One More Castle, a Pink Samurai Lady, and Mountains

At the end of our trip, we demonstrated our jadedness by being unimpressed by the castle at Aizu Wakamatsu (otherwise known as Tsuruga Jo). More memorable than¬† the castle itself, however, were the little pink samurai-ladies that Aizu had coated itself in. On all the light posts hung a banner, on every piece of tourist-trinket you can possibly imagine — Yae Niijima, a female warrior who helped defend the castle during one of the famous battles, and who is now the star of a big NHK historical drama. What the lady would have thought of the animated versions of herself remains a question — somehow we don’t think the woman stubborn enough to defy societal norms and pick up a gun would really have approved the feisty-yet-friendly all-pink-clad iteration. Since this trip we have watched the NHK show, and while some of it gets lost (particularly on me) it’s very pretty and very dramatic. Yae herself went on to continue confounding expectations — mastering the Japanese tea ceremony, becoming very involved in women’s education, marrying a Christian who believed strongly in women’s rights and being heavily criticized for being too ‘western’, adopting three children, and becoming a nurse in several of the Japanese wars.

For dinner we ventured out to find some kitakata ramen, which is a bit famous. We hadn’t remembered that it was a holiday, and so we drove through a dark and deserted town, somewhat worried that all the ramen shops would be closed, but then a bright neon light of a building among the rice fields beckoned us in. Kitakata ramen is distinguished from other ramen by the noodles (I believe) — they’re made with certain water, and are more kinky than other ramen noodles. It was good, but I’m not sure it was that much more special than some of the ramen we’ve had around Tokyo.

Last on our itinerary, we drove up the Bandai Azuma skyline to get some beautiful views of the mountains. About halfway along the skyway there is a highland marsh, sulpherous vents, and a little volcano crater, which resembles Fuji mountain, so they call it Azuma Ko-Fuji. (Ko is a prefix for a littler version of something, as I understand it. Cat, for example, is neko, but a kitten is ko-neko. So think of this as the kitten version of Fuji — climbable in ten minutes (with some huffing and puffing). We also meandered around the marshes a little, went and saw a second crater which has filled in with a small lake, and breathed the sulpherous fumes coming from the mountain. This whole part of Japan used to be a huge tourist area with lots of ski resorts for the winter, but since the disaster they’ve seen a huge drop-off in the tourist industry. Since the area is technically within Fukushima prefecture, people get scared that it has been somehow affected by radiation, but there is no evidence of that despite a lot of testing (both by the government and more impartial parties) and fretting. Nevertheless, wherever you go you see closed hotels and restaurants than can no longer keep afloat. Hopefully as people see that there is no danger in this part of Fukushima the tourist trade will return. This, I suppose, is one of the downsides of the Japanese tendency to all flock to the same locations at certain times to enjoy the delights of the season — when you’re not in vogue, you’re in some trouble.

We turned in our rental car and hopped a train home, bentos in hand, concluding our last trip in Japan! We’ll have a couple more posts of our last adventures around Tokyo — which involve me attempting to eat my weight in maguro before departure. ūüėČ

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Tohoku Day 2

We woke up in our shipping crate on day 2, got our cafeteria breakfast with side of staring locals. I have gotten used to Japanese breakfast, and a cafeteria breakfast is made of a bowl of rice, a couple soft-boiled eggs, some nori, and pickled plums, plus a nice hot bowl of miso soup. So bellies full we started driving north along the coast, seeing the gorgeous coastlines, but also the towns that were devastated by the tsunami.

As we drove, we would realize that the green field we were driving through was spotted with foundations, and we were in fact driving through what two years prior had been a busy little town. In most places all the scrap has been cleared away, although there is still some around, and also hollowed out buildings. The train lines are still out, but we could see some industries flourishing — the combinis have set up temporary buildings all over the place, and the pachinko parlors have also come back quickly. Gravestone carvers, car dealerships, and home-improvement stores are also evident all over the place. There were lots of backhoes all over the place, but not a lot of people around. We saw a number of the temporary housing buildings, which looked remarkably similar to our hotel from the night before. It’s so hard to imagine what everything must have looked like before the tsunami.

We finally reached a place up the coast called Jodogahama, which is another famous view onto toothy rocks off the coast. It only recently reopened to the public, so it was busy mostly with locals while we were there. We also saw some famous arches along the coast that survived the tsunami.

We cut back inland next, and drove to Hiraizumi where we spent the night. The next morning we got up early to avoid the crowds and visited Chusonji Temple. Chusonji is a particularly beautiful temple complex, most famous for this golden hall mausoleum, which of course you’re not allowed to take photos of, but it’s a massive complex with all kinds of buildings winding up the hill between the cedars. It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful, and one of our favorite temple complexes (vying with some of our favorite Kamakura temples).

Up next: another castle!


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Back in the USA

Well, our good intentions for the blog got swamped in the chaos of moving from one country to another. We’re currently in a hotel in DC, and will soon be moving into our new apartment. Settling back into the US is its own adventure, and we’ll write more about that later, but we still have a couple updates to make, in which we can look back fondly on our time in Japan.

In July we rented a car and drove through Tohoku for a few days. The first day we went to Matsushima, which is supposed to be one of the 3 most beautiful views in Japan — there are hundreds of little islands off the coast with picturesque little pines on them. We took a little ferry tour around the islands, but were largely distracted by the gulls, who swooped in to the back of the ferry to grab chips from tourists’ fingers. The islands were pretty badly damaged in the tsunami, and some were reinforced with concrete, but they were still lovely in the light rain.

There is also a beautiful temple just across the street, where the cliffside was full of statues of Kanon, the goddess of mercy. We meandered through the touristy shops also, full of pickles and grilled oysters and icecream, and then took off to go find our hotel. Given the disaster there aren’t a ton of options up in that part of Japan, so we had a little ways to go to find it, and when we did, finally, it was one of our stranger domiciles. The rooms were tiny (even by japanese hotel room standards — Jen made sure the fan was on to ensure we didn’t run out of oxygen in the night) appeared to be built in shipping crates, and featured bunk beds. Dinner was cafeteria style, and we were so completely out of our demographic (a mix of families, blue-collar workers, and motorcycle gangs), that everyone in the room stared at us for most of the meal. For all that, it was clean and comfortable, and had a neighborhood mock-up of a concrete pirate-ship. Up next: a drive up the coast.

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Iya Valley

In the center of Shikoku there’s a remote, narrow valley where defeated warriors of the Heike clan (and other random people hoping to disappear) have hid out through the centuries. Today it’s marginally easier to get to, but that’s not saying much. After driving from Kochi, we wound our way down a series of river valleys, crossed over a gorge, and then entered the valley proper.

The first thing you notice in Iya Valley is that you are facing imminent death every minute you are on the roads. They were about six inches wider than our tiny Japanese rental car, and curvier than a bowl of spaghetti. Some of the corners sport helpful mirrors so that you don’t have to blindly hurtle into potential oncoming traffic, including a steady flow of logging trucks which don’t look like they’re going to squeeze through without gouging the houses that perch on the edges of the road.

The valley is narrow, deep, and wiggly, like those tracks that insects make underneath the bark of trees. And the whole valley is not so much growing green as being drowned in the green. It’s the kind of place where if you stopped watching the vines, bushes, and trees for a few minutes, they’d creep a few feet closer.

The locals are a fascinating combination that is familiar to any good Vermonter — summer labor who can’t advise us at all regarding the sights farther down the valley, mostly kids who seem appalled that they’ve been stuck so far away from civilization, and also a sad corps of leathery locals, mourning the way things used to be and happy to share those memories with strangers. Our first interaction with the locals was a little confusing — trying to order lunch, we were told that the soba was not available for lunch, so we asked for the fish, which was also “dinner-only” although the restaurant closed at 3pm. Finally we asked what was available — two things, which we ordered, one each. Then she asked us if we wanted soba with them… but when Jen verified that she was asking if we wanted soba, she once again said, soba is only for dinner. So…? Fairly typical as confusing-international-interactions go, but we still can’t figure out when on earth you’re supposed to order the soba…

At any rate, we continued up the valley to a number of the local sights — the valley got a lot of tourist attention in the 90s because of an American who visited, fell in love with the place, and did a lot of work to promote and develop it for tourists. Since then, however, the tourist traffic has fallen off, so the valley has an abandoned feeling, despite being littered with attractions. The locals feel the same abandonment — an old lady who was caretaker of a thatched old samurai residence was only too happy to tell us about her childhood, when they lived in a house with the paper screen windows, which the cats ran straight through sometimes. She, and lots of other children, would walk down what she called the “mouse paths” across the paddies and down to the school lower down the valley. There were lots of children then, but now there are very few, and what used to be a village is now just two houses, inhabited by two pairs of grandparents.

At any rate, we drove all the way up to the far end of the valley to visit a set of vine bridges which are called the husband and wife. These bridges would have been used traditionally to cross the river, although nowadays they’re reinforced with steel cables and just for tourists. They also had a cargo box on a couple of cables, that you load up with your things, and pull yourself across the river. The bridges were a little nerve-wracking — the vines under-foot are uneven and disconcertingly far apart. But the cargo-box was good fun.

We visited a number of old thatched houses, preserved, or moved from elsewhere into the valley for the tourists. Most of the non-tourist buildings were covered in metal sheeting, but not too long ago many of them would also have been thatched. Our waitress at dinner was a middle aged woman who grew up in a thatched house, sitting around an irori hearth in the evenings with her family. One of the houses we visited was way up high on the mountain, and it took us a half hour of extremely tense driving on the smallest, steepest road imaginable. The little old lady caretaker there actually touched my arm and said “you’re so white!” At any rate, once we got back down into the valley those six extra inches of pavement seemed like a god-send. There was a museum of local history (not much was in english, except the sign explaining that the relics are “shy” and don’t like flash photography.) and some pretty temples. There were also some random sights — a whole “village” of scarecrows, which is apparently very popular with the Japanese tourists, and some random kiddie amusement park rides. Mostly we just appreciated the mountains and the gravely sort of people that inhabited them.

Our hotel turned out to be wonderful. We had an onsen-bath right in the room, which looked out over the valley, with the river below. We soaked for a while, and then headed out to dinner. I went in the yukata (a light cotton kimono) which the hotel provided (most hotels with onsen offer yukata, and when you visit somewhere with lots of public baths, you can spot where people are staying by the pattern of their robe. Usually I end up wearing a men’s one, so it’s big enough, but unexpectedly this one was quite girly.) Many ryokan also encourage you to bath before dinner and come to dinner in your robe, so I followed local custom. Dinner was amazing — lots of courses, an irori in the middle of our table (there’s nothing more satisfying than the feeling of sitting around a fireplace AND having gourmet food), and everything was delicious. We tried several of the local specialties — sweet smelt, and some other river fish, and soba of course. And then we slept like babies! I don’t usually sleep so well on the futons, but I think the combination of the mountain air, hot bath, and full belly did the trick.

And that brings us to the conclusion of our Shikoku adventure. Next up — Tohoku, where we visited in July. In other news, we are beginning to pack up our apartment, and I have only a few more weeks in Japan. Eeek! As most of you probably know, I am returning to UMD to advise the Environmental Science and Policy Program, as well as managing the department’s website. So I will head back to the States a bit before Jen to start that, and she’ll follow a few weeks later. I suspect she has hare-brained schemes involving train trips to distant castles planned for my absence, so stay tuned right to the end!

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Uchiko, Ozu, and Kochi

The next leg of our journey was a day trip down to Uchiko and Ozu, two towns south of Matsuyama. Uchiko is a small town with a historic district that was nearly empty while we were there. While we were there the rice fields were divided between bright green of growing fronds, and the brown and silver of mud and reflected sky, and we saw a wide variety of people and tools out working the fields. Sometimes it was a fellow in hip-waders and a low-tech hand-tiller wearing a well-seasoned straw hat, but other times they were riding shiny tractors wearing baseball caps and bluejeans. I was particularly fascinated by the rice-planting machine, like you’ll see in the photo below.

The town had a number of historic buildings — houses, but also workshops and store fronts. One building was a pharmacy, another was a wax-works, and there was also a still in-use noh theatre. The pharmacy building was particularly notable because it was built around a central courtyard garden that was very pleasant. Guest rooms at the back of the house looked out over the courtyard in front and a back garden in back. The waxworks walked us through the local method of candle-making (and other wax products.) They made their wax out of sumac here, which I hadn’t even realized was possible. The thing I always end up wondering when I go to these sorts of places is how they figured out that if they peeled, dried, boiled, mashed, mixed with seventeen other odd things, bleached, etc etc they’d get a substance you could stick a wick down and burn. At any rate, they (and the pharmacists as well) would have been one of the wealthiest members of the town, so the house was appropriately huge and impressive. The wax-making process would have been pretty stinky though, so I can only imagine that despite all its grandeur it wouldn’t have been a particularly pleasant place to live. We also found a giant reclining buddha figure at a local temple, and toured the theater, complete with its secret basement area with the turning floor of the stage and trap doors. Right when we were looking for a place to get lunch, however, all the shops and buildings shut their doors. Wondering whether given the lack of other tourists, things just closed early, we wandered back toward the train station with our stomachs growling. And then half-way back we discovered nearly the entire population of the town in a noodle shop having lunch! Trusting the locals to find good food is always a good call, so we joined them, and it was indeed delicious.

Next up was Ozu, an hour or so further south. Ozu is another sleepy little town, a little bigger than Uchiko, but not particularly accustomed to us white folks. They have a castle (surprise surprise!) but they also have a beautiful garden and historic house and tea house that sits up in the treetops over the river, a historic district, some temples, and last, but not least — cormorant fishing! Garyu Sansa (the house/garden) was lovely, although quite small. There were very strict rules about where we could take photos, where we could stand, and which directions we could point our cameras. We didn’t see any major threats to national security if we took photos without flash of some of their wood carvings etc. so despite the dire warnings from the lady we took a couple. It was a beautiful house, with one ¬†4-season room, one wall for each season, and another that had windows lined up perfectly to channel the moonlight in on certain dates, decorated with bat-handles and moon-shapes. The ladies running the house also offered to do a tea service in the tea house for us, but concerned that if walking around the house had so many rules, a tea ceremony would require mailing our cameras to Zimbabwe, we declined, and instead sat drinking bottled tea on the tatamis.

We also trooped up another massive staircase to a local temple, which had a number of cool carvings and statues. It also has a large lighthouse, which we later learned is for ghosts! Before the temple was there, there was a smokestack in the same spot, and due to some strange happenings, the locals realized that ghosts and spirits were using it to navigate. When the tower started to fall, fearing angry lost spirits, the town erected a lighthouse over the old smokestack to help them find their way. I imagine the temple, which was built more recently, was located nearby to help placate these spirits as well.

Then at 6:30 we boarded our cormorant-watching and dinner boat! We had ordered a bento dinner from the tour company, so dinner was waiting for us when we got aboard. First we went downriver, ate our bentos, got a nice view of the famous tea house from the river, saw a fish ladder where all the herons were perched staring fixedly into the pools, and some young folks barbecuing down by the river. Our tour guides talked a lot about local culture (the dangers to young folks of swimming and diving in the river), the economy and environment (the water was low and the fish are small this year), and other random things we asked them (why do the fish jump? because they feel like it!) As dusk fell the cormorant boat caught up with us, and the two tourist boats flanked it up the river. The fire on the front of the boat is supposed to stun, shock, and panic the fish so that it’s easier for the cormorants to catch them. The cormorants dive for the fish, but they have a tie around their neck so they can’t swallow the fish, and the fisherman retrieves the fish. Unfortunately (perhaps in a demonstration of our earlier lecture on the water levels and small fish) the cormorants didn’t catch anything while we were watching them. Our guide told us that there are only four cormorant fishermen left — it’s not a popular way to make a living. The tourist interest (mostly domestic Japanese tourism) has made life a little better for the fishermen, but still, it’s not an easy job. At any rate, it was a beautiful display, and we took a lot of photos.

The next morning, back in Matsuyama, we rented a car and headed inland into the hills. We didn’t take the most direct route to Kochi, wanting to see the mountains and the coastline a bit, and even discovered a random hike down to a gorge off the side of the highway. The path down to the gorge was strange — dilapidated in many places, spotted with old round foundation ruins, and odd-looking almost-fortifications. The gorge itself was beautiful, bright green water, ribbons of waterfalls across the moss, and round deep pools among the rock. We continued driving through the mountains and stopped in a little noodle shop for lunch, where both of us managed to spatter ourselves with raw quail egg trying to crack the things into our sauce. Those little buggers are rubbery! One of those times you chalk up to “entertaining the locals” and get on with it.

We continued on to the coast which was hugged by a cloud of mugginess, and then finally into Kochi, which is a bustling little city with (you guessed it!) a castle. We found a fantastic little Izakaya for dinner. Jen, eavesdropping on their conversations, reports that all the other people in there were wondering how we found it given that it’s a fantastic but not very touristy restaurant. (The answer of course is that Jen has a Japanese restaurant app on her phone that helps us find all sorts of fantastic places.) They also were apparently highly impressed with our abilities to use chopsticks to eat our dinner without stabbing ourselves in the eyeballs. When we leave Tokyo we get this reaction a lot. At any rate, it was an adorable traditional but quirky little place, and the food was amazing. The highlight was the ¬†Katsuo Tataki, which is a seared tuna, raw in the center, served in a ponzu sauce (soy/lime citrusy sauce) with garlic. This is a local specialty, and it was A-MA-ZING. And then for dessert the Izakaya has a partnership with a local creamery, and I got salt flavor ice cream with burdock french fries. It was awesome. So we headed back to our hotel with very happy tummies!

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In which we do not discuss castles for a post or two to whet your appetite for the glories ahead.

For today, ladies and gentlemen, please meet Anpanman. Red-bean-paste-filled-bread-headed-man. Sounds better in Japanese. ¬†Wikipedia says therefore it should Bean Bun Boy in English to keep up the rhythm. ¬†I’m not sure the face translates any better. He’s kind of an icon in these parts though. Just check out those cheeks.

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Anpanman was born in the early 1970s and has been running in various forms ever since. ¬†The limited pool of Japanese kids I’ve encountered still seem to like him and little did we know we were headed into his lair in Shikoku.

Anpanman himself is not my favorite though, so you’ve got to meet his supporting crew of other-bread-headed-friends.

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The donut on the right is my favorite for sheer Edward Goreyness. ¬†Currypanman’s head is a ball of dough filled with curry and deep fried. Apparently he’s hot headed or something, but I can’t get over the fact that he’s a children’s cartoon whose head was deep fried.

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He seems pretty mellow despite his horrific beginnings.

My second favorite is Shokupanman– Wonderbread Boy. ¬†I’m pretty sure that would taste better than the strangely yellow bread below… As far as I know there’s no French Toast character, though. Mmmm.

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What cartoon world would be complete without a villain, though? What kind of super villain   would dog the steps of Bean Bun Boy and his buddies? (drum roll)

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Baikinman! (i.e. Bacteria Man!)

Fear his splotchy, purple hand of death!  Or mold, I guess, in the case of bread.  One last bit of bizarrity before I desist.

I’ve never heard of this sidekick before but her picture was all over the train stations and Tara’s just too cute:

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Let the castling begin!

“Deathly boring mundane details,” indeed. ¬†Tara hides it well, but who could fail to be excited by castle factoids? Take Marugame, for example. ¬†Built in 1597, abandoned in 1615, and rebuilt in 1643, it is one of the 12 remaining original keeps in Japan and towers a full 66 meters above the surrounding plains! Behold its awesome wonder.

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It really is about that big.

Did I fail to mention most of those 66 meters are hill? Marugame castle itself is a mere 15 meters. But my castle magazine informed me several times that it IS officially a castle and NOT a tower.  It may look like a tower, but it is not.  Well, obviously.  Just look at that crested gable on the second floor.  Has to be a castle.  No question.

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See, if you angle the camera just right, it’s clearly a castle.¬†Just a very small castle. ¬†The smallest one, in fact! It’s famous for that and for an almost unimaginably steep series of walls and uneven pathways zigzagging dizzyingly around the lower 51 meters. ¬†Apparently the stonemason who designed the walls to be unclimbable did such a good job that the lord of the castle commented that only birds in flight would be able to reach the top. ¬†The stonemason, in an ill-fated fit of humility, said that they weren’t all that perfect and he could probably climb them with a small pick. So he did. The lord of the castle was reminded that the stonemason knew the secrets of the wall and had him killed before he could tell anyone else. ¬†(There’s a moral in here, but I can’t decide between ‘think before you speak’ or “lay low and hide your capabilities”.)

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Largest model of the smallest castle? Maybe, just maybe.

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Victory dance for reaching smallest castle.

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Tara, sad to be leaving Marugame and its small but mighty non-tower.  Never fear, more castles to come!

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