A Travellerspoint blog

Takehara City Shokeinomichi Candle Festival, Hiroshima Pref.

広島県竹原市町並み保存地区:憧憬の路、町並み竹灯り

sunny 10 °C

(BGM: "Miagete Goran Yoru No Hoshi O" by Kyu Sakamoto)

An acquaintance had informed me about a unique art festival in Takehara City's Historical District (町並み保存地区 Matchinami Hozonchiku), a lovingly preserved neighborhood with still-functioning buildings hundreds of years old. Dubbed "The Little Kyoto of Aki" for its uncanny resemblance to the Kiyomizudera area of Kyoto's Higashiyama District, people from around the world visit Takehara to get a sense of life in Edo period Japan. With its impressive collection of age-old temples, sake brewing houses and salt merchant homes, this part of town functions as an open-air museum of sorts, kept alive and prospering by its aging, yet diligent population.

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Takehara Machinami Hozonchiku District in Daylight

In the daytime, this particular area of Takehara glows like the rosy cheeks of an eighty-year-old grandma, so my husband and I could only imagine how magical it must be all lit up like a bamboo Christmas tree. It was difficult not to want to sprint to the event in the darkness. But the narrow, lumpy "sidewalks" and gutter coverings of the surrounding neighborhoods demanded more careful stepping in the dangerous black of night.

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As the narrow, uneven sidewalk gave way to the smooth, spacious promenade of the Historical District, we were helplessly pulled in towards the front gate of Shorenji Temple by the plucky, droning gallop of the Chantays' "Pipeline" of all things. A serenely-lit Buddhist temple glowing in the dark was not the place we expected 1960's American Surf Rock, but hey, this is Japan, where you gotta be ready for anything unexpected.

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Somehow, with the shimmering rope lights and candles strewn across the foot of the temple's stone steps, the odd but well-played music worked in that ever so Japanese random sort of way.

Following the crowds and the endless path of glowing bamboo stalks cut at a pleasing upward angle, each one set with a flickering votive candle, we turned onto Naka no Shoji street and slowly meandered past hoards of camera-snapping photographers and tourists hailing from as far away as Nagoya and Tokyo.

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We wandered on through the half-light, stars twinkling above while the temperature quickly plummeted. Couples in love clomped hand-in-hand while photographers carrying disproportionately large and heavy camera gear two-stepped and swayed in a never-ending dance, competing for that perfect shot. Sometimes, it was more interesting to watch the cameramen than the surrounding reverie. The darkness would give way to a larger rendition of an ethereal environment of twisted bamboo strips and candlelight. Some compositions lay inside the courtyards of these historic buildings, so it was tremendous fun ducking inside an old structure and entering a new and magical world, each place a unique artistic expression.

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Rivers of Light

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Aurora Borealis? The Milky Way Galaxy?

The city of Takehara claims to be the site of an ancient legend, the story of the Moon Princess (Kaguyahime). The story goes like this: One dark and cold night, an old man was cutting bamboo in a forest. He noticed a stalk of bamboo glowing in the darkness and sliced it open with his sword. There, lying inside the hollow chamber of the bamboo stalk was the tiniest, cutest baby girl this side of Copenhagen! The old man and his wife cared for this little sweetie like their own child. She grew up to be so lovely that even the emperor sought her hand in marriage. Knowing she could never marry a mortal, she gave each suitor an impossible challenge. With all this royal attention from the outside world, the old couple became exceedingly rich, and the Moon Princess eventually made her way back to her real home in outer space where she originally came from. Centuries later, the artists of Takehara still celebrate this sad yet charming story of bamboo and babies with their art.

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Japan's Little Thumbelina

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The Lovely Kaguyahime, the mascot of Takehara

A more recent heroine of Takehara, the lovely and curious high school student of NHK's animated series Tamayura, graces the front of the soba noodle shop near Ebisu Hall.

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The talented teen photographer immortalized in paper and light.

Casting eerie shadows onto old white plastered walls and aged wooden fences, the candlelight flickered and dipped, sending us into a rather blissful hypnotic trance. The locals had brought out their own glowing creations in homemade paper decorated with children's illustrations, leaves, pampas grass and other findings from the surrounding mountains. Small gift shops, spacious sake storehouses, even important national heritage sites like the Shunpu Residence, had their doors wide open to the public, some with live enka or classic Japanese music floating from sliding shoji rooms.

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A free, impromptu recital open to any wishing to pop in for a break from the cold.

Revelers browsed among the precious offerings of homemade crafts like local-made bamboo ware and chirimen silk figurines. Others stopped to warm up at the occasional vendor selling tasty treats such as takoyaki, fried udon noodles or piping-hot zenzai (sweet bean soup). Hot coffee was available at strategic points along the main streets.

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Lining up for some delicious nighttime treats!

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A Peek Inside the Magic

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Too much beauty at once!

Turning onto Honmachi Dori, passing folks queued up for hot soup and coffee, galleries and museums sported renditions of famous Japanese landmarks and concepts like giant origami cranes and Mt. Fuji. We were lucky enough to stumble upon Tokyo's very own Sky Tree, a towering tale in twisted bamboo strips nearly twenty feet tall! We hadn't yet seen the real one since its completion in 2012, so this "small-scale" model was a satisfying substitute.

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Bamboo Sky Tree

There was simply way too much wonderment to take in and savor with all five senses. We were surprised to learn that we'd wandered a full three hours in just this tiny part of the city! Floating through the magic of this slow, warm and gentle-hearted town, you can't help but be inspired by the way this entire community pulled all of its resources and ingenuity together to express its love of history, nature and mystery through visions of art and light.

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Traditionally, the festival lasts only two nights (a Saturday and Sunday either in late October or early November). But this year, the Shokeinomichi Candle Festival spans two entire weekends (October 26~27, November 2~3), so you still have a chance to catch the event! It's recommended you arrive at the site by sundown to see all the entries and spectacles. There's a lot to take in and you won't want to miss a thing!

Access to Takehara Machinami Hozonchiku:
By Train (from Hiroshima City): take the JR Kure Line to Takehara Station (sometimes via Hiro). The Historical District is only a 15-minute walk from the station. Just follow the masses and you can't lose.
By Bus (from Hiroshima City): Take the Geiyo Bus from either the Sogo Building or JR Hiroshima Station to Takehara Station (about 1 hr).
By Car: (the long, cheap way): Take Route 2 from Hiroshima straight across through Kure to Takehara. Parking is available at nearby Michi no Eki Takehara and at other designated spots along the river.

Posted by GenkiLee 31.10.2013 05:10 Archived in Japan Tagged japan hiroshima takehara shokeinomichi_candle_festival bamboo_lanterns art_galleries Comments (0)

Plum Rains & Firefly Nights of Takehara

広島県竹原市:田万里町、仁賀町の梅雨

rain 26 °C

BGM: 花咲く旅路 ("Hanasaku Tabiji") by 原由子(Hara Yuko)

The rains of June have finally come. For many people, the rainy season, called tsuyu in Japanese (梅雨, "plum rain"), is the most miserable time of the year. Mold grows on food, bathroom shower walls and between toes faster than pre-typhoon lightning. Even on cloudy days, the muggy heat reduces the average well-groomed businessman to a sweaty, whiny mess, incessantly grumbling the seasonal catch-phrase "atsui desune" (It's hot, isn't it?).

But to me, this is my absolute favorite time of the year in Japan. Sure, I say that about every season. But this time, I really mean it. In fact, I chose Takehara as my current post because I had a feeling it would transform into a lush, exotic paradise with the coming of the rains.

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The clouds lift over the mountains of Takehara City.

The weather news tracks every move the baiuzensen (梅雨前線, "plum rain" or spring rain front) makes as it flows upwards from Taiwan and the Philippines back and forth over the length of Japan from June through early July. The rainy season is called "plum rain" because the Prunus mume tree (うめ, 梅, ume, "green plum" or "Japanese apricot") bears its tart, green fruit at this time of year. Poisonous in its raw stage, the locals pickle it with shiso leaves and salt to make umeboshi, or pack it in sugar to make sweet plum wine. (Talk about making lemon from lemonade!) The ume plum blossom is the official flower of Takehara City, but the fruit ripening on the bough is just as charming.

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Ume plums at Bamboo Joy Highland Park, Takehara

One of my favorite things to do in Japan during the rainy season is hop into the Subaru with the Hubby and simply drive around any green mountains we can find, savoring the cool cedar and cypress-scented air and feeling the earth respire. Joyfully chirping rain frogs compete with wagtails and rock thrushes for airtime as the mountains burst into song. Millions of tiny moisture particles suspended in the air fill the lungs and wrap the body -no need for a steam bath. I find myself particularly conscious of my skin's ability to breathe this time of year, appreciating how I share this characteristic with all other living organisms. My connections to this earth feel their strongest during tsuyu.

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An elegant damselfly in a stunning gunmetal and copper ensemble.

Though we know we've only seen a fraction of Takehara's natural treasures, we keep finding ourselves returning to the following districts to chill out in the soothing atmosphere and savor the refreshing friendliness of the people.

Tamari Village, Takehara City (竹原市田万里町)

Tall and green as childhood dreams, Poaceae bambusoideae (aka "giant bamboo," the namesake of Takehara) graces the land for miles in the mountain villages that dot the region. Traditionally, bamboo was planted at the base of the mountains to serve as a source of food, building material and to direct rainwater down to the rice paddies. Their long, flowing branches heavy with spear-shaped leaves wave gracefully like ostrich plumes in the slightest breeze. As the winds grow stronger, the hollow tops of the bamboo knock against each other melodically like wind chimes or primitive percussion. The sound of bamboo is very cooling to the senses.

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The immense bamboo thickets around Tamari caught my eye as we wove around the twisting mountain roads of Route 2 between Yusaka Hot Springs and Saijo (Higashi Hiroshima). I wanted to take pictures of it but amidst all the hairpin turns, there was nowhere to stop the car. The stately old farmhouses out here are topped with milk chocolate-colored clay roof tiles unique to southwest Japan. We made a sharp turn onto the only turnout available, descending into a placid valley of tiered rice paddies freshly planted with bright green baby seedlings. It was utterly enchanting.

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Serenaded by the enticing whistles of a pair of competing Japanese bush warblers, we aimlessly poked around the paddies. An elderly lady with patchy white hair carrying a bag of long green onions suddenly appeared behind us and followed us suspiciously. She eventually mustered up the courage to ask us where we were going. We told her we were just enjoying the view. She told us it was private property but we were allowed to "pass through" her driveway onto the main road. We were thankful for her assistance, but still in a bit of culture shock. This was, after all, the first time a Japanese person had ever discouraged us from enjoying the local scenery. (Most of the farmers we'd met thus far, from Kanto to Kansai, were more than proud to have foreigners admiring their handiwork). As we lingered near a rice paddy to check out some tadpoles, she made a second lap past us to remind us of the "correct" course we ought to be following. It was challenging not to laugh aloud, but somehow we managed.

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Minutes later, a weather-worn farmer with sunburned cheeks and a poet's shirt walked his blonde Shiba dog silently past us, tossing us the same suspicious eye the old woman did before him. He stopped and asked us where we were going and where we lived. As soon as I mentioned my current post, his eyes lit up and his demeanor relaxed completely. His over-excited dog attempted to hump my husband's leg as we chatted on about our travels in Japan and his life out on the farm. Embarrassed by his horny pooch's antics, he kindly pointed us once again to "the correct path" back to our car, rushed to tie up his dog at one of the chocolate houses, disappeared for a moment and then strode up the hill to intercept us with a bag of home-grown asparagus. We were taken completely aback by his kindness.

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We savored this green gift lightly fried in a bit of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Do I hear a "yum?"

I thanked him in English and he said a perfect "your welcome" with the most disarming, genuine smile I'd ever seen. He accepted our offer to help him bring in the crops this autumn.

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Nika Village, Takehara City (竹原市仁賀町、賀茂川の蛍)

The rainy season in Japan means fireflies! I asked an acquaintance about the best place to find fireflies in Takehara. She told me "anywhere along the Kamo River in Nika Village."

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From downtown Takehara, we took Route 2 to the Yusaka Hot Springs access road, backtracking along the Kamo River (賀茂川) down Highway 330 and stopping at a small riverside park in front of the community hall. It was only 6:30 pm -still too bright for fireflies but perfect for an early-evening stroll in the cool mountain shadows. We thoroughly enjoyed inhaling the rich perfume of acacia and chestnut blossoms wafting in from all around us. Rain frogs struck up a chorus as we explored our surroundings on foot. An organic rice farm here, some artichoke plants there. More milk chocolate houses and pretty little patches of petunias and pansies... If there was anything I learned at the Firefly Festival last year in Maibara, Shiga, it's that fireflies absolutely LOVE freshly flowing stream water with lots of grass and elegantly draping tree cover to relax in. This little park out here in Nika had everything a firefly could ever want. We knew we wouldn't be disappointed!

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As the sky grew dark, my husband and I decided to perch ourselves on a convenient wooden platform under some draping cherry trees, obviously built for firefly viewing. We compared our photos of the rice paddies when suddenly, an elderly man with snow-white hair in his late 60's, sporting a white tee shirt and flapping flip-flops, shuffled up to us and asked us our business. He looked cool and comfortable in his evening underwear and endearingly uninhibited. We told him we were a married couple and with an understanding smile, he invited us to stay and enjoy the show on his property for as long as we wanted. "We had a TV camera crew out here last night!" he beamed. "It's peak firefly season, now. You'll see hundreds of 'em for sure! Enjoy!" After showing off his impressive collection of blooming hollyhocks and roses, he bid us good night and shuffled his tired body back home, probably to savor a frosty after-bath beer.

With the buzz of excitement in our hearts, as if waiting for a fireworks display, we cheered as the mountain silhouettes of Nika Village handed the stage over to the jet-black curtain of night. Surely enough, at exactly 8:00pm, a single, tiny green light pulsed slowly before us in the river below. Then another. Then two more. And then a streak as one took off in flight. The sakura trees sparkled as if wrapped in flashing Christmas LED lights. The river glowed and shimmered like the Milky Way Galaxy, as if the universe had been turned upside-down with stars glinting both above and below. The illusion made me feel a bit dizzy but it was utterly mesmerizing. It was all we could do to just sit there and stare with mouths gaping, grateful for the chance to share such a wondrous moment.

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From mid-June to the first week of July, Genji fireflies can be spotted all along the Kamo River from the second major bend in the road past Yusaka Hot Springs to Nika Elementary School. In some places, the entire hillside shimmers with thousands of fireflies hanging out in the trees -an unforgettable sight! (Too bad my iPhone camera can't do the place justice. But we indeed saw thousands of fireflies out there. It's no exaggeration).

Takehara Town, Takehara City (竹原市竹原町)

"Back at the ranch," the fireflies of the Kamo River were making me wish we had something of natural beauty around our immediate abode, like we did in every other place we lived in Japan. Just when I was thinking we had nothing special worth mentioning, I noticed a quick, dark shadow racing across our driveway, ducking like a flash into a small crack in the concrete drainage ditch.

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My heart skipped a beat! Could it truly be?

One of the most endearing critters in Takehara to emerge with the June rains is the land-locked freshwater yamagani ("mountain crab"). Freshwater crabs are said to be common throughout Japan but up until now, I'd only seen them in mountain streams and temple drainage ditches around Kansai and Hokuriku. This particular species has a curved line on its carapace that, together with its comical eyes, gives it a perpetual smiley face that can warm the heart of any crabby soul.

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Heavy rain sends these little guys scrambling out of their ditches in search of higher, drier ground. I was delighted to see them taking shelter on our doorstep this past week. Oh how I wish I could give them a nice terrarium home with lots of fresh veggies to eat! But I read on the Net that they're too fragile and stinky to keep. Regardless, it elated me to realize that if I wanted to see intriguing wildlife in Takehara, I only needed to glance outside my bedroom window.

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An apprehensive baby crab scuttled into my office during a hard rainfall. I mustered up the courage to pick it up. The crab's pointy legs scaled my arm quite delicately, with no prickly sensation whatsoever. Light as air, I could barely feel it crawling over my hands. It seemed to appreciate the flaky dead skin of my cuticles as it carefully touched its pincers to my finger and lifted them up slowly to its microscopic mouth. My fingers didn't hurt at all so I'm not sure the little critter got any sustenance for his effort. The pleasure was all mine. He was the perfect symbiotic guest.

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As far as I know, I might be the only person on this island chain who actually loves the rainy season, for all the wonderment it brings. I don't mind being alone in this, as foreigners in Japan are used to living "on the fringe," anyways. The heat will rise when the rains let up in July, scorching this Garden of Eden and everything in it, threatening the drier parts of Japan with menacing droughts and crop failure. Tsuyu gives us a final opportunity to catch our breaths and enjoy the amazing beauty that surrounds us before we all buckle down into hard-core summer survival mode. I, for one, pledge to enjoy tsuyu in Takehara as much as possible. May the plum rains keep blessing Takehara with life, comfort and inspiration.

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Posted by GenkiLee 19.06.2013 14:32 Archived in Japan Tagged japan hiroshima fireflies takehara nika_town tamari_town yusaka_hot_springs rain_frogs plum_rains rainy_season hydrangea yamagani_crabs Comments (0)

A Natural Beach in Takehara, Hiroshima

広島県竹原市長浜自然海浜保全地区 

sunny 27 °C

BGM: " Sea Sand and Sun" by Arnica Montana (Cafe Del Mar)

Back in Alaska, I was a water baby. Like a limpet sealed fast to a rock, it was hard to pry me off the beach when it was time to go home. Up until last weekend, I didn't think much of the beaches of southern Hiroshima. Don't get me wrong: the golden sand mixed with recycled oyster shell is quite nice for spreading a towel and getting your tan on. Watching all the day-glow colored ferries and tankers scooting by is quite entertaining, too. But my heart's been yearning to see signs of an ecosystem. I needed to know that some of these beaches still had life in them, like the ones I was used to back home.

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Nagahama Shizen Kaihin Hozenchiku (Long Beach Coastal Wildlife Reserve)

One muggy moody evening, our car hugging the sensuously-curving coastal road out of Takehara, headed for Mihara along Highway 185, my husband smiled at me and stopped somewhere just past the power plant and just short of Cafe Hoxton on the outskirts of Tadanoumi Town. We ascended the steps to the scenic viewing spot above the parking lot. "You might like this beach," he said. What beach? I looked down and there was only the deep azure sea and the rocks below.

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He pointed towards the small rectangular break in the concrete wall across the road from the cafe. We gingerly descended the steep concrete stairs and hopped onto the smooth golden sand, watching the sun set and the full moon rise simultaneously. I looked down at my feet and noticed charming little sand fleas jumping cutely away from my every step, burrowing frantically into the sand. Sand fleas! An indicator species! I agreed that we should get here early the next morning and spend the whole day out of our pop tent, just chillin' with the fleas and seeing what else was out here.

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Perfect view of Okunoshima ("Rabbit Island") from the shore (the one with the tower on top). We could even see hikers on the trail with a pair of binoculars!

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Our little piece of heaven...

In my travels around Japan, I would always be put off by all the garbage I'd see piled up on the beaches (and this was before the great Tohoku Quake of 3/11/11). Some places like Niigata City and Tsuruga, Fukui have so much trash on the beaches that it's safer to just stay up on the sand bar and not poke around the edge. Unlike my husband, I didn't have the city skills to keep the trash out of mind and just enjoy the view for what it was. Though Japan likes to blame neighboring China and Korea for all its pollution ills, nearly all the garbage I've seen on her shores had Japanese writing on it. No more excuses.

But Hiroshima's Seto Inland Sea, for all its beach goers and boat traffic, has the cleanest beaches I'd seen in my life. I don't know whether the locals do frequent cleanups or if the fines for littering are steeper here, but whatever they're doing, it's working. On every island I've visited in Hiroshima so far (around 9 or so), the beaches have been utterly pristine. Not only are the beaches of Hiroshima clean, but the water is also calm, clear and peaceful, perfect for swimming. (But even in late May, it's still a little chilly for that).

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An elderly husband-wife team bringing in their morning catch of fish.

We scarfed down our provisions before I could think to take a picture of them. But the menu was rolled pickle sushi and baked chicken courtesy of Takehara Fuji Palty grocery store. Yes, it was all good. (Sorry, Dear Readers. Not like me to leave out the food pics, I know).

We weren't alone for the first several hours. Sitting at the base of the cliffs underneath the scenic lookout, a randy young high school student was busy feeling up a willing female, with two other girls of junior high age just twenty feet away, trying not to watch them but certainly looking jealous. A worldly-wise gentleman in his late fifties settled in the grass right behind our tent. After spreading a lime green plastic mat on the sand, he stripped down to a pair of summer shorts and lay face-down in repose, tanning his back in the sun. He seemed to appreciate the Bob Marley I cranked up for him on my iDevice. My husband and I sang along to "No Woman No Cry" as he shifted on his mat, baking evenly like a rotisserie chicken. We envied his inability to burn.

A elderly man of about seventy years, silver beard glinting in the sun, staggered along drowsily in baggy torn pants, black rubber boots flopping, carrying a bright orange bucket and staring suspiciously at us as he passed by our pop-tent. He returned our way after about 20 minutes with nothing in his pail. My curiosity began to pique. When the heat let up and the noon breeze started flowing into our back mesh screen, it was time for me to check out what the outgoing tide had revealed. There was certainly more to this beach than the sand fleas!

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An elegant crop of green sponge weed in crystal Seto seawater

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I was awestruck by the variety of sea vegetables on these rocks. It made me wonder if that old guy with the bucket "planted" them there. I could easily imagine this stuff dipped in a strong, aromatic soy sauce spiked with freshly-grated wasabi! The sea lettuce in particular looked particularly appetizing!

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I kept finding myself mesmerized by this sponge weed swaying gracefully in the surf, flowing gently back and forth like a yogi's breath. I wanted to take it home and keep it in my bathtub. The sea foam fizzed and bubbled over and around it with each splash. I felt my mind clearing out with every push of the sea.

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When our young, amorous neighbors left their spot by the cliffs and had staggered drunkenly back up to the highway, we seized the chance to check out the main intertidal splash zone before the tide came rolling back in. It was a full moon and there was a high tide warning for our area. We had an hour or two left at most.

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As our shadows fell across limestone rock, the cliffs hissed with the sound of hundreds of scuttling cockroach-sized isopods the Japanese call funamushi ("boat bugs"). Ligia exotica, common name "sea slater" are fast, leggy crustaceans that mainly feed on the seaweeds stuck to the rocks. But they're quite unnerving when they move as one massive group, disappearing swiftly into the cracks and shadows. My husband was a little freaked out and high-tailed it back out to the water's edge. I tried to snap pics of them but they were too fast. Below was the best I could do:

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I personally think they're kind of cute. Look at those sweet buggy eyes!

Though the air was thick with the pungent, noxious reek of ascophyllum seaweed rotting in the hot sun, combing the cliffs was a delight. As the water lapped delicately around at my ankles, I marveled at the artistic wizardry of the sea, admiring the small caves and patterns it carved into the gritty, shell-encrusted limestone around me. I spotted oyster, chitin, limpets, barnacles and a few mussels though they were sparse. Surely these were what the old guy with the pail was after! I kept an eye out for octopuses, shore crabs and jellyfish- supposedly common sights along the shores of the Seto Inland Sea. Apparently they were all on vacation that day.

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I could've walked on forever but I didn't want go as far as the power plant farther down the beach, so I turned back. Lucky for me, I noticed a pure-white alien cluster of finger-length egg cases, sparkling like crystal in the setting sun. I'd seen something similar in a book on marine life and since the signal was good, I quickly looked it up on the Net. Sure enough: squid eggs! I couldn't help but try to touch them. They were cool and smooth like glass. The eggs in each case were stacked up perfectly like iyokan oranges in a net.

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I was so grateful to finally have found a beach with signs of life. The low-pitched waves moved back and forth with a relaxed and easy rhythm, kissing the shore like an attentive lover who knew to take his time. I was so used to aggressive dynamism from the sea, but it was a blessing to see this whole new peaceful side to it. Twelve years on an island nation yet I never felt that familiar calling from the sea until I came to Takehara. Who knew? I suddenly felt long-neglected scales growing back on the sides of my legs and an itching to throw myself into the water and just melt in the blissful weightlessness. This summer, I promised myself. This summer.

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The sun sank drowsily behind the cliff, coloring the sky with a gorgeous palette of breathy pinks and peaches. Intoxicatingly sweet neroli perfume from the nearby orange groves flowed lavishly across the beach, mixing with the salty air. Acacia trees in full bloom along the highway couldn't be left out of this reverie, their jasmine-like blossoms adding an intense woodsiness reminiscent of temple incense. So this is what Paradise smells like, we mused. My husband and I watched trout-sized fish jumping out of the water as if waving "goodbye" to the sun with their fins. Looking down at my left foot, a tiny crystalline sand flea had chosen a spot in my shadow and started digging a home for himself, kicking out the sand with tiny hind legs. (Japanese sand fleas are harmless crustaceans, unlike their biting cousins that live in the Caribbean. They might try to dig into you if you catch one and it feels a little like a pin-prick, but they won't bite. They're dreadfully charming in their innocence).

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In the distance, a red-throated diver had caught her 5th fish in the last 15 minutes we'd been watching her, wings flapping to shake off the seawater before diving back in again for more dinner. Our last neighbor of the evening, a solo fisherman about our age, gave up snagging his hooks on the seaweed and started packing up in obvious frustration to head on home. That was our cue to fold up our trusty pop-tent and leave this natural utopia in search of our own provisions.

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For the next two days, I felt a lightness in my soul as if I'd been to an old-time spiritual revival. It will be fun watching the cycles of life on this beach change throughout the seasons. Kudos to the people and government of Takehara and Hiroshima for keeping places like this so clean and intact. May it stay this way for generations to come.

"Hands in the sand, feet in the sea
Facing the sun, an empty mind,
A free body..."

Posted by GenkiLee 01.06.2013 18:16 Archived in Japan Tagged ocean beach hiroshima seaweed takehara nagahamashizenkaihin sea_slater squid_eggs green_sponge_weed seto_inland_sea Comments (0)

A Taste of Takehara, Part 1 (Hiroshima Prefecture)

広島県竹原市:美味しい物いっぱい!

sunny 17 °C

BGM: 君のふるさと by パラレルリープ ("Kimi No Furusato" by Parallel Leap)

Every prefecture, city and major town in Japan is known for a special product that's tough to find anywhere else. During my decade-long sojourn down the length of the Archipelago, it's become a hobby of mine to seek out and try as many of these regional delicacies as possible. The sheer variety is staggering! After settling into my new post, I quickly set to work snooping around Takehara in search of its hidden culinary treasures. Much to my delight, there are too many to count!

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OKONOMI HOUSE BON-BON (お好みハウスBon-bon)

Perhaps the most famous food in Hiroshima is the appropriately-named Hiroshimayaki, a meticulously layered take on the Osaka savory pancake classic. Hiroshimayaki, unlike its starchy, gooey-centered cousin, is a paper-thin crepe and egg sleeping on a bed of stir-fried bean sprouts & cabbage. Whereas the overriding flavor of Osaka okonomiyaki is predominantly flour, Hiroshimayaki leaves a clean, light taste in the mouth and none of the sugar rush from having consumed too many carbs at one time. After squeezing big blobs of mayonnaise and sauce on the thing, the locals eat Hiroshimayaki right off the "teppan" griddle with cute little square spatulas called a "kote" (/koh-teh/). The secret to not burning your lips is to scrape the food off the kote with your teeth. (It's actually quite fun!).

Though well off the beaten track, Takehara City has a few locally famous spots for okonomiyaki. My favorite, however, is just a little bit out of the way but well worth the effort of finding it. Getting there is a breeze, even without a car. You can take the bus down Highway 432 (bound for Kampo no Yado, 190 yen) from Takehara Station and get off at the Family Mart convenience store intersection (Nakadori bus stop). Across the small street from the Family Mart parking lot is an old run-down cafe called "My Way." Beside it is a small okonomiyaki restaurant called "Bon-Bon," marked with orange and white banners flapping in the breeze, advertising Hiroshima's special "Otafuku" sweet and spicy okonomiyaki sauce. According to the locals, the Otafuku banners are "the mark of a decent okonomiyaki-ya restaurant."

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Walk up the cement block steps into the restaurant and you're instantly greeted by Murakami-san, in my opinion the friendliest lady in Takehara. She studied under an okonomiyaki master for years and has been running Bon-Bon with her two sons helping out for over a decade. Her place is a favorite local hangout for the students in the community and her disarming smile is as comforting as the little piles of meticulously layered Japanese "soul food" magic she flips and fries with her kotes. Her spotless "teppan" griddle and sparkling overhead ventilation system show her commitment to her customers. But the proof is in the pancake!

Soul food needs time to be delicious. Each layer (fillings, crepe, omelet, etc) is fried separately and layered to steam into an enticing pile of veggie goodness. Murakami-san has all the listening skills and people-loving curiosity of a top-notch barista. While enjoying the musical dance of flipping crepes and clanging kotes, my conversations with Murakami-san have traveled the world over. Though she's yet to set foot outside Japan, her thinking is refreshingly worldly-wise. She once said something I've always kept with me like a word treasure: "Looking at the world from the perspective of a single culture is like trying to understand a whole photo from a single pixel." It's a wonderful thing when the conversation can be just as nutritious as the entree!

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You can have your choice of udon or soba noodles (fried to perfection), with an array of savory fillings like pork strips and plump, juicy shrimp to regional delicacies like Takehara "sake kasu" (/sah-keh-kah-soo/, the leftover fermented lees from sake production). Slathered with sweet, warm Otafuku sauce and topped with a massive pile of sliced green onions, it's a fun mountain of food to explore slowly. She also has a wickedly delicious invention called "119 Pizza," a steamed miracle of cheese, shrimp, ham and onions on an okonomiyaki crepe, accented with her own secret sauce. Though the name implies that I'll need to call Emergency Services upon consumption, it quickly became my new favorite.

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Bon-bon also has amazing yakiniku: generous cuts of quality meats like the amazing horumon (fatty pork offal), so tender it melts in the mouth like butter. Her yakiniku menu is just as popular with the locals as her okonomiyaki!

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KIKUJUDO (菊寿堂)

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Takehara City's Machinami Hozon Chiku, ("Special Historical District," also called "The Little Kyoto of Aki"), is an enchanting collection of lovingly-preserved Edo period houses, shops, temples and shrines, just a 10-minute walk from JR Takehara Station. Reminiscent of the quiet wooden backstreets of Gion in Kyoto, a stroll through these streets is a trip back in time to where people decorated their front doors with seasonal flowers and took the time to say "hi" to any passers-by. The aging grannies and shopkeepers who keep this district afloat still carry on this tradition of gracious hospitality, hobbling out of their doorways to greet the tourists and ask them how they are, where they've traveled and what they think of Takehara.

Reflective of this sweetness, Takehara has an impressive collection of confectioneries. I became helplessly addicted to a hundred-year-old cake shop called "Kikujudo," close to the bridge along Honmachi 3 Chome street, a shop well-known around Takehara for its decadent brandy cake, bamboo charcoal roll cake (more appetizing than it sounds) and sweet-bean-filled mochi flour dumplings.

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Me being the choco magnet that I am, I ordered the mysterious brown blob on tinfoil simply called "Rock" (/rokku/). Having absolutely no idea what delight lay inside, I bit into it expecting some sort of rocky mountain-like crunch. But when my teeth eased through the chocolate into rum-drenched sponge cake, I was first elated and then stunned by the alcoholic shock that came after, so strong it made my nostrils flare out in a buzz. But just that one bite and I was hooked! Now my husband gets to hear me beg for my "rock fix" every weekend. (But apparently, since I wrote this article, they've been having trouble keeping them in stock).

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When the Rokku is sold out, my second favorite culinary sin is Kikujudo's "Marron Paquet." Creamy, pillow-like whipped cream and fluffy chocolate cake smeared with a nose-tingling paste of rum mixed with marron (chestnut) paste. The effect is out of this world.

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MATSUYA NIJUYAKI (松屋二重焼)

My husband found his sweet tooth in Takehara at the same time I did. Across the highway, just over the small boat harbor bridge, is a tiny, inconspicuous little shop that sells what could very possibly be the best sweet bean pancake in all Japan.

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The bright-eyed elderly lady heading the operation said she's been making the same "nijuyaki" sweets for well over 6o years. Known in Kanto as "Imagawayaki" and in Kansai as "kaitenyaki," "nijuyaki" (meaning "double-layered pancake") is a traditional street snack consisting of delicately sweetened "anko" (adzuki bean paste) cooked between two layers of vanilla-scented pancake. What makes "nijuyaki" so special is that it contains twice the amount of anko and is cooked quite differently from others of its kind (but I can't tell you because it's a secret). The result is a small hamburger-size confection that is a meal in itself, oozing with rich, sweet bean bliss. You can easily tell the building from the flashing red police box light and hoards of people always standing outside with grumpy expressions and arms folded, patiently waiting. If you're unlucky like we've been, your wait can easily surpass 20 minutes, especially if the person ahead of you ordered 30 to stock up her freezer as is the local custom. But trust me. They're darn well worth it.

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I heard from a Takehara local that years ago, the Matsuya Nijuyaki shop offered several flavors including vanilla cream custard and white bean anko paste. Now they only make the red bean nijuyaki. But like I said earlier, it's the best in Japan so they don't need to diversify their line any.

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MICHI NO EKI TAKEHARA (道の駅たけはら)

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At the main intersection of routes 185 and 75, marked by the eye-popping green bamboo sign, is a godsend of a building that provides more than just a free place to park and use the restroom. Michi no Eki Takehara is an all-purpose facility that includes a small gallery, an information center, a cafe featuring dishes made from regional delicacies and my favorite: a small farmer's market/gift shop. The name "Takehara" in Japanese means "bamboo field" and Michi no Eki Takehara celebrates the beauty of this tree-like grass with bamboo art strewn all around the complex. You can sit on one of the comfy round chairs in the lounge and munch on a bamboo shoot rice ball while contemplating the projected overhead map of the Seto Inland Sea. It's the perfect place to get out of the sun and chill after a stroll around the Special Historical District.

But I came here as a woman with the mission of hunting down Takehara's delicious eats. I found all sorts of unusual taste ideas here: from wild boar meat and conger eel sushi to canned Akitsu oysters from the next town over. The cake made from mikan oranges grown on the islands really caught my eye, as well as the vast array of local jams and jellies that rival Takehara's own "Ohata Jam," a giant in Japan's preserves industry.

Aohata Fig Jam
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I gave in to my personal nutritional needs and ended up buying a lovely bunch of locally-grown spinach destined to turn into a spicy and soothing batch of north Indian-style aloo palak (potato spinach curry). To me, the best local foods are the ones you can use in your own home cooking.

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At the cash register, we bought an endearing little smoke bomb-shaped confection called "budo yokan" made from Takehara Campbell grapes. The clerk gave us each a toothpick to go with it. My husband and I both wondered what they were for. He said "let's eat these in the car" and I was hesitant, expecting a juicy explosion to mess everything up. Since we had no scissors to open the thing properly, I poked a hole into the thin rubber casing with the toothpick and it quickly unrolled itself off, revealing a perfect round ball of bean-paste yokan that tasted more like grape soda than anything else. We were pleasantly surprised. But I felt kinda sad that I didn't try to bounce the thing off the concrete, first.

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Stay tuned for Part 2, where I visit a cherry blossom festival and encounter more food for thought -Takehara Style!

Posted by GenkiLee 28.05.2013 06:11 Archived in Japan Tagged japan hiroshima farmers_market okonomiyaki takehara hiroshimayaki bon-bon nijuyaki michinoekitakehara Comments (0)

The Bunnies and Bombs of Okunoshima Island (Hiroshima Pref.)

広島県竹原市忠海・大久野島

sunny 20 °C

BGM: "I'll Try" (Acoustic Version) by Proff (feat. Gliss)

Japan is well-known the world over for being a land of complete randomness. Like English words thrown together on a Japanese tee-shirt that collectively make no sense whatsoever, the brain is tested for sanity on a daily basis. As a result, the longer I live in this country, the more I find myself freakishly longing, in quite a masochistic sense, for places and experiences that continue to challenge my mental faculty. When I heard that I was near the "strange and mysterious" island of Okunoshima, known in war buff circles for its grim history, I just had to check it out.

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Pulling out of Tadanoumi Port (Takehara City), bound for Okunoshima Island

The City of Takehara promotes Okunoshima as a pleasant vacation spot where you can frolic with Mother Nature and play in the sun. For this purpose, Okunoshima does not disappoint. There's a small hot springs resort here complete with hotel, tennis courts, a nature discovery center, golden sandy beaches and a camping facility. Naturally, this is what most of the locals head for when they get off the 15-minute ferry from Tadanoumi Port.

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Okunoshima Kyukamura Resort Hotel

And I'm supposed to just accept it as that- without asking the most obvious, impossible-to-ignore question racking the brain:

Dude! What's with all the rabbits? And why is Okunoshima also called "Usaginoshima?" (Rabbit Island)

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These little guys are EVERYWHERE!

Depending on who you ask in Takehara, there are apparently two answers to this question. The tourist agents and children will tell you that several decades ago, a few elementary school kids, who just happened to be carrying rabbits on the ferry with them, went to Okunoshima on a school trip and released (or abandoned) them there. Over the years, the rabbits "were fruitful and multiplied," having no natural predators to keep their numbers in check.

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But ask a taxi driver or a teacher in the Tadanoumi area and you'll get a completely different (and more logical) answer:

Back during WWII, the Imperial Army ordered the island of Okunoshima to be the base for Japan's primary poison gas factory. The island was so secret, that it was erased from all official maps. The thousands of workers employed there were forbidden to tell even their families about their occupation. According to local testimony, during the war, whenever the train approached Tadanoumi Station, the blinds had to be pulled down so that passengers couldn't see Okunoshima Island from the train windows. (After all, if you can't see it, it's not there, right? Just like nuclear radiation). Sadly, much of the manufactured poison gas was used and disposed of in China, but thousands of the Japanese workers at the factory also got horribly ill with lung infections, chronic asthma, painful pus-filled blisters and rashes from making the chemical weapons. Their thin, poorly-fitting rubber suits and masks proved inadequate for the job.

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Remnants of a poison gas storage unit. The walls were charred black by flame-throwers used by Allied Forces to neutralize the poison gas during the decontamination process.

Since war prisoners were in short supply (and it wasn't appropriate to use Japanese citizens for testing), rabbits were allegedly used in experiments to test the effects of the poison gas. But when Allied Forces seized Okunoshima in 1945, the rabbits either escaped or were set free, "were fruitful and multiplied." Now there are hundreds if not thousands of them, and legions more fluffy bunnies being born on Okunoshima every day.

And they are pretty dang cute! I'd say they're way too cute for even an adult to abandon on some deserted island smack in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea, let alone an elementary school kid.

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With this sad wartime story hanging over my head like a cloud of, um, poison gas, I gave up trying to have a mentally soothing, pristine happy time here in Okushima and just took the trip for what it was: part memorial, part beach zen, part hiking trip.

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If you can resist the urge to board the free shuttle bus that goes from the dock to the resort, turn right instead after you step off the ferry and you'll be rewarded with a peaceful hike with impressive views of neighboring islands glinting in crystalline azure seawater. The island is covered with lush vegetation: pine and camellia trees, bamboo grass, azalea bushes, even cherry trees that splash Okunoshima with cheerful colors come springtime. Bulbuls and thrushes trill and chirp in the green, filling the air with bright song.

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The paved trail hugs the coast in places and winds through dense forests in others, opening up on occasion to reveal Meiji-era brick military strongholds, cannon magazines and the infamous poison gas storage units. Okunoshima was originally a fortress set up to protect Japan before the start of the Russio-Japanese War (1902~).

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Seeing all the cute, healthy (and well-fed) bunnies hopping around the desolate ruins of war, your mind constantly shifts from relaxed and serene to heavy and remorseful and back again. I found it all to be a beautifully sobering experience.

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For 700 yen, you can rent a bicycle to cruise the nicely-paved trails around the island's circumference. But I found I didn't need one. With just my two feet, I completed the circle in just under 2 hours. Instead, I put that money to better use feeding myself and the cute little bunnies. An ice-cold Campbell grape soft cream for me and 100 yen worth of food pellets for the rabbits. They went over well.

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Campbell Grape Soft Cream! Mmmmm! (a specialty of Takehara City)

For 200 yen, you can learn more about Okunoshima's wartime past at the Poison Gas Museum. It might be only a room-and-a-half's worth collection of books, artifacts, testimonials and poison gas paraphernalia, but the impact is pretty severe. Photography is forbidden inside the museum, otherwise I'd post the disturbing pictures of the "protective" gear, blister-covered victims and imperial memorabilia. Part of me is very glad that I get to spare you the misery. But the single-minded mission of the museum is crystal clear: to educate Japan and the world of the horrors and inhumanity surrounding war and chemical weapon use- a lesson we still need to hear even today.

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Okunoshima Poison Gas Museum

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Access to Okunoshima: Take the Kure Line train from Mihara or Takehara to Tadanoumi Station. Exit the station and there should be a convenience store on your left. Turn right instead and walk about 8 minutes down the highway to the bridge. Turn right again and follow the road over the railroad tracks to Tadanoumi Port. Ferries depart for Okunoshima every 30 minutes. 300 yen o/w for adults, 150 yen o/w for children.

Posted by GenkiLee 07.05.2013 06:59 Archived in Japan Tagged sea japan hiroshima ww2 rabbits inland tadanoumi okunoshima seto Comments (3)

My Top 30 Favorite Places in Japan

(A List in Pictures)

all seasons in one day

BGM: 花咲く旅路 (Hanasaku Tabiji) by Yuko Hara

I had a really tough time narrowing this list down to just thirty, since everywhere I go in Japan seems to make my jaw drop in one way or another. But these particular places carved their permanent marks into my soul, like notches on a pilgrim's walking stick. I guess they wanted me to tell you about them. They're listed in order from north to south, the way you'd see them on a map (or as they say around here, "from east to west"). If this blog inspires some of you to come see Japan with your own eyes, then I've done my job properly. (Don't let me down, Folks).

So without further ado:

1. Otaru, Hokkaido (北海道小樽市)

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Hand-blown antique glass float

2. Sapporo, Hokkaido (北海道札幌市)

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City lights of Susukino district

3. Noboribetsu Hot Springs, Hokkaido (北海道登別温泉)

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Steaming hot Oyunumagawa River flowing from volcanic Oyunuma Crater Lake

4. Matsushima, Miyagi (宮城県松島市)

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Islets of Matsushima Bay

5. Ginzan Hot Springs, Yamagata (山形県銀山温泉)

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This old hot springs village was used as a backdrop for part of NHK's mega TV hit "Oshin!"

6. Kusatsu Hot Springs, Gunma (群馬県草津温泉)

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Flowing with the rhythm of the "Yumomi Dance"

7. Mt. Nasu Volcano, Nasu Kogen, Tochigi (栃木県那須岳)

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Nothing like hiking up a still-smoking active volcano!

8. Yamatsuri, Fukushima (福島県矢祭町)

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Crossing the Ayunotsuri Bridge over the Kuji River

9. Daigo, Ibaraki (茨城県大子町)

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Fukuroda Falls in the heat of summer

10. Toride, Ibaraki (茨城県取手市)

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Kokai River Sunset

11. Asakusa, Tokyo (東京浅草)

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Asakusa Kannon Temple

12. Shinjuku, Tokyo (東京新宿)

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Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

13. Ueno, Tokyo (東京上野)

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Scrumptious offerings for cheap along Ameya Yokocho shopping street

14. Chukagai (Chinatown), Yokohama, Kanagawa (神奈川県横浜市中華街)

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Festive lanterns near the main shrine

15. Kamakura, Kanagawa (神奈川県鎌倉市)

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Kamakura Daibutsu (Big Buddha)

16. Enoshima, Kanagawa (神奈川県江ノ島)

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The Iwaya Caves

17. Echizen Kaigan Coast, Fukui (福井県越前海岸)

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A pit-stop on the way to Tojinbo Pillar

18. Obama, Fukui (福井県小浜市)

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Closeup of some sand on the main beachfront

19. Nagahama, Shiga (滋賀県長浜市)

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Lake Biwa from Kogan Doro Road, Takatsuki Village, Nagahama

20. Hikone, Shiga (滋賀県彦根市)

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The outer moat of Hikone Castle, drenched in blooming sakura cherry trees

21. Shigaraki Town, Koka City, Shiga (滋賀県甲賀市信楽町)

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Shigaraki no Sato, part of the Shumei Natural Agriculture complex

22. Higashiyama, Kyoto (京都府京都市東山)

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Yasaka Pagoda as seen from the base of Ninenzaka Slope

23. Arashiyama, Kyoto (京都府京都市嵐山)

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Chikurin bamboo forest near Tenryuji temple

24. Kobe Port, Hyogo (兵庫県神戸湾)

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We wanted to ride it but didn't know where it went.

25. Osaka City (大阪市)

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Even the food down this street was delicious!

26. Naruto, Tokushima (徳島県鳴門市)

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The catwalks under this bridge will give you a view of the Naruto whirlpools -if your timing's good!

27. Iya Village, Tokushima (徳島県祖谷町)

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The Yoshino River rushing through Iya Valley, with the Katsurabashi vine bridge in the distance

28. Dogo Hot Springs, Matsuyama City, Ehime (愛媛県松山市道後温泉)

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Duelling mikoshi floats for the Dogo Hot Springs festival

29. Beppu City, Oita (大分県別府市)

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The skin-soothing mud of Beppu

30. Kita Kyushu, Fukuoka (福岡県北九州市)

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Nogita Beach in winter

Posted by GenkiLee 11.10.2012 09:08 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Budget Camping in Daigo, Ibaraki

茨城県大子:町キャンプ村やなせ、河鹿園温泉

semi-overcast

BGM: Panini Pua Kea by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Sometimes, you come across one of those places that just captures your heart and won't let go. Self-help books always suggest that we each have a "happy place." I can't help but smile whenever I remember beautiful Daigo, Ibaraki.

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The terrain of Daigo and neighboring Hitachi Omiya is lumpy with irregular emerald-green mountains and lush vegetation -much like the set of the old TV series "Land of the Lost." I kept expecting to see a dinosaur come bumbling out of the trees!

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Daigo is known for its waterfalls, hot springs and sweet fish. We of course love it for these, too, but fell hard in love with its inexpensive yet beautiful camping facilities.

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We came here one night out of desperation, looking for a cheap place to stay but we didn't want to pay for a hotel. We ended up sleeping on thin cushions in one of the bungalows here at Camp Village Yanase (キャンプ村やなせ, Kyampu Mura Yanase). It cost about the same per person as a square teishoku set meal at a typical restaurant, it was that affordable!

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Camp Village Yanase has all the major facilities: Western and Japanese-style toilets, rental showers, water pumps, covered barbecue and sink areas for big groups, vending machines, rental barbecue equipment and much more. We didn't lack for anything -except maybe bug spray.

We were free to drive up and make camp anywhere on the premises. Many people chose to stay up on the hill away from the river, closer to the facilities. My husband expressed that he wanted to sleep "under the stars," so I pitched my tiny flaming-red two-man tent in the open air next to Puppy, the Wonder Subaru.

Camping in Japan is a little different from camping in, say, Alaska. People tend to pitch their tents closer to other campers in this part of the world. This would annoy the heck out of a typical privacy-loving Alaskan, yet here in Asia, there's a "safety in numbers" mentality that permeates nearly every aspect of society. Where I'm from, the further away from people, the better. I tried sharing my point of view with my husband. He thought my people were nuts! He said he felt safer knowing that other campers were nearby. This time I decided to experience camping from his perspective. (He said he'd try it my way in the future. Sounded cool).

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We were a tad embarrassed by fact that my pipsqueak tent was nearly as big (or as small) as our car. We shrugged off giggles from our more affluent, boisterous neighbors, flashing them that "yeah, we know, we know" smile. At least we could laugh about it!

My husband "borrowed" what looked like a broken wooden school chair from the side of a tool shed and used it as a stand for his mini gas stove. We had a little styrofoam cooler full of meat and veggies that we bought at the local supermarket: chicken, steak, corn on the cob, sweet potato, fresh tomatoes, white onion and a loaf of white bread. That was it. When he realized we didn't pack a fire-starter kit, he walked over towards our closest neighbors with their elaborate tent setup and asked to borrow a lighter, cracking jokes about our humble but happy condition. They were kind enough to oblige. Once our BBQ was ready, we returned the favor and gave them a big bottle of green tea.

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Anything, no matter how simple, tastes awesome BBQ'd!

After a meager but extremely satisfying lunch of meat and fresh tomatoes, we spent the next few hours cooling our feet in the clean, musical waters of the lovely Kuji River, searching for colorful rocks that would make interesting jewelry. The smooth, polished river stones came in nearly every color of the rainbow! It was too hard to make a decision!

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Resident frog in fashionable camo gear

We trudged up from the river loaded down with our booty, pockets bulging like the stuffed cheeks of a greedy hamster. Just then, our neighbor (Mrs. Yoshida from Utsunomiya in neighboring Tochigi Prefecture) intercepted us, thanking us once again for the tea and inviting us to join them for dinner. Before we had a chance to do the customary hesitation, she emphatically told us with the warmest smile we'd ever seen that her whole family would really love our company.

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I offered to help cook or stir something, but Mrs. Yoshida said it was all under control and told us to make ourselves comfortable under their tarp. It was tough not to be envious of their massive provisions: 4 tents, tables and chairs, 2 barbecues, a whole food tent, lighting, spices and sauces for cooking -it looked like enough for a small army! Mr. Yoshida, a young company worker, said this was their favorite spot because the kids liked it best. The family came here twice a year, all the way from Tochigi (on the other side of the mountain range). Mr. Yoshida kindly suggested that next time we try to get a spot under the trees for shade and protection from the rain, since it rains often in the mountains of northern Ibaraki. We were grateful for the advice.

Their two young daughters, shy and studious Chiaki (in junior high) and spunky Himari-chan (in elementary school, with the gorgeous straight long hair), told me they sometimes like to practice speaking English together just for fun. This tickled me absolutely pink and right away, I switched languages to see how much they knew. Chiaki's pronunciation was clean with only a slight hint of accent on her R's. Their mother explained to me that they hoped to go to America someday. I couldn't help but smile and tell them that dreams were made to go after. Himari-chan switched seats to sit beside me and enthusiastically introduced to me all the pink cartoon characters on her favorite homework folder. What a cutie!

We feasted on a delightful (and elaborate!) banquet of barbecued pork, two kinds of beef (salted and marinated), daikon radish salad, boiled potatoes, barbecued squid, hot and mouth-watering tonjiru (pork and vegetable) soup, grilled chicken and hot, fluffy rice cooked up fresh in a traditional kama rice pot. They offered us beer, too but since we don't drink, we enjoyed some cooling, refreshing barley tea. We didn't need the beer! We were already drunk on campers' bliss!

Mr. Yoshida asked us why we weren't planning on seeing the city's fireworks festival that night (August 9th). We explained that we were just enjoying the natural beauty and quiet too much to wanna head into town. He seemed pleased with our answer and told us that was why they decided not to go out there this time, too. Around 8:00pm, however, we could see the clouds on the other side of the mountains pulsing with eerie reds and golds as the fireworks set them alight from afar. As we watched the colorful smoke rising up into the sky, Himari-chan, jumping and pulling at her father's tee-shirt, hounded him with the words "hanabi! hanabi!" (fireworks) and with that, he hauled out a brightly-colored plastic family-pack of sparklers and a pail full of water. We were going to have our own fireworks festival!

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It's always a blast watching grownups turn into children.

We entertained ourselves for a good hour this way, shrieking with the kids as our sparklers cracked and hissed, shooting off gorgeous sparks of colorful fire. By the time the last sparkler fizzled out, so had Himari-chan's energy. Within minutes, she was curled up like a baby in her big sister's arms, slightly snoring. We understood that it was time to bring our magical evening to a close and with warm good-nights and sleep-wells, we slowly returned to our tent, bare feet gratefully soaking up the cool evening dew with every step.

There weren't any stars for my husband that night, but he looked too happy to miss them as I unzipped the door flap to the tent and stepped carefully onto the crinkly vinyl floor. I spread out sleeping bags to use as cushions and we both plopped down exhausted upon them. It was surprisingly easy to fall asleep to the ethereal whistles and chirps of katydids and mole crickets. I turned to look at my husband -already out like a light. The fresh mountain air worked nicely on him!

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I awoke with the dawn and the pitter-patter of gentle rain splattering on the top flap. Watching continuously through fuzzy eyes, I kept touching the back wall to make sure that the 20 coatings of Scotch Guard I'd sprayed on were enough. Fortunately, no rain came through. (To quote Han Solo, my little tent "may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts"). The bright, playful melodies of sparrows, woodland tits and wagtails serenaded me as I sat there in the neon red glow of my tent, drinking in the peace. A swig of green tea and I set to work weaving a small happy-first-camping-trip present for my husband, grooving along to the drowsy, easy crooning of Bruddah Iz on my mp3 player. No doubt, I was in my element!

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Once the rain had stopped, the music of children's laughter punctuating the shrills of cicadas filled the air. I unzipped the tent screen to peek out and see what morning had brought. Some kids were catching tree frogs in the grass near the bungalows.

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Men are masters of the barbecue no matter which country you're in. My man is no exception. Breakfast rocked!

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Now we're cooking!

We were both on a legitimate camper's high. My husband, a metropolis child, had never experienced anything like this before and I could feel the soothing power of nature working on his soul as it did mine, sweeping out the stress and cold from years of urban life. It's so healing to sleep in a place surrounded only by living green -no concrete, no steel. The senses become sharper, too, as if you can actually smell and hear better after spending a night in the wild.

Himari-chan snuck over to our tent when she caught a whiff of the smoke from our grill and greeted us a cheerful good morning. She kept looking back and forth, from her mom sitting in a lawn chair to the contents of our barbecue -long hair comically flying in her face with each turn. My husband smiled and handed her a chopstick with half a grilled hot dog skewered on it. Good girl that she was, Himari immediately ran over to her mom to get her approval, then ran back to us with the biggest smile and gratefully pulled the hot dog from the chopstick, gobbling it up. She ate a piece of tomato, too and with that, presented us with a tiny gift: a heart-shaped stone hand-picked for us from the waters of the Kuji River. (I still carry this precious stone to this day).

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Our new friends made sure to give us their contact info before we tore down our camp. Thanks to their help, I had come to realize the wisdom of my husband's camping ways. Having neighbors can be a joyous blessing! I felt my world getting that much friendlier as I relished the smiles of the beautiful Yoshida family one final time.

The hot, late summer sunshine had dried up the final rain drops from my trusty Old Red and allowed me to roll it up and stick it in the car -just before the UV rays got too painful for our skin. We bought a few cans of coffee from the vending machine near the campsite office and asked the ever-helpful groundskeeper for his idea of a good place to get cleaned up. He said an old friend of his ran the small hot springs lodge called Kajikaen (河鹿園)up the road near the Kamiogawa train station. It was really easy to find -just follow the tiny toy train!

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Access to Yanase Campgrounds: Take Route 323 (also called 118 in parts) up from Mito, Ibaraki through Hitachi Omiya until you reach the intersection with Route 32. Turn left onto 32 and look for the sign near the small bridge that reads キャンプ村やなせ (kyampu mura yanase).

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Ahhh! Life is good!

(All names have been changed for privacy reasons. The place names are very real, however). ;-)

Posted by GenkiLee 10.08.2010 04:21 Archived in Japan Tagged japan camping fireworks barbecue ibaraki daigo camp_mura_yanase kuji_river hemp_macrame summer_fun Comments (0)

First Bullet Train to Kyoto

東海道新幹線、京都:銀閣寺・哲学の道・知恩院・南禅寺 

semi-overcast 10 °C

BGM: Ii Hi Tabidachi by Yamaguchi Momoe

My friend from Tokyo thought it was time for me to get some culture, so we boarded the bullet train (東海道新幹線ひかり Tokaido Shinkansen Hikari) bound for Kyoto to do some temple hopping and time-slipping. This would be a journey of many firsts for me and I didn't want to miss a thing. My friend reassured me it was fine to leave my window blind up so I could snap away with my camera, while everyone else on the train snuggled into their seats for some beauty sleep. Sleeping while traveling? This really is different from home, I mused.

The bullet train glided smooth as silk with no sensation of track beneath us. I couldn't help but marvel at how fast we were traveling in a vehicle with no seat belts. We showed our tickets to the perfectly-coiffed attendant who clipped them with a hole punch and told us to have a lovely trip. We were also given shibori (wet hand towels) as a special service for Green Car passengers. (I felt special!) A cute lady in uniform sold me a bottle of orange juice with a darling smile. I wanted a box of Pretz sticks too but my friend mentioned we'd be eating at the station, so I refrained.

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After about 30 minutes into the trip, somewhere around Shizuoka, my friend nudged my arm to let me know we were near Mt. Fuji. This was my first time seeing it from the ground. No doubt; towering above the world in a blanket of glimmering snow, she was truly a spectacle to behold.

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This particular mountain (Mt. Ibuki, Shiga Prefecture) reminded me of home, though I'd never seen this place before.

We coasted for a while past immaculate tea farms, polluted industrial parks, snow-covered mountains and bare rice fields. We stopped for a moment at Nagoya, a monstrous expanse of lifeless grey concrete and steel. But I noticed that the people who boarded the train at Nagoya were as vibrant and colorful as their neon and leopard print clothing, laughing loud and free. It was a pleasant contrast from the silence of Tokyo commuters.

We spent the final fast and furious 20 minutes in darkness with popped ears as we shot like a cannon ball through a series of tunnels, exiting into a vast expanse of brown, quaint fields dotted with old, crumbling cottages. We'd arrived in Kyoto Prefecture! The bullet train doesn't dilly-dally at stops at all; most people wait in the aisles or in front of the door with their luggage to get off the train as quickly as is humanly possible so others can get on. The Hikari pulled up softly, gently to the Kyoto Station platform and with a hydraulic hiss that sounded exactly like the doors of the Starship Enterprise (I joke not!), we were released into the wild, again.

I was starving by the time we got to Kyoto Station, so we went for a quick bowl of tempura udon noodles in the underground shopping arcade. My friend complimented me on my use of chopsticks -my technique had improved since I came to Japan!

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Tempura Udon Lunch Set with Kyoto Pickles

My feet had no idea what they'd be in for, but I was hyped and ready to go! I oohed over every little thing. But when we crossed the famous Sanjo-Ohashi Bridge over the Kamo River, I was ecstatic! We were in Kyoto! We were in Kyoto!

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Since most temples in Kyoto close by 5pm, we had to hurry. We jumped into a taxi and were whisked out towards the mountains of Higashiyama ward to Ginkakuji (銀閣寺, Silver Pavilion). While my friend asked the driver for advice, I looked out the window and noticed the streets getting increasingly narrower as we drove up the mountain. The first thing that hit me about Ginkakuji was the blast of fresh, green mountain air from the ancient pine and cedar trees surrounding us. I can't accurately explain what antiquity smells like, but this was it -and it was intoxicating!

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I know what you're thinking. "Where's the silver?" I kept asking my friend this question and got no answer.

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Two Mt. Fuji's in one day! This was almost too much!

After hiking around the serene, relaxing temple grounds of crumbling stone paths and bamboo forests, we exited the final gate of Ginkakuji and hung a tight left to walk along a quiet canal. "Quick," said my friend. "Say something philosophical. This is the Philosopher's Walk." (Um.....Ummm.....)

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The farther along we walked, the more the conversation disintegrated into belly buttons and poop jokes. I think Nishida Kitaro, the old Kyoto University professor and namesake of this stretch of sidewalk, would've approved. Either that or he would've called us both aho (stupid idiots).

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The Philosopher's Walk (哲学の道 Tetsugaku no Michi) is famous for its cherry trees that line the canal below. Though it was the tail-end of winter and the shops were closed for the day, it was still a refreshing stroll in the orange glow of Kyoto at dusk. We stopped every once in a while to laugh at some silly thought, or watch a small, white egret try to catch a fish in the cold running stream flowing in from Lake Biwa.

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We'd been strolling like this for nearly an hour, until we arrived at this impressive stone walkway lined with regal, wind-blown pine trees. A towering structure of chocolate-brown wooden pillars, each cut from gigantic trees, invited us in for a closer look. I thought this was a temple in itself. But my friend informed me that this was just the gate. (Just the gate?!) Behold the glorious Sanmon Gate of Chion-In Temple (知恩院).

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We wandered about the grounds around Chion-In and Nanzenji (南禅寺) and were struck to find this very stately red-brick (pink?) aqueduct from 1890, carrying water flowing in from Lake Biwa in the next prefecture. It was fun to climb up and around this still-functioning structure, watching the water gushing in to quench the thirsts of the masses.

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As night fell, the temperature dipped and my friend suggested we warm up at Junsei Restaurant (near the Nanzenji Temple parking lot), a popular spot for steaming-hot yudofu (boiled tofu).

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The building of Junsei, originally a hospital, was established in 1839 and boasts a gorgeous award-winning traditional Japanese garden.

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Boiled tofu squares in light dashi broth, part of a set course meal

Steam from the donabe (土鍋 clay pot) fogged up my friend's glasses, setting off another round of giggles. We each took turns scooping up a cube of tofu, gingerly placing it into a tiny porcelain dish, spiking it with tart ponzu sauce and popping it into our mouths. Accompanied with crunchy tempura vegetables and sweet, savory dengaku (grilled tofu spread with miso paste) the vegetarian meal was light, delicately flavored and cleansing -like spa treatment for the senses. As the warmth of the moment penetrated my cold, aching limbs, I felt myself lulled by the elegant, plucking sounds of the koto background music, slipping into a fantasy of being the chosen company at an imperial feast. I could feel Kyoto's effect begin to sink into my system. And I couldn't wait to explore more of this enchanting city! I knew Kyoto would soon be seeing much, much more of me in the near future.

(Okini, Kyoto. Okini).

Posted by GenkiLee 14.02.2002 03:19 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan shinkansen ginkakuji bullet_train tokaido_road silver_pavilion nanzenji chionin junsei_restaurant yudofu koi_pond tetsugakunomichi philosophers_walk sanjo_ohashi mt_fuji mt_ibuki Comments (0)

Winter Magic in Otaru, Hokkaido

北海道小樽市:雪あかりの道・小樽運河・小樽カナル・堺町通り

snow 3 °C

BGM: Ano Hi No Kawa by Joe Hisaishi

Every February, Otaru celebrates its mountains of snow with the magical Otaru Snow Light Festival (雪あかりの道, Yuki Akari no Michi), where candles and lanterns are placed in holes in the snow all along the Otaru Canal (小樽運河, Otaru Unga), giving it an enchanting ambiance. This festival attracts hoards of tourists, photographers and couples in love. My dorm mate friend from China and I decided to escape the confines of college life and further explore the artsy-fartsy side of this city of sparkling glass and lights.

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Though blizzard conditions made it hard-going, that didn't stop us at all!

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Before hitting all the uniquely-themed gift shops and museums, we fueled up on sushi and a few special treats.

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Flavors from top to bottom: lavender, Hokkaido milk, Yubari melon, green tea, chocolate, hascap (北一三号館, Kita-ichi Sangokan

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The Handsome & Friendly Fellas of Chiharu Sushi

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Deep-fried Squid Tempura

The museums in question all straddle the far end of Sakaimachidori Street (境町通り)and we decided to hit them all. Our first stop was the Otaru Orgel (Music Box) and Antique Museum (小樽オルゴール堂2号館アンティークミュジアム), where we saw lots of things our moms would want -like pendant-sized music boxes, dolls, Tiffany lamps and antique furniture. One of the ladies running the museum gave us a delightful pipe-organ and old phonograph demonstration. We were mystified by how simple, old technology could still produce such a pure joy of sound.

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We trudged back into the storm and trying not to slip, sloshed through the snow further on down Sakaimachidori to Souvenir Otarukan (小樽館). Much to our surprise, on the second floor, we encountered the most inspiring collection of kaleidoscopes we'd ever seen!

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People thought we were crazy for wanting to do the Ice Museum in the middle of winter but we did, anyways. We bundled up in quilted smocks and entered a refrigerated room with walls displaying all things Hokkaido encased in blocks of ice. Stuffed white seals (that used to be alive) and other poor animals stared blindly at us in the ice fog as we were escorted from room to cheesy room. One of the rooms was a cooler set to -40C. But my friend and I were both from cold country so it was no sweat. The girl who took our tickets looked disappointed at our lack of reaction when she finally let us out.

The highlight of the tour was the ice bedroom complete with a starry "sky light" and electric lamp. It reminded me of the snow fort I used to make in our front yard every year as a kid. (As of 2012, the Otaru Ice Museum seems to be closed down, since no information is currently available on the Web).

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When Otaru's herring fishery began to flounder in the 1950's, blowers of glass floats and lamps turned their industry towards the production of Venetian-style glass art, putting Otaru on the world map as a producer of high-quality fine glass and crystal products. Otaru has some impressive glass museums like the Museo Dell'Arte Veneziana and Gallery Venini. Unfortunately, as with many Japanese museums and galleries that demand an entry fee, photographs weren't allowed. I wish I could show the amazing art we saw: a real paper wasp hive covered in hundreds of realistic life-size blown glass wasps, a pyramid tower of glass spheres -each one containing a different colored flower design, chandeliers that would make Queen Elizabeth II jealous and true-to-life glass birds to name only a few. For a moment, my friend had to sit down and cry, overwhelmed at the painstakingly exquisite beauty surrounding her. (Too bad this chandelier shot was the only one I could manage).

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Inspired to try her own hand at glass-blowing, my friend and I went to K's Blowing, where experts helped her breathe life into her very own orange and red glass vase. For several thousand yen, you get a mini lesson in glass bubble-blowing and after your creation cools, they will ship your work of art to your home a few days later.

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As the sky slowly darkened into dusk, it was time to turn around and head back to the canal to watch it twinkle alight in candle flicker. Oh, what a gorgeous sight!

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We stayed out there in the cold for about an hour, competing for good angles with professional cameramen all dancing with their tripods. But hunger triumphed yet again, so I suggested we head out to my favorite restaurant in Otaru: Otaru Souko Ichiban (小樽倉庫No. 1), a waterfront German-style beer hall located in one of the old warehouses right on the canal.

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Tender and smoky German-style roast pork with savory wine sauce.

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Oooh. These guys are smooth!

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An appropriate hall for group feasting, indeed!

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"Pari Pari" (crunchy) daikon radish salad with ikura salmon roe, carrots, cucumber, katsuobushi and onion dressing.

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Souko Ichiban Venetian Masks available in all sizes in the gift shop.

Souko Ichiban's main claim to fame is the Otaru Beer label draft pilsner, dunkel and stout, brewed in gleaming, shiny vats right there in the beer hall.
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All warmed up with bulging bellies and a beer buzz, we staggered slowly back up the hill, arm-in-arm (for snow safety!) to Otaru Station to catch a quiet, uncrowded train back to Sapporo. If there's one thing Otaru never lacks in winter, it's snowy streets that need shoveling.

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The Old Bank of Japan Museum, built in 1912, looks majestic both night and day- especially when viewed in a drunken state.

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Grazie, Otaru. Grazie!

Posted by GenkiLee 12.02.2002 05:17 Archived in Japan Tagged otaru otaru_souko_ichiban otaru_beer sakaimachidori orgel_museum glass_museum k's_blowing Comments (0)

Sapporo Snow Festival in Hokkaido (Yuki Matsuri)

北海道札幌市:さっぽろ雪まつり

overcast -1 °C

BGM: "Stars" by Nakashima Mika

As I mentioned in a prior blog, one of the many joys of living close to Odori Park is watching it change with the seasons. Throughout the first week of every February (or whenever the snowfall is at its peak), artists and amateurs chisel, saw and torch heaps of snow into shimmering white renditions of famous world landmarks and cartoon characters, transforming all of Odori Park into a winter wonderland.

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The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (さっぽろ雪まつり, Sapporo Snow Festival) is usually held in three locations around the city: Odori Park, Susukino for small ice sculptures and a wider area for the larger structures. This year (2002), the huge ones were near the Makomanai Self-Defense Forces Base. My friends suggested I go there first to feel my jaw drop. So I took the very crowded Namboku (Green) Line from Odori Park to Makomanai Station and merely followed the masses to my destination. (During a festival in Japan, you often don't need to rely on a map or signs. Just follow the crowds as if you were part of a school of salmon swimming in a river and you're as good as there).

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Many stalls were strategically lined up from the station all the way down to the sculptures site, selling enticing treats like steaming cocoa and piping-hot corn on the cob.

The hazy half-light of late afternoon made my eyes play tricks on me. But once they focused properly and were able to discern snowy ground from sky, my jaw did indeed drop. The sculptures were simply massive!

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Hokkaido's UHB TV Characters

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Crayon Shin-Chan Anime Slide Sponsored by Fujifilm!

Most of the sculptures here were interactive in one way or another -built with kids in mind, no doubt. It was very heart-warming to watch both moms and dads playing outside with their children. (This is an increasingly rare thing where I come from, yet a comforting phenomenon still seen throughout Japan).

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Shimajiro Character Slide!

There was even a space for kids to make their own snowman to put on display!

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I found myself drawn to this particular sculpture representing the cute little mascots of Nissin noodle company's "Chicken Ramen." It didn't do much aside from exuding cuteness. But this was enough for me.

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"Chiki-don, Chiki-don, Chiki don-don!"

Back at Odori Park, the festival was getting underway with people shuffling down slippery ditches and sloshing through puddles of water. Once in awhile you'd see the occasional young woman trying to navigate her way in heels -but most folks used their heads for this event.

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The air was ringing with the high-pitched sounds of women screaming into mics the praises of the corporations who made these sculptures possible.

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Some of the entries were blatantly commercial, like the display for Ghibli Studios "Spirited Away," advertising the greatly anticipated animated feature of the year -complete with piped-in theme music!

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"Sento Chihiro no Kamikakushi" (Spirited Away)

In recent years, snow carving teams from around the globe have been participating in the festival. Apparently the more you pay, the bigger your plot of snow to work with. Despite the challenges of budget and space, they all did a fine job. 2002 was a particularly special year for Japan, co-hosting the World Cup with South Korea that year. A key game between England and Argentina would be held at Sapporo Dome. Surely this had something to do with the international feel of this year's Snow Festival.

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India Represent!

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Awesome Rendition of Gwanghwamun Gate from Team South Korea!

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Conan the Detective In China!

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Go Team USA!

For some reason, the best part of the festival for me was watching other people respond to the sculptures, like these two ladies in front of the very popular Peeing Boy Statue. One lady (I won't indicate which) "touched" the sculpture in a suggestive place and then the two of them laughed. Oh, what I'd give for a faster camera shutter!

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Sapporo Yuki Matsuri is unusual in that it's a major world-renown Japanese festival with absolutely no religious connotations, meaning that anyone can join in on the fun. Some people might criticize that it's too commercialized. But any regular Joe can still participate, much in the same spirit of the six high school kids whose sculptures made the first official Yuki Matsuri back in 1950. I feel tempted to make a snow sculpture in my own local park and see what happens! Maybe it could be the start of something!

  • *If you're interested in catching the Sapporo Snow Festival, make sure to check online ahead of time to catch the dates, since it's highly dependent on the weather. It's also a good idea to double-check all locations for the festival. At the time of writing, Makomanai Base has since stopped hosting the festival. The big sculptures are now held at Tsudomu (Tsu Dome) located near Sapporo Satoland.

Posted by GenkiLee 07.02.2002 01:01 Archived in Japan Tagged india south_korea hokkaido sapporo odori_park makomanai yuki_matsuri sapporo_snow_festival snow_sculptures peeing_boy_statue conan_the_detective nissin_chicken_ramen Comments (0)

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