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In Which I Make a Wiki

This morning for a couple of hours we had Winter Solstice snow in Christchurch. It was oh so exciting, but it did not stick around for long. Alas, the cold did linger, as it tends to do. Well, at least from this point on the days will be getting longer, not shorter.

Mid-winter and mid-summer are the times when it suddenly strikes me that I live in a different hemisphere than most people who speak my language. While those of us who live in NZ have been experiencing an Antarctic blast, Twitter keeps bringing me little snippets of people enjoying this mythical "summer" thing: mentions of barbeques, trips to the beach, ice-cold drinks, etc. It's funny how in the middle of winter, summer feels illusionary, and vice versa. Or maybe that's just me?


Writing Update

I've been pushing on with my novel Reality Shifting (see word count below). I've had to put the revisions of Symmetry Breaking on hold due to burnout, but I hope to get back to that soon.

When I've needed a break from writing, I've been brainstorming for another story I want to work on later in the year. It is a sci fi story that I think will be serialised rather than a novel, as the story is coming to me in discrete chunks. A complex world underlies the story, so I have started putting together a wiki for the series in Evernote. There are three great things about making the wiki in Evernote:

  • It is easy to put together and edit across all my devices (with the small exception that the links between pages have to be inserted via the desktop app)
  • I can share it with whoever I want, and I can even make the wiki notebook public (i.e. it could be a bonus for readers in the future)
  • I already have Evernote and know how to use it (whereas if I downloaded a wiki-specific program, I would then have to teach myself how to use the thing).

All in all, this is an excellent idea and I can't believe I haven't thought of it before. 


A Random Picture

Because I feel like it, here is a random photograph taken by me.


At Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavilion), Kyoto

I've been thinking about Kyoto a lot, for a few reasons. One is that I am reading a book set in Kyoto nearly 1000 years ago (Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter). The other is that I have been doing some research into Heian Period Japan because of another story idea I have. 
I have lots of ideas.



Current progress on Symmetry Breaking:

Revision on a brief hiatus


Current progress on Reality Shifting:




Currently Reading

Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks







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Tazawako

On the 5th of August I went to Lake Tazawa in eastern Akita Prefecture. I wrote about the trip several weeks ago. Here are the pictures.

Tatsuko (?) Hime. I think I've got that name right. She is a character in a local folk tale.

Sumiko and myself.



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Iwate

On the 31st of July I visited a few places in Iwate Prefecture. Here are the pictures.

This is the campsite we stayed at. It had very good facilities, perhaps too good. It was supposed to be a seaside campground but I couldn't see any sea at all.




Then we drove to an area where we would be able to ride a tourist boat. These are pictures of the area where we waited for the boat.




Taken from the boat.


The purpose of the boat ride was to go out and look at these rocks. Apparently every now and then the sea hits these rocks in such a way that it makes a huge splash.







This is in Ryusendo, one of the largest limestone cave systems in Japan.


This water is 93 metres deep.

From higher up.

The first thing we saw when we came out of the caves.

A decoration on a bridge.

The same water that was in the caves.

The hills that I went tramping around the inside of.
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Matsushima

Before I left Japan I did a little bit of sightseeing. I have already written about those trips but I never got around to posting the pictures. Here are some pictures from Matsushima, where I went on the 30th of July. Here is some information on Matsushima from Wikitravel.



On the tourist boat.






I think this might be an oyster farm, but I'm not sure.
A statue at, I think, Zuiganji. The following photos are from the same place.















A hideously garish tourist boat. This is not the boat I rode.

This is another temple, but I don't know what it was called.





Just to prove they really do eat them . . .





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Nakajimadai

Japanese cedar trees

This is the candlestick tree. It is also called the nymph seat.

There were many fallen trees in Nakajimadai. It is usually typhoons that knocks them down.

This is a beech tree. It is one of the 100 Great Trees of Japan.

This is a charcoal-making kiln from over a hundred years ago.

Just below the bottom of the photo water was bubbling up out of the ground into this pool. Can you see the whirlpool in the middle of the photo? It was making quite a loud sucking noise.

This water was delicious.

In the distance is the Nikaho Plateau, which is fairly high itself. Nakajimadai is high up (and totally inaccessible in winter).

This is called the Greeting Tree.

Left: famous water. Right: famous moss.

Can you see the hole? It looked deeper and more scary in real life. That's where the water is coming up out of. You can hardly see the water it's so clean. It was delicious.




This is the famous moss, Chokai marimo. This pond is the only place in Japan where this moss can be found. There are two other places in the wold where is can be found. I forget where. Canada and Finland? Something like that. There are no rocks under that moss, it's all just moss.


This dragonfly was even more reluctant to move than the dragonfly I met last year. It totally ignored me and my camera.
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Me in a Kimono

Because my Mum was asking after them, here are a few pictures from the day I was dressed up in a kimono. My scanner is cheap, and therefore the pictures are not of very good quality. These are just snapshots, not the professionally taken photos. I haven't scanned the good photos yet.





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Pictures From Tokyo

Wow, I have been so slack recently. I went to Tokyo weeks ago. Why am I only uploading the pictures now? Inexcusable.

First here are some pictures from the Edo Museum:


This is the Rakugo stage



This is a tiny model of a palace that doesn't exist anymore.


This is me in a replica of a nobleman's palanquin


Lots of little Edo people. Aren't they cute?


This is a full-scale model of an Edo period workshop in a nagaya (Japanese style terrace building)


This is a full-scale model of a family in a one-room home in a nagaya building. The wife has just given birth and the grandmother is washing the newborn infant in the traditional way.


A full-scale model of a Kabuki actor


Another Kabuki mannequin. By the way like Elizabethan actors, all Kabuki actors were men.


Yet another Kabuki mannequin. This guy is so cool. He was very imposing in real life (not that he's alive - you know what I mean).


Now for some pictures of the Ghibli Museum:

You recognise this guy Gillian? This is the robot thingie from Laputa. You can find him on the roof of the museum.



This is also from Laputa. It seems that when the castle broke up, one of the blocks landed on the roof of the museum.


The museum entrance


The side of the museum. Isn't it wonderful? All museums should look like this.


Museum sign/lamp post. I love lamp posts. I think it's a Narnia thing.


It's Totoro! Really! He is life-sized and everything.


And now for some random photos:

The view from my hotel room; the less garish side of Shinjuku.


A Noh mask in the National Museum. This is the only photo I took there. I should have taken more because I was allowed to, but for some reason I just couldn't quite believe my eyes when I saw all the 'Photography OK' signs. I mean, how many museums in the world that display priceless relics of passed ages allow photography? Not many, that's for sure.


The back side of the shops that line the road leading up to that big temple in Asakusa which I keep forgetting the name of.


A view across the river from the Asakusa ferry terminal. Apparently this is the headquarters of a beer company, although it seems as if the building is known to most people as 'unko biru' (the poo building). That's Japanese humour for you. Incidentally, the New Tokyo Tower is going to be built near here.


This is Venus Fort in Odaiba, the ultimate in female shopping experience (or so they say). The ceiling actually changes colour from day to sunset and back again. Umm, yeah.


This isn't the best photo in the world but I thought I would include it because that hazy curve of land you can just see is Nikaho City. My house is down there!


Mount Chokai among the clouds.


A zoomed picture of Chokai. Notice all the snow, and remember that this photo was taken in June.
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Tokyo

Okay, so I went to Tokyo and I came back and that was several weeks ago. Umm. I didn’t blog earlier because I was too busy watching Dr. Who, and then my computer died and I had to hook my little computer up to the internet and then I was busy. And lazy. Yeah. Well, anyway, I'm back.
Sumiko picked me up from my house at 5.40am the other Saturday ( the 2nd) and then we drove to the airport. The most direct road from here to the airport is an old, rarely used road from before the highway was made. It is very scenic, winding through the hills and following a part of the Omono river. The wild wisteria was blooming and so were some pink flowers which we couldn’t decide on the identity of. We had a nice decent flight and got to Haneda airport in Tokyo at about 8.30am. The weather was hot and sunny, like it was throughout our whole trip (the weather forecast had originally been for clouds and rain, so we were very lucky). We took the monorail into Tokyo and switched to the JR Yamanote line. We stopped to have breakfast in a café in Akihabara station before getting on another JR train and going to Asakusabashi. I wanted to go to Asakusabashi because there are a lot of bead shops there that sell very cheap stone beads. I bought my beads and then we travelled one stop down the line to Ryogoku to visit the Edo Tokyo Museum. It is a very good museum with many models of various sizes of things that could be found in Tokyo when it was called Edo before the Meiji Restoration at the beginning of the modern period. I won’t bore you with a list of the things I saw and learned, suffice it to say that I saw a lot, learned a lot and took many dark blurry pictures (photography is OK in that museum because everything is only reconstructions). I also got to see a Rakugo performance that was held at a stage inside the museum. Rakugo is a type of Japanese comedic act where someone sits on a cushion and tells amusing stories. It was the first time I had ever seen Rakugo so I don’t know if the performance I saw was a typical example. The guy spoke really fast, like a horse race commentator, and I was surprised to find that I could keep up with a lot of it.

We then caught the train out to Mitaka, and met Sumiko’s little sister who lives in Tokyo at the Ghibli bus stop. We went to the Ghibli museum together. Yay! We saw the short film ‘Mei to Konekobus’ (Mei and the Kittenbus) which is a continuation of the movie ‘Tonari no Totoro’ (My Neighbour Totoro). It was so cute! There were all sorts of Nekobusses and even a Nekotrain and a Nekospaceship. We ate lunch in the café located inside the museum, and then we went exploring. There are all sorts of things to be discovered in the museum; storyboards and cels, optical illusion models, random spiral staircases and picture galleries. No photography is allowed inside the building, but it is allowed in the roof garden.

I don’t want to say too much about what can be found inside the museum, because that is not the type of museum it is. It is a place of mystery and discovery. Either going and looking for yourself or, if you can’t go, wondering about what is in there is the best way to treat it.

We went to Shinjuku and checked into our hotel. The Washington hotel is a funny curvy shape and our rooms were tucked into this sine curve like part. Sumiko’s room was on the outer part of the curve and mine was on the inner, so my room was considerably smaller than hers even though we paid the same price. Whatever. My room was cute, and that’s more important than size. I am so turning Japanese, to be thinking like that.
The three of us went out to dinner at Chanko Dining Waka, a famous restaurant that sells the Sumo food I was talking about. It was delicious. There was nabe (stew) and a variety of other little dishes such as chicken wings and avocado and salmon on crackers. Very, very good, and so it should be, a famous restaurant in Shinjuku.
On Sunday Sumiko wasn’t busy after all so we went to the National Museum in Ueno together. We took one look at the queue to see the special Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition that is on now, and decided not to go. First we went into the Asian building and looked at many artefacts from Persia, China, Egypt, Iran and Korea. It was very interesting. At one stage I was looking at a pottery vessel from Egypt and I thought it said ‘7th century BC’ but then I realised it said ‘7th Millennium BC’ and I was blown away. It was much better made than I thought something of that time period would be. At about 1 o’clock we had lunch at a restaurant within the museum grounds. I had roast chicken with mushroom gravy. We then went into the main building. We didn’t have time to look at everything so we only went to see a few exhibits that we particularly wanted to see. We looked at the Beginning of Japanese Art, an exhibit that seemed to concentrate on Buddhist art; artefacts from Okinawa, Ukiyou-e prints, kimono, and Noh play robes and masks.
We then caught the subway to Asakusa. We were planning on riding the Himiko ferry but while we were in the queue waiting to get tickets, the tickets sold out. So sad. We met Sumiko’s sister again and had a look around Asakusa for a while. Then we caught a normal ferry to Hinode port and then rode the Yurikamome train over the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba. We did a spot of shopping in Venus Fort (I bought some stuff at lush) and then we headed back to Shinjuku. We ate proper Korean Yakiniku where the meat gets wrapped in salad leaves with garlic before being eaten (so delicious) and then that was that for the day.
On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel and went to Hamamatsucho station (the station from which the monorail to Haneda airport leaves) and put our bags in coin lockers. Then we went our separate ways. Sumiko went to Kappabashi, a place that sells kitchenware. I went to Shibuya to visit the Apple Store. A very helpful Apple specialist answered all the questions I had. It was such a pleasure to get information from the source. I find that people who work in general electric stores or computer shops selling lots of different types of computers never know what they are talking about; they’re only sales people after all. But the specialist guy knew what he was talking about, and I heard everything I wanted to hear. I should also mention that I asked all the questions and heard all the answers in Japanese. The guy asked me if I preferred to speak in English or Japanese, I said both were OK, and he chose to use his native language. I had no problem, but maybe that is not all that big of an achievement since most computer terminology in Japanese is derived from English.
After going to the Apple Store I sort of stumbled into the Disney Store. Don’t quite know how that happened. I am now the proud owner of a Captain Jack Sparrow B5 notebook and a Little Mermaid plastic slip file. I still had quite a lot of time after I had finished in Shibuya so I hopped on the train to Harajuku and mooched around there, because there is nothing like mooching around in Harajuku to convince you that you are actually in Tokyo.
I went back to Hamamatsucho and met Sumiko and then we went to catch our airplane at Haneda. The wisteria and the other flowers were still blooming. We got back to Konoura at 7pm.
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Sankyo Soko

The last stop was Sankyo Soko, the rice storehouses on the bank of the Mogami River. I've been there before. There is a big wisteria tree at Sankyo Soko and luckily the wisteria was blooming last week.









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Gyokusenji

After visiting Ideha Museum, the Iwayas took me to Gyokusen temple. The temple was made in 1251 by Ryounen Houmyou Zenji (who was born in Korea). The temple garden was made in the Muromachi Period (about 1455) and was remodeled in the Edo Period in 1645.













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Ideha Museum

The next stop on the sightseeing tour was the Ideha museum, a museum displaying artefacts and information about the Dewa Sanzan area. Some things I learned at the museum:

I cannot blow a conch shell horn.

There were and are many mountain priests in the area called Yamabushi who live extremely ascetic lives and carry conch shell horns around with them.

There was a rite of rebirth that used to be practiced in the area. I don't know why people would want to be reborn but when they did, they would be symbolically killed and then would do this weird ceremony and while they did the ceremony they were officially considered dead. The ceremony involved them wearing red ties to symbolize blood, a hat with white things stuck all over it to symbolize a placenta, and they would hold a huge staff about 4 metres high that symbolised an erect penis. Just in case the phallicness of the staff was not obvious enough, there was a bundle of sacred paper attached to the top that looked like a head and arrows pointing out the top that symbolised ejaculating semen. I'm guessing it was more of a Shinto rite than a Buddhist one.

At some stage there was an insect that decimated the crops in the area and caused famine. To this day every winter the local people make an 8m long model of the insect out of straw and burn it while yelling viciously just to make sure the insect never troubles them again.

They also make a model of a dragon's head out of straw to pray for rain, although the replica in the museum looked more like an oversized handbag to me.

Sumo may have originated in the Dewa Sanzan area as a post praying-under-waterfall strength comparing dance. Or maybe not.

Snakes liked to get into the walls of straw huts because straw is warm.
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Mt. Haguro

On Sunday one of my newer English class students Mr. Iwaya and his wife took me sightseeing in the Shonai area. The Iwayas are a retired couple who are invovled in many volunteer activities and it seems that last week was their 'volunteer as tour guides' week. The Shonai plain is an area of Yamagata Prefecture just south of the border. The cities Sakata and Tsuruoka are located on the Shonai plain.

Unfortunately the weather on Sunday was cold and rainy which meant I had to do most of my sightseeing whie carrying an umbrella. Also my camera doesn't like dim weather. Many of the photos that I took came out blurry. Too bad. I did get a few good photos though.

Our first stop was Haguro-san, one of the 'Dewa Sanzan' (three mountains of Dewa). I will let you read the official English explanation:



By Cryptomeria trees they mean Japanese cedar. Anyway, I climbed up the 1.7 km, 2,446 step path to the top of Mt. Haguro. It was not an easy climb. I got a certificate commemorating my effort.



I think this bridge is awesome. I've only ever seen bridges like this before in Inuyasha cartoons.

This is Jijisugi (Grandpa Cedar). He is about 1,400 years old. There used to be a Babasugi (Grandma Cedar) but she got hit by lightning and burned down.

This is the five storey pagoda. Apparently it was originally made over 1,000 years ago and then got rebuilt about 700 years ago. There is not one single nail used in this pagoda; it is tied together with vines. There were a lot of people hanging around (as you can see) and I could not get a good picture.





These (priests?) were walking about and praying for peace at the front of each individual shrine within the shrine complex on the top of the hill.

The ghostly apparition in the background is the three god combined shrine.
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Misaki Park

On our way north back into Akita Prefecture we stopped at Misaki Park on the border between the two Prefectures. Misaki Park contains remnants of the old road between Sakata and Kisakata. It is very narrow, only a footpath and not at all suitable to horses or carts. Apparently it was the only road between the two towns. Since it dates to a time when all peasants were confined to their village and for the most part anyone who had the liberty to travel was either rich enough to afford sea passage or was a wandering monk and so naturally would have walked, no larger road would have been needed. If anyone knows about the poet Bassho, you might be interested to know that this is his 'Oku no Hosomichi.' Bassho walked this stretch of road north to see the 99 islands of the (now non-existent) Kisakata lagoon, and when he got there penned a very famous Haiku. I recently bought a book of Bassho's poems that I haven't yet read, so no doubt I will talk more on this subject at a later date.

Anyway, this was the last stop on the field trip, and a wonderful stop it was.




Here you can see a section of the path. It has been revamped since it was in general use to make it safe for hikers.

Here is a section of path in more or less original condition. As you can see, it was not made for horses.

Apparently this is the footprint of Tenaga Ashinaga, the long-armed long-legged demon that lived on Mt. Chokai terrorizing the local populace until the Three-Legged Crow betrayed him and he was killed by a warrior priest. I should have put a coin next to it to show you how big it is. This 'footprint' is about 10cm long. Even if he did have exceptionally long limbs, Tenaga Ashinaga can't have been all that big a demon. The word next to it says 'foot' and was put there by an unknown carver sometime within the last 30 years.



Eight-fold cherry

95% of the time, the macro zoom on my camera doesn't work (it's been broken since last summer) but every now and then it surprises me.
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16 Buddhas

We drove down the other side of the Blue Line through the beech forests into Yamagata Prefecture and visited a place in Yuza town with 22 Buddhas carved into rocks on the sea shore. They are called the 16 Buddhas because 16 of them are of one Buddha, and the rest are of other Buddhas. I won't say any more because I took a photo of a sign, which you can read for yourself.









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The Blue Line

After we had finished eating our lunch at Kuriyama, we went for a drive up the Blue Line. It is a road that snakes up one side of Mt. Chokai to the fifth stage and then goes down the other side. The parking lot at the top of the Blue Line is as far as you can go up Mt. Chokai in a vehicle: you want to go further, you gotta leg it. Fifth stage is at nearly 1500m, which makes the 380m of the hills I pass over each week to get to Kamagadai seem piddly. I saw the wind turbines of the Nikaho Plateau from fifth stage, and they looked so far down. Near the top the Blue Line, even in May, is enclosed in huge snow walls. It takes until well into summer for the snow to melt away.



This photo is very hazy but you can just see the wind turbines on the Nikaho Plateau. To the right of them at the edge of the photo is Kamagadai.


Wow, I'm on an only semi-dormant volcano . . .


Yes, I stood on the edge of a huge cliff on slippery snow to take this photo. But I was inside the safety boundary, I swear . . .



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Kuriyama Park

The second stop on the field trip was Kuriyama Park which is up in the hills above Kisakata, not far from Mototaki. The cherry blossoms have already fallen at the coast, but at Kuriyama on Monday they were in full bloom, so that was my second full bloom this spring, with at least one more to go when Kamagadai blooms. There were many different varieties of cherry at Kuriyama Park, unlike in most areas where the only variety that has been planted is the five-petal mid-sized pale variety favoured by the Japanese. No, at Kuriyama there were miniature blossom cherries, dark pink cherries, willow cherries, eight fold cherries, and probably some other varieties I missed.

After walking around the lake we had a picnic. It was very windy so it was hard to eat, but we managed it.


Ten years ago this was a river.

Apparently this is snow willow.








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Mototaki

Monday was a national holiday. I went on a field trip with some of my adult English class students. They took me to some sightseeing spots in the area that no one else had ever thought to take me to before. I never knew there were so many sightseeing spots in Nikaho city! Why did no one tell me before?

First stop was Mototaki, a cold water spring in the foothills of Mt. Chokai above Kisakata town. In centuries past, people used to travel by horse to Mototaki to get water because at the source, Mototaki water was about as clean as water ever got. We collected water there. I have bottles of it sitting in my kitchen, and it is indeed very delicious and fresh, much more so than Konoura tap water, which is vile.








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Cherry Blossoms

The other week the cherry trees here in Konoura were in full bloom so of course I went to take pictures of them.










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Konoura Port

The same day I went to see the 33 Buddhas, Sumiko showed me some things I hadn't seen at Konoura port. We went to a tiny shrine that has monkey statues guarding the entrance rather than dogs which guard almost all non-Inari shrines (Inari shrines are guarded by foxes). One of the monkeys is eating an onigiri (rice ball). No one seems to know why. Then we went to see a new bridge that was built recently between the mainland and a tiny island. On the island is a tiny old shrine to one of the Seven Lucky Gods, but I can't remember which one.

Butterbur sprouts






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33 Buddhas

While I have been taking so long to finish posting about Kyoto all sorts of things have been happening here. The reason I don't have much blogging time anymore is that I can no longer blog from work, and of course it is hard to find the motivation to sit down and blog when I get home from work.

About three or four weeks ago I went with Sumiko to tag along with a group of middle aged fishermens wives who sang hymns at each of 33 statues of the Buddha Kannon that are scattered about a temple, park and hill in Konoura and which were built to protect the fishermen of Konoura. Sumiko's mother was one of the ladies, which was why she knew about this little-known event. Here (like always) are a few pictures:





Sumiko and Machiko-san



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Daitokuji






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Otagi Nenbutsuji

Otagi Nenbutsuji was founded by Emperor Shotoku in the mid 8th century and was located near the Kamo river until it was relocated to Arashiyama in 1921. Read more about Otagi Nenbutsuji here and here.



















Read more about the day I went to Otagi Nenbutuji here.
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Day 4: Kyoto

On the evening of my third day in Kansai I had been planning on getting a very early night so that I would have enough energy for another day of sightseeing. Unfortunately, things did not turn out that way. I had a sore stomach which was keeping me awake, but more annoying than that was the noise that was going on in the corridor. The floor I was staying on was the women’s floor, which was on the second floor of the hotel. Out in the corridor there were the sounds of someone banging and crashing about and walking up and down the corridor in plastic slippers. I thought there was some weirdo out there who had come down from another floor to prowl for women. Whoever it was tried to get into my room several times by jerking on the door handle impatiently. It was so scary! Eventually I called out in Japanese “Stop it!” and whoever it was stopped trying to get in. At about 11 o’clock the sounds stopped, and five minutes after that I and some other women who had obviously been too scared to leave their rooms went out to use the toilet while the chance was available. At 11.30 the sounds started again. Bins being knocked over, shuffling feet, etc. Whoever it was got into the room next to mine which, when I went to the toilet, I noticed the door of which was slightly ajar. They bumped around in there for a while before going out again. It was 12.30 by the time it was quiet enough for me to go to sleep.

Shortly after 6am I was woken by shuffling slippers and banging. Not again, I thought. Then I heard whoever it was banging on a door further down a corridor, and the voice of a very young child calling “Mummy!” That whole time it had been some small child causing all that racket! What kind of mother would let their pre-school child prowl about unsupervised and get up to mischief in the corridors of a hotel at midnight? I was so angry that I had been robbed of hours of sleep by some child who had a bad parent.

I checked out of the hotel shortly after 8am and headed back to Kyoto. My Surutto Pass ticket had run out so I had to buy tickets that day. I left my bag in a coin locker in Kyoto station and caught a bus towards a temple that I had heard about and very much wanted to see. I knew which number bus to catch and the name of the stop, but I didn’t know how long it was going to take. I was on that bus for ages. It drove to Arashiyama, through Arashiyama, and out the other side before I finally reached my destination: Otagi Nenbutsuji.

Otagi Nenbutsuji is an old temple that used to be located in the Otagi area of Kyoto near the Kamo River. At that time it was called Otagi-dera. It got destroyed multiple times: by flood, war, typhoon, earthquake, and many fires. Which is funny, because one of the main deities worshipped there is a ‘protection against fire’ god. Otagi-dera has got to be the unluckiest temple in all of Kyoto, if not Japan. Eventually in 1921, the people financing the temple decided that enough was enough and that the temple would be moved somewhere safer. When I got there I found that it was indeed very isolated. It is stuck up in the top corner of a valley that runs out into the mountains around Kyoto. 40 metres up the road from the temple, the road becomes one lane and goes into a tunnel through the mountains. How does a one lane tunnel work? There are lights at either end of the tunnel that have a period of about 5 minutes or more to give traffic enough time to pass through.

After the temple received extensive damage yet again (this time by typhoon) the people in the area decided to donate little Buddha statues to it to try and attract some good luck to the temple. The volunteers studied under a professional carver to learn how to make the statues. Then they started carving, and made thousands of buddhas between 1982 and 1991. But many of the people who made the statues had senses of humour, and not many of the statues are carved in traditional style. In fact, some are pretty funny e.g. boxing Buddhas and miniature Moais. Take a look at my photographs to see what I mean.

While I was at Otagi Nenbutsuji it started to drizzle, and I didn’t have an umbrella. I went over the road to see when the next bus would be along. It wasn’t for another 25 minutes. There was no shelter at the bus stop so I waited under the eaves of the temple gate. It started to rain harder. After looking at all those Ghibli-like statues, and then to be standing under a gate in a forest in the mountains surrounded my mist and rain, I really felt like I had stumbled into a Ghibli movie. I thought that the bus that came for me might be a Nekobus, if I was lucky.

As I stood there I started to get this creepy feeling on the back of my neck as if someone were staring at me. I turned around and found that the left-hand guardian of the gate was staring right at me. The guardians are statues of (usually) fearsome warrior-deities that are inside the structure of the gate behind a lattice or net so they can look out and keep bad spirits from entering the temple. The spot I had chosen to stand in was directly in the view of the scary-faced, reflective-eyed statue. The way the statue was in the dark but it’s eyes flashed golden made it look as if it were really looking at me. I took a step sidewards.

Eventually I had to cross the road and stand in the rain because if I was not at the bus stop then the bus would no doubt just pass by. The bus came, and it was not a Nekobus. How disappointing. So I took a bus all the way back to Kyoto. Even though it took so long to get there and back, the trip to Otagi Nenbutsuji was well worth it.

I was feeling tired and groggy so I made my only travel mistake I made on the whole trip: I got on the 201 bus not the 205 and so it took a while to get to my next destination – Daitokuji. At one point the bus driver of the 201 was yelling something at me that I didn’t understand. He was obviously in a bad temper. It turned out that it was the end of the line (the 201 is a loop bus and the end of the line was not marked on my map so I didn’t know) and he was angry at me because he couldn’t see my face and thought I was just some idiot Japanese person who was ignoring him until I stood up and he saw that I am foreign and so had an excuse. I hope he was ashamed of himself, snapping at me like that. At least I now know the word for ‘end of the line’ after having it yelled at me like that. I transferred to the 205 there.

Anyway, I got to the area of Daitokuji without further trouble. It was cold even though the rain had stopped, and I was tired, hungry and not feeling so good. I entered a small Japanese set menu restaurant. It turned out that the husband and wife pair who owned the restaurant were very, very deaf and didn’t notice me enter the restaurant and then consistently didn’t notice when anyone else entered or wanted to pay and leave the restaurant. People had to keep saying “Excuse me. Excuse me. EXCUSE ME!” to them before they got any service. Great comic relief. I ordered ‘Nikujaga teishoku’ which is a dish of potatoes, thinly cut beef and onions in a thin gravy served with rice, miso soup, salad and pickles. It was just what I needed, and so it tasted so good to me even though it was quite an ordinary dish, if you know what I mean.

After I had finished refilling the tank, I headed into Daitokuji. Daitokuji is not one temple, it is an area where lots of little temples are all clustered together. There are usually between 3-5 of the temples open to the public at any time, while the rest are closed. You have to pay an entry fee for each temple you visit. First I entered a small quiet temple that had raked gravel gardens. Everyone was very quiet and respectful while inside (a rare condition that is found in all the temples in Daitokuji, but is rather rare at other attractions within Kyoto). Photography was allowed. Excellent. Then I went to another temple. Photography was only allowed in the garden. I spent a while padding about in my socks on the balconies surrounding beautiful little buildings while peering into gorgeous little tearooms and stuff. It was quite nice to walk along covered walkways through the cold gardens in my socks. It felt so good to get out of the shoes I had been wearing for several days.

Next I went to Daisen-in, which is a tiny temple containing a very famous raked gravel garden. No photography is allowed inside, so I was very glad I had seen the other gravel garden earlier. I sat down on the edge of the balcony overlooking the garden with my yet again shoeless feet resting on a concrete step. The eaves of the roof were shielding me from the rain that had started to fall again. I was cold and more than tired and I felt sick and it was raining and I ought to have been depressed, but somehow I was happy. I sat there in silence and watched the rain falling on the gravel amongst a few other people I didn’t know who were also looking at the rain and somehow I was so happy I felt like crying, and my physical discomfort only added to my happiness. I really must have been tired. Either that or I am only a few steps away from Enlightenment.

I went for a walk around the cobbled streets of Daitokuji and found a long tree-lined path to walk along that reminded me of the path beside my old primary school in England. Then I walked all the way back to the front again. I had only decided to go to Daitokuji because I had heard that there are few tourists there. I had assumed that it would be a little boring and that I would only spend a short while there before moving on. But instead, I was there for quite a while and I am so glad I went. It was absolutely wonderful.

I had been hoping to take a mountain tram up to a famous hot spring in the mountains north of Kyoto, and although I had the time to go, I did not have the energy. Instead I went back to the station area. I decided to use the public bath that I had heard was located in the basement of Kyoto Tower. It is advertised as ‘the biggest bath in central Kyoto’ and the picture on the poster (an illustration not a photograph) shows a huge, beautiful bath. That has to be the worst case of false advertising I have ever come across. That bath is the smallest public bath I have ever been in. The bath was just a little kidney bean shaped thing that about four people at a time might be able to crowd into. The shower faucets were old-looking, and it was bloody expensive! But I got clean, that is the main thing.

I bought a ticket to Kyoto tower proper and spent quite a while up there peering through the mists with the binoculars trying to see the sights I had visited. I found Kiyomizu-dera, the first place I had visited in Kyoto. It is up on the side of a mountain so it is not hidden behind anything. It was almost hidden in the clouds but I could just see the stage and the flashes of cameras from the top. I remembered that I myself had stood up on the stage and had looked at Kyoto Tower, and I felt that I had neatly wrapped up my holiday. I bought the necessary Kyoto souvenir sweets for my places of work and my English conversation class and then I had dinner in a pasta restaurant in Kyoto station. There were still nearly two hours before I could catch the train, so after I got my bag out of the coin locker I spent a bit more than an hour staring at a ‘water phoenix clock’ thing that was set up near some seats in the station building. It was a big model of a phoenix standing on a clock with pillars of bubbly water behind it. Weird but hypnotic. Then I went through the barrier and waited again for a while until I could board the train. Once I was aboard, I quickly went to bed. The train got to Kisakata at 6.30am and I waited there for an hour until I could catch the five minute train home.
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Kinkakuji

Kinkakuji was built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397. It was converted to a Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect by his son after his death. Kinkakuji has burned down several times, not only in the Onin Wars (when most of Kyoto burned) but also in 1950 as a result of arson. The arsonist was a mentally disturbed monk who was supposed to be looking after the pavillion. Read more about Kinkakuji here and here.







Read more about the day I went to Kinkakuji here.
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Osaka jo Park

The original Osaka Castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi between 1583 and 1598. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since that time. The current concrete reconstruction is based on the version of the castle that was built by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and which was quite different to the Toyotomi version of the castle. Read more about Osaka jo here and here.




Read more about the day I went to Osaka jo here.
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Shitennoji

Shitennoji was built by Prince Shotoku in 593, only a short while after Buddhism was first brought to Japan. The temple is layed out in an archaic style quite unlike modern Buddhist temples. Read more about Shitennoji here and here.




Read more about the day I went to Shitennoji here.
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Sumiyoshi Taisha

Sumiyoshi Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Unlike Ujigami Shrine, which is probably older, Sumiyoshi Taisha is still built in the original pre-Buddhist influence Japanese architectural style. Read more about Sumiyoshi Taisha here and here.









Read more about the day I went to Sumiyoshi Taisha here.
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Day 3: Osaka and Kyoto

On Friday 23rd I had planned to spend the morning sightseeing in Osaka and then, if I had time, heading over to Kyoto for a bit of sightseeing there too. The first place I went in the morning was Spa World, which was right around the corner from my hotel. Spa World is this big huge building with huge spa rooms, swimming pools, gyms, video arcades and all sorts of other crazy things. It is supposed to be a place where you can hang out for hours and hours and relax. The only part I wanted to go to was the spa. Since Spa World is open 24 hours I thought I could just rock up at any time and it would be OK. But when I got there at 8am I found out that the spa is closed between 8.45am and 10am for cleaning. The person at the counter said there were many other things I could do there while the spa was being cleaned, but I didn’t want to do those things, did I? Also I didn’t want to spend all day there, I had sightseeing to do. So I hurried.

I’ll go back in time a little to explain the craziness of the Spa World system, back to when I first entered the building. The main reason I had gone to Spa World is because in March they have 1000 yen deals, whereas during the rest of the year it costs more than 2000 yen to get in. I entered the building and found myself in a big lobby area. A guard immediately came up to me and showed me to the ticket machine. I bought my 1000 yen ticket. The ticket was made of silver plastic and was the size of a credit card. Then the guard showed me to the big huge counter area, which looked like an airport customs area. The guard said to the two people behind a counter “Explain everything to her,” and went back to the door. I gave the plastic ticket to the lady and never got it back (I assume they recycle them). In exchange I got an electronic wrist-strap to wear. The two people at the counter explained to me that the spa would be closing soon. They didn’t explain anything else to me though, even when I made it clear that I can speak Japanese. They just gave me a piece of paper with the floor plan written in English. So I walked into the lobby and all of a sudden the guard is yelling “Oi! Stop!” at me from the other side of the barrier. I freeze. He is pointing at my shoes. Apparently as soon as I had finished at the counter I was supposed to have taken my shoes off. No one had told me that. So I took my shoes off. Then the guard yelled “Oi! Oi!” at me, and whistled to get my attention (which he already had) and pointed to the left of the lobby to show me where the shoe locker area was. So I went there and found that the shoe locker needed to have a 100 yen coin put in it, which I didn’t have. So I started back towards the counter to ask for change. Then the guard whistled at me again and pointed towards a pillar. I walked around the pillar and found a change machine on the other side. So I got my change and put my shoes in a locker and turned around and thought “Now where do I go?” because from the locker area there was no visible way to the rest of the building. Sure enough the guard whistled at me and pointed. The elevators to the rest of the building were tucked in a corner all the way over on the other side of the huge lobby blocked from view from the shoe lockers by the huge airport-like ranks of counters. I was feeling pretty pissed off by this time, from needing to hurry but getting stuck in this crazy system and on top of that getting directed about as if I was a sheepdog, so I strode across the lobby in a way that I haven’t really done while I have been living here in Japan and pushed the call button with more force than necessary. Possibly the fact that I had not yet had any tea to drink that morning had something to do with it.

There are two floors of spas at Spa World, a ‘Western’ spa and an ‘Eastern’ spa. One month women will be in the Western spa and men in the Eastern, and then the next month it changes. When I went there women were in the Western spa. I got my clothes off (and got a second armband with my locker key – my arm felt very loaded down). Then I went to the spa. The first room of the spa area contained a huge circular bath the size of a small swimming pool with huge statues of Greek gods at one side of it. There was a fountain shooting up out of the water and the walls of the room were modelled to look like some type of temple. The water was much too hot for me, so I moved on. I found myself in a small square with a clock in it (8.20am). In front of me was a café. It was closed then because it was so close to closing time, but during the day it must sell drinks (which can be paid for with the wrist-straps). I assume people just sit about naked on the chairs (on their towels, I hope) and have a refreshing drink before continuing with their bathing. There were some other rooms leading off the square to various saunas and massage rooms (paid for with the wrist-strap) which were also closed.

I walked to the left and found a bath that was inside a fake cave. It was all dark in there, and there were very fake-looking paintings on the wall which were supposed to represent scenes viewable from various fake cave mouths. The rocks of the ‘cave’ were painted dark grey. The water in that spa contained honey and milk, which are supposed to be good for your skin. I walked in another direction and found a fake log sauna with ‘outside’ cold bath. The water was VERY cold. I wasn’t game enough to get in. Then I found a room full of roman baths. There were two little herb baths that smelled very nice. They were under little roofs held up by (I think) Ionian columns. I’m not very good at telling the different columns apart. There was another bath in the middle of the room with water that did something but I couldn’t read the sign so I don’t know what it did. The bath was surrounded by four statues that were made to look broken. Coming off that room were the mud baths, but they were closed.

I found another room of baths. The room was called the Atlantis room. It was dark and bluish in there, with big screens on the wall playing aquatic videos accompanied by aquatic music. There were two baths; a fizzy bath with a little waterfall along one side and a detox bath that was also a fish tank. Yes, a fish tank. I don’t mean that there were fish in the bath. The bath was made of Perspex on all sides. Along one side there was a big wall-like fish tank with tropical fish in it. There was also a fish tank UNDER the bath. So one could sit in front of the wall fish tank and look forwards and see fish, and then look downwards and see fish, and feel like one was under the sea. And not drown. Quite nifty, actually, although I think it would be better if there were fish tanks on three sides of the bath, not just one. That would be cool.

In the end it did not matter that the baths closed at 8.45 because by 8.35 I already felt like I had been doing far too much getting into hot water, and that I should really stop before I started to get dizzy. So I rinsed off, got dressed and sat on a seat in the hallway drinking green tea I bought from a vending machine and waiting for my face to stop pulsing with heat it had picked up from the heat of the spas. Then I went to leave. Before you can leave Spa World you have to put the wrist-strap into a machine and pay any extra charges you have racked up on it. There were instructions in English above the machine, but they said ‘Press the correct button’ and a dozen buttons came up on the screen and I couldn’t figure out which one was the correct one. An employee came to help me. I got my exit card which came out of the machine in exchange for the wrist-strap, I got my shoes, and I left the building by putting the plastic card through a wicket thingie and I was finally free. It was 9am.

It took a while to figure out where to board the train I wanted to board to get to Sumiyoshi Taisha. The train that goes there is a Nankai line train, which is the line that goes between Osaka and Kansai Airport. Theoretically that line has a Shin Imamiya stop, but Shin Imamiya combined station is very, very long and the Nankai station area of it was quite a long way away, 300, 400 metres or so, so far that I hadn’t thought that that area was still a part of the station. But I got there. Then I managed to get on a rapid train and overshoot my stop, and I had to get off and wait for a local train to take me back and it took ages, and it was 10am by the time I got to Sumiyoshi Taisha and I was already very sick of Osaka and thinking fondly on the previous day when I was in Nara and things were so much easier.

Sumiyoshi Taisha wasn’t all that great. It felt very old, but I was expecting it to be big because it is described in the Tale of Genji as being a big important shrine. But that was 1000 years ago and it seems as if it has lost a lot of land since then as cities grew up around it. But it had a nice bridge and some huge god-trees, which were nice. Then I travelled to Shitennoji. It turned out that the market was on that day. I had read on the internet that several times a week there is a market ‘around’ the temple, but it turns out that the market is ‘in’ the temple, with only the inner temple area spared from the madness. That’s Osaka for you. I ate a Korean pancake-like thing there, picked up a Danish and a can of grapefruit juice at a nearby bakery and then travelled to Osakajo Park. I ate my Danish and drank my juice, and then I went for a walk. I went far enough into the park to get pictures of Osaka Castle, but I did not go into the castle itself. Osaka Castle is a recent reconstruction, and I’ve heard that the inside is made of concrete. I’m not paying good money to look at concrete.

I caught an express train to Kyoto and then caught the subway and a bus to Kinkakuji. It is very beautiful, but so much so that it looks fake. It is hard to believe that THAT much gold was actually rounded up for the reconstruction. Then I went for a walk to find Gallery Gado, a small museum/shop that sells real modern-day Ukiyou-e. I bought a small print. I own a real Ukiyou-e. I got on a bus that was headed back towards the city centre. It was so full of people and was a very uncomfortable ride. Instead of riding all of the way I had been intending on riding, I got off as soon as the bus stopped somewhere I could transfer to the subway. I ate dinner in that area before taking the subway to somewhere I could catch a train back to Osaka. And that was the end of day three.
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Byodoin

The Byodoin used to be the country retreat of a powerful Fujiwara noble back in the mid-Heian Period, but his son converted it into a Buddhist temple in 1052. Read more about Byodoin and its pavilion the Ho-o-do (Phoenix Hall) here and here.





Read more about the day I went to Byodoin here.
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Uji




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Ujigami Shrine

Ujigami Shrine is thought to be the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. The main building was built in the late Heian period. Read more about Ujigami here and here.







Read more about the day I went to Ujigami here.
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Nara Park







Read more about the day I went to Nara Park here.
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Kasuga Taisha

Kasuga Taisha, established in 768, is the shrine of the Fujiwara clan. Read more about it here.














Read more about the day I went to Kasuga here.

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Todaiji

Todaiji is reputedly the biggest wooden building in the world. The colossal bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana inside the central hall was finished in 751AD (although some bits, such as his hands and head had to be re-cast in later centuries). Read more about Todaiji here and here. (The second link is highly recommended.)














Read more about the day I went to Todaiji here.
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Day 2: Nara and Uji

Thursday the 22nd was also sunny and warm. That was the day I had decided to go to Nara and Uji. Because I wanted to go to two cities, I tried to get up very early in the morning to get an early start, but I just couldn't do it. I was too exhausted after the previous hard day of sightseeing on top of having slept on a train. It was 7.50am by the time I managed to leave the hotel, and therefore pushing nine o'clock by the time I got to Kintetsu Nara station.

I hoped to find something quick to eat for breakfast, for example more rice balls, but as I exited the station I found a 'French cafe' right in front of me beckoning me with its deliciously cafe-ness and I found myself entering the shop without consciously deciding to do so. Which was a good thing, because the cafe also happened to double as a bakery and it had all sorts of yummy things for sale. Then I went to the counter and asked if they had tea (shops in Japan are more likely to have tea than those in America, but it is still safe to ask). The waitress proceeded to fetch out the tea menu for me. Tea menu?! You mean, I'm going to get to start my day on something better than Lipton Yellow Label? Oh, joy! The tea was a little expensive, 600 yen a pot (more expensive than the food I bought) but so worth it. They take their tea seriously there. I ordered Ahmad tea, and the tea that came was not in a teabag but loose leaf with a fancy little contraption to store the leaves in, and the milk was not 'cream that never goes off' in a plastic bubble, nor was it ordinary milk, it was heated, frothy milk in a little jug. Oh, the poshness. In summary, if you are ever in Nara and you feel like you would like to have a cup of tea, go to the French cafe (I've forgotten its name, unfortunately) that is outside Kintetsu Nara station.

After finishing my delightful breakfast I headed in the direction of Todaiji. The road to Todaiji is well signposted. Also, I had studied both maps and Google Earth before leaving to make sure I knew where I was going. When I was nearly at Todaiji, a man walking the other way stopped me and proceeded to talk at me in broken English in a really big voice:

"You go Todaiji? Daibutsu?"
"Uh . . ." said I, because I had been walking along minding my own business and hadn't been expecting anyone to talk to me.
"Todaiji? Todaiji?!"
"Yes . . ."
"Go there. Go left . . ."
At which point I tried to interrupt with "OK, yes," but he ignored me.
"Go left, go, big mon" (mon is the Japanese word for gate) "Go left. Todaiji . . ."

I tried to tell him several more times, in both English and Japanese, that I already knew the way, but he wouldn't listen. He just kept giving the directions to Todaiji (which was right around the corner, so why would I need directions anyway?) until finally he thought he had helped enough and he went on his way. I then walked around the corner and found the outer gate to Todaiji right in front of me, exactly where I already knew it would be, and I walked towards it wondering whether I had been gazing around looking lost, or whether I was looking especially stupid that morning, or if there was some other reason that man had deemed it neccessary to explain to me five times how to go around a corner when I hadn't even asked for directions.

I then proceeded to take pictures of deer. I had heard that the deer in Nara Park have learned to bow to tourists in order to charm food out of them. It is true. The first picture I will post in my 'Todaiji' post is of a deer that bowed to me. I had my camera pointed at it waiting for it to turn its head. While I was waiting it bowed at me. So I bowed at it. Then I took its picture. I know that what it wanted from me was food, but somehow the exchange seemed more like "Yes, you may take my picture." "Why, thank you." Yes, I have an active imagination.

I took some nice pictures as I headed to the main attraction, the Daibutsuden (big buddha hall). There were already quite a few tourists in the Daibutsuden and so it was difficult to take pictures. Then I went into see the Daibutsu (great Buddha). O. M. G. I knew it was big, but I had no idea it was that big! Of course there is no way to take a picture of the Daibutsu that would show just how big it is, because everything around it is huge as well. You can only know if you go there and see it for yourself. But trust me, it is ginormous, and, and, wow . . . it was made over a thousand years ago (apart from the head and hands which had to be replaced later, but even that was done hundreds of years ago). I learned on Wednesday that inside the Daibutsu there is some kind of high tech earthquake-proof system that lets the Daibutsu sway about harmlessly in an earthquake, which is probably one of the major reasons why it had lasted until the present day. Which of course, was also made centuries ago. What an achievement.

Next I went for a walk through the forest uphill to Kasuga Taisha. I took lots of photos along the way (of course). Kasuga Taisha, the ancestral shrine of the Fujiwara clan, is known for its thousands of lanterns. When I got there, the ticket lady told me there was a wedding going on inside. At first I thought she was telling me I couldn't go in, but it turns out I could, she just wanted me to be quiet. The walking path around the shrine goes right past where the weddings are held so I ended up tip toeing past, only a few metres behind the bride and groom. Weird.

After I had finished looking at Kasuga Taisha I went for a wander through Nara Park. On the way I came across another weirdo. He was a man, maybe in his sixties, dressed in a navy polyester suit who was standing with his hand on the back of a young deer. The deer's coat looked a lot healthier than those of the other deer in the park. The man was grinning in an over-the-top sort of way while patting the deer. Then he held his hand out to me and tried to beckon me over. But he wasn't beckoning me in the way one beckons a fellow human, he was beckoning me as if I were an animal with that 'come investigate my hand, maybe I have food in it' gesture. All the while he seemed like he was saying something but actually he wasn't. The sounds coming out of his mouth were not Japanese or English; what he was saying was "He. He. He. He. . . Hoi. Hoi. Hoi." I spent a few moments just looking from him to the deer, probably with a very perplexed expression on my face, trying to figure out what the man thought he was doing, before deciding that it was probably a good idea for me to walk away and not look back.

I eventually found myself in town. By that time it was already lunch time. After finding a quick bite to eat I went to JR Nara station and caught a train to Uji (there are no direct trains on the kintetsu company trains, unfortunately). There was an old guy on the train who had very good English and wanted to chat about school systems and foreign language learning.

When I got to Uji I had a little bit of trouble figuring out which direction to go in because the roads are not laid out in nice grids like in Kyoto and Nara. But eventually I found the Information Centre and got my hands on a map. Once I knew what direction the river was in, I was all set. My first stop was Ujigami shrine, which is one of the oldest shrines in all of Japan. It is a shrine to Emperors who ruled before even the Nara period of Japan had begun, Emperors who are so unknown that whether they ever actually lived is still debated. It felt very old there, all small and dim and with various things and monuments contained within that I have not seen the like of in any other shrines I have visited, although you hear about them in stories of 'the old days' from time to time.

After I saw Ujigami shrine I wandered down the road to the Tale of Genji museum. It was a funny museum. It had no real artifacts, just a few things that people had made using the Tale of Genji as inspiration, a scale model of Genji's palace which is described in the book, replicas of various things that nobles in Kyoto would have possessed a thousand years ago, a life-sized model of Kaoru Genji looking through the gate at the sisters playing music, and a lot of hanging gausy drapery that blew in fake breezes to the sound of ghostly music. A video was shown in a special movie theatre (that was complete with bridge and mist - the theatre I mean, not the movie, although there were bridges and mist in the movie as well). All in all, it seemed as if whoever had bankrolled the museum had a lot of money to throw at it, but the people who had actually made the museum had not been quite sure what to put in it. But it wasn't a total waste of time.

Then I headed back over the river to see Byodoin. The central hall, the Ho-o-do is on the 10 yen coin. On the temple grounds there was a rather nice museum. In fact, the museum is nicer than the temple, because it is filled with things that used to be in the temple but now are not.

Then I made my way back over the river again towards the Keihan Uji station. All the while I was looking for somewhere to eat dinner, but all the establishments near Byodoin sold tea exclusively, the shop near the station that I had seen earlier and thought was a restaurant turned out to be a Japanese-architectured icecream parlour, and the only establishment that was attached to Keihan Uji station was Mr. Donuts. Not willing to eat anywhere near my hotel, I decided to eat donuts for an early dinner and rice balls and fruit later in the evening. And that is what I did.

Oh, and one more thing. Uji was filled with mosquitoes. They were everywhere. I think I swallowed a few.

Pictures of Todaiji
Pictures of Kasuga Taisha
Pictures of Nara Park
Pictures of Ujigami Shrine
Pictures of Byodoin.
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Fushimi Inari Taisha

Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of all the Inari shrines in Japan. Read more about the shrine here and here. I think Inari is a very interesting deity. Sometimes a god, sometimes a goddess, and sometimes a hermaphroditic being, Inari has been linked to rice, to sake, to agriculture and industry, to fertility, wealth and success. Basically, Inari is the god(dess) of the common people, and the common people would pray to Inari for anything and everything that was important to them. Inari shrines are the most common of all shrines in Japan. There are tens of thousands of them. Read more about Inari here and here.









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Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle was built in 1603, and was the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun. The floors of the corridors are the famous nightingale floors, designed to make it impossible for an assassin to sneak up on the Shogun. Read more about Nijo Castle here.









Read more about the day I went to Nijo Castle here.
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The Philosopher's Walk

The Philosopher's Walk is called so because the philosopher Nishida Kitaro used to walk along it while thinking. That's about it really.






Read more about the day I walked the Philosopher's Walk here.
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Ginkakuji

Ginkakuji is a Zen temple that was established in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a Shogun. It was originally his private retreat (which he hid in while Kyoto was ravaged by war) but he decreed that it would become a temple at the time of his death. It is called the Silver Pavillion because it was originally going to be covered in silver to match the Golden Pavillion on the other side of Kyoto, but those plans were put on hold and never resumed. Read more about Ginkakuji here and here.








Read more about the day I went to Ginkakuji here.
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Gion

Gion is the district of Kyoto in which Geisha (or "Geiko") can be found. It is filled with traditional, and exclusive, restaurants. Read more about Gion here.


Read more about the day I went to Gion here.
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Kiyomizu dera

Kiyomizu dera is located on Mt. Otowa, and from there you can see most of Kyoto City. It was founded in the 8th century by the priest Yenchin. The current buildings date to 1633. Read more about Kiyomizu here and here.











Read more about the day I went to Kiyomizu dera here.

README
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Day 1: Kyoto

On the evening of Tuesday 20th I caught the sleeper train to Kyoto. It was quite a comfortable ride, or at least it would have been if I had taken earplugs with me. I got to Kyoto at 6.30am feeling relaxed as if I had just spent the whole night on a massage chair, but tired and with that 'Did I really sleep? I'm not sure' feeling you get when you have had a very disturbed sleep. I had to wait until 7.30 before I could buy my Kansai Surutto Pass which made travel so easy for me for three days. As soon as I did I caught a bus to Kiyomizu dera in eastern Kyoto. It was a bit harsh wandering up the hill to Kiyomizu that early in the morning, but getting there before the crowds was definitely worth it. Always busy, this year Kiyomizu is more popular than ever because it has been shortlisted as a candidate for the New Seven Wonders of the World. But it was nice and quiet when I went there, and I had a lovely wander around the grounds. I discovered when I got there that, although the cherry trees were not yet in bloom, I had been lucky enough to arrive in Kyoto when the plum trees were blooming.

After I had finished looking at Kiyomizu dera, I went for a walk to the Gion bus terminal, taking a few pictures along the way. Then I went to Ginkakuji. It was very sunny and the gardens looked absolutely beautiful. Since it was late morning by that time, there were quite a few tourists. After I left Ginkakuji I walked south along the Philosopher's Walk. It was lovely and sunny, and there was a gentle breeze, and the birds were singing, and it was all just lovely. The cherry trees were not yet blooming so the trees were bare, but that meant that there were not too many people sharing the path with me. In cherry blossom season it must be difficult to keep from being knocked into the water below.

Next I caught a bus (well, actually two) to Nijo Castle. I tried to walk on the nightingale floors without making them squeak, but i couldn't do it. Nijo Castle is very big, and I spent quite a while just walking around it and the gardens.

After that I caught the subway to Shijo and transferred to the Keihan railway and went to Fushimi Inari. (All of these forms of transport are covered under the Kansai Surutto ticket, so I didn't need to bother with buying tickets or anything.) Fushimi Inari Taisha (grand shrine) is the head of all the Inari shrines of Japan. All the vermillion gates there are donated by companies of Japan. After I had done enought wandering around the hills behind the shrine, I went and ate kitsune udon at a shop outside. Kitsune udon is udon noodles cooked with a slice of fried beancurd on top. Fried bean curd is said to be the favourite food of foxes (kitsune), and Inari is the god/goddess of foxes, among other things. The noodles were very nice and warm and tasty after a day of eating rice balls. I bought some fruit, caught the train back to Kyoto station (unfortunately having to take the JR line, which is not covered under the Surutto pass) got my bag out of the coin locker I had left it in that morning and then took a Hankyu company train to Osaka to check into my hotel.

Pictures of Kiyomizu dera
A picture of Gion
Pictures of Ginkakuji
Pictures of the Philosopher's Walk
Pictures of Nijo Castle
Pictures of Fushimi Inari Taisha
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The old port town

I have had a whole string of Blogger tragedies today. First, I couldn’t upload photos to blogger. I decided to just write about the trip I went on yesterday and to post the pictures later. So I wrote and I wrote and then I clicked ‘publish’ and . . . I found that the town network is now blocking the post function of blogger, and I will no longer be able to blog from work. So I clicked ‘back’ to get back to my text, but of course when you click back in blogger, you go back to a blank page and everything you have written disappears. Damn. So now I will write about yesterday for the second time. This time what I write will no doubt be shorter.

Yesterday I went with Sumiko to Sakata, a city just south of here in northern Yamagata Prefecture. Sumiko wanted to see Hina dolls, because there is a special type of doll that is made in Sakata, which is only made in two other places in Japan, neither of them near here. We also did a bit of sightseeing and some shopping while we were there.


First we went to an old building that used to be an ‘entertainment establishment’ i.e. a restaurant with geisha. The second floor of that building is now being used as a Hina doll showroom. The special dolls of Sakata are made of stuffed silk, and rather than looking like a traditional handcraft, they look more like modern plushies that could be bought at a shop. Each type of doll has a special meaning, e.g. the turtle is for longevity. I bought a ‘make your own turtle’ kit, not specifically because I want to wish for a long life (although I’m not ‘not’ wishing for one either) but because I think turtles are cute.


(Btw, the first one is a peach.)

Next we went to a place that used to be the workplace and living quarters of a big shipping merchant in Sakata. I learned yesterday that Sakata was not just any port on the way from Kyoto to Hokkaido, it was the main port. Hence the town has a long and rich history. The shipping merchant was quite rich himself, too. The house was very impressive. It had a very interesting roof. It had a wood layer, a dirt layer and another wood layer (which is normal) but then on top were thousands of potato-sized rocks, which were to weigh the roof down and hold it on in the strong Sakata wind.


Next we went to the Honma Mansion. The Honma family were the major landowners of the area. Not only did they have the biggest property in Sakata, or even in Tohoku. Apparently at one time they were the biggest, and assumingly the richest, land owners in Japan. I guess the Emperor and the Shogun were not included in the count and that the Honma family came after them. The house was huge, and it was just a family residence. There were tea rooms next to tea rooms. Who needs more than one? I liked the kitchen. It was cavernous and stained black from centuries of cooking smoke. It felt so real. But altogether the house still felt like a house and not a palace. I think that the building was only the main one and that there used to be many more smaller buildings. Even so, I would have assumed the biggest land owner in Japan to have a bigger house than that. Maybe the Honma were so rich because they didn’t waste all their money on building huge, unnecessary palaces.

Next we went to see the old Sakata rice granaries, which are still in use. The outside is old and the inside is all new. They are situated on the riverbank, not far from the port. It was very windy and cold there.


After that we lost our taste for sightseeing and went shopping instead. I “accidentally” bought a portable Panasonic USB DVD writer drive. It is tiny. It is smaller than most Discmans. Actually it is the DVD drive that was an optional extra I could have bought with my Panasonic computer two years ago had I not thought it was too expensive. Yesterday I bought it for just over half the price it was available for, even as a part of a package, two years ago. That was with a Yamada Denki customer point card discount. I love Yamada Denki.
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Hina Dolls

These are dolls that were on display at Kamagadai in the lead up to Hina Matsuri. They are the nicest Hina dolls I have seen outside of a museum.









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Some pictures I took last week





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Lost and/or gained in translation

Winter quite randomly arrived this week. There is more snow today than there was in all of winter except a few days back in December. And it's cold.

Researching the Kyoto area in preparation for my trip has made me wonder about the history of the area that I live in. The history of this area is not very well known, and little of what is known has been translated into English. This is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject. But on Tuesday I suddenly realised that I could just run the Japanese page through Babel Fish. Why am I so stupid? Why have I never thought of trying Babel Fish out before? Anyway, try running this page through Babel Fish and see how much information is there. Unfortunately it turns into very strange English because a lot of terms that aren't supposed to be translated literally, such as place names and people names, are. So I have to double check by rikai.com. This is going to take a while.

Last night only two students came to my English class because of the weather, so we didn't have a proper lesson. I asked about the history of the area and Doi-san told me a little about the history of kisakata. The ships that carried rice north to Hokkaido from the south and then returned carrying seaweed used to stop at Kisakata. They also stopped at Nikaho and Sakata. (I should draw a map later). Kisakata was then as it is now, a sand beach, so the ships would moor out at sea and the people would come to the shore in longboats. There was also a checkpoint on the northward highway (now Route 7) in Kisakata, so some trade was done.

There were two major famines in Kisakata. For about twelve years starting at about 1710 the summers were cool and the winters warm, which made the rice crops rot in the ground. For most of those years there was no harvest. People ate mountain herbs and such, and because snow did not fall they continued eating them through winter, right down to the root, and so nothing grew in spring. It was a very tough time. Then the same thing happened again ninety years ago.

Doi-san also said that fifteen years ago all the cedar trees on the hill above Kisakata blew down in large typhoon no. 19. The hills and the lower slopes of Mt. Chokai looked white because of the bark of the fallen cedar trunks.

Doi-san knows a lot of things. I ought to try and get her to talk about history more often.
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Anti-internationalism

Yesterday I went to the Elementary school. I had a class with the sixth-grade students in which we played a passport game. I made the kids practice asking and answering these questions:

What is your name?
Where are you from?
How old are you?
Where are you going?

Therefore, as well as doing something fun and reviewing previous lessons, it was also a good way to make the kids think of something beyond the borders of Japan. I showed them pictures from many countries, and they had to decide which one they wanted to visit. During the role-playing activity at the end of class, the kids were all using English enthusiastically. Also, they had done very well at thinking outside the square. Sure, there were a disproportionate number of children who wanted to go to America or England, but there were also children who said they want to go to Egypt, Russia, Iceland, Mongolia, Peru . . . In short, a good lesson.

Until the end of class when the homeroom teacher DESTROYED ALL MY GOOD WORK!!! He decided to take the time at the end to point out that ‘foreigners’ are not as kind as Japanese people; in fact they are very scary. He told the kids to learn the dialogue and all other essential English off-by-heart, absolutely perfectly before even thinking about going overseas, otherwise they will get yelled at by scary airport staff. He told them about the time he went to Hawaii on a tour and a ‘big black lady’ was yelling “Hurry up! Hurry up!” at them to get them moving. If I know anything about Japanese people, I know that a group of them in an unfamiliar situation will stand where they are left, blocking the way for people, collectively thinking “What to do? What to do?” and waiting for one of their number to make the first move, so the airport lady was probably quite justified at telling them to hurry up. But even if Mr. Sixth-grade Teacher has been yelled at in Honolulu airport, that doesn’t mean that he should tell his students about it and scare them into spending their whole lives hiding in Japan and never going out to see what the rest of the world has to offer. Jerk.
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Point and Click

On Monday I had a day off because I had worked the day before (it had been snow walk day). I did nothing much. On Tuesday I went to Kamagadai. It was lovely and sunny and snowy too. The scenery was absolutely breath-taking. But not very photographable. I tried taking pictures of Mount Chokai in all it’s glory, but my camera had difficulty telling the sky and the mountain apart. Here are some photos. They do not do the view justice, but they are the best I could do with my point-and-click, filterless camera.







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Nobu Shirase

Last Sunday was the annual Konoura town Nobu Shirase memorial snow walk.

Nobu Shirase was a man born in Konoura who led one of the expeditions to the South Pole in late 1911, early 1912. Everyone knows about Roald Amundsen, who got there in December 1911 and returned safely, and Robert Scott, who got there in January 1912 and died on the way back, but no one remembers Nobu Shirase. I just checked Encarta Encyclopedia. He has no entry.

Nobu Shirase, the virtually unknown Japanese polar explorer, had serious troubles with funding his expedition. He did a lot of fundraising, and yet did not manage to raise much money at all. Not one to give up, he borrowed a lot of money and then went anyway. His boat was made out of wood. It was a miracle it was not crushed by ice in the Southern Ocean. His equipment was primitive compared to Scott’s, but ultimately better, because he used arctic dog fur and other natural materials to make his party’s clothing, which was much better than anything man could make at the time.

Shirase did not lose a single man on his expedition. But he never made it to the South Pole. He ran into bad weather, and then heard that Amundsen had already reached the Pole. Not willing to risk his men’s lives for a dream that had already been crushed, he turned back, and that is why the world forgot about him.

When Shirase returned to Japan in defeat, he immediately set about paying back all the money he borrowed. It took him the rest of his life to do it. He toured Japan giving talks about his adventures and about Antarctica, but because no one knew who he was, no one ever gave him much money. His wife stayed here in Konoura raising all their children (I think there were six of them) alone. His descendants are among my students.

After Nobu Shirase died, some Norwegians (I think they were Norwegians) came to Japan to find out what had happened to the third contender for the pole, and through their efforts the story of Nobu Shirase was brought once more to light. This tiny town on the coast of Northern Japan heard all about the remarkable and disciplined man that had been born amongst them. Now there is a Shirase Memorial Museum in Konoura, and every year on January 28th (which I think is the day he turned back) the children of Konoura walk through the snow from the museum to the small shrine in Konoura where Nobu Shirase was born.

This year the walk was a bit strange. There was no snow, and it was sunny and warm, so it was not much of a snow walk really. But we went anyway and paid our homage to a man who was overlooked and forgotten for most of his life, but who really did not deserve to be.

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Cultural Oddities

I talk a lot on this blog about my life in Japan as if it were just ordinary life. Which it is. To me. But of course, not everyone has lived in, or even been to Asia. I should probably talk about some of the oddities or just plain ‘different’ things that I encounter in my life here, simply because someone else may find it interesting.

The first has to do with how well people are capable of growing used to things, given enough time. You know, I get a shock every morning when I go to clean my teeth and see my face in the bathroom mirror. Why? Because I can clearly see the difference between the irises and pupils of my eyes. Everyone I see on almost any given day is Japanese, and has dark brown eyes. I am the only person I see in a day who does not have brown eyes. My own eyes freak my sleep-addled brain out. How weird is that?

The other year, before I knew much Japanese, some people were having a conversation about something or other in the staff room at the Jr. High. I wasn’t really listening, because I could not understand what they were saying. All of a sudden the English teacher held out a box of coloured pencils and asked me to pull out the pencil which I thought of as ‘skin colour.’ I pulled out the peachy, flesh coloured pencil, of course. Some people said ‘yappari’ (I thought so), and some others went ‘heeeeeh’ (a noise made to express surprise). The people who said heeeeeh had been expecting me to pick either the white colour pencil or the pink one. Mostly the white one, I think. Because, you know, all foreigners overseas are paper white (despite the fact that the ones who come to Japan aren’t).

People still complement me on my amazing chopstick-wielding skills. Or are surprised to find that I like umeboshi. And noodles. And rice. And that I don’t eat hamburgers, or even bread, every day.

My diet has changed since I have been in Japan. This past half year or so, my diet has been more Japanese than Western, and I don’t just mean the school lunches. I eat lots of stews and soups for dinner, made from mostly vegetables, a lot of which I never really ate before, bulked out with things like tofu and processed fish sticks, or with dim sums or Chinese dumplings as a side dish. Vegetables I eat a lot of now: carrots, leeks, potatoes, spinach, onions (that’s normal enough), but also Chinese cabbage, Japanese parsley, various forms of seaweed, weird skinny mushrooms and other assorted fungi, and lots of root vegetables we don’t really have in NZ such as ‘nagaimo’ (a super slippery sword-length vegetable) and burdock root (which I eat as often as carrots, and maybe more often than potatoes). The only meal for me in a normal day which is not at least half Japanese is breakfast; I am still eating cereal.

When there is no snow there is no winter, and at the moment there is no snow. I can’t quite believe that I already think this way, considering that before I moved to Northern Japan, I had never lived in a place where winter snows could be depended upon. We were lucky to get more than one day of snow a year in Crawley, and from the age of eleven onwards, I only ever saw snow from a great distance, i.e. on distant mountains.

Most people make me feel welcome here in Japan, but every now and then I’ll be walking down the street and someone coming towards me will cross to the other side so they don’t have to get close to me, despite the fact that there is only a footpath on one side of the road.

You will not believe some of the things I have been served at work parties. I once got served a part of an eel’s head in sauce. There was this eye as big as mine right in the middle of it looking up at me. Raw fish guts make an occasional appearance. There was also this time when I found a little bowl of white lumpy stuff that looked like curdled cream on my tray. I asked what it was. The maths teacher told me what it was, but I didn’t understand the word. So he said in Japanese, “You know how we can eat fish eggs?”
“Yes,” said I.
“That comes from a lady fish.”
“Yes . . .”
“Well, this comes from a man fish.”
Yay, fish sperm on my plate.

It is not safe to order chicken kebabs in Japan, unless you are very knowledgeable on the specific terms for different parts of avian anatomy. You are just as likely to get chicken skin on a stick, chicken feet on a stick, chicken hearts on a stick, chicken cartilage (sans meat) on a stick or chicken necks on a stick as you are chicken muscle meat on a stick.

In Japan, fish is not meat. It is totally acceptable to serve fish to a known vegetarian.

Even my male Jr. High students have little cute things hanging from the zippers of their pencil cases. They would get beaten up in NZ. Oh, and speaking of strange Jr, High boy behaviour, boys here like to sit on each others’ knees and play with each others’ hair. I’ve often wondered about this, and I think the reason is that most Japanese people seem to believe that there are no gay Japanese people, that it’s a foreign phenomenon. Therefore they don’t have to worry about being labelled a ‘fag’ or whatever. I suppose that boys may act more free in expressing affection, i.e. more like girls, in any society that is free from homophobia. Or maybe it is just that most of the young popular male actors on TV here are so damned effeminate.

I cannot find CDs in CD stores here. I am in Japan, but I order all my Japanese music online. I know what order the CDs should be listed in: a, i, u, e, o, ka, ki . . . , but even so I can never find anything. It is not just because everything is written in Kanji. I was looking for a CD by the Yoshida Kyodai, who are two brothers who play the shamisen in a ‘cool and hip’ way. I made sure I knew what kanji their name is written in before I went to the store, and what the pictures on the front of their CDs look like. I looked under the ‘a’ to ‘wa’ Popular category at every single CD in the ‘yo’ section, to no avail. So I went to check the Classical section. Again, no Yoshida brothers. At a long shot I checked under Jazz/Blues. Nothing. These guys are super popular in Japan. I cannot believe that a largish CD store would not be carrying their CDs. Looks like I will have to put in an order with amazon.co.jp again.

The setting sun really is red here in Japan, just like on the flag. I think it has something to do with Chinese pollution or sand from the Gobi Desert. I have tried to take pictures of the sun, but as I’m sure everyone is aware, you cannot take good pictures of the sun or the moon with point-and-click cameras. They shrink down to little blobs.

Japanese people think that the rules of cricket are far too difficult to learn. “They throw a ball at those sticks, right? But how do people get home runs? And what’s with the number with the decimal point in it?” I’ve tried explaining cricket to people, but before I’ve finished they say “But one game goes on for a week, right? Too long, too long,” and they stop listening and start smiling and nodding. As in “I’m never going to have time to sit down and watch five days, or even one day of the same game, so why bother learning the rules?”

My friend Atsuko thinks I’m a dirty foreigner. This statement may need a little historical backup. You see, Japan has an abundancy of water. Japanese people have never really had to worry about water shortages. Therefore, a rather interesting *coughwastefulcough* bathing culture has emerged here. Japanese people, each and every day, have both a shower and a bath. First they wash themselves completely under the shower. Then they get into a big steaming bath to soak and relax for a few minutes. No soap or flannels are allowed in the bath. No washing occurs. This is because in a family household all people will use the same bathwater, so everyone has to be absolutely clean before they get into the water, and leave the water clean for the next person. People who live alone still go through the whole ritual. That is a shower and a full steaming bathful (right up to the shoulders) worth of water to wash only one person each and every day. I think that is bloody wasteful, so unless I have a cold and really want a bath, I will only have a shower, just like before I came to Japan.
Now, this is where Atsuko’s opinion of me comes in. She thinks that because I only have a shower and not a bath every day that I am dirty. And that I can’t help it, because that’s just how gaijin are. I tried bringing up the point that, if a Japanese person has to clean themselves fully under a shower before getting in the bath then surely a shower alone is perfectly capable of getting a person clean. But she can’t see it. No bath, no clean, is the Japanese point of view.

In Japan, everything comes in oodles and oodles of packaging; such as on a tray, in plastic, inside a plastic wrapped cardboard box; or in a bottle that is wrapped in plastic; or on a tray in a bag, with each individual item (e.g. biscuit) individually wrapped in plastic. I’ve heard that all of this stuff can be recycled, but where? I think that some towns have a day for plastic collection, where all the plastic wrappings can be put out together, but my town doesn’t. I’ve also heard that a lot of the plastic wrappers can be put out with the PET bottles, but I had a peek at other peoples’ rubbish on PET bottle day, and all people were putting out was bottles. So I throw huge mountains of plastic away every week on the ‘burnable rubbish’ day because I don’t know what else to do with it. And I thought that Japan was supposed to be leading the world with its recycling capabilities.

Japanese people typically don’t have gardens. They buy a small plot of land and fill the whole thing up with a huge house. They can look right out their kitchen windows into the kitchen of the house behind theirs. No cooking in your pajamas in Japan.

Speaking of Japanese houses, people here don’t seem to believe in insulation. The specialists all apparently believe that insulation, although it would be nice to have in the cold Japanese winters, would keep houses hot in the hot Japanese summer. Which is a fallacy. Insulation helps to keep the heat out in summer, does it not? How the entire building industry in a country can fail to learn from the accepted wisdom of many other countries and also fail to do tests and learn for themselves such a basic fact, I do not know. As a result, the whole Japanese population suffers from hot summers and cold winters, even inside their own homes, and has to pay a fortune in heating and cooling because half the heat from their heaters escapes to the outside, as well as half the cooling power of their air conditioners. In summer, the cans in my kitchen cupboard are warm to the touch, all chocolate has to be kept in the fridge (which I don’t like doing because cold chocolate doesn’t taste as nice) and I can’t use my computer for very long or it will overheat. In winter I spend a small fortune running my heater enough to keep my breath invisible, but all the while the snow (when there is some) melts along the wall that my heater is set against.

A lot of people here, when they meet me for the first time assume that I am American. They ask stupid questions like “Do people eat sushi in America?” and I’ll say “I don’t know, I’ve never been there,” even though I know quite well that there are plenty of sushi restaurants in America, and I have in fact been to Hawaii, which is (politically) a part of America.

People seem to think that New Zealand is a dry, hot, flat country like Australia. They don’t seem to believe me when I say that NZ is green and has a lot of rain. Not until I remind them of The Lord of the Rings, anyway. They also seem to think that koalas may be found in NZ. I will admit that this problem is not limited to Japan, but in fact affects most of the world.

Apparently I speak ‘The Queens English’ as all Brits, Kiwis and Aussies do. Of course all our English is exactly the same. North American English being so different to make all other Englishes look essentially the same merely by comparison has nothing to do with it. Actually, I hear that ‘Queen’s English’ phrase a lot. I wonder where they are all getting it from.

There are no trolleys in supermarkets here in Japan. None that I’ve seen, anyway. They have baskets and little wheeled frames to put the baskets on if you happen to be old or have trouble walking. But no trolleys. Why? Every household does grocery shopping every day, that’s why.

And speaking of trolleys, Atsuko told me that Americans just put anything in their shopping trolleys without even looking at what it is. Um, what am I supposed to make of that? I assume she got that idea from watching American movies, where the actor doing the shopping has to look at the actor of the character they are having a conversation with, as well as keep their face turned kind of towards the camera. I wonder if Atsuko thinks that ‘Americans’ don’t watch the road when they drive because people on TV are always looking at the person in the passenger seat.

And speaking of roads, many Japanese people seem to think they are the only left hand drivers in the world.

Oh, and roads don’t have names here in Japan, which makes it very difficult to find a place you have never been to before. Addresses look like this in Japan: Akita City (city level), Higashi Akita (district level), Omachi (section of a district encompassing, in my area at least, about 10 streets), 350-89-2A (a code that indicates which particular building within the area of 10 streets, and also room number if the building is an apartment building). These numbers are not written on peoples’ houses like street numbers in other countries, nor are they written on street signs. In big cities the number for that block may be written on the corners, but not out here in the country. Therefore the only people who addresses are actually helpful for are postal workers who have charts and diagrams on their office walls and in their vans telling them the code of each building in their area. Oh, a lot of people have the family surname written on the letterbox, but since half of all Japanese people are called ‘Satou’ or ‘Sasaki’ that doesn’t really help. If you tell a Japanese person how, back home, all streets have names and all buildings on the street are numbered linearly so you just have to walk down the street until you get to the right place, they go “Wow, that’s such a good idea! I mean, you could find someone’s house without them having to send you a map first!”

I guess about 95% of Japanese people can play a musical instrument, and I don’t just mean the kazoo.

Japanese people on the whole eat a lot of food and yet remain skinny. But a lot of young people these days practically starve themselves, and are on average about 0.5kg lighter than their noodle- and fried shrimp-loving brethren. I don’t know why they bother.

Any stream in Japan bigger than a trickle in a ditch has concrete banks.

Hot, canned, sweet milky coffee is very popular here. It is available in vending machines all over the country. I have to wonder what on earth they are putting in the coffee to stop the milk from going off as it sits for weeks on end in a perpetually heated can.

Vending machines can be found anywhere in this country. There are of course vending machines in the places you would expect to find them; outside stations and sports gyms etc. But you can also find vending machines placed randomly on residential streets, clustered at the side of the road in the middle of all these rice fields without a building in sight, overlooking a particularly nice beach, or even high up on the side of mountains! Most vending machines sell drinks. A select few sell snacks. There are also vending machines that sell tobacco or alcohol, and these vending machines are also placed in random areas, with no way to make sure that kids are not among the customers. Then there are the types of vending machines that just make you go ‘Huh?’ such as egg vending machines, which tend to be large and bulky, and inside their own little building. Or bouquet vending machines, just in case you wake up and suddenly realise it’s your anniversary and you haven’t bought a present yet. Apparently, before I came to Japan there was a vending machine behind Akita Station that sold used panties, but it’s gone now. 1,500 yen for nylon or polyester, or 2,500 yen for nice scent-retaining cotton. Yuck! That kind of thing is usually found in ‘omoshiroi’ shacks, these little tin huts found on inter-town roads that have the word ‘omoshiroi’ (interesting) painted on the side. They typically have one parking space hidden behind some bushes, and inside they are filled with vending machines selling everything from magazines to DVDs to the aforementioned underwear. I remember being told about ‘omoshiroi’ shacks half a dozen times when I was new here. It is a story foreigners living here just love to tell, one of those “OMG Japan is so weird!” stories.

Japanese people peel their grapes before they eat them, because apparently they are covered in pesticides. They also peel their apples, pears, and any other fruit that I would normally eat the skin of.

I had a lot of trouble last week trying to convince someone that I have no religion, that I am in fact an atheist with very slight agnostic tendencies. Actually, I don’t think I convinced her at all. She just kept saying “No, I think you’re a Christian.” When I said I was never baptised, she said “I think you’re lying.” But then this was the crazy woman who randomly sent me three bowls of ramen one weekend, and who keeps leaving books in my letterbox that I don’t want to read.
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The Forces of Nature

Something rather rare and frightening happened in Konoura today.

The weather forecast for today was for rain. Throughout the morning it was drizzling. A little after 1.30 I was sitting in the staff room typing on my computer. Also in the staff room were Hosoya-san and Machiko-san sitting behind me by the window; a female teacher called Aiba-sensei sitting across from me; and to my left with their backs to the door and to a set of equipment (the school bell system and the surveilance system screen) were two male teachers. All of a sudden there was this click sound just like a camera shutter and a flash like a camera flash. It seemed to be coming from one of the two men, Hiroshi-sensei's direction, and all four of us women thought that he took a picture of us and made to turn our heads to find out why he would do that. But a fraction of a second later there was this HUGE crash of thunder. (It's times like that when you realise just how fast the human mind thinks; that most people can have several complete distinct thoughts in a row in such a small time that the body's reflexes don't even have time to react is something that I find fascinating.) We all jumped up and kind of went 'wow!' and compared stories. The two men had no idea until we told them that to our eyes it looked as if the lightning had come from them. We at first assumed that lightning had struck behind the school and we had seen it flashing through the glass panel of the door from the window in the corridor just outside the door. But then Togashi-sensei came into the staffroom and said he had been looking out a window when the lightning struck and it had shot up from somewhere to the west, which is in front of the school, in the opposite direction. (Did you know that lightning bolts go upwards? Not everyone does.) About this time Mitsunori-sensei (the other male teacher who had been sitting next to Hiroshi-sensei) started saying that he had a sore back. We wondered if the flash had come from the equipment behind the two teachers, but we couldn't see any damage. The surveilance TV was still working fine. All the computers were fine. We all ran around checking to make sure that there was no damage or anything in the school; no blown lights or singed areas, stuff like that. Nothing.

Togashi-sensei could not say how far away the lightning had struck. All he could say was that it was beyond the train line. There is only about half a kilometer of land between the train line and the ocean, if that. We all sat back down at our desks and had a (tension-relieving) laugh about how Aiba-sensei, Machiko-san, Hosoya-san and I had all thought that Hiroshi-sensei had taken a photograph. We were all still feeling shocked; there had been no lightning that day so we were not at all prepared for it. About ten minutes after the lightning struck, the sirens started. Uh-oh, somethings on fire. There was an announcement over the town speakers saying which neighbourhood the fire was located in. The two male teachers started going through the student records checking how many children lived in the area, while the rest of us went to the window, peered through the sheets of rain that had been coming down since the lightning struck and saw that there was indeed a column of smoke starting to rise to the sky. At first the teachers were saying that they did not think many of the students lived near there, but when they checked the records they found they were wrong; many students live in that neigbourhood. A call came to the school from somewhere telling the name of who the house was registered to. The teachers started to go back through the record again looking at each child from the areas' father's name. At first they thought there were no students affected, but then it was noticed that one of the second grade boys grandfather's name matched. Less than a minute later another call came through confirming that yes, that boy lived in the house that was on fire. Someone double-checked with the elementary school and found that the boy's little sister had already been taken to the house by her teacher (I don't know, to watch it burn I suppose). The boy was taken out of class, sat in the Principal's office for a few minutes with a glass of water, and then the second grade dean took him down too. I think the fire had been put out by that stage. As an aside, every single student in the school knew what had happened to whose house about 30 seconds after the boy himself knew despite the teachers trying to keep it hush.

Many other students were worried about their own houses. It turns out that on every side of the lightning-struck house (both sides, behind and across the road) for several doors down are the houses of other students. But luckily for them the fire did not spread. If heavy rain had not followed the lightning, who knows what could have happened? The firestation for Nikaho City is close to Konoura, but the house is in an area of town with narrow winding streets so it still took the firetrucks long precious minutes getting there.

It was just chance. If lightning strikes enough, sooner or later it is going to hit someone's house and set it on fire. That's just how nature works.

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Kiritanpo

The other week I made kiritanpo for myself for dinner one night. Kiritanpo is a traditional dish of Akita Prefecture.

The ingredients I used were:
Chicken soup stock that came in a packet from the supermarket

Kiritanpo. These are made of rice that has been wrapped around a stick and then lightly grilled by an open fire.

They are cut like this before being cooked.Chicken
Vegetables. Specifically, leek, chinese cabbage, Japanese parsely (both leaves and roots), burdock root and long white mushroom thingies.
Here it all is boiling.
And here it is served.
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Kanmanji part 1

(I actually wanted this post and the one below it to be in the same post, but I had too many pictures and it didn't fit. Please keep reading down as if it were one post.)

Yesterday both Atsuko and I were bored, so we decided to do painting. First we had lunch in Kisakata. On the way back, as we were passing the turn off for Kanman Temple, Atsuko said "Do you want to see the temple?" I said I did, so we turned around and went back.

Here is a statue of Basho, a famous poet (artist?) who came to Kanmanji however many hundreds of years ago.
Before I show you the rest of the photos, I should tell you a little bit about the history of this area so you know what you are looking at. In the past, both Kisakata and Konoura were actually the sea. About 2500 years ago, a large eruption of Mt. Chokai blew a large hole in the side of the mountain. The rock that was blown off the mountain fell down in large island-sized boulders into the nearby ocean, creating the famous '99 islands of the north' (of which there were actually 103. They were named after the 'real' 99 islands, which are somewhere near Nagasaki I believe.) The density of these islands caused the water between them to be more like a lagoon than the open sea.

A long time ago, I heard 1200 years, the original Kanman Temple (Kanmanji) was built on the largest of the islands. The road to the front gate ran along a beach. Waves lapped at the feet of the graveyard. Since the island was made out of one giant rock, the ground was solid and dry enough for such things.

A couple of hundred years ago, a large earthquake raised this whole area up. The lagoon drained, creating the land that Konoura and Kisakata sit on today. But that left the islands stranded on dry land. You can still see them today. They still look very definitely like islands. Islands sitting amidst a sea of rice.

This stone bench at the side of the old road used to be on the shore. People could sit here and look out over the sea, and the 99 islands.
Here are a few islands. You can see that they are certainly islands and not hills.
Here is the old road up to the front gate. Now the road approaches from another angle. I am not to sure why there was an old road. I mean, who needed to use it when everyone approached the island from the other side by boat? I guess it's just traditional for a temple to have one of these.
Japanese people are so hospitable they even give clothes to their statues.
Continued below . . .
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Kanmanji Part 2

This plant took my fancy. I asked Atsuko to pose with it so you can see just how big it is.

I like this picture.
This is a bell tower.
This post used to be what visiting boats were tied to, back when this was a beach.
This tree is 1000 years old.
I thought this building looked delightfully shabby. It looks haunted.
But a good angle makes the other half of the building look rather nice.
The 1000 year old tree from a distance.
Kanmanji is painted in an archaic colour scheme. The purpose of the red paint is to scare demons away.
This appears to be a family memorial. The jars on the side are urns for ashes.
I have known for a long time about the geological history of the area, but I have never seen it so clearly as I did yesterday. I could almost see the sea that had once been there.

After Kanmanji, Atsuko and I went back to Atsuko's house and did some painting. Then we decided to buy gyoza from Nikaho Max Valu for dinner. Just as we got to the car park, a call came from Toshi. He said he had just bought a shabu-shabu pot, so the three of us ended up eating dinner together. We had shabu-shabu and gyoza.
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The Lost Children

Out of the 45 first grade students we have at Konoura Jr. High, only 40 can be said to come to school on a regular basis. The other five children, for one reason or another, feel that they cannot face the pressures of Jr. High life. I don't quite understand what happened. All the students attended Elementary fine. One of the girls was in the English club there, and I remember her as an insanely energetic, confident girl who was always laughing. Now she is shy and introverted. What is more scary is that the change occured over the two weeks between the end of Elementary and Jr. High.

Another of the boys was also a confident young fellow at Elementary. He came to the Jr. High every day for the first month of term and then all of a sudden he just disappeared. On the few days he does come to school he looks absolutely terrified, as if he is ready to burst into tears at any moment.


Another student had a physical disability last year which held him back for a while. He is fine now, but he is emotionally in an even worse state than the other lost children. If his mother drops him off at school he refuses to enter the building and then runs back home.


Why is this happening? Is it the stress? I know that Japanese kids are under more pressure than NZ kids are. But apart from the boy who dissappeared after one month of Jr. High, the kids were not even at school enough to find out just how much stress they would personally be under. There is something else going on with them, and it scares me sometimes.


I was watching the news the other day, and there was a segment about these lost children. Apparently this year there are 120,000 Elementary and Jr. High kids in Japan who refuse to go to school. 120,000? Sure Japan has a lot of people, but that is what, 3 or 4% of all school children? More? That's insane! Apparently these children are studying through correspondence courses, but why should they have to?


I personally think that the lack of proper counselling and mental health awareness in Japan may be a major cause of this problem.



* * *

On a lighter note today I ate a half-sponge-half-cheesecake, with chopsticks. Because, you know, I am Japanese.
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The Pirate of Konoura

Every week after my evening English class, my friend Atsuko drives me home. We then sit in her car and gossip for a while. There are several reasons for this. One; Atsuko's car is very comfortable. Two; we can look at the weirdos that come out at night. There are plenty of late night power-walkers, of course. One of my neighbours gets home at 9.30pm and then always leaves again two minutes later. Why? But the strangest sight of all has to be Mr. Yamada. He is the caretaker of the community centre where my English class is held. After he locks up, he must go home for a while and then set out on his evening stroll. Every Wednesday we see him walk past at about 10pm. With a BIRD on his shoulder. Yes, he takes his pet bird for a walk.

Last night for some I reason felt like going for a walk too. I saw Mr. Yamada by the fitness gym, squatting on the ground. He was picking his bird up off the ground and putting it back on his shoulder. Of course, I immediately thought of the Dead Norwegian Parrot. Is Mr. Yamada's parrot alive, and it for some reason hopped of his shoulder and onto the ground? If so, why doesn't it fly away? Or maybe it's a dead parrot, and the whole situation is even more bizarre that it seems at first.
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The Sapporo Yosakoi Soran Matsuri

After months of practice, tens of thousands of yen and many hours of muscle aches it was finally time for me to go to Sapporo to perform in the Yosakoi Soran Matsuri. It was a trip filled with fun times and difficult times, but all in all it was an experience I would repeat again in an instant.

I am a member of two yosakoi soran teams; the Kisakata team Kafumai and Saihoku Repputai, a team from Wakkanai City at the most northern point in Hokkaido. It was Saihoku Repputai that went to Sapporo. Although the core of the team and most of the members live in Wakkanai, there are also members in Sapporo, Honjo, Nikaho (who are members of Kafumai too) and there are a few members in Yuza machi (Yamagata ken). We study the year’s dance by video in three separate groups, Wakkanai, Sapporo and Tohoku, and only join together as one team for the big festivals.

On the morning of Friday, 9th of June, the Tohoku members who were going to Sapporo met at Akita airport. There were two people from Yuza, ten from Nikaho City (mostly from Kisakata) and two people from Honjo. We flew to New Chitose Airport, took the train into Sapporo and then took another train clear out the other side of Sapporo to meet the rest of the team and to practice in a small town hall somewhere. Afterwards we all went back to Sapporo together and checked into our hotel. I ate Sapporo ramen that evening. I think I am going to have to wait until I forget the delicious taste of Sapporo ramen before I can enjoy any ramen here.

On Saturday we began our two days of performances. We all met in the hotel lobby in our costumes and makeup, received our subway passes and then set out to Oodori in the city centre. Of course it was raining in the morning when we had our most difficult performance; the Oodori parade, which is where teams perform their dance five times in a row without a rest. That was twenty minutes of strenuous exercise in the rain while wearing a costume. The person with the hardest job was the flag waving guy. That flag had to have been nearly three metres long, and when soaked in rain it must have weighed a ton. The male members of the team had to quickly wring the flag out between the third and fourth dances while moving into position for the fourth dance.

After we had finished at Oodori, we got on the subway and headed out to a suburb of Sapporo to dance twice down a narrow road. We had twenty minutes to stuff bentos down our throats and then we were on the subway again going to another area of Sapporo to dance three times in a row down a wide road. By this time the rain had stopped and the wind had picked up so our costumes dried. I received a medal from a festival staff member, apparently because I am a gaijin
. The medal said ‘suki desu’(I like you) on it. Actually, a few other people in the team received medals. They were all young people too.

We headed to a stadium somewhere for our last dance of the day. Although the venue was a stadium, the performance was on the road curving around the outside of the stadium, and therefore was another parade. We were all very tired by this stage because parade dances are very hard and we had already done ten of them, but we did our best. The wind picked up some more as we went to dance which caused the skirts of our costumes to blow up around our ears. We were wearing white shorts just in case we had that problem, but they were kind of transparent so effectively all us women were showing our knickers to the audience for the duration of the dance. To tell you the truth, I was too exhausted to care at that point.

We only danced once at the stadium, brining the total of the day to eleven dances, all of them parade versions. And the day wasn’t over yet. After a quick dinner, we all went back to the city centre, many people in strange and amusing costumes, to dance simple dances with all the other teams. There were thousands of us just having a good time. It was wonderful.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny. Also, the day’s schedule was much easier than Saturday’s had been. First, we went to Sapporo JR Station to perform a stage dance. When performing on stage we only had to dance once, and we didn’t have to go anywhere so it was quite easy. Next we went to the big stage in the city centre. That was the dance that (I assume) had TV coverage within Hokkaido. Unfortunately, some people in the team made a big mistake at the end (not me though). Twenty minutes for lunch, and then we were on our way to our last parade performance; three times in a row down a narrowish street lined with coffee shops. After that there was but one more stage performance and we were done, bringing the total of the day to six dances, and the total of the weekend seventeen dances, fourteen of which were parades.

That evening we had an enkai. Everyone let loose and had a good time, but it didn’t last long because the Wakkanai people had to catch their charter bus back to Wakkanai at ten o’clock. It was very sad to say good bye to everyone, as we may not meet again for a whole year. We made a bit of a scene on the side of the road, with cheers and tears and all that. Afterwards, the Tohoku and Sapporo people went out to find a place to have a second party.

We left the hotel late on Monday morning, did a bit of shopping at the station, and then caught a train out to New Chitose Airport. Some of the Sapporo people came to see us off. I can’t believe how many souvenirs some people bought at the airport. Some people spent tens of thousands of yen and had to buy suitcase-sized transport bags with wheels to get it all back to Akita. Who were they giving it all to?

We caught our flight back to Akita and then I got home at eight in the evening. I found myself wishing ‘If only I had talked to that person more,’ and ‘If only Wakkanai wasn’t so far away, I’d want to be friends with that person.’ That was hard, and I am still feeling that as I write this. I am also sad that, since I will be going into my third year on JET soon, I may only meet those people one more time. Even so, I had an excellent time.

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This is turning into a photo blog

Here are some photos I took on Tuesday (the day I go to Kamagadai).

This was taken from in front of the school.

So was this.


This week the cherry trees in Kamagadai are in full bloom. That is two weeks later than in Konoura, which is a mere half hours drive away.


The next couple of photos were taken on the way back to Konoura. The town driver was nice enough to take the scenic route so that I could get good pictures.

There are a lot of wind turbines around here.

Mount Chokai from the Nikaho Plateau.


Beside the road somewhere near Otake (a part of Konoura).
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Yesterday's Pictures

These pictures were all taken within 10 minutes walk of my house.

Took pictures of some flowers.
In this area, all the pine trees are being killed by a parasite. There used to be lovely forests here and a pine tree industry, but it is all gone now. It has taken little more than a decade for over a hundred kilometers along the coast to change to this.
There are a lot of unused fields in Konoura.
Getting ready for planting.

Already planted fields.
People like this ancient woman are the ones who maintain the fields.
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Cherry trees in bloom

Yesterday after work I went to take photos of the cherry trees that are blooming in Seishi park. The weather was not good; it was dark, and I got rained on. Nevertheless I got a lot of photos, some of them good. I will only load a few now, because the weather may clear up sometime between now and when the blossoms fall.











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Photos of Kamagadai

Today I appear to be able to load photos from work. (Yes, it is a Saturday morning and I am at work. Today is the inter-school sports exchange. I will have monday off instead).

Anyway, here is Kamagadai combined school:

Here is what is accross the road from Kamagadai school:

Here is another view of the school (see the pile of snow in the distance):

Here is the view down the road in one direction:

The other direction:

Inside the school. At the end of the corridor is the gym:

What I was standing in front of when taking the previous photo:

As you can see, the school is very isolated and small. I am not entirely sure those are bad things. However, it is an old school, and the facilities are not very good. Also, I heard that snakes like to go to school and scare the children. I hope I don't have to see one.
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Kamagadai

Yesterday I promised that I would talk about the new school I am visiting, Kamagadai Shochugakkou.

I have been to Kamagadai twice since term started. Last week, I was picked up from outside Konoura Jr. High at 8.30am and taken by town car to Kamagadai. There was significantly less snow than there had been when I visited during spring vacation. When I got to school, I met the English teacher Mr. Sato. He is the husband of Yumi sensei the school nurse who left Konoura Jr. High the other week. Small world, huh? He has also just moved from another school, so the students don't really know him either. Anyway, we discussed the day's lesson plans, and then I talked with the Vice Principal. Kamagadai has a lady V.P. who is very, um, loud and genki. She kept unselfconsciously speaking broken English to me, which I thought was really good.

From 9.30am until lunch I was teaching. 2nd period was the 3rd grade student (there is only one). He is an odd boy, very shy, who seems to lack the courage to learn. His English is quite bad. 3rd period was the 2nd grade class. There are seven 2nd graders. With the exception of one boy, they are surprisingly good at English. 3rd period was the 1st grade student (again, only one). She is still filled with an elementary student's enthusiasm for learning English. She is always smiling and is eager to learn, the kind of student I wish all my students were.

Then I ate lunch with all the Jr. High kids. All nine students, two teachers and I can sit around one big table. I didn't have a schedule in the afternoon, so after having a meeting with the head of the Elementary teachers, I was taken back to Konoura. The ride back was horrible. I was sitting in the back of the car, and the driver (an old guy with a thick Akita accent) only spoke to me briefly twice. I was feeling very car sick by the time I got back to Konoura.

Yesterday, I went to Kamagadai again. I had a different driver on the way up the hill (the hunter bear-eater guy I wrote about yesterday). The V.P. was not there yesterday. The principal had not been there last week. Are they there in turns?

My morning schedule was the same as the week before. I took a few photos at lunch time. (I will probably be able to find time to load them up on Thursday or Friday, but it is unlikely I will be able to load them today). Then in the afternoon I had, not a class, but a welcome session with all the elementary students. There are less students than I thought. I had heard there were 25 students. Assuming my memory is working well, there were 16 or 17 students (I didn't do a head count). Maybe 25 is the number of all the students in the whole school.

After the embarrassing round of applause and the greeting, all the students, even the first grader who has been a student there for about two weeks, stood up and sang 'Country Road' together. I was blown away! They had all of that memorised? I have tried teaching 'Old MacDonald' to elementary students before, but all I could get them to remember was 'e-i-e-i-o'. 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' had the same level of success despite the fact that it is played on TV and in shops for the three months leading up to Christmas.

After the singing, every student introduced themselves to me. I shook everyones hands and listened to what food and/or animal they like. Then I showed them pictures of New Zealand. After that we played 'London Bridge'. It was lots of fun.

The old driver took me back to Konoura. He did not come in the town car that is for taking people places. He came in the town car that has speakers on top and broadcasts news announcements to the people. It took a while to get back to Konoura because we drove slowly with recorded announcements blaring from the top of the car. We kept detouring to drive around suburbs and broadcast the messages (whatever they were) as widely as possible. An interesting experience.
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Yosakoi Soran, Part 2

As I discussed in Yosakoi Soran, Part 1, I am a member of a dance club that performs 'Yosakoi Soran' dances. At the end of the post, I added a couple of links to Yosakoi websites. Those links had some information on the origins of the dance style, but I would like to speak a little on the matter myself.

Firstly, Yosakoi Soran as it is being performed in festivals all over Japan today, is not a traditional dance form. What happened was this: A university student from Hokkaido was visiting the south of Japan and happened accross the 'Yosakoi festival'. This festival, which has been held in a certain area every year for centuries (I believe) involves a dance called the Yosakoi dance. Although the Yosakoi dance is traditional, it is very energetic, whereas the traditional dances of most Japanese towns are Bon Odori style, which is not very energetic at all. The university student thought it would be fun to put a derivation of the Yosakoi dance (complete with wooden naruko castanets) to music derived from the Soran Bushi, an energetic festival music style native to Hokkaido. This combination was jazzed up with rock music elements and a group of Hokkaido university students made the first Yosakoi Soran team.

Since then more teams have been made, and festivals have started taking place in many places in Japan. The biggest festival is the one in Sapporo. For a dance team's routine to be accepted into one of the big festivals, it has to contain certain elements. The naruko (wooden clapper) of the southern Yosakoi festival must be used. The music, no matter how modern and rock-music-ified, must contain identifiable elements of the Soran Bushi music. Some teams have flag bearers, someone who stands at the back waving a huge flag with the team's name on it around in the air. Some teams have a caller, someone who is dressed up in the team's costume but who does not dance: they get to hold a microphone and introduce the team. Then they get to yell things like 'Yusho!' and ' Sore sore!' or, in some teams' cases, sing lyrics to the music. Teams who do not have a caller have someone who introduces the team in a big genki voice and then quickly puts the microphone down and runs to their dancing spot just before the music begins.

These are not strict requirements, and therefore there is a lot of variation between different teams' routines, and a lot of room for innovation. Each year, many teams come up with radically new interpretations of Yosakoi Soran: radical new costumes, radical new music, radical new dance moves. Saihoku Repputai, the team from Wakkanai I joined, likes to have the female members and the male members doing different routines. This year we are experimenting with a little bit of acting put into a bridge in the music. It is very embarassing. The other women and I have to kneel to the side and pretend to fix our collective makeup and hairdos while the men stand in the middle and pretend to smoke cigarettes. It's bit odd, but it is the first time our team has tried something like this.

Back to April last year:

I expressed my wish to join the Yosakoi team. (Yosakoi Soran is too long to say, so we say Yosakoi. Which is not really correct.) I started going to dance practice on Tuesday evenings. With Taiko on Monday, Eikaiwa on Wednesday, normal dance on Thursday and Japanese on Saturday, I was very busy.

For a long while we practiced the easy Yosakoi Soran dances that all teams practice and perform together for fun at the festivals. These include Yotchare and Ranbu. Kids often learn Yotchare for school festivals.

I found out that lack of Japanese abilitiy had caused more confusion on my part. What I had joined was not the dance team Saihoku Repputai I had seen perform in Sendai. I had joined the Kisakata team Kafuumai. A month or two after Kafuumai began practicing, about half the members also started practicing Saihoku Repputai, but they practiced on Monday night when I had Taiko practice, so I decided at first to learn only the Kafuumai dance.

It took quite a while for the teachers of Kafuumai to make last years dance, because Kafuumai at that stage was only a year old and so no one was very good yet. So after a leisurely six weeks of learning easy dances, we had four weeks to learn the more difficult festival dance unique to our team. The music for our routine was not so good because we did not have the money to pay a good composer and band to make it. Also, our costume was not so good. It was well-made but looked silly. But we all trundled off to the Akita Yaatose festival for the debut of Kafuumai '05.

It was a hot day, although another performance we did later was hotter. Our very first stage performance of the day met technical difficulties when the MD of our music played for about ten seconds and then died. Another MD was found, and we could dance. During practice the teachers of the club, who were at the very front, had spent too much time checking that we were dancing well and not enough time practicing themselves, so on that first performance of the day our front row made many obvious mistakes and cracked up laughing. We found a corner to practice in before the next performance.

The next performance was a parade (where the dancers, instead of standing in a square-ish shape and dancing in one area, form a long shape and move about 100m down a spectator-lined road). Before we started a festival official put a sticker on my back labelling me 'cute' which I wasn't. In the pink clothes, with several kg more fat and several kg less muscle than I have this year, I bore a strong resemblance to a pig. Why does Kafuumai have to wear pink?

That day we did two stage performances, two parades and two sessions of "Everyone in the middle, let's dance together! Come on kids! Come join the performers!" free dances. During the free dances we performed Yotchare and Ranbu, and then an encore or two. There were so many people dancing together (although only one or two spectators took up the offer to join in) that it was hard to find dancing room. Also, one performance of Yotchare was about three times as tiring as a performance of Kafuumai. Despite this, the free dances were fun.

Although the day had got off to a rocky start, and I was exhausted and boiled alive, all in all I had a good time.

(I will stop here. I'll write about the rest of last year's festival season, and how I eventually joined Saihoku Repputai, later.)
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Bizarre finds in glass cabinets

This actually happened last week, but I just remembered it now:

After my Eikaiwa (English conversation) class last Wednesday, my students and I stopped to look at the new arts and crafts display in the foyer of the Community Centre. There is always a display there. At the moment, the display is of toys that have been made out of old kimono. Anyway, when I got to the end of the display, I was confronted by a dusty old display case tucked away in a corner that I think has always been there but I never looked at before. On closer inspection, the cabinet contained shards of pottery. There were no dates written anywhere, so I asked Mrs. Doi how old the pottery is. "It is Jomon." Jomon pottery? In Konoura? Cool!

I had assumed that Konoura would not have interesting things like that. Until an earthquake 250-odd years ago Konoura was mostly under a lagoon and the bits that weren't under water were islands. They were some of the '99 Islands of the North' (of which there were actually 103, but they were named after a more-famous set of islands down south that really were numbered 99).

I had a closer look at the pottery, and it really is ancient. The decoration was similar in construction (although the patterns were different) to Beaker pottery of Europe.


Here is a link that I don't think is quite correct, but it is an interesting read anyway. Keep in mind: although the article suggests the Jomon people only lived on the Kanto plain, that is quite simply not true. Konoura is no where near Kanto, and as I have already mentioned, Jomon pottery was found here. Jomon pottery is found all over Tohoku (Northern Honshu), not to mention the rest of Japan.

The article also states that Japanese is in the same language group as Chinese and Korean. This is also untrue. Japanese grammar has no relation to Chinese or Korean. The writing systems are related, but that is as far as it goes. Japanese, as far as linguists can tell, is a distant relative of Mongolian and Hungarian (which are also not related to Chinese), with a Pacific Island influence. The people of Northern China probably did not speak Chinese but a proto-Mongolian at the time that some of them came out this way. In Okinawa I think the language was mostly Pacific Island type, but I don't know the language of the Ryuku so I'm not sure. I can't ask Japanese people about this, because when I do they say "We speak Japanese. We always have." Japanese like to believe they are free from foreign influence. Unless they are under 30 years old. Then they want to be American.

The article also states that the Yayoi displaced the previous inhabitants of Japan. I have already discussed this a little along with language. It did not happen that way. Even today there are the remnants of the Ryuku in the south, the Ainu in the north, and another couple of minority groups I have forgotten the name of who live (lived) in Kyushu and Shikoku. Amongst the people here in the north of Honshu, there are people with brown hair, curly hair, heavy beards (on men and sometimes women), long noses and non-Asian eyes. Obviously the Japanese are not racially uniform.

Here is another link. I just found this now. This is in Akita Ken (but as far away from me as is possible to get and still be in Akita). I had no idea I was living near stone circles! In fact, this is the first time I have heard about stone circles in Japan at all. 4000 years old? That's older than Stonehenge, isn't it? Although I will admit that the stones aren't nearly as big as the stones that make up Stonehenge.

A practical link.

Another link. Whoever wrote this sounds like they know more about what they are talking about that the first link's author did. It is quite lengthy; I have not read it all yet.

Another link (this stuff is interesting). This article also points out that the Jomon culture was also in Korea and Eastern Russia. This makes sense since the land was joined up at that time. I have heard that there are little-known often-ignored cultural minorities in Korea like the Ryuku and Ainu of Japan who were shunted into less-hospitable areas by the Asian immigrants.

Nothing like reading articles on archaeological research of prehistoric cultures early on a Monday morning. Yeah, I'm a geek.
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Akita Photo Essay

I live in Akita Prefecture. Akita has fish
and snow
and the coast has wind.
People from the south think that is all Akita has to offer, but they are wrong. Here I will show you what the north has to offer, and I promise you, you will feel jealous.

In Akita there is:
Kanto,
talented kids,
and taiko.

Mount Chokai,
cute kids,
famous fireworks festivals
and trees in the middle of the road.
Interesting places to shop,
Tazawako,
students performing in traditional festivals;
fish festivals . . .
. . . that are guarded my scarier-than-usual beasts.
Schools with lots of space.
Samurai museums
in Kakunodate
where there is a whole district of museums
that people still live in.
Beautiful towns;
very beautiful,
with beautiful parks,
bamboo groves,
beaches;
and let's not forget the unicylces in the elementary schools.

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