so I decided to check it out.
It's in the fairly famous Sunshine 60 building in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area. I walked around Ikebukuro a bit last summer, though on the other side of the station. On the way to Sunshine 60 (note, half the signs are for Sunshine 60 and half for Sunshine City) I came across the area known as Otome road. It's a couple blocks (plus a few other stores scattered about the area) of anime, manga, and related merchandise stores. However, they're all highly geared towards a female cliental so you'll see a lot more posters of cute guys and a focus on romance and BL series (if you don't know what that stands for, I recommend not looking it up). There's also a lot of shops selling cosplay outfits and supplies, though once again mostly for girls. Oh, and on the subject of Japanese getting English wrong... You know, I actually kind of hope that isn't a typo. A cafe where everyone just rolls around would be hilarious.
Anyway, Sunshine 60 is a fairly large mall. Other than the usual collection of shops, it also contains J-World, another indoor theme park (that has a bit of a cat theme and appears to be geared towards little kids), an aquarium, a planetarium, and a viewing deck. Some of those looked like fun but the weather wouldn't have made for a good view and I'm planning to visit a really big aquarium a little later on this trip, so I focused on J-World. Like many Japanese theme parks, you can either buy a cheap entry ticket and pay individually for each attraction, or you can buy a more expensive pass that gives you unlimited access to all the rides and attractions.
J-World has several permanent attractions which are themed after popular Jump series both past and present. There's also temporary sections focusing on different series which change every so often, a midway sort of area featuring themed carnival games, and a couple of restaurants. The food actually isn't bad. It's a mix between stuff that the characters actually eat in the series (like various ramen from Naruto) and some other food that's just for fun (if you're curious, the hat is a slightly sweet bread of some kind and the cup is full of corn soup).
I hit all the main attractions. The Naruto area has a fairly simple fun house / obstacle course type of thing where you follow instructions to find hidden switches, help Naruto charge his chakra, and the like. It's simple, though somewhat amusing if you like the series. One Piece has a carousel and a boat ride with a little bit of shooting thrown in, and this guy's occasional concerts. Dragon Ball Z also had two attractions. In one, you put on 3D glass, go into a small room, and get to shoot a couple kamehama alongside Goku. Way too short and simple, but the 3D affect was really impressive, making it look like Goku really was standing right next to me. The other DBZ attraction was my favorite one in the park and sends you to a recreation of the Red Ribbon Army base where you have to run around with a dragon radar and try to reclaim the Dragon Balls by finding and completing various puzzles and mini-games. You can fail that one, though there's a few more games than there are balls, so you can mess up a couple times and still be ok (I failed three games and still cleared the challenge with one or two puzzles to spare). Get all the balls, and you get to summon Shenron and save the world. As a nice bonus, each attraction has its set of collectables medals and you get a random one plus a sticker for riding/playing (only the first time if you have an unlimited pass). Even the midway games give you small prizes like stickers or badges if you lose, so they feel less like a waste of money than at most places.
While J-World is clearly designed with kids in mind, I still spent a fun couple of hours there and, judging by the other guests, I'm far from the only older Jump fan who enjoys J-World.
|Friday (the 13th): Sanno Matsuri and Jindai|
My first goal for the day was to see the parade for Sanno Matsuri. It's a yearly festival at Hie Shrine in downtown Tokyo. I actually went to the festival last summer, but the parade and many of the other festive events only take place on even numbered years (it trades off with another famous Tokyo festival). The parade starts fairly early in the morning and runs four around 8 or 9 hours, winding around various parts of Tokyo. I decided to keep things easy and catch it at the start. While there were a number of things in the parade, the highlights for me were the mikoshi (portable shrines) and the group of shrine maidens.
|Saturday (the 14th): A Festive Evening|
|This being Saturday, I naturally had services to go to. However, I had some time to kill once they ended in the late afternoon / early evening and I needed to change trains in Ueno, so I decided to leave the station and stroll around for a bit. While in Ueno Park, I happened across the local Toshugu Shrine (not to be confused with the shrine of the same name in Nikko). You know, I can't imagine that I somehow missed the place for so many years but, on the other hand, I think I'd remember all that gold... Nice carvings too.
After walking in Nikko for a bit, I headed back to Hie Shrine to catch the festivities (Sanno Matsuri runs all weekend). There were a lot of groups with mikoshi around, though I got there a bit too late to see what they were all for. And, as it got dark, the party got more underway. After all, it's not a Japanese festival without festival food and bon dancing, which made for an enjoyable way to wrap up the evening.
|Monday (the 16th): Fuji-Q Highland|
|You might notice that I skipped over Sunday. The reason being that I didn't do anything I haven't written about multiple times before. I browsed the big flea market at Oi-keibajo, strolled around Asakusa for a bit, and then hung out with a friend at Odaiba. It was a fun day but all stuff I've covered in-depth before. But here's one pictures of the sunset, taken from Odaiba.
I have a few things left on my to-do list in and around Tokyo, but many involve museums, which are closed on Mondays, so I decided this would be the day I finally go to Fuji-Q Highland. It's a theme park not too far from Mt. Fuji (in-case you couldn't figure that out from the name). I meant to go last year but never made it. Anyway, it's not too bad of a train ride from Tokyo and they also have a bus and park ticket package. Since this was the first day I could use my JR Pass (more on that in a future RJC), I opted for the train.
Fuji-Q Highland is somewhat off by itself out in the country. Which makes sense considering how much space is at a premium in Tokyo proper. Like many Japanese theme parks, you can either buy a cheap admission ticket and then pay for each attraction separately or buy a free pass, which gives you unlimited access to everything (and is the better deal by far unless you just plan on sitting around all day). Unfortunately, also like many Japanese theme parks, it closes kind of early (usually 5 or 6, depending on the day) and some of the rides could hit capacity and close their lines 90 minutes or more before that so getting there early is a really good idea.
Anyway, I got to the park, got my free pass, and headed off. One of the first things I came across is a hill for viewing Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, all but the base of the mountain was wreathed in clouds so I couldn't see much. I did get a nice view of some of the park's roller coasters though. But the first attraction I tired (which also turned out to be my favorite) was the Ultimate Fort. Basically, the whole thing is a big puzzle challenge where you have to successfully clear the challenge in each section of the fort within a strict time limit to move onto the next one. Fail and you're kicked out. And you are going to fail. As of late January, the fort has had around 630,000 visitors and only two groups of people have successfully cleared all five stages, giving it an escape rate of around 1 in 100,000. So how did I do? Well, the first stage gives you a card and puts you in a prison like area. To get out, you need to find some extremely well hidden card readers. The first time you scan your card you're given a list of items to find. Other scans might give you an item, do nothing, or delete your inventory. If you can get all three items, then it's off to the secret door and onto the next stage. My first try was mostly spent trying to figure out what to do (while there are good English instructions, the readers are really well hidden) and I only found couple of readers and didn't get any of my items. My second time I had a better grasp of the situation and managed to track down quite a lot of readers (I found eight or nine of them, though I can only claim credit for two of those myself, I picked up the rest of the locations from watching other players) but couldn't seem to find my third item. By the third time, I knew the location of at least most of the readers and was able to get my three items in short order. Unfortunately, they don't call it the "secret" door for nothing and I ran out of time before I could find it. Ultimate Fort isn't something that's designed to be cleared on your first try (or probably your tenth or twentieth for that matter). I figure it would have taken me one or two more tries to clear the first level. But the remaining levels promise different challenges and few, if any, other players to learn from, really upping the difficulty. I have no idea how long it would have taken me to find several of those card readers by myself. But anyway, I loved it. Heck, I'd like to go back to Fuji-Q and just spend an entire day doing the Ultimate Fort to see how far I can make it. Someone really needs to build one of those in the US. Preferably near where I live.
Anyway, after three rounds and around 90 minutes I pulled myself away from the Ultimate Fort to check out the rest of the park. Actually, that brings to mind one common theme I saw in Fuji-Q, they really didn't keep the lines moving as fast as they could have. Judging by the time limit for the first level of the fort, the line length and speed, etc, I'm pretty certain they could have run two or even three groups in the time it took them to do one. Ditto with the roller coasters, where they were very determined to make sure you emptied your pockets, performed multiple seatbelt checks in a row, etc. They really should take a lesson from how Disney or most other US parks run their lines (while they're at it, copying Disney's Fast Pass system would be good too). But anyway, other than the fort there's a big haunted house (which I didn't go in), a couple kids' areas (one themed after Thomas the Tank Engine), and a lot of assorted rides. The main highlights for me (other than the fort) were the roller coasters. There's four big ones (though one was closed that day for maintenance), all of which either are or were world record holders. You've got Fujiyama (formally the world's tallest coaster, now the 8th), Dodonpa (formally the world's fastest, now the 4th, but with the fastest acceleration), Takabisha (the world's steepest coaster with a 121 degree drop), and Eejanaika (the one that was closed, a rare 4th dimension coaster with the world record for number of inversions). The lines were fairly long (despite it being a weekday) and, as I said before, rather slow, but the coasters are amazing. For anime fans there's also an Evangelion museum featuring original artwork, statues of various characters, and a couple of scale recreations.
On a humorous note, check out this sign. For those of you who can't read Japanese, it warns people that there's a chance of wild bears coming into the park (they live in the forests near Mt. Fuji) and says that, if you see a bear, you shouldn't wrestle or tackle it. You know, because those are the first things everyone thinks of when they encounter a bear.
So yeah, Fuji-Q is pretty awesome and I had a blast (though I'm glad I had a way to kill time while waiting in line, since there was a lot of that), but I wish they'd keep it open later and streamline the lines a bit, I would have liked to go on some of the rides again and have another go at the fort.
On the plus side, since it didn't stay open late, I had time to stop by Akihabara on my way back, though this time I was shopping for more practical stuff. For one thing, I was getting tired of my cellphone dieing on me halfway through the day. The battery clearly can't hold a charge as well as it did when I was here last year and I use it a lot for GPS, making plans with friends, keeping up with important e-mails, etc. So I wanted one of those portable battery packs you can plug a phone in for a quick charge. Also, it was with a bit of melancholy that I decided it's time to retire my backpack. It's lasted me for something like 12 years, though all my time in college and university, my teaching jobs (both in Japan and the US), and numerous trips (including Japan and New Zealand). It's comfortable and I like the design but it's been slowly wearing out for years and the other day one of the more important zippers started to rip off, ending its usefulness as my primary pack (though I may keep it as a beach bag or something). I spent quite a while trying to decide on a successor, eventually ending up with what's essentially the newer version of the same line, which features only a few changes (mostly for the better). I was actually seriously considering a different and fancier style, but in the end I was won over by the lighter weight and lower cost. We'll see how the this one works over the rest of this trip...
|Tuesday (the 17th): A Look at Old Edo|
|I decided to start of the day with one of the museums on my list and, since I got off to a rather late start, I went to the closest one, which is actually just a short walk from the apartment I'm renting (how did I miss it last year?). Specifically, the Fukugawa Edo Museum (if you don't remember, Edo is the old name for Tokyo). The inside of the museum is a recreation of a small shopping and housing part of the city as it would have been a short time before the arrival of Commodore Perry (the one who forced Japan to open itself to open itself up to the outside world). The museum's recreation includes stores, a dock (many people would use boats to get around Edo due to all the rivers and canals), and even what was essentially a gated apartment complex. Here's a look inside a wood cutter's house (check out that saw) and here's an old time stove (those small lids cover parts where water can be heated, they're just the right size to put in a sake bottle so it can warm up while the food is cooking). And this is a soba maker's stall of sorts (despite the size, it's meant to to carried over a shoulder). While the museum is rather lacking in signs, there are volunteer guides to show you around. Mine spoke decent English and did a great job explaining the different structures and items. I also picked up a lot of interesting trivia. For example, that tower you saw in a couple of the pictures is to watch for fires but it actually only has windows on three of the four sides, to prevent the watchers from getting a view of the palace. Another interesting fact? People in the city tended to eat white rice as a sign of status, while those in the country ate brown rice. All in all, the museum is nicely done and and I found the entire experience quite interesting.
I spend the rest of the day shopping in Nakano Broadway, which was also fun, though for different reasons. But I've already written about it multiple times in the past so I think that'll do it for today.
Actually, one side note. On the way to Nakano, I stopped at Freshness Burger (a Japanese fast food burger chain) for lunch. They had a limited time Hawaiian burger (made with tuna) that sounded interesting. Another specual "Hawaiian" item was called the yellow smoothie. The sign said it was pineapple and paprika. Now, I was sure I'd read that second part wrong so I decided I'd give it a try. The good news is that no, my Japanese was fine. The bad news is that paprika really isn't a great smoothie ingredient. And seriously, what's Hawaiian about that anyway? It was one of the handful of times when I wish I wasn't quite so keen on trying new and different sounding drinks.
|Wednesday (the 18th): Yamadera|
|As I previously mentioned, I got a JR Pass on this trip (which I'll explain in detail in a future RJC) so I want to take advantage of it and spend some time away from Tokyo, seeing parts of Japan I've never been to. While my bigger trips will take place over the next two weeks, I decided to start out with a smaller one and spend three days up north in the Sendai area. That said, I don't really plan to do much of anything in Sendai itself. I went there a couple of times in the past (way back during my first stay in Japan) and saw all the major sites, but it made a convenient base for the places I did want to visit.
Thanks to the rather new Hayabusa and Komachi Shinkansen (which are some of Japan's faster trains, running at around 200 miles per hour), going between Tokyo and Sendai is a faster trip than it was back then (less than 90 minutes, depending on which train you take). So I arrived in Sendai pretty early, stowed my bags in a locker at the station, and then hopped on another train going to Yamadera.
Yamadera is a place I've been meaning to visit for years (since my first time in Japan) but just never got to. It's a small town nestled amidst the mountains, made famous by its temples. If you take a close look at this photo, you might be able to pick a couple of them out. To help you out, here's a different photo I took of the town while hiking later in the day. See that cluster of buildings hanging on the side of the mountain? Those are the temples. Well, most of them. There's actually a temple and a shrine at the bottom of the mountain where the trail starts. It had a rather interesting looking Buddha statue, which people seemed to like rubbing (for luck I suppose). There's 1,000 steps leading up the side of the mountain, which pass through the forest and by numerous small temples, statues, carvings, and the like. Some of the buildings really do hang over the side of the mountain, but they offer some great views as a result (fortunately, despite the clouds and fog, it didn't rain that day).
While none of the temples are especially spectacular aside from their setting, many of them have some odd or unusual aspect that makes them a bit different from the norm and Okunoin (at the very top) features a nice large Buddha statue (that you can't photograph). The area as a whole though is very scenic, between the forests, the temples, and all the flowers tended by the monks.
I made good time on the hike and got back down with tons of time left so, after a quick lunch, I headed to a nearby hiking trail I'd seen on the map. This one was clearly less popular. It was overgrown and I didn't run into a single person along the way. It mostly runs through the forest along the lower part of the mountain and past a few old ruins. In my opinion, this was the only particularly interesting part. You can see part of a small Buddhist section carved into the rock on the edge of that picture, but what I liked was this tiny hidden shrine, that only comes into view when you're right in front of it.
I still had plenty of time after finishing that trail, so I headed for another hiking route (stopping at an art museum I passed along the way). This one was on the opposite side of the town so I was able to get some different views (it's where I took that picture earlier which shows the temples on the mountain above the town). It was also a lot more fun than the previous hike since there were parts where you had to climb over and even crawl through some large rocks.
After that, it seemed like a good time to call it a day and head back to Sendai to check into my hotel and get something to eat. On that note, I've mentioned before how strange Japanese pizzas can be, but this might be one of the weirdest. If you can't read the Japanese, it's called the Americana and it's got mozzarella, ketchup, salami, and french fries. Ick...
|Thursday (the 19th): Tazawako and Kakuodate|
|I had two stops planned for today, since they were just 15 minutes apart on the train. The first is Lake Tazawa (or just Tazawako, ko meaning lake). The lake itself is a short bus ride from the station. As you can probably tell from the picture, they rent boats, but one of the more popular things to do is rent a bicycle and take the 20 kilometer (12 1/2 mile) ride around the lake, which is what I was there for.
Once again, the weather looked pretty dodgy but I was lucky and it didn't rain. Unfortunately, only a few parts of the lake have an actual bike path, most of the time I had to ride on the road. But there was very little traffic so it wasn't too bad and I got to see some nice houses and rice paddies along the side of the lake. About a quarter of the way around, I came across a small shrine with a nice hand washing fountain. Around the halfway mark, I reached another shrine and a statue of Tatsuko, a girl who, according to legend, was turned into a dragon and became the guardian of the lake. The rest of the ride lacked any notable landmarks, but there were some nice views and it was, all in all, a pleasant way to spend the morning.
After returning to the train station, I continued on to the next stop, Kakunodate. It's a town which was once home to a large number of samurai. A number of their houses still remain (many owned by their descendants), mostly along a scenic tree lined street. As a side note, a lot of those are sakura (Japanese cherry) trees and there's even a 1 1/2 mile path by the river lined entirely with them. Unfortunately, sakura blossoms bloom in the spring, but I imagine Kakunodate would be quite the spectacular place to view them if you're there during the right time of year.
Anyway, a number of the samurai houses have been turned into museums. My first stop was the Ishiguro house, the oldest and largest of the samurai houses. The family still lives there, so only one section of it is open (most of the samurai houses are actually large compounds with multiple buildings and gardens). There's a little tour, which was all in Japanese (I could understand maybe a third of it), and also a display of some things belonging to the family. The Aoyagi house was next, and it was favorite. They've opened the entire area up to the public so you get to see just how large and grand these houses can be. The Aoyagi clan was the most prestigious of the samurai families in Kakunodate and it really shows. Many of the buildings display pieces from the family's extremely impressive collection (which I sadly couldn't photograph) including weapons and armor, handicrafts, and even some more unusual items like phonographs and rare records. Honestly, it was a better collection than I've seen at a lot of normal museums. There's also a building designed to show off the town's local crafts.
In that respect, Kakunodate is primarily known for Kabazaiku, which involves peeling thin layers of bark from cherry trees and using it to line various objects. I learned more about it at the nearby Denshokan Hall museum While Kabazaiku supposedly dates back around 1,000 years, it gained popularity in Kakunodate about 200 years ago, as a side job for the samurai. The most popular products seem to be tea or pill cases (the bark helps keep the interior from becoming too dry or moist) but it also makes cool lamp shades and can be used for all sorts of items including boxes, trays, plates, and even furniture. All hand made and all very pretty.
After that I got a local specialty as a snack. Called miso kiritanpo, it's a rice paste (though not nearly as sticky or chewy as mochi) covered with a miso based sauce. Assuming you like the miso / soy sauce taste, it's pretty good.
Continuing on, I visited a few more samurai houses, including one built in a very old style, though the first two were really the best by far. I also stopped in the Tatetsu house. They were a merchant family, rather than samurai, and have an interesting little museum showing clothing, pottery, and other items used by their family in the past. There were a few other houses turned museums and regular museums I could have visited but it was getting towards closing time so instead I swung by a few local shrines and temples which were listed on my tourist map (since they don't have operating hours), though none of them especially stood out.
To wrap things up, I decided to get supper before leaving. A place on my tourist map looked interesting and I ended up with this large tofu meal. It's not all tofu (there's some pickled vegetables, egg, and a little bit of fish on there), but most of it is. There's the big block of fresh tofu in the upper left (which you sprinkle with salt and then dip in soy sauce mixed with ginger and green onions, the tofu and tofu skin filled miso soup, the piece of older stronger tasting tofu, the sweet piece of tofu, the tofu with ginger and hijiki, the soy milk skin (technically not tofu, I guess), and more. And, for the most part, it was quite good and made for an interesting way to end the day.
|Friday (the 20th): Oirase Stream|
|More than any other day I've had so far on this trip, time was a factor today since there were only several buses going to and returning from my destination (the hiking trail alongside Oirase Stream). I had everything worked out very carefully to ensure I'd get there at a decent time and wouldn't miss the last bus back when I was done. So naturally it was the one day my alarm doesn't work. Seems that, in the middle of the night, my cellphone connected to a different network but screwed up the time and date sync and, as a result, got them wrong didn't realize it was time to play the alarm. I woke up an hour later than I needed to, missing the train I'd wanted to take and, as a result, making it impossible to catch the first bus. I wasn't happy but, after some quick internet research, I determined that I could still get there in time to catch the second bus. It'd drastically reduce my hiking time, but I might be able to complete the trail and, if not, there were bus stations along the way so I wouldn't get stranded even if I ran out of time.
Anyway, I eventually made it to the start of the Oirase Stream trail (or the end, depending which direction you go). Oirase Stream is more of a river in my opinion and runs out from Lake Towada. Both the stream and the lake are rather popular destinations, especially in the falls when the leaves are changing color, but unfortunately the trains don't stop anywhere close., you have to take a fairly lengthy bus ride from one of two different train stations to get there. The entire trail runs around 13 kilometers (~8 miles). I had planned on giving myself a leisurely 5 hours to finish, though I doubted it would take more than 3. Instead, I ended up with around 2 1/2 so I was really rushing, alternating between a fast walk and a jog without a single rest stop (other than brief pauses to take pictures). It turned what would have normally been a rather easy trail into a bit of a speed and endurance test. But anyway...
I started off at Yakeyama, which is the end of the trail furthest from the lake, and proceeded to follow Oirase Stream back towards it source. The trail is mostly flat, and none of the slopes are especially steep. You're also often, though not always, near the road, though it's not an especially busy one. As a side note, while it's pretty enough with the stream and forest, that first section of the trail between Yakeyama and Ichigedo is both the longest and least scenic stretch. Things start to pick up at Ichigedo (a large rock slab supported by a tree). The scenery gets more diverse (especially the stream) and, a bit further down, you start to hit the waterfalls. And there are a lot of waterfalls of all different kinds, fourteen according to my tour map. Though some were small enough it's hard to say if they really count. More nice views of the stream as well, of course. One of the last (and best) waterfalls is Choshi Great Falls. I had been nervously keeping an eye on my watch the entire hike but by the time I reached Choshi I knew for certain I was almost there and doing ok. In fact, I reached Lake Towada with around 20 minutes to spare so I was pretty pleased with myself. There's actually a town on the other side of the lake where you can stay, take ferry rides around the lake, and the like. But for me, I had to catch the last bus back to the train station so I could return to Sendai.
All in all, it was a a nice and very scenic hike and, despite the length, extremely low intensity (unless you're rushing like I was). I'm sure it's spectacular in the fall, though I've heard it's far more crowded then, while for me on a weekday in the off season, there were only occasional other hikers, with the odd cluster at the major waterfalls.
As a side note, if you don't care for hiking and just want an overview on your way to Towadako, you can see many of the waterfalls and other scenic spots from the bus (it even announces them and stops for a few seconds so you can get a good look).
|Sunday (the 22nd): Welcome to Osaka|
Nothing much to say about Saturday. I returned to Tokyo, went to services, and then went out to dinner with a friend at a rather hard to find but very nicely decorated British pub. For future reference, the Ebisu section of Tokyo is a good nightlife and restaurant area.
Random Japan Comment: The Osaka Difference
|Monday (the 23rd): Osaka Highlights|
|I didn't get to see all that much of Osaka the previous day, so I decided to try and make up for it. Before I left my hotel though, I happened to glance at the emergency sign. What exactly is the "Escape Traps" bit marked on there? Do I go to that spot to escape from a trap or do I have to escape from traps if I go there?
Anyway, my first stop was the Osaka Museum of History. It traces Osaka's history from when it hosted Naniwa Palace (long gone) as a capital city, though its development into a major port, and up to more modern times. It's interesting and has a decent amount of information in English. There are some artifacts from the various times periods, but quite a lot of the space is devoted to recreations and models.
After finishing the museum, it was only a short walk to Osaka Castle. While the castle was originally built in the late 1500's (and the site held a major temple prior to that), like many old Japanese buildings, it had a tendency to get burned down. The current Osaka Castle is a recreation of the main tower portion, which was built in 1931. You can get some decent views from inside, but the interior of the castle is mostly devoted to a museum focused on two things. The first is Hideyoshi Toyotomi (successor to Oda Nobunaga), the first warlord to unite all of Japan, and the one who had the original Osaka Castle built. The second is The Summer War, a massive battle fought for control of the country after Hideyoshi's death. It's pretty interesting history and, even if you haven't studied the period, you may recognize some of the key figures from various anime, manga, and games.
The area around the castle is also home to a shrine, a couple of interesting looking buildings (though you can only see them from the outside), and a garden composed primarily of ume trees. After getting some surprisingly good karaage (Japanese style fried chicken) at a nearby stall and exploring the area, I set off for my next destination.
Shitennoji Temple holds the distinction of being the first state-established Buddhist temple in Japan, having been founded by an imperial prince in 593 AD, though none of the original buildings have survived (the majority are from the 17th century, though a few date back a good bit more). Naturally, I couldn't take photographs inside, but the temple buildings are home to some large golden Buddha statues and a number of impressive paintings depicting the Buddha's life as well. Also notable, is that you can actually enter and climb that pagoda in the photo. It's the first Japanese pagoda I've seen that I could go inside. Unfortunately, the interior is thoroughly modern, which was a little disappointing. The temple complex is fairly large and also contains a graveyard (with some hill like structures I hadn't seen before), a pond full of turtles (which are fun to watch), and a small but pretty garden.
My final stop for the day was Spa World. It's a onsen (hot springs) theme park, kind of like Oedo Onsen in Tokyo and Yunessun in Hakone (both of which I've visited and written about before). They have two large onsen areas, each based on a different part of the world. Naturally, I couldn't photograph them, but you can see some pictures on their web site. I went to the European baths (which are for men in even numbered months and women in odd, while the Asian baths are the opposite) which included baths and saunas based on Greece, Rome, Spain, and Finland, among others. A few of the baths had various things added to the water (my favorite was the herb bath, which had a really nice scent) but most were more about the decor than anything else. My favorite was Finland, where they had individual tubs with tons of tiny bubbles coming out from below, though the waterfall bath and the baths where you could just lie back in shallow water were pretty cool as well. As for the saunas, most were fairly ordinary though there was one where you're supposed to rub yourself with salt while you sit inside. That was different, though not something I was overly fond of. Spa World also has a more normal pool area as well (included with admission), which includes a lazy river and a couple of good water slides (though you have to pay extra for those). Naturally (if you're used to Japanese bathing, at least), the pool area is mixed gender and requires swimsuits while the onsen baths are separated and done in the nude. Outside of the water, there's an amusement area and some restaurants too (though nothing like what they have at Oedo Onsen). I ended up eating at an okonomiyaki place there before calling it a night. This time, I got a beef okonomiyaki done modern style (which means egg noodles are added to the mixture). Gotta say, I think Osaka is starting to give me a taste for Okonomiyaki...
|Tuesday (the 24th): Kurashiki|
|Today marked the first of my day trips outside of Osaka. My destination? Kurashiki, a small city about an hour away. After a quick walk around the major shrine, I headed straight for the Bikan distract. It's the historic merchants' section of the city and is filled with old homes and storehouses (dating back to the 17th century), many of which have been turned into museums, restaurants, and shops. One thing about Bikan compared to other similar type areas I've been to in Japan is its size. There's quite a number of very picturesque old streets to explore, and the occasional visitor in traditional dress enhances the atmosphere. It's probably the nicest old town area I've been to in Japan, and a lot of fun to visit.
I spent a while exploring, stopping at a place that made its own gelato along the way (I got black sesame and drgonfruit flavors, both very good). Eventually, I decided I should probably start heading towards the museums on my list. That lead me towards a different part of Bikan, which follows and old canal and is even more scenic as a result.
There are a ton of museums in the area. Many are focused on local history and/or items, but there's also museums focused on art, various local celebrities (including a couple of manga artists and a baseball player), and more. I saw the History Museum (which didn't really have much, but was free) the moved on to the Ohara Museum of Art. Its primarily collection is European in origin. It's a nice museum but, like with all art museums, your enjoyment will depend greatly on how much you like the art itself. I thought a lot of the impressionist pieces were quite good (and some were by very famous artists like Monet), but was much less of a fan of the cubist and modernist pieces (one piece of modern "artwork" was literally just a tarp laying on the ground).
After taking a lunch break, I moved on to the Folkcraft museum. It was a favorite. For one thing, you get to walk all through a nice old storehouse, which is fun in its own right. But it's also filled with all sorts of interesting furniture, pottery, weaving, glass, and other items. Personally, I enjoyed it much more than the art museum.
I also stopped by the Rural Toy Museum (which didn't allow photos), but contains quite a large collection of old Japanese dolls and figures, tops, kites, and the like. It's small but densely packed and I had fun looking around inside.
At one point during my explorations, I passed a stand with a sign listing a lot of different fruit flavored drinks. I was pretty thirsty, so I went ahead and ordered a flavor I liked without reading the rest of the sign to see what kind of drinks they were. Going by the flavors and photos, I was assuming juice or tea. Yeah... That was a big mistake. It was weird, really weird. I think the base was some sort of soy sauce, maybe with a bit of vinegar added in. Quite possibly the worst drink I've ever had (even worse than that blueberry milk vinegar drink from last summer). I could barely manage a few sips and spent the next couple of hours trying to get the taste out of my mouth...
Finally, I stopped by Ivy Square (the area around an old factory (now a hotel). It has some shops and museums of its own, and my ticket from the Ohara Museum of Art also included admission to a museum there, which featured the work of the Japanese painter who helped found the museum. His stuff I liked. An interesting fusion of European and Japanese, in many cases.
By the time I finished there, a lot of things were getting ready to close for the day, and it was starting to rain a little, so I got a train back to Osaka and headed to Dotonburi for supper. I was in a sushi mood, so I found a good kaitenzushi (conveyor belt) place. I also walked around the area a bit more. Speaking of which, this sign is rather famous (to the point where it's even shown on the Osaka tourist map). If you're curious, Glico is a candy company (makers of Pocky, among other things) whose headquarters is in Osaka. Naturally, they have a store nearby. But I think most people just seek the sign out for a photo op.
|Wednesday (the 25th): Mt. Koya|
|I got an early start, heading off to Mt. Koya. It's a place I actually planned to visit with my mom when she visited me in Japan years back, but we ended up changing our plans so we could see the Geisha show in Kyoto. Anyway, I've been looking for an opportunity to go and it finally came.
Mt. Koya is a mountain about an hour and a half away from Osaka. It's a religious site (primarily Buddhist though, this being Japan, there's some Shinto mixed in as well) hosting a staggering 120 (or so) temples, though I heard that, at its peak, that number was in the thousands. Anyway, it's the base for Japanese Shingon Buddhism with a history dating back approximately 1,200 years when the first temples and monasteries on the mountain were founded by a monk named Kukai. Though now there's a small town there as well. To get to Mt. Koya, you need to take rather scenic train ride out into the country then take a cable car up the mountain (well, technically there are roads for cars and tour buses too). After that it's a short bus ride to the town. Once you're there, however, everything is within easy walking distance.
While visiting all the different temples could take days, I naturally focused on the more famous ones. I started out by heading towards Okunoin, but I didn't take the bus all the way there. Instead, I got off at the start of the Sando, a 2 kilometer path leading to the temple which passes through a forested graveyard (Japan's largest, with over 200,000 graves, tombs, and mausoleums). They come from many periods in history, represent famous nobles and lowly peasants, and are built in a number of different styles. If you've got nothing against walking through a graveyard, it's really scenic, even in the rain (which started when I was around two thirds of the way down the path). Fortunately I was prepared and kept going. There are actually a few different temples at the end of the path. The first isn't especially notable, though this long line of Buddhist deity statues was kind of cool. There were also these giant mounds of Jizo statues (there interior is hollow, by the way, with a little tomb or shrine or something inside).
You can't actually go in Okunoin itself (its where Kukai is believed to still be alive in endless meditation), but Torodo temple is right there as well, and it's certainly worth the visit. Unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed anywhere near it but it's known as the lantern temple and is filled with burning lanterns, giving the interior a really great atmosphere. A couple of the lanterns are said to have been kept burning for 1,000 years and the long halls of lanterns are both beautiful and impressive.
By the time I finished looking around, the rain had died down a lot (though it picked up again later in the day) so I started walking back along the trail, spotting a few interesting things I missed the first time through. The trail goes right to the edge of the town, so I decided to stop for lunch before continuing. Being a Buddhist area, the traditional food of Mt. Koya is vegetarian (though many restaurants do serve meat dishes as well).
Nearly right across the street from the restaurant was Karukayado Temple, which stands out due to its bright colors. The inside has a series of paintings (with explanations in Japanese and English), telling the story of the monk Karukaya and how his son came to serve under him, never knowing the truth of their relationship. Speaking of paintings, you see a lot of them in the temples on Mt. Koya. Shingon Buddhism places heavy importance on art (more so than most other Buddhist sects), so the number of statues and paintings is increased accordingly. Especially the paintings, which tend to be pretty uncommon in Japanese temples.
On the way to my next stop, I passed a rather strange pagoda or pavilion or something. It seemed to be fairly new and was rather odd, to say the least. The statues were all white marble, rather than the usual wood, metal,or gray stone, and there were lots of bright colors and flashing lights. Not to mention a dark underground passage that was set up almost like something you've expect from a carnival or amusement park. It was weird, but worth a look (especially since it was free).
Moving on, I came to Kongobuji Temple. It's the main temple in the area, though it's not as old as some, dating back to 1593 (though the current building was constructed in 1863). From a tourism standpoint, it's best known for the impressive painted sliding doors, which line many of the rooms. I couldn't photograph them, but I could photograph the rock garden, which is the largest in the country and is quite impressive in its own right.
I then walked a short distance to the Danjo Garan area, which houses several famous temples and other structures. That pagoda, by the way, contains not one, not three, but four giant golden Buddha statues (actually, I could swear I counted five, but the pamphlet says four) along with a number of nice paintings. I also visited the nearby Reihokan museum, which holds a variety of statues and other treasures belonging to various temples, and happened across a small temple containing these odd red colored Jizo statues. They're supposed to grant prayers for healing, which is probably why there's so many offerings. Finally, I finished my tour of Mt. Koya at the twin mausoleums of Tokgugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada (extremely important figures for those of you who know your Japanese history).
While it was a little bit of a temple overload, Mt. Koya is a beautiful places with a lot of amazing temples. I managed to hit all the major sights in a day though, like I said before, there are many more temples if you want to be thorough. Also, you can arrange to spend a night at one of them, complete with a traditional meal and the option to join the monks for chants, devotions, and the like.
But that didn't quite end my day. Back in Osaka, I met up with, not one of my friends who lives in the area, but forum member Poikspirit (who you may remember from various bonus comics), who just happened to be passing through on a tour at the time. So we got to meet in real life and hang out for a while in Dotonburi, which was a lot of fun.
|Thursday (the 26th): Finishing Up Osaka|
|I'd originally planned to go to the town of Igaueno and went so far as to board the first train I'd need to take to get there. Unfortunately, about half way to my next station they had to shut down the line for a while (a rare but not unheard of event). By the time they expected it to be up and running again, I'd end up getting to Igaueno far later than I wanted to. So, since I could still get back to Osaka fairly quickly, I decided to swap around my Thursday and Friday plans. Wish I'd known earlier so I could have slept in a bit, but oh well...
Eventually, I arrived at Kaiyukan, the famous Osaka Aquarium. And it's famous for a reason. It's a very large and very nice aquarium with a large variety of fish and other creatures.
One of the first sections was actually devoted to Japanese forests, which is where I learned that, though cute, river otters are not easy to photograph. Whether on land or underwater, they just do not stay still. These little fresh water crabs, on the other hand, were much easier. Speaking of hard to photograph creatures, this sea otter wasn't much better. Though he wasn't running anywhere, he wouldn't stop spinning (once again, cute and fun to watch, but difficult to photograph). Oh, if you're wondering why that movie is in black and white, something about the lighting for his tank made everything in my original video green (the night vision goggle effect). Compared to that, I think black and white looks better.
Moving on to fish, here's a blowfish (one of the infamous Japanese fugu, I believe) and a collection of fish from the Great Barrier Reef (they had a number of tanks based on different spots around the world). Side note, fish aren't easy to photograph either. You really need to get a good underwater camera and dive down there with them. Is is bad that I occasionally caught myself thinking how some of those fish would taste? I think that's a rather Japanese thing to do...
Now for some other ocean creatures. We've got squid, Japanese king crabs (while you might not be able to tell from the picture, those things are several feet tall), and this creepy little thing (I couldn't read the sign). Then there was the jellyfish exhibit. Lots of lots of jellyfish of different kinds under different types of light. Here's one that looks like a Metroid (it's extremely tiny, BTW), and here's a cool one that has its own lights.
The next section was arctic (or antarctic), with penguins and these very cute and chubby seals, which are even cuter in the right setting. That was followed by a fish (well, ray and shark) petting area. Then, finally, a section based on rainforests. A little off theme maybe, but nice. And I finally found one thing in the aquarium which presented no difficulties for photographers. Isn't it cute? I think a sloth would make a cool pet... On the other hand, this monkey was at least as hard to photograph as the otters. It's almost like someone has been slipping it caffeine.
By the time I got out of the aquarium, I was pretty hungry so I stopped in the shopping center next door. It had a pretty nice collection of restaurants, along with an ice cream stand. As I was ideally browsing the flavors, I spotted seaweed, which seemed like a good target for my hobby of trying weird Japanese ice cream. But then I saw this one... The English translation isn't very good though, shirasu are a very small fish that's used in Japanese cooking (often dried on its own or sometimes added to a soup or salad). So, against my better judgement, I decided to give it a shot. Actually, it wasn't that bad. It was certainly salty, but so are some other more normal flavors like sea salt and salted caramel, and the fishy taste wasn't too strong. At least so long as you didn't get one of the occasional little frozen fish that were in there (yes, really). Still though, while I won't be adding it to my list of favorite ice cream flavors, it really wasn't that bad. I mean, I could eat the entire thing without a problem, which is more than I can say for one of the wasabi ice creams I got in the past. On a side note, while I didn't try it, I passed a stand later in the day which had jellyfish flavor.
After a late lunch, I made my way to Den Den Town, Osaka's equivalent of Akihabara. And just like in Akihabara, you can expect to find lots of stores selling games, figurines, CDs, DVDs, assorted anime and manga goods, and general electronics, along with arcades, maid cafes, and other otaku establishments. So, how do the two areas stack up? Well, I might be a bit biased but I have to give the edge to Akihabara. For one, it's bigger than Den Den Town and more stores means more selection. I also wasn't especially fond of Den Den Town's layout (Akihabara is better to stroll around in). That said though, Den Den Town is still pretty awesome. I spent a lot more time there than I planned and found good deals on a number of rare CDs I'd been wanting. If you're in Osaka, and into that kind of stuff, it's certainly worth a visit.
I ended the day with one last trip to Dotonburi, where I did an all you can eat (for a certain amount of time) yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant. While I've gotten yakiniku in the past, this is the first time I actually grilled my own meat (normally I go in a group and someone more experienced takes the lead). Fortunately, between watching others and using a regular grill back home, I didn't have any problems and it was another great meal in Osaka. I'm gonna miss the food here...
|Friday (the 27th): Iga Ueno|
|There are a couple of towns in Japan known for their historic connection to ninja, with related museums and buildings to tour. I've been wanting to go to one for ages but have never been in the right area. Well, I finally worked one of them into my travel plans. Iga Ueno was once home to the famous Igaryu ninja school. Before I begin I should probably mention that, while the main train station is called Igaueno (to differentiate it from Ueno in Tokyo), the town may be referred to as Iga or Ueno.
Anyway, there's a local train you need to take from Igaueno station and I could already tell that they were going to be milking the ninja thing a bit. And it makes sense, the ninja house and museum are the area's main attractions, though there's also a castle and a few locations related to a famous Japanese poet named Matsuo Basho.
Conveniently, the castle and ninja museum are located right near each other and you can get a combo ticket for both of them along with one other museum, which is what I did. The museum normally begins with a tour of the ninja house, but I had some time to kill before the next one started so I skipped ahead to the third hall, which focuses on the ninja lifestyle. Here, for example, is one kind of ninja outfit. Despite how often you see it on TV, they didn't usually wear black. The most common color was actually a dark blue since it blends into the night better and was also similar to what local farmers wore and the ability to disguise themselves was very important to the ninja. Another interesting ninja fact, they used to lay out colored grains of rice to send coded messages, though that was far from their only method.
After looking at the displays for a bit it was time for the ninja house tour. I know that sounds like a corny amusement park attraction, but this is actually an authentic house once lived in by a ninja family. It appears to be a normal farmer's house, but is riddled with secret compartments and passages. Here's the guide making a quick entrance through a revolving part of the wall, and here she's making an even quicker escape through a hidden bolt hole. And, of course, you have to have a sword hidden under a floor board. As a side note, the reason for the blurring in these photos is that she was moving really fast (opening that panel and grabbing the sword took all of a second at most) and, while photos were allowed, video was not.
After the tour, I moved down to the next part of the museum, which showcases the different equipment ninjas used such as these shoes which, unlike the old movie scene busted in Mythbusters, where used for crossing swamps, not water. And, of course, many different types of weapons. After that, I paid a few hundred yen extra to check out the ninja show, where members of a modern ninja clan (who focus on performing, not stealth missions) show off the use of various ninja weapons and combat techniques. Along with a few other tricks, like rolling a coin on an umbrella for luck.
Once I was done at the museum, I headed over to Iga Ueno Castle. The current castle was rebuilt in 1935 and houses a small museum with a very impractical samurai helmet. There's also some decent views from the top though, as far as Japanese castle go, there's nothing all that special about it.
Finally, I decided to check out the last destination on my combo ticket, the Danjiburi Museum, which focuses on a big festival held in the town every year. In addition to a parade of large portable shrines, the festival features a number of residents dressing themselves up as monsters. The video presentation on the festival had them scaring some babies, which was amusing, if a little mean. Anyway, it looks like a pretty big and interesting festival. Maybe I should try and go some time...
While it wasn't all that late, I had a long train ride back to Tokyo so I headed out after I left the museum, bringing an end to the Osaka and surroundings portion of my trip. It was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to what comes next...
|Sunday (the 29th): On to Kyushu|
|As usual, not too much to talk about in regards to Saturday. I went to services and then met up with Poik, who had just arrived in Tokyo, again that night and we walked around Odaiba for a while.
Today, however, marked the start of the third (and last) long trip of my Japan vacation. As you might or might not know, Japan has four main islands. Hokkaido (in the far north), Honshu (the main island with Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.), Shikoku (off the south eastern part of Honshu), and Kyushu (off the far south western end). Japan's other major region is Okinawa, but that's a collection of small islands. Anyway, I visited Shikoku for several days back in 2011, but other than that, all my time has been spent on Honshu. I've been wanting to see some other areas, so I decided to spend a week (well, six days) all the way down in Kyushu, with the city of Fukuoka as a base (side note, Fukuoka's main train station is Hakata, Fukuoka Station is in another area entirely).
Getting there from Tokyo actually isn't too hard. There are flights, of course, but it's only six hours on the Shinkansen (five if you take the fastest train, which a rail pass doesn't cover) thanks to the bridges connecting Honshu and Kyushu. I do plane flights much longer than that and Shinkansen tend to be much more comfortable anyway.
I arrived in early afternoon, found a locker for my bags (I had much better luck than in Osaka), and immediately hopped on another train going to Dazaifu, a small suburb (well, a couple of trains actually, and I had to walk between stations at one point). It's a fairly scenic place with a nice tourist street leading to its major attractions. Ume is the local specialty, and factored into many of the snacks and drinks that were for sale. Unless you went here anyway, but that is a cool looking Starbucks.
I took a brief detour off the path to see Komyozenji Temple. While the temple isn't all that special, it has a beautiful rock and moss garden out back, which is worth a visit.
Returning to the path, I continued on towards Dazaifu Tenmagu Shrine, the area's main attraction. It had some interesting statues out front such as this bull (I've seen similar ones at a couple other shrines this trip, but never before) and a kirin. In fact, there were a lot of interesting and different things about this particular shrine. For example, this overly large hand washing pavilion, blue omikuji, hanging gourds to seal away bad luck, and adding eyes to the lion statues (which I think makes them look creepy). The shrine itself is also rather nice to look at (and in very good condition for a building from 1591) and the whole front is open, letting you watch the priests bless groups of visitors.
If you're up for a little walk, there's a path behind the shrine which leads through an ume grove and a hydrangea field up to a small shrine whose most interesting feature is a tiny cave with a mini shrine inside. Back down the hill, there's also a nice treasure museum containing relics from throughout Dazaifu Tenmagu's history, a kiddy park, and the Kyushu National Museum (probably the most reflective building I've ever seen).
The museum is actually tucked away halfway up a mountain and you need to take a long covered escalator to get there. What I found particularly interesting is that the main focus is on ancient Japan. While most Japanese museums only go back about 1500 years at most, Kyushu National has a number of artifacts dating back to Japan's earlier periods such as the Jomon Period and Yayoi Period. Though I was a bit skeptical of some of items said to come from even earlier than that, labeled as being 15,000+ years old. Regardless, it's an extremely well done museum (with a good audio guide) that lets you see artifacts from and learn about time periods you usually hear very little about.
I spent quite a while in the museum before returning to downtown Fukuoka to check into my hotel at get something to eat. I ended up in Canal City, a big shopping mall notable for its interesting design and ramen stadium (like a small version of Yokohama's ramen museum), which was worth a walk through but didn't especially catch my interest (most of the shops are clothes). After that, it was time to rest up and get ready for the next day...
|Monday (the 30th): Kumamoto|
|The one problem with my travel plans for Kyushu is that I actually have eight days of stuff to do and only six days to spend in the area. So, to that end, I decided to try and combine the shortest of my day trips with the rest of the things I wanted to see in Fukuoka into one day. So I got an early start and took the Shinkansen to the city of Kumamoto.
My first stop in Kumamoto was Suizenji Garden, a famous landscape garden dating back to 1636 (though it continued to be developed for the next 80 years afterwards). It's actually designed to bring to mind the 53 stations of the Tokaido Road (the ancient road connecting Tokyo (then called Edo) and Kyoto). This hill, for example, is supposed to represent Mt. Fuji. While the garden isn't especially large (it's about medium size for a Japanese garden), there's a path which goes around the whole thing and, like most Japanese gardens, it's all about strolling around and appreciating it from many different angles. Anyway, it's a very nice garden and I really liked the simulated mountains.
Leaving the garden, I passed down a small touristy street with vendors selling sweets made from sweet potatoes (a local specialty, and quite a good one). There was also lots and lots of stuff featuring Kumamon, Kumamoto Prefecture's official mascot (kuma being the Japanese word for bear). I think every prefecture has a cute mascot these days, but Kumamon is one of the most popular, to the point where a lot of the nearby prefectures sell Kumamon souvenirs as well.
From there, I hopped on a street car (basically a trolly, or a small train that runs in the middle of the street) heading towards Kumamoto Castle. It's considered to be one of the more famous and beautiful castles in Japan. Unfortunately, much of it burned down during the Seinan Rebellion in 1877 so the main tower, and a number of the other buildings currently there, are reconstructions. That said, they're good ones, done using traditional materials and techniques. And, while most cities with reconstructed castles stop with the main tower, Kumamoto's restoration project (which has been running since 1998) seems to be aiming to eventually restore the majority of the castle complex.
One of the first things you notice about Kumamoto Castle is its walls. There are several layers of walls, often creating a multi-level effect. There's also a number of turrets and other buildings standing atop the walls. This particular turret is one of the few buildings which survived the fire, making it an original. You can actually go inside and climb to the top for some views of the castle and its surroundings, though turret windows were clearly built for defensive purposes, not for good views. I was also able to go inside a reconstructed turret and a storehouse before passing through a large underground passage (an unusual feature) and emerging in front of the castle. If you're wondering about that samurai guy in the corner of the photo, there were a few employees walking around in traditional dress. The inside of the castle has a collection of items belonging to Kumamoto's former ruling families and some thing relating to the aforementioned rebellion. No pictures though, at least until you get to the viewing area at the top, which features excellent views of Kumamoto.
Right now, they're restoring the palace right next to the main tower (castle towers weren't especially great to live in). It's part completed recreation and part museum explaining the restoration process. I found it interesting and some of the fully restored rooms were quite spectacular.
Once I'd finished exploring the castle grounds, I set off on foot (stopping for a bit to chat with a nicer older man who wanted to practice his English), making my way to the Hosokawa-Gyobo Residence. They were a branch of Kumamoto's ruling family back in the day and had quite a mansion built. It's a good example of a high class samurai home and also traditional Japanese houses in general, especially if you've never been inside one. There are some rather unusual features as well. See the round window in this photo? Those are a Chinese design almost never seen in Japan and combining it with a Japanese shoji (paper) covering is quite unique.
Having hit all my major Kumamoto sites, I headed back to Fukuoka a bit early so I could do some sightseeing there as well. Though I did end up stopping at a touristy area on the way to the train station for a late lunch. Back in Fukuoka, I immediately made my way to Tochoji Temple, which was actually right across from my hotel. The temple itself isn't anything too special (though it has a nice pagoda), but a side area contains the largest seated Buddha statue in Japan (even larger than the one in Kamakura, which you can go inside). It only dates back to 1988, but is still impressive. Having heard about it online, I made sure to check behind the Buddha, where there's a passage that circles around back. It start outs with a bunch of pictures of demons torturing people in hell, then gets completely dark for a stretch, at which point you're supposed to try and find a handle to get good luck (I did something similar way back when I visited Nagano).
After that I checked out a few other shrines and temples. One even had a moment to the people credited with bringing the recipes for udon, soba, manju, and somen over from China long ago. I eventually reached the Folk Museum, which focused mainly on the area's annual festivals (one of which is coming up soon), and the Traditional Craft Corner, of which Hakata Ori (a traditional type of woven cloth) was the main focus. And, on my way to a shopping arcade for supper, stumbled across Kushida Shrine, where they're just starting the preparations for said festival. Too bad I won't be around for the parade. Speaking of that shopping arcade, one restaurant had a squid tank out front (guess what they served). I also snapped a picture of an amusing sign at the local Don Quixote store before calling it a night.
|Tuesday (July 1st): Huis Ten Bosch|
|Japan has a number of theme parks, but Huis Ten Bosch has got to be one of the most unusual ones. An entire theme park based on Holland and the rest of the Netherlands? Sure the Dutch were one of the only countries allowed to trade with Japan during its period of isolation, but a theme park? Well, my tour book highly recommended it and, after some time spent looking over their web site, I decided that it would be worth a visit. As a note, it's actually much closer to Nagasaki than Fukuoka, but it's still easy enough to reach on the trains.
For anyone expecting a hookey little park with a couple of plastic windmills, that impression will be dispelled the moment you step off the train. And that building is just a hotel at the entrance. It's as if someone took an entire European town and dropped it in Japan. Heck, if it wasn't for all the Japanese writing, and the fact that most of the staff and visitors are Japanese, you could easily forget which country you're in.
Huis Ten Bosch presents an interesting mix of attractions. After getting a passport (like most Japanese amusement and theme parks, you can just get a cheaper admission ticket if plan to focus things like shopping and eating, rather than rides and shows) I went past a teddy bear museum and took a pleasant stroll down Flower Road, which really had the Holland vibe going. They even had cheese flavored ice cream. I then headed into a side area called Adventure Park, which is not so European. It is, however, fun. They've got a long zip line, a big multi-story wooden maze, and a high ropes course. I had so much fun on the basic version of the ropes course, that I paid extra to try the advanced version, which basically runs you through everything they've got. I made it through, though there were a couple of rough spots, like those tire swings.
After getting a good workout, I continued on to Attraction Town. It features a odd assorted of attractions including a special effects recreation of Holland's great flood (which was pretty cool), a small mirror maze, and several special movie presentations (at the one I went to, the walls, floor, and ceiling were mirrored, to surround you with the video). There's also a cafe where everything is carved from ice (which was unfortunately closed that day) and a much better One Piece ride than the one at J-World (there's a nice One Piece store too, for that matter).
I checked out a few of the attractions and snacked a bit, then crossed a canal and entered the Art Garden, which is full of roses and other flowers spread out in different patterns. My next stop was Domtoren, which offers excellent views of the entire park. As you can tell from the pictures, Huis Ten Bosch is huge. I walked everywhere, but they actually have buses and canal boats you can ride, you even even rent a bike (regular or multi-person) to get around easier.
Amsterdam City was nearby, and I stopped to listen to an Italian man named Luigi sing and play the piano. He's a nice guy and actually came over to talk to me after the show (being the only non-Japanese person in the audience, I kinda stuck out). He's said he's traveled all over the world and Japan is the best place he's found and that there's a lot of Italian boys who come to Japan to study and end up staying. He suggested I move to Japan as well, which is something I've considered... But anyway, for now I'll see how things go in Hawaii.
Getting back on track, Amsterdam City features a lot of shops and restaurants, along with an ice skating rink and the Gyaman Museum, which houses some of the fanciest glass work I've ever seen. There was also this little European Village, which was a fun spot to stop for a drink. Continuing on, I eventually came to Harbor Town, which is a part of the park that doesn't require admission (though I'm not entirely sure how you'd get there without going through the rest of the park). It features an extremely fancy porcelain museum (that room is a recreation of one from a European palace) and an old style ship you can ride, among other things. Too bad I couldn't have come about week later, as there were a bunch of ads up for an upcoming video game museum.
There was more to see in that area, but I headed back to the Art Garden for a bit to watch the Flower Parade first. Then I went to the furthest end of the park and Palace Huis Ten Bosch. It's an actual palace, and home to an upscale art museum.
Back in Harbor Town again, it was time to check out the park's other One Piece themed attraction. No, not Robo Franky (though that was cool), but the Thousand Sunny. For 1,000 Yen you can take a short cruise aboard Sunny. Though the draw isn't the cruise so much as getting to explore recreations of several sections of the ship and track down statues of all the crew members. There are also shops, both on and off the ship, with unique One Piece merchandise that you can't get anywhere else. So yeah, Huis Ten Bosch is the place to go for One Piece fans.
After dinner, I watched a bit of a dance show (a strange but entertaining mix of salsa, Broadway, and a number of other styles) then made it over to the one section of the park I had yet to visit, Thriller City. It's pretty much all haunted houses. Not really my thing, but I went through a couple just to take a look. They were well done, though I found them less scary and surprising than the ones at Busch Gardens' Halloween event. That said, nothing at in Thriller City or at Busch Gardens actually scared me (I'm extremely hard to scare) and almost nothing even startled me, so I might not the best judge.
By the way, Thriller City isn't the only area that lights up at night. It's pretty much the entire park, and it looks amazing. As you might have guessed from that last photo, I actually went back up Domtoren tower so I could get some nighttime pictures. By that point though, it was getting pretty late and I didn't want to risk missing the last train back to Fukuoka (though Huis Ten Bosch does have some very nice looking hotels) so after one last show I called it a night and head back towards the entrance.
As a side note, you may notice from my pictures that the park doesn't look very crowded. And it wasn't, though the number of people steadily increased as it got later in the day. I never really had to wait in line and had some attractions all to myself. By evening though, while the streets still weren't crowded, things were busier, especially in regards to the shows, which had medium to large audiences. The busiest attraction I went to over the course of the entire day though was the Thousand Sunny cruise. Keep in mind though, I was there on a normal Tuesday during the school year (summer break starts late in Japan), not near any holidays or the like.
I have to say, I was really impressed with Huis Ten Bosch. While the mix of elements (the main Dutch theme combined with things like One Piece, haunted houses, and rope courses) is a little odd, everything is very well done. In fact, I'd say that in terms of size and scale, number and quality of attractions, staff, and attention to detail, it's pretty much on the same level as a Disney park, something that not even Universal Studios or Sea World pull off on quite as many levels. Really, if you're ever on Kyushu, I'd highly recommend a visit to Huis Ten Bosch, it's an amazing park and has something for just about everyone.
|Wednesday (the 2nd): Nagasaki|
A bit of a history lesson is in order here. Nagasaki become an important center of Japanese international trade in the mid 1500's and, once the country entered its self imposed isolation period in 1633, it was one of the only places where foreign trade was allowed, albeit only with the Dutch and Chinese and under very strict regulations.
Random Japan Comment: The Kyushu Difference
|Thursday (the 3rd): Beppu|
Kyushu is known for its onsen (hot springs), no small feat in a country where they can be found just about everywhere. And no onsen town on Kyushu (perhaps even in all of Japan) is more famous than Beppu. Aside from the onsen, Beppu's main attraction is the eight hells, so I decided to start off my day with them before hitting the onsen. While the hells are a ways away from the train station, quite a lot of buses go to them, and there's a very nice bus route map at the terminal.
Random Japan Comment: JR Pass
|Friday (the 4th): Kagoshima|
|Since I wanted to be back in Tokyo in time for services on Saturday, I knew I'd have to go partway back tonight, so I checked out of my hotel and headed out. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to go to Kagoshima today, as opposed to earlier in the week, is because it's on the main Shinkansen line. In addition to the main places I wanted to see in the city itself, I also had a couple of optional things on my list, the first of which was a visit to Chiran. I had been thinking of skipping it, since it's kind of out of the way (there's no train station nearby, so you need to take an 80 minutes bus ride). You can save a few minutes by taking a local train halfway and then getting on the bus, which I did on the way there but, at best, you'd probably only save 15 minutes tops, so it's probably better to keep it simple and just take the bus all the way. Anyway, Chiran is a little town famous for its collection of samurai houses and gardens. When double checking the route, I saw a few pictures online and decided I really had to go, even if it would take several hours out of my day.
As a side note, here's a photo I took on the way. I'm not so sure Ultra Man characters are the best choice to model summer clothes...
So I got to Kagoshima, took the local train and then the bus, and finally arrived Chiran. It's a nice town and has a cool waterway running down the main street, there are actually koi in it. Anyway, after checking the times for the return bus, I got a ticket for the samurai gardens (FYI: you can't buy them at the gardens themselves, there's a couple of places selling them on the main street though). Anyway, during the Edo period Chiran was a samurai district (samurai were spread across the land in small groups to prevent the potential formation of large rebel groups and, being a small out of the way place, it survived pretty much intact. You can't go in any of the houses themselves because they're still inhabited, but seven of the gardens are open to the public. They're all small gardens, no walking trails or anything like that, but they're all diverse and extremely picturesque. Heck, it's practically worth going for the street itself, a lengthy stretch of stone walls and towering hedges. To enhance the atmosphere, no cars are allowed during the day. I went backwards (starting at garden number 7), though it really doesn't matter which way you go and that bus stop was closer to that end.
So the first garden I reached was More Shigematsu's. It's the only garden to use water as an element. A bit further down the street I came to Sata Naotada's house and garden. It makes use of a stone mountain, a common feature in the area's gardens. Sato Tamiko's garden is right nearby, and is supposed to represent a mountain river. This isn't a samurai house, but it's a rather unique one. Sato Mifune's garden is the largest of the bunch and looks kind of like a distant mountain range with a stone waterfall. Continuing down the road, I reached the last set of gardens. Hirayama Ryoichi's garden is a rather unique one, entirely composed of flowering shrubs trimmed to resemble rolling hills. You can see inside a bit of the house too. Finally, Hirayama Katsumi's garden and Saigo Keiichiro's garden both use a mixture of stone hills and island like shrubs. After reaching the end of the road, I decided to head back to the start to get some lunch. Turns out that walking that way is even better, since you have the mountains in the background.
Both my guide book and the pamphlet I got with my ticket recommended an hour to explore the seven gardens. That's about how long it took me for a fairly leisurely tour. However, while the buses usually run hourly, I arrived at the one time of day they don't, leaving me with a two hour wait instead. Well, that gave me plenty of time to get a nice lunch at a nearby soba place. As a side note, Chiran is also rather famous for its tea, which was pretty great.
After lunch and another bus ride I ended up back in Kagoshima. Due to spending two hours in Chiran, I got there a bit later than planned and wasn't sure if I'd have time to see all three locations on my list, but I figured I'd have time for at least two. There's a couple of tourist buses that run in a loop around the city, hitting all the major attractions. As a note, the City View Bus was slightly cheaper but the other line (can't remember the name) was more English friendly. Taking the tourist bus was actually kind of fun, turns out there are a lot of interesting looking places in Kagoshima that weren't in my book. I'd rather like to go back there for another day sometime to take a better look around.
The main stop on my list was Sengan-En, the garden of the Shimadzu family, the former lords of the area. It's fairly large and features a number of interesting elements. For example, the Shimadzu were a group that was instrumental to the modernization of Japan, both during and after the Edo period, and there are remnants of their work scattered about, like this hydro electric dam. There was also a kyokusui garden, which was for a party game (better known in China than Japan) where participants try to compose a poem before a boat carrying a cup of sake can float from one end of the stream to the other. And here we have something both traditional and practical, a water powered device used to thresh rice (turning brown rice into white rice). There's also a trail up a nearby hill, which gives you some nice views of Kagoshima and Sakurajima (a nearby island with a volcanic mountain with what are supposed to be some good hiking trails; I'll have to plan for a day there sometime as well).
Admission to the garden includes the nearby museum (the second place on my list), which is all about the Shimadzu and their efforts to develop and introduce new technology to the country. There's a good bit of English, and it's pretty interesting stuff. By the time I finished, everything was about to close so I did have to skip my last planned stop, but it was worth it to see Chiran. I headed back to the train station and caught the last Shinkansen to Osaka (the furthest north I could get that evening), where I spent the night.
|Sunday (the 6th): Tanabata|
|Saturday morning I caught a Shinkansen back to Tokyo and then went to services in the afternoon. Since it was my last weekend, a bunch of friends took me out for dinner. Even after all the time I've spent in Tokyo, it still holds plenty of surprises, and they introduced me to the city's Korea Town, where we went to eat. It was a fun night, but I'll talk more about the area in tomorrow's post, since I plan to go back there and take a better look around.
Today, after making up for some lost sleep, I went to Hiratsuka for the last day of their big Tanabata celebration. You might remember that I went there last year (see the Friday the 5th entry) as well. But then I was there Friday morning and afternoon. This year I was there on a Sunday from mid-afternoon until evening. Naturally, it was a lot more crowded. Like last year though, there were lots of cool streamers and food stalls. As an interesting side note, last year when I was there they had a rather unique type of taiyaki with an open mouth which was then stuffed with fruit and whipped cream. This year they were nowhere to be seen, instead all the taiyaki were made using a flaky pastry dough instead of the regular batter. I wander if doing different kinds of taiyaki every year is a thing there? Anyway, it was a fun time, despite the crowds. Only a couple days left now...
|Monday (the 7th): Around Tokyo|
|After six weeks of nearly non-stop touring, I was getting pretty tired and, with my rail pass expired, I decided to take it fairly easy for my last couple of days and just have fun in Tokyo. I started out the day strolling around Harajuku. Didn't find the type of shirt I wanted, but it was interesting to see the latest styles (and the long line for the local pancake restaurant).
Moving on, I took the train a short distance to Shin-Okubo, which is home to the Korea Town area I mentioned in Saturday's post. I wanted to walk around and get a better feel for the place as well as grab some lunch. Being a Korean area, there are naturally lots of Korean restaurants. Some snack stands too. I tried what I suppose you could call the Korean equivalent of taiyaki or dorayaki. It's a pancake of sorts stuffed with something (the most common fillings I saw were cheese, honey, and red bean paste). I got a cheese and honey mix, which was pretty good. Other than food, there are also a lot of stores focused on Korean dramas and music and the various celebrities therein. Not really my thing, but I have some friends who are seriously into them. Back to the food, while I've never seen it at Korean restaurants in the US, fried chicken is actually a pretty popular Korean food. At least that's what my Korean friends tell me, and the restaurants in Korea Town seem to prove it. It's more like what you'd get at a chicken wing restaurant in the US than typical friend chicken (except it's all parts of the chicken, not just the wings), and every place seems to have their own collection of sauces. The ones I tried between Saturday night and today were a sweet teriyaki-ish sauce, a really spicy sauce, and a peanut sauce.
After I finished exploring, and eating, I moved on to Akihabara since I wanted to spend the points on my Yodobashi Camera card before leaving Japan. Ah Akihabara, a place where it's really not that strange if you see Ultra Man walking down the street. I had talked to my family over the weekend, and my dad and brother had been bugging me to try pachinko again, and there's a place I know in Akihabara, so I gave it a shot. I actually started out with a slot machine since it was themed after Madoka Magica (anime based slot and pachinko machines are a pretty big thing). My luck when it comes to games of chance is usually pretty abysmal, but I got off to a good start and tripled the 1000 Yen I put in. But I then proceeded to slowly lose it all over the next hour or so. I did worse in pachinko, losing 2000 Yen in around 20 minutes. So yeah, looks like my lucky hasn't really improved.
|Tuesday (the 8th): Nihon Minkaen|
|I had plans to meet a friend for lunch, but that left me with the morning free so I decided to check out one last museum that had been sitting on my to-do list. Nihon Minkaen is out in the suburbs, about 20 minutes from Shinjuku. As a side note, check out this really skinny building I spotted on the way. That's Japanese buildings for you.
Anyway, Nihon Minkaen is one of those places where they collect old buildings from all over Japan and reassemble them to form an outdoor museum. It has a nice setting amidst some forested hills and is divided up in several "villages" based on different parts of Japan. As such, nearly all the buildings they have are houses. The Suzuki House was the most modern of the bunch, featuring an interesting mix of old style architecture with some newer western touches such as clocks and glass windows. Actually, quite a lot of the houses had some unusual element to them, such as the Misawa House with its stone and shingle roof. Here's a look inside the same house, where it's fairly typical for a somewhat wealthy Japanese family of that time period.
One thing that made Nihon Minkaen especially nice was that each house had multiple info signs (in Japanese and English) which went into detail about both the house itself and the occupation and lifestyle of the family who once lived in it. So you not only learn a bit about buildings, but about what life for like for different types of people in ancient Japan. Or, in some cases, not so ancient. Despite many of these houses being over 200 years old, some were still inhabited as late as the 1960's.
My favorite area was the Toyama style section, which features several gassho zukuri style houses, which I'd never seen before. Apparently, they were only built in two parts of Japan, both of which have very harsh winters. Snow couldn't collect very easily on the sloped roofs, making them unlikely to become weighted down and collapse. Also, if the snow got especially deep, the windows on the upper levels could be used to enter and exit the house.
You could go inside nearly every building. Most were set up much as they would have been when inhabited, but one was a museum focusing on traditional building methods and tools. For a quick lesson, your average old Japanese house (not counting those of the samurai and nobility, who tended to have more elaborate dwellings) featured a dirt or stone floored section which was used for things like cooking and storage (and, in some cases, a stable). There would also be a raised area for sitting, sleeping, eating, and the like. Usually there would be a mix of wooden floor rooms and fancier tatami mat rooms. As it was more expensive, poorer families often had relatively little tatami in their homes, limiting it to one or two special rooms, while samurai and other wealthier families might have tatami throughout much of their house. As a side those, the house in that last picture is rather unusual in that the raised floor was made of bamboo with straw mats laid on top.
I had a pleasant morning exploring the museum (check out the roof on the building towards the back, the plants are supposed to help strengthen it against wind) then headed back to Shinjuku to meet up with my friend, Ida. We ate lunch, chatted, and walked around for a bit. After that I swung by Nakano Broadway since I had a 500 Yen off coupon at one of my favorite stores, which I wanted to use. And finally I went back to Akihabara. Not to shop, but to stop by a favorite restaurant. And with that, my last full day in Japan came to a close.
|Wednesday (the 9th): Returning to the US Once Again|
|Wednesday started out with getting my rented apartment ready for the move out inspection. Afterwards it was off to catch a train to the airport. Well, eventually. I actually got a bit earlier start than I needed to so I ended up stashing all my stuff in a coin locker and walking around Ueno for a while to kill some time and get lunch. Narita Airport is nice and all (seriously), but there's no need to spend too much time there. And that's about all I have to say about the trip back. Everything went smoothly, my apartment was fine when I returned, and I was able to get some much needed rest before starting on the preparations for my upcoming move.
Like before, I'm going to miss Japan. Whether I'm doing serious touring like this summer, or just having fun hanging out in and around Tokyo (like last year), I really enjoy spending time in Japan. At least for the short term. I suspect that, if I stayed long enough, various annoyances (small apartments, for example) would crop up like they did during my first (and longest) stay. Back then, when it was time to return to the US, I was ready to go. That said, I still haven't entirely ruled out living in Japan again. Right now I've got a new job in Hawaii to focus on for at least the next couple of years, but maybe someday if I found the right job... Anyway, whether or not I ever live in Japan again, if I have my way I'll definitely be back for another vacation before too long. There's still plenty of places I want to see and things and I want to do and besides, like I said, it's just plain fun. Maybe I'll give another shot at putting together a tour group... Drop me a line if that sounds like something you'd be interested in. Anyway, goodbye for now, Japan. It's been fun and I know I'll be back sooner or later.