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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)

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)

More wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen continued


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

Futarasan

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Torii gate at entrance to Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone, leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

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Futarasan

Several local families with small children, some of them dressed up in traditional costume, were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself and one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name the first and most prominent of these.

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Torii gate at Futarasan

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Futarasan

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Nun at Futarasan

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Carving detail, Futarasan

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Torii gate detail, Futurasan

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Entrance to paid area

You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there was a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display.

There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee.

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Portable shrine

Modern Buddha statue

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Stone lanterns at Futarasan

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path between here and Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents and stopping at intervals for more photos, both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman nearby during one of these sessions, who I think may have been a family member, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

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With the proud parents

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated, and each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains.

It seems that this family must have one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven year old was very solemn, like a little lady – clearly after two previous such celebrations she must have considered herself an old hand and responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

Lunch time

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Kishino

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My soup at Kishino

At the far end of this path the rickshaw turned back to Futarasan and we turned our attention to lunch. After a long morning exploring Toshogu and Futarasan we were ready for something to eat, and in the grey and chilly weather, preferably something warming. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance to Toshogu that had looked promising so we headed over there to explore.

Kishino is part gift shop, part restaurant. You enter the latter through the former, so it was a good job they had those signs outside or we would never have realised we could eat here! It’s not very big and we were lucky to get one of only two free tables. We were promptly brought glasses of water and an English language menu which included various noodle dishes and a few other options. From this Chris chose the curry rice while I opted for soba noodles with yuba – the local delicacy made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. The yuba in my photo is the coiled omelette-looking stuff floating on the top of the soup.

The dishes were nothing special but they were filling and warming on a chilly day. The service was brisk, understandably since they want to turn tables in such a popular location, but friendly, and we were able to use the spotless toilets here too.

Fortified, we were ready to carry on to our final sight in this part of town, Rinnoji.

Rinnoji Temple

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Protective structure at Rinnoji Temple

It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh.

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Model Sanbutsu on display at Rinnoji Temple

In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

We were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) the one below which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or ‘Kannon with a horse’s head’ (so I probably should not have photographed it!).

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Bato Kannon(?) at Rinnoji Temple

As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

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View of Nikko from the top of Rinnoji Temple

There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (‘short excursion around the pond’). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too, but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

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In the grounds of Rinnoji Temple

Exploring the town

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Statue near the Shinkyo Bridge

After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town. As we started to walk along the main street of the town we were in search of somewhere we could get a drink and a short rest after climbing the ten storeys of the Rinnoji restoration structure. We found what we wanted at Hippari Dako, a tiny place on the west side of the main street at the Shinkyo Bridge end. There are only three tables inside and a fairly limited menu (in English at least) but that wasn’t a problem for us as we only wanted a drink. I had an orange juice, Chris a coffee, and both were fine.

The most distinctive feature of Hippari Dako is its décor. The interior walls are covered with business cards, notes from happy customers, photos, banknotes etc etc. I added a VT card with my details to their collection! The owner was very happy for us to take photos of all of this, but declined Chris’s request to be in a photo herself.

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In Hippari Dako

Refreshed, we wandered on down the main street. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

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Shops in Nikko

Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

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Above a door

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Shop keeper

After enjoying all the shops etc along the street we reached the bottom, by Tobu Nikko Station. We went inside to make some enquiries at the ticket office. Our return ticket to Tokyo tomorrow specified an afternoon train. But we saw that bad weather (worse than today’s occasional drizzle) was forecast and thought that it would be better to spend our last day in Japan in the city, where there were more options for indoor activities, than here in Nikko. So we enquired in the ticket office about taking a morning train instead, and were able to change our tickets and seat reservations without any problem – apparently you are allowed one free alteration, which is very helpful.

We then continued on to see Nikko’s other station.

JR Nikko Station

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JR Station, Nikko

Which station you arrive at in Nikko depends on the route you take from Tokyo. We had travelled yesterday from Shinjuku to Tobu Nikko Station, but other routes bring you to the other one, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station.

In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here. But this station doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful ‘guest room’ used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside of the station, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

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Nikkoji beer

Heading back up the main street we stopped for an early evening drink in the Little Wing café and were pleased to find that they served the local pilsner style beer, Nikkoji, as we'd been keen to try it. We found it pleasant enough though not really any different to other Japanese lagers, all of which are very palatable but unremarkable. It was maybe a little less fizzy than some of the others however, so depending on how you like your lager (personally I like a bit of a head) you may want to give this a try. The ones we tried were bottled and I’ve read that the draught is better so that’s something to look out for. You should also look out for the same brewery’s Premium Ale as I’ve read good reviews of that (it wasn’t available in the Little Wing), and I gather that they also sometimes have seasonal brews, such as dark, amber and special ales.

We had a very pleasant half hour or so here, enjoying the beer and a chat with a local guy at the next table, who had lived and worked for some years in California and thus spoke very good English. He was killing time over a coffee while waiting to pick his son up from football practice and was glad of the chance to refresh his English skills in a conversation with us.

But after a while we decided to move on in search of dinner as I’d read that restaurants in Nikko close early, as they cater mainly to the day trippers I assume. This is very true, and we were lucky to find a meal!

Kanaya Hotel Restaurant

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In the Kanaya Hotel

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Carving detail, Kanaya Hotel

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Crab croquettes

The guidebook I was using said that this restaurant was open till 20.00, unlike many in town, so we headed there for an early (for us) dinner at about 18.30, only to be told on arrival that they were about to close. I asked the waitress if she knew of any other restaurant nearby that would still be open, explaining that we were hungry and wanted dinner. She immediately offered to let us eat there after all! But perhaps for this reason, the service was probably the speediest we have ever experienced, with the waitress positively scurrying to take our order and bring us our drinks and food.

We had a table to one side of the attractive old room, which is ornamented with colourful woodcarvings, although the old world atmosphere is somewhat marred by the harsh fluorescent lighting. The menus we were given were in English and offered a choice of set dinners, with the cuisine a blend of Japanese and Western. I had the crab croquettes in a tomato sauce with rice, Chris had the hamburger in ‘Japanese style’ (which proved to be with grated radish on top). The croquettes were quite tasty and Chris’s burger was OK too. The set meal price included a cup of soup (quite nice, with strips of yuba) and a small salad, and we also had a large beer each. But we didn’t try our waitress’s good nature or patience by attempting to order dessert, so after paying the bill we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe, as Nikko had clearly shut down for the night (at about 19.30).

There we made sure of another session in the lovely onsen, listening to the river flow past outside – a great way to relax after a very busy day of sightseeing in Nikko.

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Shinkyo Bridge at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:06 Archived in Japan Tagged people children food nikko architecture beer japan culture temple shopping restaurants shrine customs Comments (6)

Tales of life and death in Jaisalmer

India day seven continued


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Before and after our visit to the fort we wandered the streets of the old city of Jaisalmer, with its honey-coloured havelis with ornately carved sandstone windows. Beyond we found eerily atmospheric cenotaphs, and beyond that the desert …

Gadisar Lake

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Our first stop on our day’s sightseeing tour here was at this very photogenic spot on the edge of the old town. The lake is also often referred to locally as Gadisar Tank, as it is manmade – built as a reservoir for the city of Jaisalmer by Rawal Jaisal, the first maharaja of Jaisalmer, and later restored and improved by Maharaja Maharwal Gadsi Singh in about 1400 AD. There are a number of temples and shrines not only around the lake but also out in the middle, and several ghats once (but no longer) used for cremations.

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On Gadisar Lake

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A large number of catfish live in the lake. Our guide Gaurav had bought some slices of bread from a local lad as we walked along the road and we were soon to find out why. He tossed a few pieces into the water and it immediately began to churn as the fish jostled to grab a bite. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fish so close together in a body of water at one time!

It is possible to hire boats here, and it’s also a good place for birdwatching, as well as for photography as I hope you can see.

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The main path down to Gadisar Lake leads beneath a lovely sandstone gate, the Tilon-ki-Pol (meaning Gate of Tilon), which dates back to the 14th century.

The story goes that Tilon was a famous dancer (some people say prostitute) in the court of the maharaja. She wanted to pay for a gate to be built here, so that she would be remembered after her death. But the maharaja refused permission because he would have to pass under it to go down to the lake, and this he felt would be beneath his dignity as a great ruler (another version of the tale puts the maharaja in a better light by suggesting that he felt it would detract from the importance of the lake as it would become the main feature here). Whatever the truth of his displeasure, while he was away on court business she had it built anyway, and when he returned and threatened to pull it down, she added a temple to Krishna on the top so that it would become sacred and therefore not to be destroyed even by a king.

To get a good view of the gate don’t walk through it to the lake but instead follow the road a short way past it and head down to the water further to the east.

Sati memorials

Some of the structures around Gadisar Lake have small memorial stones, beautifully carved, which Gaurav told us commemorated women who had immolated themselves.

In fact, I have since learned, they commemorate first and foremost the men who died and were cremated at these ghats, but also their wives who practised what is known as sati – self-immolation on the funeral pyre of their husband. The stone with the carving of a man on horseback is a memorial to the man, while that with the figures with their hands folded is for the wives, with the number of figures showing how many wives performed sati.

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This seems a horrific idea to Westerners, and probably these days to most Indians too, but Gaurav told us that it was not so long ago that sati was still practised here. His own great grandmother had immolated herself on the death of her husband (I didn’t think to ask about the date, being quite shocked at the revelation, but I would guess that it must have been in the first part of the twentieth century, long after the practice was officially banned in India). Later that day we were to visit the Brahmin cenotaph of Vyas Chhatri where he told us that this (to me) gruesome sacrifice had taken place.

Meanwhile though we spent the rest of the morning exploring the fort (as described in my previous entry), and the afternoon in the old town that surrounds it …

Old town architecture

After spending much of the morning in the fort and taking a short break for a cold drink in one of its many rooftop restaurants, we made our way down into the streets of the old town below. These are not dissimilar in many ways to those inside the fort, but perhaps a little wider and with more traffic in places.

As in the fort, there was so much here to photograph – more Ganesh paintings (see my previous entry for an explanation of these), more beautiful buildings, more colourful details and local dress.

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Street scenes in the old town

Havelis

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Patwa Haveli

Jaisalmer grew up as an oasis town on the camel caravan routes between East and West, trading silk, spices, indigo and precious and semi-precious stones. The caravans would stay here to rest and resupply, and the high tolls they paid enriched the city and the Court. Its merchants became wealthy, as did its bankers (both, by the way, professions favoured by the large number of Jains who lived here, who shun agriculture because it conflicts with their belief regarding the sanctity of every living thing). These rich merchants and bankers naturally liked to show off their wealth in the grandeur and beauty of their homes. Furthermore, the relative liberalism of this western border town when much of northern India was under Mughal rule, attracted artists and craftsmen, whose skills flourished here. Thus many of the city’s houses, all built in that lovely golden sandstone, are further embellished by carvings, and of these the most gorgeously elaborate are the mansions or havelis of the rich. You can find havelis in many places in India, but Jaisalmer is particularly noted both for the large concentration of them in a relatively small city, and for the delicacy of the carvings in the sandstone.

You will see such beautiful stonework in both the fort itself and in the lower town streets, but the best examples of havelis are probably those in the latter which is where these photos were taken. Here you will find the one considered the most beautiful of all, the Patwa Haveli. This was built over a period of about 50 years from 1805 onwards by a Jain merchant, Guman Chand Patwa, as a home for his five sons consisting of five adjoining houses. The many oriel windows projecting out over the street maximise the use of space in the small town plot, while the carved sandstone lattice screens let in cool air in the desert heat. This building is open to the public but I have to say that by the time we reached this point in our hot day’s sightseeing we were running out of energy so we contented ourselves with views from outside. Although the streets here are narrow there is a small open square opposite making photography a little easier than it might otherwise be (Gaurav told us that the city government had cleared this space deliberately, which made me wonder what had been destroyed in the process).

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Patwa Haveli

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Haveli architecture in the old town

Other havelis of note are Nathmal and Salim, but really you will find this wonderfully detailed stonework on so many houses here that you will be spoiled for choice! Whichever you visit, there are three distinctive features to look out for. Firstly, the carved sandstone screen known as a jaali, which you find on many old buildings in Mughal India. Secondly, the decorative stone oriel window called a jharokha as seen in such profusion on the Patwa Haveli. Both of these elements could be partly prefabricated and installed in even quite modest houses which explains perhaps why so many houses in Jaisalmer look so fabulous. The third element, again easily seen on the Patwa Haveli, is the deep downward curve of the small roofs that shelter the windows – a style brought by the Mughals from Bengal.

Shopping for silver

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Mehar had told us on the drive to Jaisalmer that one of the things it was famous for was its silver-work and silver jewellery, and I love silver jewellery! So I determined that a bangle bought here would make a nice souvenir of my trip. I asked Gaurav for advice (yes, knowing that his chosen shop would be one that paid him to bring us there, but also knowing that TransIndus guides are under strict instructions not to rip tourists off and only to recommend good places). He suggested that he could take us to a family business, run from their home in the old town.

We arrived at the house, slipped off our shoes, and descended to the basement which serves as the shop. There were two other customers seated on the low cushions – one another tourist, an American woman and her daughter picking out presents for friends back home; the other a local woman choosing with great care the jewellery she would wear at her wedding. I asked the man serving us if I could see some bangles and he emptied a large bag on the floor at my feet! He demonstrated the clever design, a speciality here – the bangles are hollow and can be twisted to put on and take off, clicking into place to hold them. I rummaged for a short while until I found a design I liked, and he then helped me unearth it in the correct size.

I was pleased that there was no “hard sell” here – OK, it was suggested I might like to wear more than one bangle, or buy another for a friend, but neither of these points were pressed when I said no thank you. The service was pleasant and the buying experience more relaxed than in a shop, so I was happy with Gaurav’s recommendation, and with my purchase, which I wore almost daily for more than a year following this trip. Sadly though, it was one of very many holiday-bought pieces of jewellery that were stolen when we were burgled in spring 2016, and this photo of the pile of bangles on the carpet is my only record of it – that, and the memories, which no burglar can take away.

Vyas Chhatri

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After a break at our hotel, the Fort Rajwada, and a swim in its lovely pool, Gaurav picked us up again to go to see the sunset, a popular outing in Jaisalmer. From what I have read it seems that many people visit Bada Bagh, the cenotaphs of the Jaisalmer Royal Family, but our Brahmin guide brought us to these instead. The place had a particular meaning for him, as he explained that it was here that his great grandmother had performed immolation on the death of her husband, according to the then-tradition, as he had told us that morning by Gadisar Lake.

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The name of Vyas Chhatri refers to the structure of the tombs – these small domed pavilions seen in so much of Mughal architecture. It is not usual in Hinduism to erect such tombs for the dead, as Hindus believe that their souls will be reborn through reincarnation, but when the Mughals brought Islam to India they brought with it the custom of erecting tombs which gradually become popular among Hindus too in some regions, especially in these western desert parts. Kings and important people would be honoured and remembered in these “tomb gardens” which were established in prominent spots such as this hillside and were open to the public.

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This is still an active cremation site so be prepared to see the remains of fires and wood stacked for future use. I have seen some visitors suggest that this makes it inappropriate to visit as a tourist attraction, but I felt it was no more so than visiting a graveyard, for instance, and the fact that it was suggested by a local with a direct connection to the place reassured me further on that count. Be prepared for this though, and for the fact that if a cremation has recently taken place you may even, as one shocked tourist whose account I read (The creepy beautiful cenotaphs of Rajasthan), come across smouldering ashes.

The same writer also notes with some revulsion that funerals in this part of India at least are still caste-based, so only Brahmins will be cremated here while other castes each have their own site. I find the whole caste system bewildering and somewhat anachronistic, but by this point in our trip had learned to accept that to many of the locals we spoke with it was an unquestioned way of life – although perhaps even more so to a Brahmin like Gaurav.

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The latter had suggested that we head for a spot about five minutes’ walk away to watch the sunset, and most visitors there at the time did this, presumably because it offers a view of the town and fort beyond. But after checking it out quickly we decided to stay by the cenotaphs themselves and were rewarded with much better photos as a result, as you can frame the setting sun with the structures, which really glow in this light.

Entry to this spot is free but there’s a small charge of 50 IR for camera use – do pay this as you will want to take photos!

Once the sun had set it was back to our hotel for dinner in the same Sonal restaurant where we had eaten the previous evening. We enjoyed our meal of a minced lamb kebab, potatoes stuffed with nuts and dry fruit, and dal, washed down with a couple of beers, while reflecting on a busy and fascinating day in the city that has probably stayed with me more than most others visited on that trip.

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Hotel view, the following morning

Posted by ToonSarah 07:17 Archived in India Tagged buildings people sunset india city rajasthan jaisalmer customs Comments (2)

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