Tag - Japan

Tokyo: Conquering Mr. Fuji

For the final instalment of my adventurous Summer holidays, it was time to climb Fujisan! Famous from its appearance in  ukiyo-e block prints, its a iconic status can only be matched by anime and crazy Japanese electronics.

Thursday: Arigatou Mr Robotou

Always a joy to shorten the work week, I woke up at 0515 on a Thursday morning, and caught the first train out of Mie, enabling me to get the bus to Oita airport at 0655.

I love domestic flying! Within 5 minutes of arriving at the airport, I was through security and sat waiting. Landing in Tokyo, I was messaging Savvy arranging to meet up (she was flying home in 48 hours – forever!) and we agreed on meeting at Asakusa station, to then take Rob and Becky to Senso-ji temple nearby.

Struggling to get in contact with Rob and Becky, Savvy and I headed off and… bought Dominos pizza – yum yum YUM!

Eventually we met up, dropped R&B off for sushi and we ate the dominos.

Senso-ji was busy! And coming from Kyoto, R&B were pretty templed out! So we didn’t stay too long, and walked over to the Sky Tree – boy was it expensive! After trying to figure out how high we could get without paying (not very…) we walked across to another building and got a 21st floor view of Tokyo – it sufficed!

By now we could check in, did so, and headed out to the ROBOT RESTAURANT!!!

Zoom, zap, zap! Pow, boooong!

What a weird show! From scantily-clad, taiko drummers, snakes and dragons to robots and bikini clad robots! Even a fight between aliens and forest dwellers -so weird! Not to mention the Daft Punk inspired lounge band!

Next we joined Savvy for dinner, with some of her Tokyo friends, at a Nabe pot restaurant – it was tabehoudai, all we can eat!

Finally we got back to the hostel around 2230 – still to shower and pack for Fuji.

Friday: Ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side; It’s the Climb

Another morning of waking 0515, Rob and I quickly set off to the station to rise to Shinjuku and the bus stop. Becky had decided not to join us for the full pilgrim walk, from Fuji station to the top, saving herself 4 hours of walking.

From the station, we made our way to the Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen shrine.

Surrounded by the straightest trees in the world, the grand, red tori gate is almost as thick as the trees themselves!

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The Tori gate at Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen shrine

The lower part of the walk was through general forest. Unfortunately for us, the whole area was covered in mist, and would continue to be misty right until the 5th station, and persist even as we went higher than that.

Weaving through the forest was fun, though undermined by knowing there was a smooth, easy to walk road only a few metres away, and we tried not to dwell too much on the numerous watch out for bears signs…

After a time we hit a cafe, and knew the longest stretch of walking was over, and that the time between landmarks was diminishing.

Getting towards the 1st station, things began to get much tougher. The incline began to increase very quickly, and into the path, were cut surface water run-off channels and dams, presumably to channel melting snow off of the walking paths. The route began to consist mainly of 12 inch or higher steps, which started to take their toll on my knees.

The sun was getting closer to being over head, but still the mist persisted, and it gave the forest a strange defused lighting, like a photo studio. In clearer parts, you could see the mist roll and wash over us – really cool! Like a Narnia, or it reminded me of childhood days at my aunt’s house.

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The mist moved so fast, and was so thick

The old 4th and 5th stations were pretty dilapidated, collapsing on themselves and creating some wonderfully atmospheric feeling, like nature reclaiming space back from man.

Finally we hit a road, and knew we were near the 5th station – it wasn’t even 1200 yet!

Alas, the station was still a kilometre up the road from where we were! Off we trudged to find Becky.

After 20 minutes of no luck, we headed in for a bit of food before hitting the main ascent to our hut for the ‘night’.

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Our first view of Mt. Fuji at the 5th Station

The previous path had been pretty empty, we’d overtaken maybe 3 groups of 10-15, and a few couples, but on this path, there were so many people! So many groups in bright coloured jackets and trousers, round foreigners huffing up the hill with their poles and rucksacks, then Rob and I in tee shirts and shorts!

The first part was dull. The clouds were tight to the mountain, so we had no idea of how high up we were, or how high the mountain was. The mist rolled along the paths, and we simply zig-zagged up the hill, the earth of the mountain held back by huge metal barriers and cages – as if we were in a post-apocalyptic war, storming the alien stronghold.

We passed Becky pretty early on, leaving her with her new-found American friends.

Perhaps an hour in, and we began to hit the 7th station huts. By now the price of drinks and food was increasing substantially! 400 yen for a water, instead of 100 or less!

Rob and I found that by far the quickest way to climb Fuji is not to follow the person in front of you, but using the full width of the path to get round tour groups. My god! The groups are slow, pausing every few stretches and just climbing slowly. No wonder it says it takes so long to climb fuji! They’re especially slow as it begins more of a climb than a walk.

By 3 o’clock we’d reached our station for the ‘night’ – it had barely taken 2 hours! But now what to do?

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Our accommodation for the ‘night’

We took off our stinky clothes, and changed a little, and took a nap to wait for Becky!

About an hour later she had arrived! Yay! We’d been worried she’s just walk past!

With the gang reunited, we waited for our dinner! As we waited, the clouds cleared and we could see the view above and below us! We were so high up! Thank goodness! We’d walked so hard without seeing the fruits of our labours!

Dinner was a light affair of mackerel and curry rice, with a lil cake, and they gave us our breakfast – boil in the bag rice!

Nearing 7pm we decided to call it a night!

Saturday: Sunrise on Fujisan

Waking at 0000 to a cacophony of alarms, we clearly weren’t the only ones to have read about leaving at midnight for the sunrise!

After having dressed, and eaten breakfast, we left at about 0030. We were at the bottom of the 10 or so 8th station huts, so we had a lot of people to overtake and beat to the summit!

It was a race to the top! Headlights illuminating the way, we had many tour groups to get past, taking risks climbing on the outer edges of the path and sneaking our way up the hill, whilst trying not to get too sweaty!

As we finally got above the tour groups, the lights ahead began to diminish, and the occasional head touch began to merge in with the stars above us, whilst below there was a snake of blue-hued lights illuminating the entire path up here, and disappearing into the clouds.

Out beyond the mountain, the nearby towns twinkled through the cloud, and help provide some hint of how far Rob and I had walked that day!

At the 9th station, little more than a hut, was a man asleep in sleeping bag – had he been there all night?

Through a tori gate, and then bam! A stone pillar, that read (in Kanji) Fuji Summit – very proud of my Japanese there!

So it was 0215 – 3 hours until sunrise!! Luckily there are seats at the top, so Rob and I took position at the front, surrounded by less than a dozen people. Time for jumpers, jackets, trousers and waterproof trousers – it was gonna be a cold night!

Forty-five minutes later Becky turns up, joins us under our blanket and whips out… her tablet and we watch the Amazing Spider-man! Which turns out to be a great distraction as you freeze your ass off!

After a long wait, the first rays of light broke out from the clouds, and we began the sunrise.

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A sea of clouds as the sun teases us on at the summit of Fujisan

It was a beauty! The double clouded sky framed the sun wonderfully, and watching the hills and lakes below arise from the darkness really emphasised the height we had scaled – about 3700m.

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Adventure Time… The sole reason I made this hat

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Conquering of the sky

The way down was far better than the climb up! The weather held nicely, giving a great view of the base of the mountain, but also a double layer of clouds above and below us.

The path was mostly loose shale, on a shallow incline zig-zagged path – no rocky faces to climb. It was almost laughable how regularly and clearly you could see the route down the mountain below us, but pretty easy on the knees.

We set off around 0545, and were at the 5th station by 0745 – super quick! Our bus wasn’t even leaving until 10am!

Time for breakfast – american pancakes – and postcards to right and send (with the official Fuji postoffice stamp!). We managed to get onto an earlier bus, 0930 back to Tokyo and were back in before midday – and Becky had been so worried she’d miss her 9pm flight – ha!

The group split up, and Rob and I headed to our capsule hotel for the next two nights, over in Shibuya. Split over 10 floors, there were a number of bedrooms, a lounge, locker room and onsen. This was a problem for us, and we spent a lot of time going up and down trying to sort out laundry, changing for onsen, finding the onsen was closed etc.

But after a couple of hours, we were off exploring Shibuya!

First stop was the Shibuya Crossing made famous by the film “Lost in Translation”. I read in Timeout magazine that it was the best attraction in Tokyo as voted for by visitors.

Jesus!

I mean, it’s a crossing, it’s busy, and you cross from many points at once, but it is just a crossing in quite a small area.

We then checked out the highly mentioned Shibuya 109 mall – I mean, it’s a small-based, tall mall, for women with waists the diametre of my thigh… Not so good for Rob and definitely not good for me!

The day was passing, we chose a restaurant to check out, and munched. It wasn’t enough so we hunted down a Dominos pizza, walked there via a small temple surrounded by towering blocks, and munched it on the side of the street.

Having been up since midnight, we took the night pretty easy and got some much needed shut eye.

Sunday: Anime in Akihabara

After a nice lie in, and after discovering that the capsule hotels have porn on the built in TVs, we headed out to Taco Bell!!!

It wasn’t as good as I remembered in Korea…

Off to Akihabara to indulge in otaku culture!

Akihabara is the home of anime and video game culture in Japan. The streets are lined with shops selling anything and everything related to any and every anime and manga, from figurines, to outfits to trading cards and memorabilia.

We mostly went there for the arcades, and after exploring for an hour or so, headed into one. After 2 or 3 floors of UFO/ the claw machines, we made it into the games section. There was a super cool pokemon stadium game, were you actually played your moves in real time, and reacted to the opposition! Super cool!

On the next floor we found what we were after, and jumped into a 2 person Transformers shoot’em game! We sucked, throwing in yen after yen after yen! Then next was an immersive fighter pilot game – it had a massive curved screen that filled your vision and made me a lil sea sick…

Finally we finished off with a game of air hockey – though a version with a weird multi-puc mode that allowed me to win! 🙂

Off to the AKB48 cafe for some drinks! AKB48 are a band, with rolling membership, but what really differentiates them is that they have a permanent performance centre. Every day of the week you can go in and watch a performance. This gives fans permanent access to the band, and to counter exhaustion, they have nearly 50 members from which they choose a few to perform each day. And the name? An abbreviation of Akihabara > AKB, thus spawning a splurge of sister groups based in other areas of Japan.

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AKB48 Cafe next to Akihabara station

It was a nice enough cafe, but the music video of all the members performing on the beach in bikinis was a highlight!

A whistle stop visit to the Anime centre (little more than a room, but a fascinating seeing loose line work turned into fully inked manga panels/anime cells) lead to us checking out the 3331 Art centre.

The 3331 art centre is set in an old junior high school, with the classrooms rented out to different business, artists and exhibitors. A cracking idea in principle, but a lil empty on a Sunday, or perhaps it hasn’t taken off yet – I’m not sure.

Next we headed to Shinjuku. Like Akihabara, it was strange exploring these places I’d been to the previous year, back when I was completely green, totally lost and had no idea of the geography of Tokyo.

We walked amongst the illuminated signs that screamed for our attention, that scrambled and clung to every vertical surface, and informed us that all 10 floors in every building had something to offer us (though what it was offering I had no idea!).

We went in hunt of ‘Drunk’s Alley’ and ‘Piss Alley’ and eventually found both, or so thought…

We definitely visted Piss Alley, I’m almost sure of it, its description as a small network of alleyways, next to the tracks departing from the northwest side of Shinjuku. Two short streets lines with tiny little restaurants.

The other area turned out to be the Golden Gai. A piece of traditional Tokyo that managed not to be burnt down by the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), it is now a favourite haunt of people with artistic tendenacies, and with its ‘Patrons only’ mentality, is pretty niche. It’s a much larger area of alleys – perhaps 6 street – with bars located in the basement, first floor and second floor levels. It looked pretty cool, but perhaps not at 8pm on a Sunday night.

Ultimately we headed back to the capsule hotel, taking aboard some ramen at a nearby eatery. Capping off Rob’s Japan experience in a truely japanese way – by buying your ramen by ordering from a vending machine.

Hiroshima: The Final Destination

Off the back of a day at Miyajima, we arrived into Hiroshima at dusk, and sat in the traffic of a real city, with (quite) tall buildings and wide reaching boulevards with lawned and landscaped islands.

Elephant in the Room – The Bomb

The fanciest hotel of our trip saw us bang in the centre of Hiroshima, a stone throw from the Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum, staying on the 16th floor with a view over Hiroshima – it was at this point I came to realise that Hiroshima is less of a city than say Osaka, but definitely more urban and taller than my Miemachi.

By now it was late, and a quick google search recommend a Mexican restaurant called Otis, which had over a 25 year history! Arriving it was empty, and whilst the food was quite tasty, it didn’t surprise that it was unbusy, though you can’t fault it for atmosphere, capturing a vibe somewhere between youth hostel, gig venue and surf shak. It made a cheery enough place for a few drinks.

The next day we headed to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to learn about the first ever civilian-used nuclear weapon. Displays showcased information and models about the detonation site, the various effects to buildings a different distances from the epicentre, and told the human story and highlighted the imediately, secondary and longer reaching effects on the people there, which all in all made for a harrowing experience.

Currently under renovations, the museum unfortunately had only a small exhibition on display, with the new and improved museum available from 2018, that shall inform its visitors more on the context of the attack, along with the socio-political fallout (pardon the pun) in the following years up until the current day.

A walk around the Peace Park was pleasant, though weird seeing tourists posing for photos in front of the cenotaph, and then unfortunately the famous Hiroshima Peace Memorial – a blast affected building so directly below the epicentre that the resulting winds neither blew the walls away or towards the explosion – was also under renovation, with a scaffold skeleton covering much of the building.

Next was attempting to buy baseball tickets for the Hiroshima Carps game that night – but to our horror, they had already sold out!

Castles and the History of Squatty-Pottys

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So close to full bloom – bring on the sakura!

By now the cherry blossoms were really getting into the swing of things, and the Hiroshima Castle was beginning to be surrounded by pink and white blossoms. Inside the museum the displays of the area’s history and development, social traditions, lifestyles and weaponry were in both English and Japan, but regrettably the exhibition on the squat toilets of history was solely in Japanese and I felt due to this, we really missed out.

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Hiroshima Castle

Visiting Hiroshima could never be complete without trying the legendary Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, and so naturally we visited the okonomi-mura, a 3 story building housing 27 different okonomiyaki shops all fighitng for your custom.

Setting the Hiroshima style version appart from its cousins is technique of layering the incredients on top of each other whilst being fried, verses the mixture method in which the egg and other ingredients are mixed together prior to being poured onto the grill. Thankfully we didn’t have to cook it for ourselves, and consumed our food by cutting it up with tiny paint-scrapers!

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The folks exploring the gardens of Shukkei-en

Ahead of schedule, there was one thing for it – a visit to the Shukkei-en! These gardens were started way back in the Edo period (1600s) and designed to give a taste of the different landscapes of Japan. The other story I’ve heard is that the lake is modelled on the West Lake in Hangzhou, which having visited in 2011, it certainly resembles it in terms of wetness… But I’m not convinced much else!

Whilst I’m not sure about that, it certainly did have some bloody big koi carp fighting for the fish food availble to buy, and provided a wonderful serenity in what was otherwise a bustling town. The late afternoon visit threw down some wonderful light, giving vivid reflections in the waters of the main lake, and gave the trees a delightful glow – a time of day highly recommend!

No Carps, Just Fish and Chips

With the failure to aqcuire baseball tickets, the evening was open for grabs – so we went to an Irish bar and watched the baseball live – at least capturing a lil of the atmosphere, even if we’d barely figured out the rules by the end of 10 innings(?) and only got to witness 6 runs – who knew it was such a low scoring game?

The pub was excellent! Molly Malone’s offering truly great ‘western’ food for those missing a lil home comfort, with the most delicious chips and Irish soda bread I’d had in a long time (8 months and counting!).

Since it was a Friday, and getting late, my tour guide duties ended and I was able to slip out to an interesting, hidden gem of Hiroshima called Koba. A rock bar, hidden in building in a quiet part of of central Hiroshima, the concrete interior meshed splendily with the assortment of furniture in the small bar, covered in rock music memorabilia and skate decks. Making friends inside was easy, I was soon hearing stories of Glastonbury ’95 and what it was like seeing the Prodigy play in the early ninties whilst off your tits on ectasy – oh the good ol’days!

Yufuin: Climbing 由布岳

A brisk Saturday morning, and we headed out from Mie to Yufuin, a mere hour and a half away, to climb the iconic peaks of Yufu-dake (由布岳).

Mountain Marauders

With the unfortunate miscommunication of the google map pin, with it trying to drive us directly up the snow soaked mountain, we arrived an hour late to the car park to meet the rest of the JETs.

So there we were, 15 bright-eyed and bushytailed JETs, set to take on the snowy slopes of the mountains.

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Some of the team

What delightful terrain befell us, the mountains beautiful multiplied the dusting of snow at the lower levels, giving way to increasingly thicker and trickier clmbing, until we reached the summit. Somewhat hidden in cloud, it became a veritable snow storm at the top, turning a reasonable small 1580m mountain into a wild climb of death as we clutched desperately to chains that clung to final rock faces.

I’ll let the photos tell the story.

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Two roads diverged into a yellow wood – the path splitting between Higashi-mine and Nishi-mine.

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The way up to Nishi-mine peak

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Boys on the top of Nishi-mine

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The view from Higashi-mine

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Becca and I at the peak of Higashi-mine

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Four of us on the peak of Higashi-mine

Needless to say, the beers I drank atop of the mountain were some of the most earnt in all my time in Japan!

Coming Down and Chilly Cabins

Coming back down was inevitable worse. Adopting a low squatting ski tactic proved particularly enjoyable at points, if for no more reason that it hurt less to fall.

Upon reaching the bottom, the JETs piled into cars, and made our way to our cabin for the night.

Isolated by snow, we were forced to climb the remaining few metres to the cabin, as the cars begin to slip, slide and skid back down the hill.

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Our home for the night – Photo by Mai Okuda

Freezing cold on the inside, unsurprisingly the cabin never got any hotter.

As if pretending we were in 1950s, bath sharing enabled a number of us to quickly warm up, as did the kototsu in the lounge and the small gas fire in the kitchen.

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Dining on Nabe – Photo by Mai Okuda

 

Needless to say, with that many JETs in a room, a certain level of merriment was achieved that helped fight off any lingering cold.

Yufuin Town

Following on from a delightful breakfast of eggy rice… stuff, we packed up and heading down into Yufuin town.

A pleasingly charming place, with real character, surprising given its position as a highly tourist town, that offered a number of food outlets, shops and things to see.

We took greatest pleasure in spotting a small onsen bath house, most peculiar compared to every other onsen I’ve been to.

By the front door was a small money box, into which you dropped in your ¥200. Entering boys turned left, girls to the right, you stripped off and entered a small room, with a single pool. Having the place to ourselves, it saved any awkward closeness with randomers!

Having only scraped the surface, I look forward to visiting again in the spring or summer, to see it in all its splendour (rather than obscured by hazy snow clouds!).

Language: Japanese Yoda is?

Ah Yoda, wise you are, but English good at you are not. That little ball of puppet and CGI has always had a peculiar way with words, comprehensible yet distinctly weird – he definitely wasn’t raised in Blighty.

So why does he speak like that? I propose that Yoda is infact Japanese – or at the very least, it makes nice metaphor for the grammar of his mother tongue.

Lazy Old English

Robert ate Apple.

Apple ate Robert.

These sentences have entirely differing meanings. Whilst in both cases Robert is left unhappy, in the second it can be read that Robert is the apple’s dinner. It’s at best ambiguous, quite who ate who is left unclear; we do not know who is the subject, the thing doing the verb, and who is the object, having the verb done to them.

Apple Robert ate.

Even this sentence works! Since the verb follows Robert, we can assume they are more readily connected, and infer Robert is the subject, who has done the eating.

In English, it is more commonly sentence structure that helps us to define the various components of a sentence. In this sense, English is a very lazy language. Since we use structure to inform us of the relativity of a sentence, we use the same structures over and over again, it even extends to metaphors – your brain is ingrained to expect certain patterns, word orders and word combinations.

We’ve all experienced this with non-native speakers. They are the most creative with language, pulling apart our well worn stone slabs of sentence structure to create something completely foreign, understandable (eventually) and yet we say “I wouldn’t say it like that” or “you’d never hear that said”.

Equally, older or academic texts take on a far more rigid lexicon, more strictly adhering to grammar that we no longer follow in everyday spoken word, and thus sounds stiff and unnatural to our ear.

Japanese Yoda

So why is Yoda Japanese? Well Japanese makes use of grammatical structures called particles. There are many! What they do is to help define what the proceeding word is. Practically every word in the sentence is defined as the subject, object, identifier etc. The only rule is that the verb must come at the end of the sentence (or clause if you want to be technical!).

In our Janglish, this would look like;

Robert[subject]     apple[object]     ate.

Apple[object]     Robert[subject]     ate.

Robertは 林檎を たべました。

林檎を Robertは たべました。

What Japanese affords you is the ability to move all the parts of a sentence around, and finish with a verb to tie it all together (if you ever mark Japanese translation, you’ll be forever circling parts of sentences and drawing arrows to rearrange the sentence!).

So Yoda is Japanese because…

If you ever read a Yoda passage, you will see

1) He messes with standard English word order

2) the verb always comes up the end of a clause (Put a full stop after each verb, and each part of the longer sentence can stand alone)

3) Yoda is a Japanese name

4) George Lucas was super into Japanese films when he was making the movies

So does Yoda speak with English syntax in Japanese Star Wars? Verbs at the start or middle of the sentence?

Apparently not, Japanese old man like he speaks – I think they missed a trick there :/

“Always pass on what you have learned.” Yoda once said

Thanks for getting smarter with us today. Happy learning!

This post was originally written for ilearnedsomethingtoday – see what you can learn!

Izumi: Crane Bicycle Tour

With a four hour drive ahead of us and a 1030 start, the four of us arose in the dark, and dutiful loaded into the car…

Thankfully, Mary, Megan and Roberta had arrived at my place the previous night, and turned my living room into one giant futon!

Unfortunatley for us, Mount Aso had recently become more active, and so by the end of the journey the car had begun to collect a delightful layer of ash.

We parked up, and look for the others. We met some new JETs from the neighbouring prefectures, but the main party was missing. As it turned out, during their break, they had manage to reset the sat-nav, and spent the best part of an hour heading in the wrong direction!

I want to ride my bicycle!

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Outside the museum

 

Despite this set back, the rest of us met our guide, chose bikes and cycled along the river to the crane museum.

Though entirely in Japanese, the museum was quite interesting. A post-modern building, its architecture was cool, and the exhibitions inside showcased the Izumi area and the migration paths of the local cranes, developing into a larger exhibition on cranes around the world and their biology.

Soon we were back on the bikes! As it would turn out, the cycling was nowhere near as hard as we’d feared – my heattech top and leggings really only overheating me – jeans would have been more than adequate!

We cycled along the streets, which in time gave way to winding roads through paddy fields, until at least we hit the main road leading down to the crane fields, hidden behind blackout netting to prevent the cars from impacting on the cranes.

Crane History 101

Way back in the 1600s cranes were first observed in the Izumi area. Over time their numbers rose and fell in accordance to various hunting laws and wars, but have remained a famous spectacle in Japan since the 1920s, and the areas in which the feed are largely protected.

So much so these days, the birds no longer migrate to other parts of Western Japan, and work is being done to remedy this!

As we reached the black netting, hundreds of birds were having a jolly gay old time, feeding, walking and knattering about on the scrubby looking paddy fields. We circled along the fence slowly, observing the birds.

It was at this point I realised, I’m no ornithologists, twitcher or birdwatcher, and so from this point on was mostly just enjoying being in the winter sun (very mild winters in the day here on Kyushu!).

Further up the road we reached the Crane Observation Center, next to which was a jolly wee café in which we consumed our lunch – a udon affair – before heading up to the roof to observe more cranes.

A somewhat folly endeavour, since our next stop was 10 minutes away, the Observation center that not only boasted a an indoor observation level, but a considerably higher outdoor platform as well! And gee whiz, cranes are noisey!

After stocking up on our share of the sights of cranes, we went for a nice cycle around the area; a nice ride mostly owing to the areas incredible flatness.

We went right out to the sea wall, and cycled along next to the sea, taking a pause to look out over the bay, before regrouping and posing for photos.

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What do you mean? This is how I always pose!

 

One last look at the cranes as we cycled back through the fields right into the centre of the town, and the old samurai village.

Pretending to be Samurai

Here we were able to view a couple of different ‘original’ properties – the marks denoting that it was the original layout, and style, but as with Japanese buildings, it had been destroyed, taken down and replace many times.

It was interesting to explore the many rooms, most divided as per expectation with paper sliding doors, and we learnt that house design is all centred on keeping the house cool in summer, since traditionally, you could always make a home warmer in winter, but never cooling in summer.

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What was cool about the area, is that the streets are still as designed by the original builders, with each plot marked out and raised behind stone walls, behind which sit tall trees that serve to give the houses privacy, even when the doors are all open in summer.

Coming to the end of our tour, we dropped of our bikes, bought pizza, and then hunkered down for the 4 hours drive back to Mie.

Taketa: Trekking Through 竹田

Finally Sunday had arrived, and it was time take my first hike in Japan! Though Holly getting lost on the way to mine was not the best start!

Our co-ordinates converged we set off to Asaji station to meet Savvy, running only 20 minutes late. Once convened Savvy filled in a form in the hike centre – presumably to say that any chance of death was acknowledged before we started on route.

The second turn in we would turn out to be lost, a mere few hundred metres from the station. As exciting as it was to march towards and see the taiko performance, as we continued on, it become abundantly clear something was awry or the map was wrong…

Back on track we passed a delightful family of scarecrows, adorned with matching stuff dog, whom smiled cheerily and creepily at us in passing. A short with later we arrived at a kufufle of people and followed them down a stony stepped path, passing under a Dulux colour palette named ‘Burnt Autumnal’ as the tree leaves ranged from brown to red, to orange and yellow, down to a pond. Whilst the tree themselves were beautiful, there was a strange sense of the artificial, perhaps the man-made look to the lake, or just the sheer volume of people in such a small space.

Losing Savvy and Holly, I spent 15 minutes traipsing up and down hill paths in pursuit of them, to find they had paused no more the 20 metres from where I turned around on the first path I’d chosen.

Truly hills did follow. A combination of regular roads, single track roads and pedestrian paths, the route took up to beautiful heights, and down to field upon field harvested rice paddy, weaving its way through and onto the next hill, the path highlighted with red and blue ribbons hanging from the trees.

Two hours in, we stopped for lunch just before reaching the giant stone Buddha, and reflected on our progress – we’d made just under 4km in 2 hours – it was going to be a long day!

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A top the Oka ruins – Photo by Holly Brown

 

After lunch we make much better progress, perhaps the energy from lunch fuelling us onwards and upwards, but pretty soon we had reached Oka Castle (ruins), about 9km in and it was only 1530! A fantastic vantage point to view the world, and a real shame it was burnt down to show allegiance to the Emperor as the regional Shoguns began losing their power. A sprawling network of paths and rooms built across multiple levels following the contours of the top of the hill.

Not long after this we were in Taketa, sat in Michael’s (unlocked) car and inviting him for curry back in Mie. Completing my weekend trio of curry, I was very pleased with myself, ending a weekend of running and hiking with curry, friends and Firefly!

Nagasaki Final Part: Giant Tortoises & Samauri

Arising from slumber in Jenni’s house, we had the morning to freely explore the city. Taking to the streets we stumbled upon a shrine, as well as a giant silver man riding on the back of a tortoise…

The shrine eerily and beautiful empty, riding up the side of one of Nagasaki’s many hills, it offered sprawling views over an eclectic mix of building styles across the surrounding area as well as sanctum of piece and space in an otherwise busy city.

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Passing some children feeding a cat on a hot tin roof, we were hot on the heels of the silver man. Looming higher than anything around it, bizarre and sparkling, it had to be investigated further. Despite appearances, it was not a Pokémon centre, and rather turned out to be a more modern shrine come place of worship, though once again eerily quiet on a Sunday morning.

Regrettably, this was not a Pokemon centre

Strolling down towards the city centre, Racheal and I took on the mission of locating bread, cheese and wine for lunch – gastronomical sophistication for a sophisticated city! After seeming promise whilst hunting for omiyage (food based presents for our work colleagues) we had to admit defeat, leaving with only bread and wine.

Meeting up with Naomi, she assured us she knew a cheese shop, and in no time at all, there we were, sat by the bay, listening to the water fountains in the park, sipping red wine and smushing brie on bread. Naturally, this tranquility couldn’t last.

No sooner had we finished our lunch, than some young Japanese children took it upon themselves to entertain us with questions, throwing water at us and playing chase. Never have I seen so many twenty-somethings frantically running away from a pack of 8 year old Japanese kids.

With the sun slowly lowering in the sky, we meandered around the bay, finding a festival… thing happening, so we drew up seats, grabbed a beer and watched the Taiko performance.

It’s important to keep cool in warm environments

Tonight’s plan was to hit up the ropeway, view Nagasaki from on high, and check out the onsen on the hillside.

Clearly things were never going to go that smoothly.

Getting to the trainstation, we managed to figure out where from and which bus to get to the ropeway, buy and tickets and board – little did we know one of group was terrified of heights!

The view from the top was spectacular, with one side pure darkness as it looked out to see, whilst the other was hills of rolling lights, with dark veins of the meandering estuary.

Nightscape of Nagasaki

Nightscape of Nagasaki

Upon leaving, we discovered the excellent onsen we were to visit… was on another hill entirely! Thankfully there was a free shuttle bus… however, it was back at the station, a good 30minute stroll away.

My desire for the onsen was starting to wane, however, the group preserved, and we arrived at this delightfully upmarket onsen on a Nagasaki hillside. SO naturally I stripped naked in front of my new friend, and climbed into a small wood bath with him, whilst overlooking Nagasaki on high – my first such onsen experience.

Real Life Samauri

Monday morning we awake to glorious sunshine, tied up Jenni’s apartment and went to take in a final tour of Nagasaki.

Down the road we came across the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, and had a fun morning exploring its exhibitions, for part of which we were requested to walk around barefoot – always novel in a public place!

What a lovely veranda

What a lovely veranda

Part of the museum consisted of a reconstruction of the Nagasaki’s Magistrates Office. Much larger than my apartment, the traditionally built wooden buildings consisted of large rooms, tatami floors and paper covered sliding doors – so Japanese! Yet most exciting of all was the re-enactment of smuggler trials held by volunteers in full costume – I didn’t understand a jiffy, but we took an awesome photo with a faux-samauri!

I’m not convinced his hairstyle is for real…

 

Nagasaki Part 2: Around the Bay

Venturing away from the museum, we rode into town. With Nagasaki sprawling out over the hills surrounding a river mouth, this took a deceptively long time. Existing somewhere between an American style grid system, with a number of European style buildings lining the streets and a few curved main road, it was delightfully dissimilar to the grid based Oita city – presumable this mashup is the result of Portuguese influence in the 16th and 19th Century.

Couch Surfing

First port of call was to find our lodgings for the night, gratefully provided by Jenni, whom I’d been fortunate enough to meet at Pre-Departure Orientation back in Blighty and whom was away for the weekend and was happy to leave her house to us.

Once settle in, it was off to explore the sites. Heading down to Meganebashi we were to meet tour guide for the weekend Naomi for a personalised tour of Nagasaki.

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Meganebashi, or Spectacles Bridge was built by a monk way back in 1634, and is so called due to the reflection of the arches in the water creating the look of spectacles. Sat around eating weird local ice cream flavour, it was a delightful way to catchup up with a Nagasaki friend.

Lead through the meandering streets and alleys of Nagasaki, the European influence on Nagasaki was most evident, and it felt strangely similar to the near European-ness of Nairobi – familiar, yet unquestionably foreign (maybe all the hiragana and kanji perhaps?)

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Meeting up with Charlotte, another delightfully British JET, we worked our way up to Glover house, purched upon a hill top overlooking the entirety of the Nagasaki Bay area, which at the sunset hour we were approaching was incredibily beautiful, and the place made more beautiful by the addition of beers in a beautiful garden area.

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Dining in Faux French restaurant Garcon Ken (un nom tres francais…) we headed out onto the streets of Nagasaki, weaving between host bars promoters and prostitute to find that Nagasaki appeared to lack somewhat in nightlife, unless you were willing to pay  ¥4000 cover on the door of a somewhat questionable club.

Ultimately we settled upon THE WORLD’S SMALLEST BAR. A single room, comprising of a single rom of people standing and perching against the bar, casually shuffling down the row as others left, and providing drinks space for little more than 15 squashed people – though the Umeshu was delicious!

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Nagasaki Part 1: Musings from the Museum

And so the long weekend had finally arrived and it was time to make the pilgrimage to Nagasaki, the area of the second and to date, last, nuclear attack in the world.

A night in Nakatsu

Finishing school on Friday afternoon led to a flurry of activity – buying petrol, withdrawing cash and then I was on my way! Wind in my hair, Radio 1 on the stereo (thank goodness for Japanese 4G omnipotence!) breezing down the expressway to Nakatsu and to Rachael’s place to spend the night and to go onto Nagasaki.

Soon the journey passed into dusk – terrifyingly beautiful as the sun threw down orange light over the forested mountains of Japan, and I raced along single-lane freeway. Approaching Nakatsu I was amazed to see such a sprawling urban mass, having drawn the conclusion that Nakatsu was this rural retreat devoid of modern convenience and entertainment. Driving down the main strip, lit up like the outskirts of Vegas (well at least in my imaginingss) I realised this was a far cry from the cosy, towny feel of Mie, and began to realise the isolation of Nakatsu was not so much the lack of urbanisation, but from its distance from Oita City and other JETs that made it hard to live there.

Arriving at the station, I was quickly greeted by a glowing Rachael, who had just cycled back from school directly to the station. Bumping into one of her students I was amazed at just how naturally she could speak with the student, who would not only understand and reply in turn, but also in full sentences!

Securing the car in a lot that constituted no more than a scrubby square with cables pegged to the ground denoting the spaces, I was ushered into Rachael’s house. A narrow, long, but cosy affair, with a 60’s-film like vibe, which was severely lacking any space to prepare food.

Shortly we were downstairs, dining in the restaurant below the flats with fellow JETs Mark and Casey, chomping down sticks of meat, plates of beans and beer. Mark leaving early to go to Osaka, the three musketeers continued their foray into drunken territory, heading out to a shots bar that made a wonder Whiskey with Whiskey mixer, and continued our journey on to a karaoke bar.

The Road to Nagasaki

Not so bright and not so early, Rachael and your kind narrator began their voyage yonder, driving through the wide reaching plains of Nakatsu, circumferenced by mountainside in the distance, a delightful foray of tunes dancing on the rushing winds. Oh brothers, how we laughed and sang our way through the 3 hour journey. River Pheonix, with her pitiful engine, oft held up our fellow motorists as she slowed down whilst attempting to traverse each and every hill. And when they had opportunity to pass by us, no greater glee could be found than in overtaking them on downward slopes.

Later we found ourselves in Nagasaki, a long, thin, stretched-out city that clings to the sides of a river mouth into the mainland, and begins long before you are even close to open water. It’s at this far end of the city the atomic bomb was dropped, and so appropriately placed is the Atomic Bomb museum.

Pleased with ourselves for navigating 216km journey without hiccough, we crampedly (new word!) made our way into the exhibition.

The Atomic Bomb Museum

Having visited the Genocide museum in Kagali, Rwanda, I thought I had a sense of harrowing events, and extent of how humans can dehumanise each other and perform atrocious acts.

Yet that was not what I took away from the exhibition. The genocide was acts of human against humans in a direct, violent and vulgar way. The attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was calculated, planned and detached, and in which I found myself more able to understand the American viewpoint than I had in Rwanda.

One of the feelings I got was just how normal a day it was when one of the most world-defining moments occurred, with its metaphorical as well as physical shockwaves that created damage and repercussions beyond the initial damage. The individual stories told through objects, interviews and the usage of ‘how many metres from the epicentre’ each story was told from gave a far more ‘point of view’ experience of the destruction, without the geopolitical distance created in textbooks, and made the event so much more relatable and harrowing. Much like the video below;

And much like the video, it gave a sense of the ongoing morbidity of after-events. A single story stood out the most for me, of an individual who watched as those around him died of radiation sickness, noticing that the rate at which people showed symptoms was linked to their distance from the epicentre; effectively death marching at a progressive and steady rate up the hills of Nagasaki, and taking the lives of those the initial blast had missed, his panic as those dying around him got closer and closer to the distance he had been from the epicentre.

Coming out of the exhibition, the feelings I had developed were not so clear-cut as my thoughts on the genocide in Rwanda.

I was left struggling with the internal conflict between the sheer scale of destruction and the sickening after effects and repercussions of atomic warfare. Left struggling under the weight of empathy, sadness and fear for the fragility of my own existence and how little control of our circumstances we really have.

Yet through an historical and personal lens, I can’t help but see the positive benefits from the action. How through the dropping of two atomic bombs majorly contributed to the end of the Second World War and lead to the world of today, from which I personally benefit massively. Yet these ‘positives’ were not to be known at the time, and due to the USA’s action we can make no reasonable judgement on how the future from 1945 onwards would have panned out – no doubt that on a global scale, both substantially better and worse futures could be argued.

With these mixed feelings, what can I draw from the exhibition and take away with me? I think most notably is the humility, honesty and humanity in which the Japanese deal with both events, and how on the whole, there appears to be little hatred, resentment or radicalisation into Anti-Western feelings that one might expect and say they could rightly feel. Whilst Japan doesn’t forget its past, it has and is continuing to open itself up to a global future, free from the destructive desire of retribution – something I’m not sure parts of Europe or American could attest to had roles been reversed.

Please click here for the sunnier part of my Nagasaki trip.