Saturday, October 31, 2015

Now they're just messing with me.

After our mountain adventures we headed back down to the coastal city of Kochi. Wilf decided to put us in a ryokan. Most often these are country inns, often in particularly scenic locations. Country inn makes them sound rustic, which is not the case. Joseikan is an urban ryokan, 120 years old and in a city that doesn't see a huge amount of foreign tourism. We were escorted to our room by the front desk clerk and a few moments later this lovely lady arrived. 

After serving us tea she confirmed that our yukatas were correctly sized for our height and had us select a time for dinner in our room. And by the way - our room is huge!  And a real bonus is a sitting area with chairs!

We scampered off to the very swanky spa on the top floor for a soak before dinner, returning just as dinner was being delivered. 

This style of meal is called kaiseki, which consists of many small dishes. Most of which are fairly mysterious to us. The fish platter looked very good:

And it was - it included bonito tuna that had been seared over a fire made with rice stalks. 

Every time we would just about be thinking - okay, that's the lot our lady would pop back with something else until the fruit and ice cream arrived. That we knew was the end! But with the rest of the meal there is no particular order  - a little of this, some of that as it catches your fancy. The covered pots hold a little wok filled with pieces of beef, chicken and veggies that cook over a small flame. Off to one side is a similar arrangement to cook the rice. 

After we ate the dinner lady took the dishes away and a few minutes later housekeeping arrived to switch us to night mode. The table was moved, futons and bedding retrieved from the cupboard and we were good to go. 

Here's what the room looked like with the futons installed. 

Through the door at the far end is the entry vestibule with a shoe closet and tea service area. Entry to the toilet and the separate shower/washstand area are from the vestibule. Once the sliding screen is closed we're in a large tatami mat room. 

Looking back to the window and the seating area. I kid you not when I say that the vestibule was close to size of some of the rooms we've stayed in. 

After a lovely sleep on the thick fluffy futon ( the issue with the futon is getting up and down from the floor, not with the comfort of the bed) I decided to head back up to the spa for another soak - because I could. I trotted upstairs, went down the hall and turned right as I had the night before. I was standing in the entryway about to put my slippers in a cubby hole when a tiny little old lady popped through the curtain and grabbed me. Saying 'no, no' she pushed me through the curtain across the hall and disappeared. 

Well, WTF, thought I. I looked at the curtain. Red. In my befuddled state (no coffee) I'm trying to remember - red for ladies blue for men, or other way?  As I'm peeking back into the hall a man strolls serenely out the side I had been in. 

Oh oh. 

So I go into the change room - which is not the one I had been in the night previously. And when I get to the bath area - where the night before the outdoor bath had been a small round jetted tub, now there was a large rectangular pool. 

See, this is where it really is annoying to be illiterate. There was a sign in the hall with red writing  pointing at the red curtain and blue writing at the blue curtain. A blizzard of kanji, but not a word of English. 

I think I have the red is for ladies, blue is for gentlemen rule burned thoroughly into my brain now. And I owe many thanks to the little lady who saved me from really embarrassing myself. 

But really- switching from side to side - what's up with that!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Lost Japan - the Iya Valley

In 1994 Alex Kerr published his book 'Lost Japan'. It has many interesting things in it, but mostly it is a lament over the loss of old Japan (by default beautiful and good) and its replacement by the modern(by default ugly and bad). It can be tricky, as a westerner, looking at Japan. We are delighted by the high tech wizardry that we see and impressed by the deep history, by the art and culture.  But we can't expect a country or a culture to remain frozen in an idealized version of the past. 

One of Kerr's project has been the restoration of a very old house in the Iya Valley on Shikoku island. Like many remote places the valley had suffered as young people moved away looking for work and houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair. While we did not visit his house we did go to the Iya Valley. While it is still pretty far in the back of beyond the train system will get you there!

We took the train to the town of Oboke, which meant traveling up into the mountains and through the Oboke gorge. This is a land formed by water, not ice. The valleys are steep and the rivers fast and fierce. We stayed at a guest house that was down a somewhat terrifying road. I'm glad we weren't driving!

Besides the beauty of the valley one of the big attractions of the area special bridges. They are often described as vine bridges, which doesn't quite cover it. The story is that a samurai clan were defeated in a battle and withdrew deep into the valleys to rebuild and return another day. They never did, becoming farmers instead. But they built these bridges which could be cut down to foil attackers, if need be. Or so the legend says. 

The local bus system had us to the Kazurabashi by about 9:30. Down at the river level it was chilly. And being early we had the bridge to ourselves. 

An early group of tourists walk carefully across the bridge. 

My turn! The modern incarnation of the bridge has steel cables as back up, but vines don't really describe the material. This is wood that has been woven and twisted- somehow. 

The river below looks benign now, but scour marks show how high the water is when the snow melt comes down - a torrent! Because the bridge is moving and the slats are widely spaced we had to look down for each footstep, which meant looking right through the bridge to the river below. Rather unnerving!

Looking back at the vine bridge and the foot bridge from the river bottom. 

Apparently the bridge is rebuilt every three years. I'd like to see that. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Art,art, baby

A short ferry ride from Takamatsu is the island of Naoshima. Once upon a time it had a population of about 8000, now there are about 3300 people living there. Through a partnership with a publishing magnate the island is being turned into a big art experiment/exhibit. We decided to go and see, and decided that touring by bike was the way to go. 

We had advice that the way to do the island was to go clockwise, because then the last part was all downhill - a big hill. I don't know about you, but my experience says that a big downhill is usually proceeded by a big uphill.....

After a short ferry ride over we rented bikes (6 gears, padded seats, woohoo!) The road across the island followed the river valley, which made for easy riding. In the town of Honmura the Art House Project has reclaimed abandoned houses and spaces. We visited three of the houses in this tiny old town of twisting streets. 

Our first stop was a purpose built building that houses a work by James Turrell, an American who works with light. Small groups are let into the space and left to sit in a darkness that is so utter that it almost defies description.  Eventually the light returns, so slowly that it takes a long time to register that there is a change in the light level. Eventually we figured out that we weren't there to see a thing, but to have an experience. All three houses were like that - each completely different, but each about experiencing rather than just seeing. There was also a small museum dedicated to a Japanese architect named Tadeo Ando, who designed many of the structures on the island. 

After lunch we headed for the other side of the island, where the big museums are. 

Wilf, enjoying the ocean view before it all became about the uphill. 

These giant pumpkin sculptures by Yayoi Kasuma are an emblem of the island. 

The yellow one lives on a pier at the Benesse House area. 

The red one is by the ferry terminal. 

Given a combination of huge hills and the blazing sun we decided to concentrate on the Chichu Museum. First we had to push our bikes up a friggin mountain, but once at the top we found a most amazing place. The facility was designed by Ando, and he determined that the building would be under ground, and would use natural light. Seems like a contradiction, but it works. This is a place that takes itself very seriously - the staff are clad In white outfits with lab coats that make it look like they are going to perform some medical procedure. Access to the exhibits is controlled to limit numbers and we were asked to be silent. 

One of the galleries contains 5 of Monet's water lily series. Before entering we took off our shoes and put on slippers. Coming around a corner, through a large ante room the first and largest painting almost explodes into view. It is probably five feet by twelve in two sections, and in the diffused light it glows and fills the room.  It was amazing to see Monet in such a coolly contemporary setting. 

There were also three more light sculptures by James Turrell. No sitting in the dark this time. But still surprising. I think I know how to look at a painting. But I'm less certain about experiencing light. 

It was a big day. The art alone would have made it a full day. Add in an epic bike ride and I was very ready for the ferry ride back. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

I beg to differ, random Italian guy

Last we spoke I was telling you about our bike ride across the Kibiji plain. We stopped at one point for a bite to eat and to try to figure out just where we were. While at the picnic area we me a couple riding the trail in the opposite direction. They were both from Italy, the Milan area, but are living and working in North Queensland, Auastralia. After a bit of chit chat he asked if we found it difficult to meet Japanese people. We agreed that the Japanese do not tend to sit in the town square, drinking grappa and watching football on tv. Nor do they make an evening promenade and chat with their neighbours. But difficult to meet?

Okay, Niimi was a bit unusual in that we were there to meet folks, but the language barrier didn't slow things down too much with the president of the local chamber of commerce - we managed with the help of Sayuri-san to discuss the implications of the TPP and the possibilities of importing wagyu beef as a luxury item into Canada. 

Really, we were talking about serious stuff!

On the train to Takamatsu Wilf and his seat mate, a bank manager, got to chatting. They were talking up a storm, and eventually got to 'how old are you?' That led to 'and your wife?'  Long pause as the age difference was considered, and then, 'how did you do that?

Once arrived in Takematsu we were looking for a lunch place - we had our map out comparing possibilities when a woman smiled at Wilf then walked over to see if we needed help. Soon we were walking down the mall, next we were having lunch together. Meet Junko

Junko owns a dress shop and once a week she and her friends meet with their English tutor to work on their conversation. As their class was the following day we were invited to join them. Which we did. And it was great fun. 

That night we found a great chicken restaurant - grilled chicken on the bone. Before I show you this picture I will say in my own defence that the menu specifically said  'use a napkin, pick up the leg and chomp, chomp, chomp'. So I did, because the chopsticks were not cutting it!

At the table next to was a fellow who turned out to be a pilot with ANA, one of the Japanese national airlines. He was curious about where we were from and how we found out about this specific restaurant. (Answer: Tripadvisor).  By the time he left we were up to speed about his family and his career and travel aspirations. 

Last night we stayed at a guest house and met Shuhei and Yukiko:

(In case you were wondering our meeting people incidents don't always involve beer. Just sometimes)

So, back to the Italian guy. No, we haven't had trouble meeting people. I'm probably too much the polite Canadian to say so, but his issue might have something to do with his big size, shaved head, big beard, many visible tattoos, his female companion's facial piercings and tattoos. Perhaps they'll find Tokyo more their style.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Riding across the Kibiji plain

Kurashiki sits to one side of a large agricultural plain. Our guide book notes that Kurashiki has avoided 'natural and wartime catastrophes', which has meant that it's old city has been preserved. It is a major tourist spot with lots of shops, but we managed to do most of our touring late in the day when the crowds had thinned out. 

Narrow streets. 

A canal. 

Rickshaw drivers for rent:

And so pretty at night:

We took a train ride a couple of stops over, where we rented bikes for the day. After a short jaunt through the town of Soja we started onto a bike trail that would take us about 17k through the rice fields. We had what was referred to as a Mom bike - no gears, basket on the front, hard seat. Since pretty much the whole ride was flat it worked out fine. We had a detailed map -in Japanese, of course, and pantomimed instructions from the rental folks, so we felt pretty confident we could manage. 

It was a beautiful day for a ride. 

Lots of rice relate activity. Most of the time we were on what we thought was a dedicated bike path, but every so often a vehicle would buzz by - looks like a path, might be a road. 

In addition to rice there were small market gardens and the occasional field of cosmos. 

They say pride goeth before a fall, and of course just about the time we thought we had this all sort d we veered right not left and got ourselves on the wrong bike path. In spite of great efforts to convince ourselves that the map still made sense we eventually realized that the high speed train tracks we were riding under were not on the map. 

So, some retracing of the route was required. On th one hand- we got lost. On the other - we got to see this guy at work with his little rice combine - smaller than a zamboni.

Okay, different guy at the end, but you get the point. Very interesting. 

Once back on track we found our way. Had a tough time finding the train station/bike depot, but we persevered. There were no places for food directly on the bike route, but we had brought sandwiches. There were vending machines in strange places, though. Just as I'd be thinking 'I could use another bottle of water' we'd round a corner and there would be a vending machine at the side of the path, or the end of someone's driveway. Very convenient. 

So - a big day. The bath on the roof of our hotel seemed extra wonderful after all that pedalling. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

The rabbit in the moon

In the west we see a man in the moon, but in some eastern countries there is a rabbit up there. And while we were in Matsue rabbits emerged as a theme. About an hour by train from the city is an important Shinto shrine, the Izumo-taisha.

Once upon a time a group of brothers were travelling to woo a princess. They came across an injured rabbit. Rather than help the rabbit the mean brothers caused it more pain. The one kind brother, however, gave the rabbit good advice and healed its injuries. The rabbit revealed itself as a God and blessed the kind brother with the hand of the princess. It also made this brother the deity responsible for marriage. 

The kind brother helps the rabbit. 

And there are rabbit statues all over the grounds. All carved out of granite!

Making friends while checking out the rabbits. 

Rabbits sharing sake as done in a Shinto marriage ceremony. 

Really, they are everywhere. 

Even rabbits saying their prayers. At most shrines one approaches the appointed spot and throws a coin in a box. We then bow twice, clap twice ( to summon the god) and bow once more before offering a prayer. At this shrine the difference is that we clap four times to summon the god.  This is a busy shrine, with lots of singles wishing for marriage and lots of married couple giving thanks. 

The shrine is also famous for having the largest rice straw rope in Japan hanging from the rafters:

Outside of the shrine was a rabbit themed gift shop that had many of examples of rabbits holding a good luck charm called a magatama. 

On the way back to Matsue we stopped at the Vogel gardens, which turned out to be an enormous park setting full of flowers and birds.  They are clearly set up for huge crowds, but late day on an October afternoon we had the place to ourselves. 

The official group picture spot was clearly meant for more than two people!

And then there were bird encounters. 

Pretty cool!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The magic box has arrived!

When we arrived at our hotel in Takamatsu yesterday there was a package waiting for us. Inside was this:

Not the cup of coffee! A portable wi-go generator!  We found the company on the internet (their main business is renting cell phones) and put in an order. And it worked. We shall see if we have reception once we leave the city, but it has already helped us find our way to a restaurant. 

Japan Post handles the mail for the country, and I'm sure FedEx and Purolator and UPS have a presence, but for moving things around Yamamoto Transport are the guys. We see their trucks all over, but there are also fleets of motorbikes in the city. 

This is a depot near us. Most convenience stores also take in packages. 

See the oval with the black cat carrying a kitten.  That's the company logo. It was on the envelope with our wi-if doodad and inside is a prepaid return envelope which we can drop at a 7-11 or at the airport. Very convenient. Apparently inexpensive, too. People use the service here when travelling to send their luggage ahead of them when travelling by train. Or if you over shop and don't want to carry packages, or see something you want to give to someone- zoom! It is on its way. 

Sunday in the park. With drums.

Niimi is in the mountains, but our next destination took us down to a wide coastal plain and the city of Mitsue. Even up in the Niimi area we saw a lot of rice being cultivated, mostly in little patches tucked in here and there. Out on the plain the rice was being grown on a much larger scale. I always thought rice was grown in paddies, standing in water. Clearly this is not the only way.  I'll report back later on that. 

Upon arrival in Mitsue we stopped at the tourist information centre for a map. The lady showed us where our hotel was, and the major attractions. She also mentioned that there was a drum festival that afternoon. We got ourselves settled and headed off for some lunch. By the way - we were feeling brave and/or adventurous and picked a random restaurant, went in and sat ourselves down. Wilf pointed at a picture, I pointed randomly at the menu and delicious food arrived. In addition to the usual rice, soup, pickles we each had a sizzling hot mini wok with an egg topped with strips of beef or pork cutlet. Yummy! Don't know what it was called but we lucked out. 

Anyhow. After lunch we continued towards the castle. And we could hear a sound. A big sound, far away. Soon we began to see the police blocking off streets and people gathering along side the roads. We followed the sound, which got bigger and louder until we came to a street full of sound and motion. 

Each of these .....carts? had two huge drums in it. Each one was almost five feet across and teams of drummers with small clubs were pounding away. Each team also had a group playing flutes and cymbals with them. A few of the really big groups had a pup trailer attached to their cart with a third drum. 

We eventually found out that there were 22 teams. I think they were playing the same song, but not all at the same time so there was this caucophony of sound with an underlay of this incredible, primal beat. It wasn't painful, but it resonated deep in the body and had a real sense of urgency to it. 

Each cart was different in style, size and decoration. Each group had different coats. Eventually there was a signal and they began to move. And they were pulled by children.

Lots of help from the adults, but the kids had ropes and poles and they were getting the job done. Each group had banners, which probably explained in detail who they were, but since we couldn't read them....  One group came along with 30 or more people in wheelchairs, all in jackets that matched the drummers. They were ahead of the cart, and Boy Scouts in their uniforms were pulling the cart for them. 

We found a place to watch right where they had to make a hard right turn followed by a hard left on a short block. 

They got them all around the corners without incident. 

And the whole time the drummers are pounding away. I don't know they kept going - the parade was scheduled to be about 90 minutes long and they were some length of time waiting for it all to begin. And it was hot!

And at the end all the kids joined in:

How do you even organize such a thing? Where do you store 22 of these carts. Where do you practise the drumming? Or moving the carts? How do you organize all the clothing? It was an amazing thing to see and hear. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In the end, really, it's about the people.

I've been telling you about some of our Niimi adventures. It has been grand and we have been having fun, seeing and doing things. But the really special part has been meeting people. Even with a big language barrier the desire to connect is strong. Only one of our group can speak some Japanese - the rest of us were trying to learn a few important phrases, and to deploy them correctly. The people we met ranged from no English to great proficiency. And yet - we managed.  

On Samurai parade day we wandered into a back garden of the community hall after lunch. The local Women's Institute type group had a craft booth and hot dog stand. Steve bought a hot dog - and became an instant celebrity. 

Soon they treated us to coffees. We gave them flag pins. They gave us little gifts. They were adorable and so excited to meet us and so wanting to talk to us, 

At out welcome banquet I sat next to Professor Kiyoshi Yamauchi of Niimi College. Kiyoshi-san is a professor of English at the college, and was our guide when we visited the campus. We had such a great time visiting with him and meeting his students. 

That's Kiyoshi-san in the yellow tie with some of his students. 

Both the Niimi City staff and the members of the Niimi International Exchange Association worked hard to show us their city. This lovely lady in the kimono is a member of the Canadian committee of the NIEA and we had the pleasure of her company on several occasions. Although we spoke almost none of each other's language - we managed!

And could this lady be any more adorable? She taught us how to make paper. When we asked for pictures she said okay, but only if she could stand on her tip toes. Because that made such a difference!

But, of all the people we met my highest praise would be for Sayuri-san, our guide and interpreter. Sayuri-san is an employee of Niimi City and she was responsible for us and our experience. Organized,efficient and knowledgable she made sure that every detail was attended to. She translated for us at all occasions and made sure we understood what we were seeing - and eating!

In addition to managing us Sayuri-san had her own management to be aware of. Her boss was our driver. Her boss's boss usually arrived at all locations, keeping an eye on things. And for important occasions the head guy would put in an appearance. Not only did she have eight unpredictable foreigners to deal with, at any given time three levels of management would be observing her. I think we behaved well and didn't cause too much distress. Sayuri-san did a wonderful job for us and I hope we see her in Sidney sometime soon. 

We left Niimi with new friends and many happy memories.