Tag Archives: Iwate

Travel: May 21, 2014: The Kindness of Strangers and a Place to Play


Our last day in Iwate, the activity was determined by weather and travel guide. It rained all day. Not a downpour, but a steady, solid rain that had the employees at the Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park huddling under lilac umbrellas and offering extras to those of us who were not taking advantage of our own. It was rather a sweet gesture, but at some point you just have to decide to embrace the rain—until it becomes too much and there’s too little cover and it’s time to cower back beneath the umbrella.


Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park was described in a travel guide as like the Williamsburg of Japan. There were not so many actors on site while we were there, but that might’ve been the weather and might’ve been the time of year. Instead the characters were realistic statues and the dialogue was provided by broadcasted recording and the scenes described by plaques.


The park’s exhibits are housed in reconstructions of Heian era (790s-1180s) buildings. Along with the dioramas, there a few stations of interactive costumes and two whole buildings of trick art (of which we took pretty great advantage, happily taking all of the ridiculous pictures that the artwork offered us, though little of it had anything to do with the history we’d come to learn). In short, it is a very fun place to play and take pictures and imagine and maybe learn some history. The site is often used for period films.

Because of the rain, we had the park practically to ourselves (once the school trip left, which they did within maybe the first forty minutes that we were there).

The main complex is comprised of government buildings with lots of red-orange and yellow paint. There are a few dioramas, a station with play armor to try on and play weapons to wield in photographs, and then artifacts kept behind glass—clothes and game pieces and musical instruments and weaponry. (Play armor on the left, historical artifact on the right.)


There is another complex behind, a maze of buildings and covered walkways between, particularly suited for a rainy day. In these rooms there are many more dioramas, and it feels a bit more like a museum, albeit one that you have to walk through to find the exhibits. This, I think, is a reproduction of a military leader’s residence. It does not have the ornate paint of the other complex, instead having exposed wood and whitewash.



Up a steep set of stairs and set back in the woods, there’s a reproduction of Konjikdo, a World Heritage site not far from Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park—in fact the shrine that the owners of the teashop in Ichinoseki had extolled to us two days before. I thought it odd to have a reproduction so near the original, but having it there allows me to pretend to have been to one more site than we had time for (the original I’m sure is more grand and more impressive, but I will have to settle for what I was able to see in my limited time).

We were lured into one more exhibit by the promise of a grand edifice that the guide map calls the Ataka Gate, probably a gatehouse or maybe a border patrol station, and a garden in bloom. I may have missed the cherry blossoms, but the lotuses were beautiful.


We had to go through the gate obviously, and then we decided to continue. Up another hill, a whole village has been reconstructed with houses, granaries, wells, stables with realistic horse statues (I don’t want to think that the coats were horse skins, but they might have been horse skins), and something that was either a blacksmith’s or a shrine. There was a small museum room too with reproductions of artwork telling the story of the Oshu-Fujiwara Clan that had ruled in this area during the Heian period.


We stayed past the last of the free shuttles, deciding that we would rather take full advantage of the park, the exhibits of which were always nearer than the map made them seem, than take advantage of the shuttle service. By the time we’d descended the hill from the village, the shops had all closed. The staff knew that we were still in the park and, as we asked if we could call a taxi, presented us with origami stars, which I hope to someday be able to paste into a scrapbook—one more gift and kindness from strangers with whom I could barely communicate.

The park is not all that far from the train station in Mizusawa and the taxi came quickly. One of the women from the park came out into the rain beneath her umbrella to direct the taxi driver for us, doing us one last kindness.

Along with a bit of history and that Kari really needs to get into some of the interactive museums that I’ve visited in the past, this trip really taught me about the kindness of these people.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Travel: May 20, 2014: How Do You Clean a Tatami Mat?


Kari wasn’t able to get the whole of the time that I was with her away from work, so this day I have no pictures for you, and I have only a few stories.

This was a day of rest for me, but when I’m home, days off tend also to mean days to do chores. I decided to surprise Kari by doing as many of her chores as I could do. Except for the dishes, this was an exercise in ingenuity and improvisation and guesswork. I used a mop to sweep floors and damp paper towels in place of dustpans. I realized that no one had ever thought to teach me how to clean a tatami mat, so I used my hands to brush the dust to the wood molding that separated rooms and held the runners for the sliding walls. Wood I did know how to clean.


When Kari did get home, we decided to walk across the railway overpass in search of a ramen restaurant. It was a breezy but not bitterly cold evening and from the top of the overpass the view was pretty stellar, but I foolishly used my mental camera again instead of my physical one. (One day perhaps we will have Pensieves and then I can show you.)

As it got dark and we were walking past farms and roadside brush, I was greatly startled by a large, scuttling spider, but the tension was broken when from behind us we heard the young, innocent, excited call of “Kari Sensei!” One of Kari’s students was driving past. The car met us at the intersection and we talked a moment, with the kids leaning out the open car windows. I don’t remember being so excited to see my teachers outside of school. I mostly remember being disconcerted because I and my teachers were out of context when we met at the supermarket. It was one of the sweeter interactions to which I was privy in Japan. Though, to be fair, the age of the participants does help to sweeten it. Kids are always often adorable.

The ramen restaurant was closed, and the options for dining in Koma are scarce, so we adopted Plan B and went into a nearby convenience store and picked up several packages of instant rice and Japanese curry, which we cooked in the microwave before settling down for a movie on the laptop.

Photograph is mine.  Click to see it larger.

Travel: May 19, 2014: Sunlight, River Water, Tea, and Karaoke in Ichinoseki


The weather chose today to finally apologize, for the clouds to part to reveal the peak of Mt Iwate and the warm sun, the sun to tease my new sweatshirt from my shoulders.


I was glad of the relief because today we’d chosen to spend outdoors and upon the water, which would likely be particularly less pleasant in the rain. A shinkansen (more commonly known as a bullet train) sped us from Morioka to Ichinoseki. From there we took a bus deep into the hills, past farms, and perhaps a mining town to Geibikei or the Geibi Gorge.


A short walk brought us to the boat house (that’s not the right phrase because the boats launch from piers behind the house rather than being stored in the house, but I’m not sure what other word to use). A tour was just coming back and two middle-aged men caught us on our way to buy tickets and pushed their half full bag of fish feed into my hand. We thanked them profusely for the gift.

The riverboat is long and narrow with a platform at the back for the punter and shelves at the front for the guests’ shoes. Passengers sit on the tatami mats to peer over the sides of the boat while being poled down the river. The Satetsu River cuts between steep, wooded slopes and cliffs with wisteria twisting its way up several trees on the banks. Today was a day to just enjoy the wonder of God’s creation, to relax in the sunshine and the clean scent of river water and growing things, to point and ogle the creatures that He’s created—unfamiliar species of ducks, giant koi, carp, and catfish, hawks, and even a crane, the sight of which is said to be lucky—while whooping birdcalls echoed off the rock and water.

We threw bait to fish and ducks to lure them nearer to the boat and there was a small child aboard who called “ga ga” (“quack quack”) to the ducks as we passed.


Our boat docked briefly to allow us to go ashore farther downriver. A pathway led beneath fragrant wisteria, over a bridge, and past the “lion’s nose” for which Geibikei is named.


A man waited there selling rocks stamped with characters for “friendship,” “love,” “luck,” “wealth” and other such good fortunes. For 100 yen, you could choose five. Luck was supposed to come to those who could sling a stone into a small cave partway up one of the cliffsides and across the river. Kari and I both tried without luck. I don’t think anyone of our party got a stone into the cave, actually.



On the way back, as the boatman sang to us a warbling, traditional tune (“Geibi Oiwake”), we were passed by boats filled with 3rd years from Sapporo come to Iwate for their school trip. We waved to one another, calling “Konnichiwa!” and when they spotted Kari and I, even more enthusiastically, “Hello!”

Kari was able to talk with our fellow passengers and exchange stories, but I let myself just enjoy the natural beauty of the place.

When our tour returned, we wandered the village that has sprung up around Geibikei, where gardens and rice patties overwhelmed backyards and nestled up the roadsides. (The area seems to be called Higashiyamacho Nagasaka. Technically Geibikei is considered still inside the city limits of Ichinoseki, but the area around Geibikei definitely feels distinct from the city center more than a half hour’s drive away, and there are a great many farms and distinct “towns” between Geibikei and Ichinoseki’s shinkansen station.) We even found a kumano shrine near the convenience store. We also spent a fair bit of time in a souvenir shop by that specialized in and handmade washi paper.


We took the train rather than the bus back from Geibikei and so saw a great deal of the whole area of Ichinoseki.


The train wound more gently towards Ichinoseki but like the bus drove us past farmland primarily, dominated by rice patties shaped to fit the land.


Just outside Ichinoseki Station was a karaoke place. Karaoke in Japan is not what it is in America. In America, karaoke means getting up on a stage in front of strangers and singing from a usually very small set of songs and fumbling over the words because you don’t know the song as well as you thought you did and you’re nervous under the scrutiny of others. In Japan, karaoke can be done alone and is done in a private room. The walls of most homes, Kari explained, are too thin to blast music or belt a tune without bothering your neighbors and subjecting yourself to the very scrutiny that karaoke implies in America. So the Japanese have buildings specifically designed to muffle the sound of your voice. I was still nervous about singing along with a microphone and words on a screen. Perhaps it was too like scarring experiences in the States. I quite gladly sing without such paraphernalia in my kitchen, shower, in the sanctuary of my car, even on train and plane (though these last two I do only quietly).

We set out after an hour of Disney songs to find food, but were thwarted by the closing times of most restaurants and stores.

We did pass a teashop, its window filled with Japanese teapots and teacups. Knowing that I’d been requested to return to the States with tea, we ducked inside and as we browsed the selection of teas, teacups, teapots, and tea sweets were called over by the owners of the shop to share a pot of matcha green tea and a powdery cookie. The owners of the shop were eager to share their area with us and showed us pictures of Konjikido, a World Heritage site nearby. They were excited to see us, excited for what we might see. And they gave us tea. The smiles we shared were genuine and bright.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.


Travel: May 18, 2014: Farm Fun at Koiwai and Lost in Morioka


A bus transported us from Morioka to Koiwai Farm, of which I have sadly few pictures because I think I was just enjoying the sights too well to think of my camera.


But it is a beautiful place with rolling hills, pastures, woods, and Mt Iwate keeping (on this again chilly and windy day) a brooding, silent watch.


Koiwai is an operational farm, but in addition to the usual farm fun like pony and cart rides, there’s also archery (Kari hit the balloon at the bull’s-eye with her first arrow, winning us a free postcard!—or maybe the postcard was just a nice gift), a playground, a bouncy castle, bumper boats, and inflatable bubbles in which one can climb either to walk on water or be rolled down a hill. Some of this seemed to be age restricted or at least socially acceptable only up until a certain age. I gladly would have removed my shoes and climbed through the mountain of loose wool, but it didn’t seem as if I would be a welcome guest. I made Kari come play on the playground with me after most of the kids had headed home though—and yes, there were swings.

When Kari translated the announcement of a demonstration in a few minutes and shared with me that she’d never seen a sheep be sheared, I made her sit down on one of the benches. Everyone should see a sheep sheared at least once in her life (we may need to know the basics if the apocalypse comes in our lifetimes). The setting for my WIP being rural, it was a demonstration that benefited me too, though I’d seen it done before. If done right, a sheep shearing is pretty impressive and pretty quick. This particular sheep had never been sheared before. He was fairly well behaved, especially considering that it was his first time beneath the razor.


We were also treated to a sheep dog demonstration.  The sheep dog was a Border collie.  Apparently they are the favored breed because they don’t bark much.  Now you know.

There was a museum of the farm’s history and informational dioramas about farming but the jargon is highly advanced Japanese, so we gleaned what we could.

We enjoyed the various products of the farm: warm milk, ice cream, cheesecake (honestly the best cheesecake I have ever tasted)—dairy. We wandered about with our treats in the spotty sunshine.

That evening we spent wandering Morioka in the twilight. We stopped first in a store that, were it nearby, would be a serious problem for me. It not only had cute clothes but good sales and Disney music playing continuously. (There seemed to be Disney music with and without lyrics in all kinds of places I wouldn’t expect to find it in America—stores, restaurants. They were quite welcome melodies—not only because they tend to be good melodies but also because they were familiar in a land where I had less than a kindergartener’s vocabulary.) Armored with a new sweatshirt against the cold, Kari took me to see the rock-splitting cherry tree (shiwarizakura if Wikipedia is to be trusted) for which I’d seen a sign the night before. It’s an almost 400-year old cherry tree doing exactly as it’s name suggests.


It’s being helped along by the government—or whomever maintains the tree. It reminded me of the old Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. I could have gotten nearer the cherry tree, though. Probably should have done. It was technically fenced, but if there was a sign to stay off the grass, I didn’t see it, and I might have been able to babble in English and claim ignorance of the rules.

After that, we stumbled through the city, discovering temples and shrines.


We found an azalea-lined path called Poet’s Alley that cut between a hotel and a river and went exploring. We came out at the other end disoriented and spent a while trying to find the main street again, but it is a fairly lovely city in which to be lost, and had it been warmer, it might have been fairly pleasant to be lost. I made the most of it and don’t regret our detour down Poet’s Alley.


By the time we did find the main road, we’d decided to go into the first of the restaurants that we came across. This turned out to be a bar-like restaurant that advertised skewers of meat, which had smelled amazing when we’d first passed. We ordered drinks (a delicious crème de cassis-based cocktail with oolong tea for me), skewers, crunchy lotus root a bit like potato chips but so much better, and avocado smothered with mozzarella cheese and peppered with diced tomatoes—a bit of an hors d’oeuvres feast.


All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.

Travel: May 17, 2014: Field Day in Shibutami


Hello, my friends and readers. I left you without preamble, but now I can announce that I have been abroad and that Nine Pages is going to take some time to try on travel blogging because there are people who want both stories and pictures and I express myself best in print and cannot spend three days in uninterrupted storytelling nor gather my friends together for such a recounting.

I hope those of you here for book reviews will forgive the brief interlude. Please, share my adventures with me and know that I’ll get back to book blogging soon.

This was, for the most part, not your typical tourist’s trip to Japan. I went to see my friend, Kari, who has been living for the past two years in Koma, a small town in the Iwate prefecture, and teaching in its surrounding towns.

Waking groggily to the boom of the national guard’s cannon fire, my first full day in Japan was spent primarily in Shibutami, a tiny town so small that it isn’t recognized by an easy Google Maps or TripAdvisor search, so for all those curious people following along at home, it is here:


More specifically, here:


Look at all those pretty rivers!

This is farming land—or so it seemed from the windows of the taxi that drove us to the junior high school. As we drove out of town and up towards the foothills of Mt Iwate, the houses became more widespread and side streets were replaced by larger gardens and a smattering of farm equipment. As we pressed towards the mountainside, evergreens climbed up the slopes and overhung the twisting road.

I’m going to assume that the majority of my audience is American and speak to you a moment: Do you all remember in elementary school when we would spend one hot, late spring day on the fields running relay races and having water balloon fights? If you missed out on this, I’m sorry. Suffice it to say, it happened at my elementary school. For Hollins students, the comparison may best be our annual SHARE Olympiad, of which I actually have clearer memories.

Japan has such a tradition. On a weekend—this was a Saturday—the students don headbands and track suits that are their school uniforms and return to school for a sports or field day called undōkai (if Wikipedia is to be a trusted source).

For the Japanese—or at least in Shibutami—this is a community event as it never was at my American elementary school, attended by parents, families, and friends.

Kari probably didn’t realize that as I sat on the low wall that hedged the school, watching the students compete as did the townspeople, I kept remembering a moment in my own WIP (this was supposed partially to be a writer’s vacation) when the protagonist realizes that his best friend has brought him to a community event:

“A celebration, a festival meant for Lochsimites, and Keagan had tried to include Veil, tried to include him in a way that the Gerizimites never had.”

If I wasn’t enjoying myself enough people-watching and learning about Japanese culture and comparing my observations to my those of my own culture, that comparison and its associated warmth would have buoyed me through the cold, windy, gray day.

I particularly enjoyed watching the younger children playing on the sidelines and the parents watching the children. Children at play are unaware that they are being observed.

The elders of the town are allowed to sit in chairs beneath the white pavilion that also housed the student commentator.


Snippets of truth buried in stereotypes had prepared me to expect elders to be more respected in Japan than they are in America. I was hyperaware of signs of that respect. At one point an elderly man with a cane left the tent and a middle-aged man (he had a very dignified streak of white through his black hair and a face more heavily lined for his concern for the older man) hurried to his side to help him along. There is a grain of truth buried in our American stereotype too. I wondered if the elderly gentleman might not feel some spike of American indignation at the middle-aged man’s interference, some sense of stubborn pride that says, “Son, I can make it on my own,” but I did not see this in his face.

For the most part, the games were pretty familiar, though I did notice a stronger emphasis on the team and that there were no games in which an individual could win and few in which an individual could be a true hero, though there were certainly a few boys with the swagger of MVPs. There were three-legged relay races, relay races, and an egg race in which elders were paired with students. There was a game very like the one where we try to eat a donut from a string without using our hands, where students had to get the bagged bread off of the string with their mouths then run back to the start line with it. This they did as a three-legged race and they had to stop midway to complete a first task, such a stacking boxes or blowing up then popping a balloon. The community was asked to join for a game to get the most balls into the raised basket.


There was a challenge to bring the most tires back to your teams’ side, and a game for the boys alone where one boy went on the shoulders of another and the upraised boys tried to steal one another’s hats.


All these were accompanied by music over the loudspeaker (mostly in Japanese but a few Western favorites including “Call Me Maybe” snuck into the repertoire, making me laugh), a taiko drumbeat, and encouraging, choreographed, and practiced cheers from team members. Perhaps because this is a community event and an opportunity to showcase one’s skills for others, students practice for weeks in advance. It seems that the students are given much more opportunity to lead than we were at any of our field days, which were events that we attended not events that we planned or prepared for.

The lunch break was spent at a small mall, an Aeon Supercenter, in walking distance. The road twisted over the river, past this view, and up a hill before depositing us in the town proper.


I noticed as we walked through town that even though there aren’t many foreigners who visit Shibutami, signs for important government type buildings were still in English as well as Japanese.  It was really nice to be able to read something.  (I know I should have studied more Japanese before I left, but I didn’t.)

Malls and shopping centers in Japan have many stores, like ours do, but mostly they seem to favor an open floor plan, which is pretty brilliant, because it not only gives you more space, but it also means that your eyes and feet wander all over. You can see much more of a store’s merchandise when the floor plan is open than you can through the front windows or doors alone.

Lunch was salad with breaded chicken cutlet and my first taste of lotus root, which I grew very fond of in its many preparations.

The evening we spent in Morioka, which will be something of a refrain in the first few of these posts.


Morioka is the nearest city proper to Koma (the marker set farthest north; Shibutami is just below that) so it’s where Kari and I went when we wanted a choice of restaurants, especially restaurants that stayed open past 5 pm. Morioka is built at the confluence of three rivers. I think the one below is the Nakatsu River.


We went to Iwate Park, which houses the ruins of Morioka Castle. What’s left of the castle is mainly the walls that shape the grounds.


The park included a monument erected in honor of a local poet whose biography included the brilliant line: “It was here that the well-known poet Takuboku Ishikawa, having escaped from school by way of a window, would spend hours reading literature and philosophy and daydreaming.” Though I know none of his poetry, that line is enough to make me like him.

Dinner was a hamburger patty at one of Kari’s favorite restaurants but dessert was a parfait of green tea ice cream with sweet bean paste and mochi I think and whipped cream.

All photographs are mine.  Click to see them larger.  All maps are made using Google Maps.