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Japan

A river runs through it

Japan day eleven


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Heron by the Miyagawa

Takayama is a mountain town, and the river that runs through it, the Miyagawa, is a clear mountain one. Trout and carp flourish here, ducks bob on the water, and we also saw a heron waiting patiently for the chance to catch a fish, no doubt. The heron, because of its habit of staying motionless like this, is regarded as a symbol of Buddhist meditation, so how special and appropriate it was to see one so clearly in what was one of my favourite Japanese places.

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Children feeding the fish and ducks

Morning market

As well as being a pleasant place to walk at any time of day, the river bank is the location for one of Takayama’s famous morning markets. After breakfast at our hotel (which offered a choice of Japanese or Western style – we copped out and opted for Western, having had very traditional Japanese ones the previous two mornings in Kyoto) we joined Andrew and some others from the group for a visit to the market.

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Stallholder at the market

There are in fact two markets held every morning in Takayama – the one we went is held on the banks of the Miyagawa in the old town. I have seen this reviewed as a ‘tourist trap’ but I have to disagree. Yes, tourists come, but it was also clear to me that locals were here too, shopping for (mostly) fruit and vegetables and enjoying a gossip with friends whom they met along the way. I loved our time here!

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Candle-maker

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Stall-holders

I always enjoy visiting a good colourful market anywhere I travel, as it is usually a great place to take photos and mix with the local people. This one was especially enjoyable because of the Japanese willingness to be photographed. I took so many photos of characterful faces, interesting food products and local crafts – several that I took here were among the best of the whole trip, I felt.

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Produce on sale

Of course, being a market, it’s also good place to shop! I bought some delicious sesame crunch sweets at one stall which modestly advertised its wares as being nothing much to look at but worth tasting with a sign that read:
‘Also the wife, the husband and confectionery which are NOT chosen by appearance.’

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Sign at a sweet stall

This is also a great place for snacking. Lots of the stalls sell little treats such as soy bean dumplings and sweets of all kinds. There’s a tea stall if you need warming up on what might be a chilly morning (remember, this is a mountain town) and the local Hida apples are huge and justifiably famous for their flavour.

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A bite to eat

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Tea stall

The morning market is a long-held tradition here, and there has been one on this spot for sixty years, although records show that the morning market was originally held close to the Takayama Betsuin Shourenji temple and started in the Edo Period. At its peak it is said to have had over 300 stalls but today it is usually between 50 and 70 – still plenty to keep any visitor interested.

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Calligraphy

After spending some time in the market Chris and I met up again with some of our group and Andrew proposed a visit to a nearby museum, dedicated to Takayama’s Festival Floats.

Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

Takayama is famous throughout Japan for its two annual festivals, in the spring and autumn, known as matsuri – the first celebrating the planting season, and the second the harvest. Unfortunately we missed the harvest matsuri by just a day (accounting in part for the large crowds milling around the old town on the day of our arrival) but at least we were able to get a good sense of what is involved by visiting this excellent museum.

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Main exhibit hall, Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

The focal point of both festivals is a parade of richly decorated floats known as yatai, 23 in total (12 for the spring festival, 11 for the autumn), some of which are 500 years old. Each is the responsibility, and pride, of one of the city’s communities. Originally they would have been carried on many shoulders, but today they have wheels. Nevertheless, manoeuvring these tall, unwieldy floats through Takayama’s narrow streets must be quite a challenge. On the first evening of the festival, they are illuminated with hundreds of paper lanterns and are hauled through the town by ropes, accompanied by wailing flutes and thundering drums. For the remainder of the festival they stand proudly at their allotted spot, attended by costumed locals.

For the rest of the year the yatai are kept hidden away, each in its own tall storehouse in the old town, and we saw several of these while walking around today. They are very tall, narrow and plain, and painted white in contrast to the dark wood of the old houses that surround them. Only during the four days of festival (two in the spring, two in the autumn) are the yatai wheeled out to be paraded around the town and exhibited in all their glory. If the festival is hit by bad weather they will remain in these storehouses instead, but with the large doors flung open so all can see them. At any other time visitors must be content with examining the photo that is displayed outside alongside some information about the float within.

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Yatai storehouse on the banks of the Miyagawa

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Another storehouse

But a few yatai are exhibited here in the Yatai Kaikan, on a rotating basis. The museum consists mainly of a single large hall, big enough to take these impressive constructions. They are displayed with mannequins modelling the various historical costumes worn in the parades etc., and a walkway winds round the central area, ascending gently, so that by the time you are on the fourth side you are almost level with the top of the floats. Which ones you will see depends on the cycle of rotation, but I believe the oldest one, which still has the old yokes (rather than wheels) and is no longer used, remains here all the time. All are beautifully carved, painted and lacquered. Many carry karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that can move and dance – more about those later in this entry.

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Float detail

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Float details

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A karakuri ningyo on a float

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Historical costume

A small room off this walkway is marked as a study room; I was glad I bothered to check this out as it shows an interesting ten minute video on a loop that gives a good idea of how the floats look in action at the festivals. If ever I get to come back to Takayama I will try very hard to ensure my visit coincides with one of these.

Sakurayama Nikko Kan

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Model of Toshugo at Sakurayama Nikko Kan

The admission fee to the Yatai Kaikan museum also includes the smaller one next door, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan, which holds a model of a World Heritage Site, the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It may seem odd (well, it did to me!) that one city should devote a museum to the wonders of another fairly distant city, but the reason became clear later when I read that this exhibit is both demonstration of, and tribute to, the wood-working skills of Takayama's craftsmen, who are famed throughout Japan for their carpentry. These 28 models of temple buildings contain 100,000 individual miniature pieces and took 33 sculptors 15 years to complete. What an achievement!

As you stroll around and peer at the 1/10 scale models the light in the hall will dim and you get to see how Toshogu looks by night as well as by day. As we were to visit Nikko later in our trip we didn’t spend as long here as we might otherwise have done, but the detail on the carvings is exquisite and you could be here for an hour or more and still be marvelling at the workmanship.

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Model of the temple buildings by day ...

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... and by night

Once we had seen all we wanted to here, we said goodbye to the rest of the group, who were going to the Hida Folk Museum. I would have liked to have seen this too, but we had decided it was more of a priority for us to see more of this lovely small city. So we set off to explore further by ourselves, and our next destination was a nearby shrine.

Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Lion dog

This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town, just beyond the Yatai Kaikan. It is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399) who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.

The shrine was enlarged in 1683 and established as the official protective shrine of the town. It has a pair of stone Komainu or ‘lion dogs’ guarding the entrance to the inner shrine, a large purification trough with dragons’ head fountains, a pool with large carp and a number of smaller buildings dotted around the grounds either side of the shrine. Among these (on the left as you face the main shrine) is an auxiliary shrine, an Inari Shrine, dedicated to the kami of the harvest and of industry. This shrine is guarded by a pair of foxes, regarded as the messengers of this god.

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Dragon fountain

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Inari Shrine, and prayers for good fortune

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Fox guarding the Inari Shrine

While we were here we were fortunate to witness a local celebration. On arrival we found the steps up to the shrine blocked by a family posing for formal photos. We stopped to see what was happening and a passing guide escorting another couple around (local and with excellent English) kindly stopped to explain to us that it is traditional here in Takayama to bring your new-born baby to this shrine to be blessed around the 40th day after the birth. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi. In the past, this would be scheduled very precisely, and according to the baby’s gender, e.g. 31 days old for a baby boy and 32 days for a baby girl. The exact timing depends on the region – here in Takayama our informant indicated that 40 days is traditional. But nowadays it has become a common practice for babies (regardless of gender) to have their Omiyamairi at any time between 30 to 100 days after their birth. Many parents choose to go after their baby’s first month health check, and it may also depend on the availability of a priest and of family members.

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Family group at Sakurayama Hachimangu
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A baby's blessing

Traditionally, the mother and grandmother wear formal kimono, and their babies will be adorned in colourful robes or wraps. But the family we saw were in smart Western-style clothing. The purpose of the Omiyamairi is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery and ask the local deity of the shrine to bless the baby, purify him/her and to accept the baby as part of the local worshipping community. The baby is introduced to the local deity by calling out his/her name and birth information, and the god is asked to purify, protect and bless the baby with happiness and health. No photos can be taken during the ceremony itself, but afterwards of course the proud new parents like to pose before the shrine with their offspring and other relatives, just as we saw here. To me it was very reminiscent of wedding photography, with the photographer arranging different combinations of the party in turn – the parents and baby, all the women, the whole group and so on. It was a lovely thing to witness and added to our appreciation of the shrine and its pretty setting.

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Torii gate at Sakuramaya Hachimangu

After taking our own photos and exploring the various buildings here we were in need of refreshment. As we strolled south from the shrine we kept our eyes open for somewhere we might find something to tempt us, and when we spotted a café in a traditional old building on Shimo-Ninomachi advertising cappuccinos, we knew we had found our place!

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Exterior of the café

Stepping inside we found ourselves in a fascinating old building with antiques and knickknacks around the walls and a few large wooden tables. We sat at one end of one of these and were handed menus by the friendly lady who was serving but explained we would just like coffees – a cappuccino for Chris and a mocha for me. She passed our order to the man making the drinks and we waited a while, thinking that he seemed to be taking extra care over them. When Chris’s, the first to arrive, was brought we saw why – an image of two little bears carefully ‘drawn’ in the foam. My mocha was equally decorative but very different, with lovely feathering. A Canadian guy sitting at the same table heard our exclamations and came over to look. When he saw the designs he asked permission to take a photo (of course we were already snapping away!) and explained that a friend of his, a professional photographer, was working on a book of ‘coffee art’ and would be jealous that he had come across such great examples! Oh, and fortunately the coffee was as good as it looked, and we thoroughly enjoyed our drinks.

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Cappuccino

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Mocha

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The 'artist' at work

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Inside the café, with our Canadian companion

Once we had finished our coffee and our chat, we were ready to carry on sightseeing.

Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall

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Sign in the Shishi-Kaikan

As the name suggests, the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall has a collection of artefacts related to the famous lion dance performed at Japanese festivals. There are over 200 lion masks, as well as Edo-Period screens, ceramics, scrolls, coins, samurai armour, and swords. But although interesting, it was not these that had drawn us here, but the regular (every half hour) 15 minute demonstrations of the karakuri (automated dolls) which decorate many of the floats in Takayama's spring and autumn festivals.

We arrived just as one of these demonstrations was starting and were hurried inside to take our seats so we didn’t miss anything. Several karakuri ningyo, to give them their full name, were put through their paces as a woman gave explanations, a small part of which she translated into English (but enough only to give us a fairly vague idea of what was happening and how).

These karakuri ningyo are often described as the ancestors of Japanese robot technology. But their main purpose was not to show off technological possibilities but to conceal them and to create a sense of wonder and magic. The word karakuri means a ‘mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise’. The aim in creating them was that the doll should be as lifelike as possible and not look like the machine it was.

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Dashi karakuri

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Another dashi karakuri, and the tea-serving doll

There are several types of karakuri. Most of those demonstrated here are dashi karakuri, which is the name given to those used on festival floats to re-enact scenes from plays, usually myths and legends. But we also saw a typical zashiki karakuri – the type of karakuri developed for amusement at home, a luxury item in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most popular of these, and the type that we saw, was the tea-serving doll. Like most of the dashi karakuri, it works by clockwork. When a cup is placed in its hands the robot moves forwards; when the cup is lifted it stops; and when the cup is again placed in its hands it turns and goes back where it started. You can imagine what a novelty that would have been in a rich Edo household – and indeed what a novelty it seemed to us! We also saw one that could write which went down especially well with the children in the audience, one of whom was given the finished paper.

If I’ve got you intrigued by these devices, there’s an excellent website about them, Karakuri Info, which is worth digging around in. Once we’d watched the demonstration we walked around the rest of the exhibits. There was no restriction on photography so as well as taking some photos of the karakuri and lion masks I was also able to make a short video of a couple of the former in action during the demonstration.

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Lion masks

By now it was lunch time and we retraced our steps towards a restaurant we had spotted earlier. Rakuda proved to be a great lunch stop. We loved the quirky decor which had rather a kitsch feel, with old 1970s posters and an odd assortment of objects displayed (which continued into the toilet, by the way – do check it out if you come here!) The music played was mostly from the same era, so it’s evidently a passion of the owners. The service was friendly and there was a helpful English-language menu.

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In Rakuda

I had a really tasty sandwich - thick slices of toast with an omelette filling, loads of vegetables (courgette, tomatoes, edame beans, aubergine etc.) and salad in a delicious dressing. Chris had the white pizza which had a very thin base (more like a quesadilla) but a delicious topping of two types of cheese with walnuts. Our drinks were equally as good – mine a home-made ginger ale and Chris's a soda with fresh fruits. And the prices were low - my huge sandwich was just 600¥ and our total bill not much over 2,000¥. What’s not to like?!!

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Rakuda exterior, and soda with fresh fruit

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My sandwich

Refreshed and very happy with our lunch break we headed to our next sight.

Yoshijima-ke

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In Yoshijima-ke

During the Edo period Takayama was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side, and both open to the public. The northernmost is Yoshijima-ke, built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings, and I absolutely loved it! The light inside was beautiful, and the contrast of the heavy dark beams, the lighter lacquered wood used for door frames, pillars etc., and the translucent paper screens was captivating – I couldn’t stop taking photos!

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In Yoshijima-ke

The house has two floors and two inner gardens which some of the rooms overlook. We paid 500¥ for admission and were given a small information leaflet (available in English). We were then free to wander at will, having of course removed our shoes before stepping on to the tatami matting that covers the floor of all the more formal rooms. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko. The beauty is all in the arrangement of the spaces and the contrast of light and dark.

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In Yoshijima-ke

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If you’re interested there’s a plan of the house on this website about Oriental architecture, and also lots of photos, which together give a really comprehensive feel for this lovely building.

The sign outside had a lovely quotation which I think could apply to any old and well-loved home:
‘The completion of the house was only the beginning of its beautiful history. The activity inside the house brought it to life and added to the finishing touches. I think that this kind of beauty could only be created and ensue because of the loving hearts that supported it and lived in it. This struck when gazing through the high window on a moonlit night as white clouds drifted by.’
Teiji Ito (architectural historian)

After spending some time here, we moved to the house next door.

Kusakabe mingei-kan

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Daidokoro with irori, Kusakabe mingei-kan

This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is generally more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen this described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.

Like Yoshijima, this is a two storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region (famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry). Its most noticeable feature is perhaps the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi. This is the heart of the daidokoro or family room, a large room but one which is even taller than it is wide.

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The jizai-kagi

Unlike Yoshijima, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms (on the upper floor and to the rear of the building) are various exhibits of household items (cabinets, pots etc) that would have been traded by this merchant family.

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An inner garden

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Silk kimono on display

As with the Yoshijima, there’s a plan of the house on the Oriental architecture website, and again lots of photos. The official website also has some good photos and an interesting detailed history of the house.

Admission here too was 500¥. This included a cup of green tea and rice cake which was served in the rear courtyard between house and warehouse.

Tatami

As we left I spotted a tatami mat workshop on the opposite side of the road. I had already become intrigued with the tatami mats I had encountered on our travels in Japan, so I wandered over to check it out. Unfortunately there was no one here actually making the mats, but nevertheless it was interesting to see the weaving frames and tools used for this process.

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Tatami in the making

Tatami is the traditional Japanese floor covering and its distinctive appearance, texture and scent will linger long in my memories of the country. The scent in particular, because when you sleep in a tatami room you do so on futons, lying very close to the floor and fall asleep with that straw smell as a perfumed ‘lullaby’.

Tatami is still used a lot in Japan, and not only in traditional houses, as many modern homes and flats have at least one tatami-floored traditional room. The tatami mats are always made in standard sizes, which varies a bit with the region, but is usually around 1.80 metres long by 90 centimetres wide, and always with a ratio of 2:1. Because of this, rooms in Japan are also made in standard sizes and are measured and described as multiples of tatami mats (for example, a tea room is often 4½ mats and a shop usually 5½ mats).

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Tools of the tatami-making trade

Traditional tatami mats are made with an inner core of rice straw and a covering of woven rushes, bound at the edges with decorative cloth or brocade. The covering is known as the tatami omote; it is made of a soft reed and each mat needs about 4,000 to 5,000 rushes, which are woven together with hemp or cotton string. To make the tatami goto, as the straw core is known, 40 centimetres of straw is crushed to just five centimetres deep. Finally the edging or tatami beri is bound over the long edges.

There are some rules (this is Japan, there are always rules!) about the most auspicious arrangement for tatami mats. You will never see a room with tatami arranged in a simple grid pattern; the borders should not create a cross shape, because that would mean that you had joined four mats in that spot and the number four is considered unlucky in Japan because it is pronounced like the word used for death: shi. It is also considered unlucky to step on the cloth-bound border of a tatami mat, although avoiding them is easier said than done and I’m sure I stepped on many during our stay!

We strolled along the nearby streets some more and found ourselves back near the small gallery we had visited the previous day. Somehow we found ourselves popping back in for another look at that limited edition woodblock print, and before we knew it, we had bought it! We took the risk of buying it framed as the price was reasonable compared with what we would have paid to have it framed back home and, luckily, we liked the simple frame. The picture, by an artist called Ken Mozumi, cost us 13,700¥ or about £80 ($130) which for such a lovely and relatively unique souvenir seemed well worth paying. It is now hanging in our hall to be admired daily and remind us of our holiday.

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In the gallery

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Our print

After buying this this we headed back to the hotel with our purchase, to freshen up for dinner.

Center4 Hamburgers

Chris and I had both loved the Hida beef that Andrew had introduced us to on the previous evening, so we decided to try one of the other restaurants he recommended here in Takayama, a place known as Center4 Hamburgers. It sounded like a great place to get a change from Japanese food while still making the most of the high quality local ingredients.

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Center4 Hamburgers

The restaurant is run by a local couple who are clearly enamoured of all things American, as the burgers are served to a background of Johnny Cash music and many of the antiques that spill into the restaurant from the shop in front of it are from the US (though many others are from countries all over the world, as well as from Japan itself). There are just a handful of tables but on the week night we visited there was never more than one other table occupied – surprising perhaps when you consider its reputation.

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In Center4 Hamburgers

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Antiques spill into the restaurant

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My Hida beef burger

Less surprising is the menu, which is dominated by burgers, though there are a few other options. The Hida beef burger comes unadorned, as is only right given the quality of the meat, but you can also get burgers made with regular beef and with all the usual toppings such as cheese, bacon, chilli, egg. You pay considerably more for the Hida beef burger of course, though that does include fries and a tasty salsa. I know the salsa is tasty because I chose to splash out on that dish, and I was so pleased I did – it was amazing, and well worth the extra cost. Chris wanted blue cheese on his burger however so opted for the regular beef, but that too was pretty great. We accompanied our burgers with a large draft beer each (Kirin Ichiban) and had a second beer each afterwards as we were enjoying the atmosphere too much to want to hurry away.

We left eventually of course, and had a pleasant walk back through Takayama’s quiet night time streets, stopping off at the convenience store next to the hotel for some sake to enjoy as a night cap in our room, as the hotel’s bar seemed to be permanently closed. A very nice way to end what had been far too brief a stay in this charming town.

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Old town at night

Posted by ToonSarah 03:58 Archived in Japan Tagged art food architecture japan culture temple history market shopping restaurants houses museum shrine customs takayama street_photography Comments (4)

In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Kamikochi

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Japanese tourists in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is a high plateau, surrounded by mountains, through which the Azusa River flows. It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, because of the climate, only open to visitors from around mid April to mid November each year. When we visited in mid October the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens and the park, always popular with Japanese visitors, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!

We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain – we got one of Japan's autumnal typhoons!

Travelling to Kamikochi

But I am running ahead of myself – first, we had to get here from Takayama where we had spent the previous two days. We had arrived there by train but when we left a few days later it was by bus. The bus station is just next to and north of the train station and has a small waiting area with the ubiquitous vending machines – very useful for stocking up on provisions for the journey or an extra morning coffee. There’s plenty of seating and you can take advantage of free wifi if you’re going to be here any length of time.

Our bus arrived exactly on schedule to take us from Takayama to Hirayu, the first leg of our two bus journey. These are just local buses, not designed for tourists on lengthy visits to Japan, so we had used the excellent Japan Rail luggage forwarding service to send most of our luggage to Tokyo, where we were heading after Kamikochi, and took only small overnight bags on this trip. The buses were quite full, and we were very glad we didn’t have more bags to accommodate.

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Seen from the bus

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Kamikochi traffic jam

The journey to Hirayu took about an hour. There we changed buses, with a wait of about 15 minutes, for one bound for Kamikochi. No private vehicles are allowed beyond the entrance to the long Kappa tunnel that leads to Kamikochi; the only access is by bus or taxi and when you get on the road you see why. It is very narrow and winding and even with those restrictions in place seems to struggle to cope with the traffic. We were stuck for a while behind a bus that was manoeuvring inexpertly to allow another coming in the opposite direction to pass.

The views throughout our journey from Takayama were great, but on this last stretch spectacular – despite (or arguably because of) the very low cloud and rain. I was glad I had secured a window seat and could capture these first impressions of the Japanese Alps with my camera.

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Nearing Kamikochi

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Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

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Soba in hot soup

The bus deposited us at the terminal near the centre of the park, Kappa-bashi. Although it was a bit early for lunch Andrew suggested that we ate in the restaurant there (above the gift shop) as we wouldn’t be able to get anything at the hotel at this time. The wet weather had, it seemed, prompted everyone to have a similar idea, as although the restaurant here is large we had to wait a while for a table and our group broke into twos and fours to secure spaces.

Once seated we enjoyed our warming meal. visit I had soba noodles in a hot soup, which was described as being with ‘edible' (thankfully!) plants, and Chris the katsu (pork cutlet).

Kappa-bashi Bridge

After lunch we regrouped and headed for our hotel. This was right by the river on the far side of, and just a few metres from, the Kappa-bashi Bridge. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi and is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological 'bridge' to the name.

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Kappa-bashi in the rain

The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown, to kidnap children and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages. According to Wikipedia:

‘Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa have been often said to try to lure people to water and pull them in.

‘Kappa legends are said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Other theories suggest they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance, otters have been known to stand upright and a drunk, frightened or hallucinating person may think they are seeing a humanoid entity and not a wild animal.

‘The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.'

The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But on this first afternoon in the park mountain views were in short supply, so we simply crossed the bridge and made the short walk to the hotel, Nishi-itoya Sanso, a good-sized guesthouse with traditional Japanese accommodation.

Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Exterior of Nishi-itoya Sanso - our room is bottom right

Our ground floor room here was probably the largest we had during our trip to Japan. We had a wash basin, but other facilities were communal - toilets in the corridor nearby, and a public onsen (separate men's and women's) on the second floor.

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Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Yukuta set

Sleeping is traditional style, on futons, which the staff laid out for us each evening while we were at dinner. But a welcome Western touch was the provision of a small table and chairs in the window alcove, from where we had a good view of the surrounding trees and a footpath traversed not only by human visitors to the park but also occasionally by the resident macaques!

Once we’d settled in we went for a walk in the immediate area, and despite the rain enjoyed taking photos of the trees, with the autumn leaves just turning, and the low clouds drifting through the wooded hillsides.

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Kamikochi in the rain

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Autumn colours

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Rainy day details

But having been warned not to be out after mid afternoon because of the approaching typhoon, we quite soon returned to our room to enjoy the views of the rather damp trees and equally damp passing macaques.

The macaques of Kamikochi

One of the delights of a visit to Kamikochi is the opportunity to observe the resident macaques, who are not too timid to venture into the ‘populated’ area around the hotels. From our limited two days’ experience, it seemed they would put in an experience mid to late afternoon, with a troop making its way along the path in front of our hotel and others taking a short cut across the staff car park behind. It was so much fun to observe their antics, especially those with little babies in tow or (very cute) riding on their backs.

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Bedraggled macaque with baby

The Japanese macaque is the most northerly-living primate (apart from humans, obviously!) and is sometimes called the ‘snow monkey’ because it is happy to live even where snow regularly covers the ground in winter. But you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to see it in the snow in Kamikochi because the park is closed during the winter months. However, we found that soggy-furred monkeys are almost as cute as snow-covered ones!

The macaques have a distinctive red face which makes them look permanently a little cross. They have thick brown or greyish fur which grows thicker in cold weather. They live in large groups or troops with males, females and infants all living, feeding and travelling together. The babies spend their first four weeks hanging from their mother’s belly before being transferred to her back where they spend most of their first year.

The macaques move quite quickly (or at least, they do when it rains) so you need to have your camera at the ready. I have a lot of very blurred photos to show for my efforts, and more than a few of bushes where, a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter, a monkey was passing! The photo above was my only successful effort on this first afternoon, although I was to do better the following day.

After a relaxing couple of hours watching their antics, reading and catching up on my journal notes, it was time for dinner, which Andrew had promised us would be quite an experience – and it was!

A Japanese feast

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Table set for dinner

Stays at Nishi-itoya are on a half board basis and the dinners served are amazing, classic Japanese feasts, with multiple courses (albeit all served at once in the Japanese way). The table as we walked in to our group's private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

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An individual place-setting

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to stomach, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times. But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

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Walnut tofu

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Assorted samplers

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Grilled char

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ chestnut
~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant
Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don't much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp - a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group ;)

After dinner we sat in the coffee shop for a while with Andrew and another couple from the group, Sue and Jim from Australia, with whom we were becoming friendly. We could buy sake here, tea and coffee, water and beer, although as the coffee shop closes at 21.00 we didn’t stay up late but headed back to our room to snuggle down in our futons and hope for better weather tomorrow.

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Andrew, Jim and Sue in the coffee shop

Posted by ToonSarah 10:05 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys food rain japan weather national_park kamikochi Comments (7)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Rain over Kamikochi

After yesterday’s typhoon and associated rain, we awoke today hoping for better weather. Well, it was slightly better, in that the typhoon had passed and there was nothing to stop us getting outside, but the rain was still falling and not forecast to stop before the evening. Clearly we would not be getting mountain views today, but we were still keen to get out and see something of Kamikochi.

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Breakfast at Nishi-itoya Sanso

Over the Japanese style breakfast (salmon, pickles, miso soup, rice and tea) Andrew proposed leading a group on a walk to the Myojin area of the park, east of our hotel. The shrine that is located at the Myojin Pond is a popular sight and sounded lovely, but Chris and I decided we would rather do our own thing today. So after supplementing the breakfast with the free coffee available in the coffee shop, we got ready to face the elements. Chris’s umbrella had given up the battle with these in yesterday’s wind, so it was good that the hotel provided them for any guest needing one. While we had waterproof clothing, I find an umbrella invaluable in protecting not just me but my camera – most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!

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Chris with hotel umbrella

Our riverside walk

Leaving the hotel we turned right, having decided to explore in the opposite direction to the main group. Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers (there isn’t much else to do here) and there are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes are the only practical ones (even the best walkers in our group stuck to these) and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal and we knew we would soon leave the bulk of them behind.

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The path by the river

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Information sign

The trails are easy to follow and clearly marked, and helpful little maps are available, small enough to slip in a jacket pocket. I had picked up one of these at the hotel, where they are free, but you can also buy them for 100¥ from the tourist information office at the bus terminal and from various shops. There are also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These are in Japanese and English, and are very informative – although it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!

Following the park rules (naturally!)

Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, like national parks everywhere, there are various regulations in force to ensure the protection of the wildlife here. These include specific protection for certain animals, the rock ptarmigan, antelope and char, which are designated as ‘Precious Natural Animals’ in Japan. A voluntary group called ‘Kamikochi Preservation’ was established by the local community in 1965 to support conservation activities in the area. They promote three regulations that visitors are asked to observe in order to preserve Kamikochi for future generations:

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Tree with moss

1. Don't Feed & Disturb!
Do not disturb or feed birds, insects, fish or other wild animals.

2. Don't Harm!
Do not harm or damage wild flowers and plants.

3. Don't Dump!
Carry all your garbage home with your splendid memories.

With these in mind, and cameras and umbrellas at the ready, we started our explorations!

The Weston Relief

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The Weston Relief

This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi. It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston, an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896). It is he who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’, and the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.

From here we continued along the riverside path.

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The Azusa River near the Weston Relief

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Colours of Kamikochi

Tashiro Bridge

About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are great, and the water so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day. On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. From here you could walk straight ahead to reach the main road and bus stop, but we turned right to continue along the trail.

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Kamikochi streams

Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.

Tashiro-Ike

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Tashiro-Ike

This was easily my favourite spot of those we visited in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours, when suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike. Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!

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At Tashiro-Ike

Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea, and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.

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At Tashiro-Ike

From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.

Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud which blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).

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Taisho-Ike

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Reflections, Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to the hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.

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Taisho-Ike

Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we climbed up the short path to the hotel where we were able to use the toilets. We also went in the café here to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after the rainy walk. The café also has lovely views of the pond so there were more photos to be taken of course!

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On Taisho-Ike - taken from the hotel above

A relaxing afternoon

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Salmon and meat patty set

The only walking route back to Kappa-bashi from here is to retrace your steps along the same path, but we decided we had had enough rain for one day. So instead we caught the bus from a stop just outside the hotel. This took us to the bus terminal from where it is just a short walk to the bridge and hotels on the far side. But by now we were hungry so we went back to the restaurant above the gift shop where we had eaten on our arrival in Kamikochi the previous day. Again it was busy with visitors escaping the wet weather but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. I had a ‘set’ with a small piece of salmon in crispy crumb, a meat patty cooked the same way, salad, rice, miso soup and pickles. It was more than I wanted but I fancied having salmon, so I ate that, the salad, a little rice and the soup. Chris had the meat patty along with his ‘curry rice’ - the Japanese take on curry which consists of a rich meaty curry sauce with very little actual meat! While this meal too was fine, I have to say I had preferred my soba dish of the previous day.

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Bedraggled Macaque

After this late lunch we crossed Kappa-bashi back to the hotel where we relaxed in our room for a bit. Later we visited the coffee shop for cake and coffee, and sat at a counter with a great view of the path outside that was favourite route for passing macaques. I loved watching their antics, especially the young ones, and managed to capture a few more photos than on the previous afternoon. I also made a little video of a couple of them, although unfortunately the window frame kept getting in the way, so you only get short glimpses of each as it passes.

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Macaque with baby on board

Dinner that evening was as much of a feast as on the previous day and served in the same traditional style, with all courses beautifully presented and served individually to each place-setting at the same time. This time the menu was:

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Assorted samplers
including river crab

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Sashimi

Assorted samplers
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
- river crab
- chestnut
~ persimmon jelly
~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver
Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

When the skies cleared

Later that evening, at around 9.00 PM, we were sitting in the inn’s coffee shop, drinking beers and sake with some of the group, when the guy who was on reception came hurrying in. In his limited English he explained that if we came outside we would see the full moon and ‘white mountain’. So we left our drinks and hurried out, to find that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys rain water wildlife monument river weather national_park kamikochi Comments (2)

Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

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Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

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Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

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Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

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On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

Magnificent!

Japan day fifteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Detail, Toshogu Shrine

A famous Japanese saying proclaims:

‘Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na’

‘Don't say "magnificent" until you've seen Nikko’

And with some good reason. Its shrines are a wonder to behold, especially perhaps Toshogu, arguably the most flamboyant building in Japan. We had only a day and a half here, but this was enough to give us a great insight into the best of Nikko’s glories which shone despite some gloomy drizzly weather.

Getting to Nikko

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Train to Shimo Imaichi

We started the day with breakfast at our hotel in Tokyo, the Ibis Shinjuku. The buffet breakfast was included in our rate there, with both Western and Japanese options available. I have to confess that after several days of very traditional Japanese breakfasts in our ryokan in Kamikochi we both fell on the cereal, croissants and bacon and eggs with some relief! The coffee was good and there was also fresh orange juice, so we breakfasted well.

It was then a short walk to the huge Shinjuku Station. Our journey to Nikko from here involved two trains (although there a very few direct services if you prefer not to have to change). Firstly, we took a Limited Express service to Shimo Imaichi, which took an hour and 45 minutes. There we had just a couple of minutes to transfer to the local Tōbu Nikko line for the short (eight minute) ride to Tōbu Nikko, one of two stations in the town. Luckily we only had to cross the platform so the short transfer time here was no problem.

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From the train to Nikko

If you too are planning a visit to Nikko it’s worth knowing that you can also travel between Asakusa in Tokyo and Nikko on the direct Tōbu line, but as we were staying in Shinjuku before and after this side trip, that was less convenient for us. It does however make a day trip to Nikko more practical if that is all you can manage (but you really should try to fit in an overnight stay if possible!)

Also there are, confusingly, two stations in Nikko just a few minutes’ walk apart. We used Tōbu Nikko for both our arrival and departure. The other is the JR station just down the road, which is served by JR trains from Tokyo and Ueno stations, changing at Utsunomiya. This costs more than the Tōbu line but is worth considering if you have a JR Pass (ours had expired by this point in our travels).

Arriving in Nikko

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The Turtle Inn Annexe

Arriving in Nikko we decided to take a taxi to our accommodation as we knew it was about 40 minutes’ walk away – a bit far with luggage even though we had left some in storage back at the Ibis, where we would be returning in a couple of days.

We had booked two nights at the Turtle Inn Annexe - Hotari An, a traditional ryokan on the western edge of town which had been recommended by Inside Japan. It was an excellent choice – one of my favourites of the many places we stayed on this trip. It has a pleasant location right beside the river. Our Japanese style room overlooked this river and we could hear its waters clearly as we lay on our cosy futons.

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Two views of our room

The room was en suite but the guesthouse also has an onsen (indoors but overlooking the river) which can be used privately for a 20 minute spell – ample time for a soak in the hot waters. There’s no booking system; you simply wait for it to be free and then hang an ‘occupied’ sign on the door. After a day spent seeing the sights in the rather chilly weather we experienced here, this was a great treat.

The only drawback to staying here was the distance from the main part of town. I’ve already mentioned how far it was from the station, and although nearer to the shrines these were still about 15 minutes’ walk, and the top end of the main street about 20 minutes. But on the plus side it’s very handy for the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, as we were about to discover. For us the quiet and pleasant location, and the pleasure of walking Nikko’s residential streets, more than made up for the distance from town but it’s something to consider before booking.

Lunchtime

We had arrived late morning and our room wasn’t to be ready until 2.00 PM, so we left our bags and went out in search of lunch which we found just a short walk away. Just by the start of the path to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the Bake-Jizō is a small wooden building housing a café, the Kanman Teahouse, named for the small park opposite. There was no English menu but there were pictures to help us choose, and we both decided on the dumplings. These were cooked to order by the friendly owner (I assume) and served three to a skewer, three skewers per person. I believe having done some research since our return that we were eating mitarashi dango – dumplings made with rice flour and served with a sort of sweet and sour sauce with a soy base. This sauce was really tasty! Our meal cost just 500¥ each, washed down with a shared bottle of a local soda.

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Dumplings cooking

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The finished dumplings

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Cute table decor

Fortified, we set off to explore the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Most day trippers to Nikko come, rightly, to see its magnificent shrines, but if you’re here for any longer you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the so-called Kanmangafuchi Abyss. While ‘abyss’ is rather a grand term for what is essentially a small gorge, it’s a scenic spot and one which you’ll probably share with only a handful of other tourists rather than the hordes who visit Toshogu etc. Certainly we passed only a handful of others on our walk here.

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss

The gorge was formed about 7,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Since then the river Daiya has been carving these huge boulders into dramatic shapes as it tumbles over them. This area has been considered a sacred place since ancient times, because Fudo-Myo-O (a manifestation of the Cosmic Buddha) once appeared to people from the deep waters of the river. The name of the abyss, ‘Kanman’, comes from the murmuring sound of the river, which the Priest Kokai likened to an incantation chanted by Fudo-Myo-O of which the last word was ‘kanman’.

A riverside path (easy walking but with some steps) follows the water upstream. On your left as you walk are the famous Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi and on your right this tumbling stream. When we were here (third week in October) the leaves were turning and despite the dull weather there were some glowing colours that contrasted nicely with the rushing white waters. It really is a very photogenic spot.

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In Kanmangafuchi Abyss

But scenic as it is, the main reason to walk the Kanmangafuchi Abyss are the Bake-Jizō.

The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

As soon as I saw photos of these haunting statues while researching our trip, I knew I had to see them for myself. Commonly referred to as Hyaku Jizō, meaning the ‘100 Jizō’, there are in fact around 70 or 80 here as some were washed away in the 1902 flood. I say ‘around 70 or 80’ because it is said that no one knows the exact number. A legend says that each time they are counted, the result is different – hence their other name, Bake-Jizō, meaning ‘Ghost Jizō ‘. Of course the more rational visitor may conclude that the reason for all the discrepancies when counting is that so many have been badly damaged that they are now little more than a pedestal or pile of stones, and therefore no one can be sure whether or not to count them. But the legend is more captivating!

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

Another name sometimes used is Narabi Jizō, meaning ‘Jizō in a line’, which is self-evident. They line one side of the path, facing the river, as if standing guard over the abyss. And in fact, standing guard is exactly what they are doing. Jizō is a Buddhist divinity, the guardian of children, and in particular, children who die before their parents. He is sometimes worshipped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted foetuses, in the ritual of mizuko kuyō, as I wrote about in my Tokyo blog about the Chingodo shrine in Asakusa. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.

According to one folk tale, the dead children must pile stones into towers to achieve karma and be released. But demons scatter the stones, and the towers can never be completed. Jizo hides children in his robes to protect them from these demons and save them.

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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I have read several explanations for the practice of putting red bibs and caps on these statues. One suggests that this custom is primarily associated with a child’s recovery from sickness (or preserving them from falling sick) and the red colour was originally associated particularly with smallpox. But also, putting bibs and hats on these statues is a way of nurturing the spirits with whom they are believed to be imbued. Expectant or worried parents knit these hats and bibs for the statues and leave offerings of money for their children's wellbeing.

We spent quite a lot of time taking photos of the statues, though had to wait a while to get the best ones as a man with a tripod had set up right in the middle and was in no rush to move on.

Reihi-Kaku

Part way along the abyss is a small building, Reihi-Kaku, formerly a Buddhist Gomadan (Alter of Holy Fire) which a priest, Kokai, built at the time of the foundation of the nearby Jiunji Temple. It was used to burn a holy fire facing a stone image of Fudo-Myo-O, located on the opposite bank. The Reihi-kaku was washed away by floods in 1902, and today's building is a 1971 reconstruction. The fire no longer burns here however.

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Reihi-Kaku in Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Beyond Reihi-Kaku and the Bake-Jizō the path ascends some steps past a small graveyard and through trees to emerge just below a main road. There are a couple of stone seats here but the views aren’t as good as from lower down, so we decided to turn back and retrace our steps for another chance to marvel at and photograph the Bake-Jizō. But eventually we got all the images we wanted and were ready to move on and explore the area around the Turtle Inn Annexe.

Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple

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Dragon fountain at Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple

On the western side of Nikko, tucked away among the streets of small houses, we came across this small temple, Jokoji or as it is sometimes transcribed, Joukouji. A small gate, a dragon water fountain for purification, a row of small statues including a couple of contemplative Buddhas ... And beyond, a cemetery with ancient and more recent grave markers packed in on the hillside overlooking the Daiya River.

This temple has stood here since 1640. It has a bell that is even older, dating from 1459. The most famous of its many statues is the Jizō-Do which sits in front of the main hall of the temple. Unusually it is portrayed wearing a stone hat – a Suge-gasa (a Japanese hat made from sedge grass). But the stone hat has not prevented people from adding the customary red cap, as you can see. It is believed that if you pray to this Jizō for something to be fulfilled by a certain date, your wish will come true.

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Jizō-Do

In 1902, the Daiya River overflowed its banks and two of the big Jizō statues that stand beside it were washed away in the floods. Later the head of one of these, the Oya-Jizō, was found in the riverbed and is now installed in the Jokoji Temple. Unfortunately we didn’t see this. But we found plenty of small Jizō in the atmospheric old cemetery behind the temple, as well as many interesting old gravestones.

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At the Jokoji Temple

The stone cups

On leaving the Jokoji Temple we took a short stroll around the nearby streets, partly to get our bearings and plan where to eat later. These streets have channels on either side, filled with running fresh water making its way down to the Daiya River below. My attention was caught by some unusual looking stone structures that sat on the edge of these channels at intervals. A nearby information sign, in English as well as Japanese, helpfully shed some light on their purpose:

‘They are water pipes, built in the Taisho Era, to bring water from the nearby spring. Linking the pipes are bowls carved out of individual stones.
In summer the water is cold, in winter it is warm. Let the water run through your fingers and experience how it makes you feel.’

Well, I let it run through mine and on a chilly afternoon in October it felt pretty cold! But the sound of running water and the frequent sights of it make this part of Nikko a pleasure to walk through, giving the town a sense of freshness and reminding you that here you are among the mountains.

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Stone cup

There are apparently eight of these cisterns, known locally as ‘stone cups’, still remaining in the town, although we only spotted a couple. They provided water not only for drinking but for many other purposes such as washing vegetables and splashing water on the road to settle the dust. The water is no longer considered safe for drinking however.

After exploring this area for a short while we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to warm up before coming out again to seek dinner. We settled into our traditional tatami room and enjoyed the sound of the river outside while sorting our many photos of the Bake-Jizō and writing up journals, before heading out again into the drizzly evening.

The Bell Coffeehouse

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Cosy interior, Bell Coffeehouse

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Soba and yuba at the Bell Coffeehouse

We had asked the friendly owner of our guesthouse about nearby places to eat and she made a couple of suggestions, of which this was one, about 10 minutes’ walk away. We sat in a cosy corner near the bar, with Japanese baseball on the TV, and were given an English menu to choose from. I wanted to try the local delicacy, yuba - made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. It sounds a bit odd but the result is not unlike pasta or noodles in consistency – maybe a little chewier.

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Shrimp and yuba gratin

Here at the Bell it is served in many ways, including a ‘yuba feast’ in which it appears in a number of dishes. But that looked like more than either of us wanted. So instead I chose a dish of yuba and soba noodles (my favourite Japanese noodles with the extra bite that the buckwheat gives) in a broth with vegetables, which was served with a side of inari sushi. This is usually a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice, but here I think was made with more of the yuba in place of the more usual tofu (an improvement as far as I was concerned, not being a fan of tofu). Meanwhile Chris had a shrimp and yuba gratin dish that he really enjoyed. We both had a large beer with our meals and later found room for dessert – chocolate cake for Chris, cheesecake for me, coffee for both of us.

After dinner we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to make use of their lovely onsen. The next day was to be a long one …

Posted by ToonSarah 08:13 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes waterfalls food water monument japan culture temple statue hotel restaurants shrine customs Comments (2)

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