Tag Archives: Japan

May 26: Chasing Tokyo

Standard

We decided to spend our first day in Tokyo at Ueno Park, a sprawling place with a number of museums and other attractions, plentiful street performers and people watching. We’d planned to head first to the Tokyo National Museum, a museum of Japanese historical artifacts and artwork. We left the station and walked up the park towards the end where the building sits. We passed a number of peculiar sights: a reproduction of the Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” and a sculpture of a blue whale that put me in mind of childhood days spent crawling inside a hollow sperm whale at a more local museum.

26statues

We found the National Museum’s gates locked.

So we changed tact. We decided we’d try for the Shitamachi Museum, a museum of traditional culture and craft. First, we misread the map and left the park behind to wander the streets around it, streets filled with academic buildings and offices and small houses and shops. Our search led us to a locked annex for one of the museums.

Returning to the park, we took our time wandering in the direction that we thought we ought to go to find the Shitamachi Museum. We passed fountains and reflecting pools, playgrounds, street performers, and equestrian statues. We paused to climb a hill to view what remains of the giant statue of Buddha that once stood within the park.

DSCN6106

We came to the far southern end of the park—and didn’t find the museum.

We found a temple complex—the Kiyomizu Kannon-do Temple—and then the road.

It wasn’t till we passed the temple that we discovered a long flight of stairs that led to the lower level of the park.

DSCN6111

We hurried down the steps and not long afterward discovered why the Shitamachi Museum is so difficult to locate.  We also found the pond that Kari had known was somewhere within the park and which had been the most puzzling site that we had seemed unable to find.

26downstairs

We followed the sign and found that museum locked as well. That’s when we realized that the museums are all closed on Mondays, and we had to reevaluate our plans. 

We were already at the park, and it had gotten fairly late in the afternoon by this time, so we decided to spend the rest of the day enjoying the outdoors. We wandered along the paths of the park and decided to enjoy the pond to its fullest extent by renting a pedal-powered swan boat.

26swanboats

We pedaled ourselves around the pond for a full half hour, learning to navigate, pretending to be seamen, and serenading passing boats with Disney covers. It was a grand time. Others seemed to enjoy themselves too.

26swanboatspeople

We explored the park a bit farther, but we’d done most of what we could there with all of the buildings closed to us, so we left for Sensoji.

The approach to the temple is composed of several streets of vendors, selling mostly snacks and tourist goods, including this wonderful treasure.

DSCN6188

A popular and colorful temple, Sensoji is also the oldest temple in Tokyo, having been completed around 645. The temple’s Thunder Gate is one of the symbols of Tokyo.

26sensoji

Stepping off the main paths brought us to several other temple buildings and many statues, various copper and stone Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the Bell of Time (Toki-no-kane), the Asakusa Shrine built to honor the men responsible for building Sensoji Temple, and the burial site of a samurai from the Edo period named Kume no Heinai.

26sensoji2

26sensoji3

Having explored Sensoji, we had time for one last adventure, and we went chasing it on foot. We walked to Tokyo Skytree, the tallest building in Japan and the second tallest structure in the world after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and were going to climb as high as we possibly could do.

We wound through side streets of high rises and finally spotted the tower across and upriver from us. We walked through a park and along the Sumida River and then across it. We hadn’t any directions and were simply using the tower itself as our guide, heading for it as directly as we could do. It felt like a quest, like Frodo and Sam approaching Mt. Doom, though our destination was significantly nicer and our quest less epic and more personal.

26skytreedistance

The weather was not with us, and we were not able to climb very high within the tower, to the fourth maybe fifth floor, but we thoroughly explored the shopping center within the Skytree and allowed ourselves both dinner from the food court and crepes for dessert.

26skytreeclose

The trek and the journey were worth the trip and the food made an excellent reward for its completion.

26maptokyowithhosteltrainroute

(Those Northern-most points are our hostel and the railway station nearest to it, which we frequented.)

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

Advertisements

May 25: Keep Walking

Standard

We left Hostel Kanouya the next morning. Our hostess followed us out into the street and just as we were about to turn the corner, we turned around to share a wave. “Wait. It’s tradition,” I said, before turning. After we’d turned the corner, Kari told me that it was in fact traditional to see guests off like so. 

We went to Kyoto Station, checked all of the coin lockers, and eventually settled for putting our luggage in the luggage room downstairs for a little more money and a bit less stress. There are fifteen floors in the JR station. We climbed as high as we could go through a series of staircases and escalators for the view from the top of the building. Plexiglass kept us from a dizzying fall but also obscured the view a bit. There was a small garden on the rooftop. There have been buildings I’ve regretted not climbing, however, so I’m glad this cannot be one of them.

A train then took us out to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, easily one of the most photogenic architectural pieces I’ve ever seen. I have a wealth of pictures of the complex, which ranges across the mountainside along 2.5 miles of trails (let me tell you, it felt like much more than that). Trying to cull them down to the best to put on this blog has been a challenge.

We spent very little time by the main shrine itself. It was a breezy day however, and the breeze made the streamers flutter, so those pictures are worth including.

25inari1

Then we left the main complex to strike out for the trails, and perhaps you will recognize the site from this first picture.

DSCN5903

There are two branching trails beneath rows of these orange torii. The crowd thins the farther you go along the trail, but even so it was difficult for me to take pictures that would not include fellow travelers.

The trail wound and branched and deposited us at minor complexes, abandoned save for us—or maybe they belonged to men or women who lived on the mountaintop. One just off the path backed up against a house, which we discovered only by accident by taking narrow, greenery-lined trails. I can only imagine that the shrine was there first, for the stone has an ancient feel to it—but perhaps that is the my Western mindset speaking, where a standing stone is a thing of ancient wonder, no one knowing how long it’s been there, how it came to be there, or why it was set so. Still, there’s moss on the steps of this shrine complex.

DSCN5922

Kari had told me that this particular shrine sports feral cats among its patrons and inhabitants. I lost Kari briefly following one beautiful tom down a narrow path.

25inaritom1

There too I shared a moment with a pair of Japanese women over arachnophobia when I spotted a spider dangling not too far in front of me. Some things truly are universal.

A little farther on and higher up, past at least one way station where refreshment and talismans could be found, we passed a passel of kittens among the azalea bushes. I rested a long while, watching them. By that point in our hike, Kari and I were flagging, but then began the litany of “Just a little farther” and “I just want to see what’s around that bend” and “I just want to see the view from there.”

DSCN6004

That litany, joined by the occasional rendition of VeggieTales’ “Keep Walking,” took us the rest of the way along the mountain trails, with a few setbacks.

A man at a map of the trails told us to take the trail to the left after the way station that we would come to, claiming it would be the quickest way to our destination (I’m not sure we had a destination, but apparently, we did).  We found the next way station, which boasted a lookout area as well. We rested a bit.  We thought that we’d turn around, and with the thought that we might leave, I decided to climbed a steep set of stairs on the right. They led past a small house and to a mazy collection of shrines.

25inarimazyshrines

As I wandered the narrow paths between stone torii and upright markers, all dotted in orange torii-shaped petitions and red bibs for the kistune, the man from the house came out to his porch to play his wooden flute. It was a magical moment I wouldn’t have missed it for nearly anything.

DSCN6038

The rest changed our minds, and we thought that we could go a bit farther.  We thought that we took the leftmost turn, but we were mistaken. We went a ways and turned around, lured back to the way station by the promise of soft serve ice cream. I’m still puzzling whether soybean flavored ice cream provides more than the usual protein found in soft serve.  (It was delicious, sort of sweet and salty at once.)

DSCN6041

Kari found the third trail that we’d missed, the leftmost. We followed this beneath orange torii that opened up in occasional glades of stone and orange torii and upright stones. As we were following this trail, we passed a couple who were pausing before the shrines.  I’d heard a strange trumpet earlier in the day, and had wondered, and I witnessed this man now blowing a long note on his conch shell. If you’ve read Lord of the Flies, you’ll recognize the importance of the conch shell. It is a magical thing. I thought then that these were perhaps genuine pilgrims, travelers here for the shrines and not for the trails or to check another feature off in sight-seeing bingo. Now I wonder if this man was a priest, having learned that conch shells are sometimes used in Shinto religious ceremonies.

This trail took us most quickly too to the peak of the trail. I think this was the destination to which the man referred.

25inaritop

The trail from there, of course, went downhill—and we began to worry how long the trail might be and whether it would loop or whether we could wander too far from the gate and be stranded in the dark woods overnight.

We waited on a steep flight of stairs for a passerby, and Kari asked if the trail did in fact loop and whether we would find an exit if we continued downward; neither of us had much desire to climb the steep steps upwards.

DSCN6076

Having learned that we in fact were on a path towards and exit, that we weren’t likely to be lost in the wood, we continued downwards with a little more enthusiasm. We stumbled into more glades of shrines, including one that featured a small waterfall that could be found down a very narrow and by then quite dark trail, its stones dark with runoff, but was out of sight above or outside of that cleft. I wish that picture had come out more clearly.

Eventually we met up with a familiar path and familiar friends.

25inaricats2

We also met up with a woman who seemed to live on the mountainside, carrying her groceries up the path. The cats were following her. She wanted to practice her English and gave us gifts, including a paper crane.

Having found the exit, we had to catch a train to Tokyo, where we had hostel reservations for the night.

Inari was a great way to end our stay in Kyoto, and for only having been there three days, we saw a great deal.

25mapkyoto

25mapkyotototokyo

We arrived in the new city late at night and in a heavy rain. We decided to call a cab rather than risk being lost and confused in such a situation. The drive was short, but our cabman was amiable.

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

May 24: More Temple-Hopping in Kyoto

Standard

We’d always planned that our time in Kyoto would essentially be spent temple-hopping. On our first day, we visited two temple complexes. On our second day, we visited another two, and in fact, spent the entirety of our day—or all but—in temples or wandering the city streets in search of dinner.

This time we used Kyoto’s public buses.

The first stop was the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. A bit of quick Wikipedia research tells me that the official name is Rokuon-ji, the Deer Temple Pavilion, however, and that the distinctive gold leafing of the main temple of the complex might’ve been added when the pavilion was reconstructed in 1955 instead of when the complex was built nearer 1397. The complex actually has a pretty interesting history that might be worth a read: a powerful family, casualties of war, an attempted suicide….24goldenpavilionThis was the first Buddhist temple that we visited. There did seem, though, to be several Shinto shrines too on the grounds—or else there were also Buddhist shrines in the complexes that were mainly Shinto—or else the practices and architecture are extremely similar (I think it’s the first of those situations).

The complex was quite crowded, Kinkaku-ji being one of the better-known sites in Kyoto and the park being small compared to most of the others that we visited. We shuffled along with the crowded past the Golden Pavilion itself, making our way around a wide pond at the end of which sat the temple. The irises here seemed to be collected, I don’t know for what purpose—probably for sale?—but I do wonder how one becomes an iris farmer at a temple. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting character?

24goldenpavilionirisesThe path then wove us into the wooded gardens, past many ponds and smaller shrines. There were several springs that seemed to be shrine sites.This is the Galaxy Sprin, Ginga-sen, and the Ryumon Taki.(This is the Galaxy Spring, Ginga-sen, and the Ryumon Taki.)

We passed several collections of small statues, Jizō statues. The Jizō are guardians of children particularly, particularly children who have died before their parents. The coins and pebbles that sometimes gather around the feet of the Jizō and bibs that sometimes adorn their necks are left by parents—or family or friends—in hopes that the donation will shorten the sentence of their children’s souls in a sort of Limbo, stuck on the wrong side of the river—or sometimes left to thank a Jizō for protecting a child during a serious illness. They also protect travelers and firefighters.24goldenjizoAs we came towards the exit, we entered a sort of complex of its own—of mostly Shinto shrines, I think. The atmosphere was festive. Here among the shrines were stalls of food, stalls of amulets and talismans.24goldenfestiveJust as we were deciding where to go next, we were approached by a group of middle school students on their school trip. Well, their chaperone approached us first and asked if we would mind talking to them. We let the kids—a group of young boys and girls—interview us, I speaking as I normally would mostly, and Kari easily slipping into what she had learned from teaching English herself. I hope we were a good pair for them to talk to. They presented us each with an origami crane to say thank you, and we waved them goodbye.

We wandered the streets around Kinkaku-ji for a bit before finding the bus again and taking it to Kiyomizu-dera, another Buddhist temple complex on the other end of town. Kinkaku-ji cost a small fee for entry but Kiyomizu was free. Kiyomizu is built upon the mountainside with views overlooking the city.kiyomizu124kiyomizuviews24kiyomizuarchThis too is a major attraction in Kyoto, and was again crowded, but the area is so much larger that we were able for the better part of our visit to wander out beyond the crowds. In fact, I think that we found the waterfall for which the temple is named down, down the mountain along paved paths and stairs through the woods that wound and twisted.

24kiyomizulowerwaterfallOr perhaps the waterfall is this one that has been diverted into fountains where patrons drink for health, longevity, and success.24kiyomizuwaterfallBut that was near the end of our adventure in Kiyomizu, when we were becoming quite worn down from our days of travel.

We entered with the crowd. The climb to the complex itself is up a narrow and steep road lined mostly with small, wooden shops selling tourist goods, and food. On both the climb up and the climb down my eyes were too overwhelmed and my body too involved in both climbing and then avoiding running into anyone for me to take pictures. I only snapped this one, just as we were leaving the complex.

kiyomizustreet1

I’m pretty sure that the women in front of us were tourists and not maiko.

Here was a more active, more festive temple than Kinkaku-ji. We passed people at prayer, taking in the incense that rose from a great vat, bowing before the altar to pay their respects, cleansing themselves at the tsukubai…. There was some sort of game or challenge to lift a heavy iron weight. We wound our way beneath overhanging roofs and out to terraces to gawk at the city below and the temple grounds far below. We climbed a set of stairs and found an area with shrines dedicated to various gods: Okuninushi and his messenger rabbit; Daikuko whose bronze stomach one was supposed to pat to have her prayers answered; Okage-Myojin, who would answer only one prayer and for whom women used to nail straw dolls to cedars to put a curse on their enemies; there were two love stones, of which it is said that if a woman could walk between the two with her eyes closed, the wish for love will be granted soon. This is particularly difficult with herds of people crowding by the various shrines, but we did see two young women make it to the far stone with eyes shut, led by guy friends, who also called out to others to clear the way. I don’t know how that affects the fortune.

We took a far path out through the woods, clinging to the hillside, that brought us to the pagoda that can been seen across the narrow valley that the temple complex surrounds.24kiyomizupagodaandviewWe then wove our way back down the mountainside, eventually ending up at that waterfall.24kiyomizutrailviewsAfter dinner, we snuck back to the streets. Night had truly fallen when we snuck into the Imperial Palace Park. We didn’t stay long. The park was not quite silent and not quite empty, but darkness kept us both from seeing much of the park itself or any of its inhabitants. We did find an impressive gate, my picture of which didn’t come out well. Then we walked for a bit along its better lit outer wall, ducking into the dry moat to keep out of the way of cyclists and because I’ve found that I like walking dry moats, having fond memories of another in Dubrovnik.

We ended up beside Nijo Castle too a little later, and though the attraction was shut down, we walked the outside of its long outermost walls and admired the architecture of the gates and what of the castle we could see over the walls.24nijoThen it was time to return to the hostel.  But we covered a pretty good area during our brief stay in Kyoto, and the following day, we would add one more attraction to the map….

24map

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

May 23: Checking the Heartbeat of Kyoto

Standard

Our first day in Kyoto, we decided to visit the Kyoto Handicraft Center, and we decided to walk there. The walk was longer than we thought and our map not as detailed as we could have hoped, but we passed several tourist sites along the way and, to borrow a phrase from BBC’s Sherlock, got “the heartbeat of the city” (oh sure, not as intimately as Sherlock does, but I could feel its pulse a bit through observation) by going on foot than by bus.

Along our route, we passed the Imperial Palace Park, peering up the slanted stonewalls to the foliage and into entrances to see winding pathways and people relaxing in the sunshine.

23imperialpark

We crossed the river, I think the Kamo River.

23kamo

I don’t think that the Handicraft Center was quite what either of us had imagined. It was a sort of enclosed, high-end marketplace for specialty craftsmen with staff members more than craftsmen to talk to. But we enjoyed looking at all of the pretty finery and the clever creations. It all being for sale, I took very few pictures (I often feel a twinge about taking pictures instead of purchasing things—especially when the items come from independent sellers).

Apart from selling items, the Center also offers the chance to make your own crafts. We opted for one of the more expensive but more unique and uniquely Kyōto of the crafts: damascening, the craft of (in this case) overlaying bits of gold and silver to another metal.  (Perhaps it sounds a silly thing to learn, but I wear necklaces all the time so it’s a keepsake that I can carry with me easily, and I have several fictional blacksmiths clamoring to give damascening a try already.)

Kari and I were taken into the next-door building where there were worktables for both the professionals and amateurs. We didn’t get to talk to any of the professionals (I’m not sure that I’d have wanted to interrupt them besides), but we were matched with Hiroshi, a young man, maybe a few years our elder, who spoke very good English so that even I was able to communicate with him easily (which I have to admit was a breath of fresh air after a week of smiling and bowing and letting Kari interpret). We watched a video in English first to give us a little background in the craft then were set loose with the tools and pieces provided. We were each given a circular pendant of shakudō, an alloy of copper and gold, on a block. Our pieces of shakudō had already been inscribed with the appropriate crosshatching to make the bits of gold and silver stick. It was invisible except through a magnifying glass. We used a tool a bit like a stylus, wet the tip to make the flakes of gold and silver stick to it to be moved to the pendant, and then hammered the pieces into place on our crosshatched shakudō. The flakes that we used were precut into figures and symbols, making art easier.

We left the steel pieces in Kyoto to be finished. The gold and silver overlay should shine out on a black patina, the gold and silver flush with the pendant.

While we played at craftswomen, we talked with Hiroshi about Kyoto, Japan, America, and American, teaching one another and enjoying the opportunity to learn from one another, I think, quite a bit.

Leaving the Handicraft Center, and saying goodbye to Hiroshi, we went just around the corner to the Heian Shrine. I promise we weren’t playing favorite eras.

Through the gate was a wide, pebbled area with the buildings of the shrine fencing.

23heianshrine2

Perhaps because this was my first formal visit to a shrine complex, and also because the entries were guarded by docents or maybe by religious adherents, and because photography was prohibited, we didn’t climb any of the steps. Now, looking back through the photos that I took, I can see how much more impressive is the Heian Shrine than the Heian reconstructions at Esashi Fujiwara Heritage Park, how much more detailed. Most of our time at the Shrine was spent not with the architecture, however, but in the garden paths behind.

The irises were in bloom here and water lilies and rhododendrons too. The path wound us through a forest of ornamental trees and then past ponds, back into a more wild woods, and over some skipping stones on another pond, before coming to a great pond over which a great bridge stretched. While we crossed this, I saw a water snake in the still water, but I couldn’t get its picture; it was gone too quickly.

23heiangardens1

heiangardens2

23heiangardens3DSCN5690

Leaving the shrine, we decided to try to find Gion, a neighborhood of Kyoto known for its old-style architecture and as a haunt for geishas. We passed a hole-in-the-wall crepe stand and relaxed by a smaller river—maybe even a moat more than a river—to eat our dessert.

As twilight was falling, we came upon the Yasaka Shrine complex. This complex was magical—perhaps mostly because of the time that we arrived. The lanterns were all lit and a good number of the tourists had cleared and were crowding the well-lit sidewalks and shops of Shijō-dōri (Fourth Avenue) instead.

23yasakaentrance

The shrines at Yasaka were mostly small, wooden, whitewash, black latticework, and that red-orange paint. It was quiet enough that I approached several to peer through the glass at the glittering gold. The main shrine was lit by probably near a hundred lit lanterns and was a wondrous site to see at the rise of a flight of steps.  Neither of these pictures captures it well.  I don’t think that sort of glow can be captured by a camera.

23yasaka

DSCN5720

Beyond that shrine, the crowds thinned still further till we could hear the fall of water from fountains, till we were alone in whole avenues of shrines with no one to fault us for wonderingly approaching, for snapping a picture where pictures might otherwise be less welcome. (I always feel a bit awkward taking pictures of shrines or altars, recognizing these as places of high holiness that others might recognize as more than some beautiful art piece.)

23yasaka2

Leaving the shrine complex, we joined the crowds on Shijō-dōri, wandering the brightly lit sidewalks, past shop windows, the enticing smells of restaurants, the lure of tourist shops, the music of street performers, and artists selling their wares. We ducked down several darker side roads, coming ultimately to the river again (the same river, I think, that we’d seen that morning). All through Kyoto, there are lots of women dressed in geisha costumes. It’s one of things that tourists do, rent kimonos and wander the city. I think, though, that we did see one true geisha on Shijō-dōri. I only suspect so because the Japanese men in their business suits were excitedly sneaking photographs of her. I wish I taken a far away picture just to have those men’s reactions. It was as if they were children again.

We bought ourselves warm drinks before climbing back aboard the crowded train towards the hostel.

We never found the old-style streets of Gion, but I didn’t mind much. We’d seen a lot and traveled far. In all, we covered nearly 5 miles on our feet that day just walking between the various sites (not counting wandering the sites or backtracking). Certainly makes you proud of your feet, looking at the figures.

23walkingmapupdated

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

May 22: Trains to New Horizons

Standard

The 22nd was a travel day. We got on the train in Koma, switched to the shinkansen in Morioka and rode it to Kyoto.

22mapwithroute

DSCN5610

We crossed several rivers like this, wide and shallow, though I don’t think that these were the mouths of rivers.  Perhaps they were.  I spied the sea several times from the train windows, though I never could get a pictures of it.  I showed itself only in flashes, past cities and towns that soon themselves disappeared behind steep mountainsides.

22afternoon

DSCN5625

DSCN5628

A full day of travel and an unfamiliar city leaves one pretty disoriented, and though Kari had looked at the map, and we’d both seen that it ought to be pretty easy to find our hostel, we had the look of tourists—and not just because we were lighter-haired than the majority of the population.

Another cherished memory of the goodness of people remains a boy maybe our age who, while we were looking at a map, went out of his way to come up to ask if we needed help—in English even. He pointed us in the right direction then sped back the way that he had come, which is how I know that he changed his course to help us.

Our hostel, Hostel Kanouya, was in a traditional style house down a quiet side street surrounded by other traditional homes. The owner of the hostel greeted us and helped us up a very steep set of stairs to our room. The area was wide. It was only the two of us, so there was room for both futons and a small table with comfortable floor chairs.

Having settled ourselves and our bags a bit, we went out in search of dinner, and found a nearby restaurant nearer the traditional Japanese style. We took off our shoes and settled onto seats that let our feet hang into almost a trough below the countertop. It was late. There was only one other patron in the restaurant, a middle-aged man, who seemed to be friends with the restaurant’s owner. They were chatting amiably while he ate his dinner. We ordered a favorite of Kari’s, Kansai-style okonomiyaki, which Kari described to me as something like a hearty Japanese pancake, but I would say is some wonderful combination of hash browns and omelets with several sauces drizzled over it as well as red ginger to give it a really delicious and pleasantly varied zing. While our hostess mixed ingredients and cooked the okonomiyaki on the hot griddle that ran the length of the countertop, she kept chatting with her friend, and I let my attention wander to the crime drama that was playing on the TV beside us. Kari and the two friends exchanged eager questions and answers while I smiled and bobbed my head and waved hello when introduced.

It was a wonderfully pleasant way to end the evening.

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

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

Standard

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.

20mapesashi

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.

21esashibothstatues

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.)

20esashiarmor

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.

20esashikyaracombo1

20esashikyaracombo2

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.

21esashigarden

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.

21esashivillagestables

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.

May 20: How Do You Clean a Tatami Mat?

Standard

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.

DSCN5465

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.

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

Standard

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.

18iwate

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.

18mapzoomedout

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.

18gorgewildlife

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.

18gorgewisteriaandlanding

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.

18gorgestones

18gorgedocked

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.

18geibeishrinepatty

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

18routessidebyside

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.

18trainviews

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.

 

May 18: Farm Fun at Koiwai and Lost in Morioka

Standard

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.

17mapKoiwai

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.

17iwate

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.

17sheep

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.

17rocksplittingcherry

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.

17shrines

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.

17morioka

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.

17dinner

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