Visit Tohoku! Hiraizumi

Last weekend, we went on another trip to Tohoku, this time to Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture. Hiraizumi was the base of a powerful regional family in the twelfth century, and is particularly famous for its Buddhist temples and gardens. Indeed, in June those sites were registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a bit of good news that was particularly welcome at the time.

The soba on the table, with Mayuki peering through the handle of one of the bowls

Wanko Soba

We travelled up by shinkansen and train, as usual, and Mayuki seems to have got to like the shinkansen. Our only plans for the first day were to eat and take it easy at the hotel, so that’s what we did. First, we ate “wanko soba” at a restaurant near the station. That’s noodles in very small bowls — 24 of them. The idea is that you can have different toppings with each bowl, so you also get a big tray of toppings. After we’d eaten, we went to the hotel.

We stayed at Musashibo, and I was quite impressed. The accommodation is nice, and it is a hot-spring hotel. The baths are indoors, and while you wouldn’t go there just for the baths, they are good. One has the hot water coming out between rocks (probably artificially placed), while the other has a view of the mountains. Men and women swap between the baths each day, so if you stay overnight and take a bath in the evening and the morning, you will be able to see both.

The food was also good. The morning buffet was fairly standard, but nice, and the Japanese evening meal was very good. Yuriko commented that the menu was rather different from the areas around Tokyo or Kyoto, and it was true; we got the regional cuisine. There were the standard elements (rice, raw fish, tempura), but also a number of unusual vegetables and other items. One that Yuriko passed on was a tiny whole crab, cooked in its shell. You were supposed to eat the whole thing so, based on my principle of trying anything once, I did. It was fine, actually, although I don’t think I’d specially order it. We had ordered the children’s meal for Mayuki, and although she fell asleep at the table on the first night, she really enjoyed it on the second.

What really impressed me, though, was how they handled a foreign visitor. They are obviously set up for foreign guests, with translations on most of the signs and English meal tickets, but the receptionist was very apologetic as she handed me an English ticket, remarking (in Japanese) that I obviously didn’t need one. Based on the brief panicked “meal ticket, meal ticket” that I heard as I was filling in the register, I guess that they had misplaced the Japanese ones… I did get a Japanese one for the next day. She also asked whether I was living permanently in Japan, and when I said I was, she said “That’s fine, then”. The law is that when a foreigner without a permanent Japanese address stays at a hotel, the hotel must note the passport number. However, if the foreigner is resident in Japan, that’s not necessary.

This impressed me because, not only were they ready to handle foreigners who couldn’t speak Japanese, they were also ready to deal, in Japanese, with foreigners who could. In other words, they were adaptable. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have an English web page, but if you use English on their enquiry form, I suspect they’ll find a way to manage. (From the top, name, name again (Japanese people put the reading in here), phone number, email twice to confirm it, and then the content of what you want to ask.)

Another thing that Mayuki seems to really like is the onsen, hot spring baths. As soon as we got to the hotel, she wanted to go to the onsen. Yuriko wanted to go for a walk, so she went with me, and then again with Yuriko later. She also went with me both mornings, and with Yuriko on the second evening. Unfortunately, there is no family bath at the hotel, so we couldn’t all go in together; Mayuki wanted to, but she accepted that we couldn’t when we explained. Yuriko did wonder how long she could keep going into the men’s bath with me; I think the official upper limit is twelve (the end of elementary school), but, at any rate, it’ll be fine until she starts school.

On our full day, we went to visit the World Heritage Sites. The first visit was a bit delayed, because Mayuki hadn’t had enough breakfast, and so was hungry and fractious. We stopped for a snack outside the gates, and Mayuki was a lot better after that.

The pool at the heart of the garden, with a leaning rock standing in the middle

Motsuji Pure Land Garden

The first proper stop was Motsuji. All of the original temple buildings here have burned down, but the garden has been preserved, in part, and in part restored based on archaeological evidence, so the garden is the main attraction. It was designed to call to mind the Pure Land of Amida (Amitabha), and while my Buddhist theology is not good enough to comment on how far it succeeds at that, it is certainly a beautiful garden. It is centred on a large pond, and as you walk around it, the view changes. The weather was changeable while we were there, including a heavy shower, so the changing skies also contributed to its attractions. I wasn’t sure how good it would be before we went, but it is a wonderful place.

Mayuki is hopping down a path in the garden at Motsuji

Look! A pine cone!

Of course, I’m not sure how far Mayuki appreciated its sublime beauty. She certainly enjoyed playing with us as we walked round, and as the rain finished and the sun came out she did stop and watch the light sparkling on the water with us. The Buddhist halls also caught her attention. She’s more used to shrines, and temples are rather different in their construction and impact. She liked the statue of the supposed founder of the temple (he might have actually founded it, but I gather that the evidence is not great), and prayed at one where we stopped to get out of the rain. Naturally, she prayed Shinto-style, but I’m sure that’s OK.

Then we went to Chusonji. We had lunch at the rest house outside the entrance and, unusually for somewhere in Japan, I don’t recommend it.

A view of mountains and fields, from a mountain

The view from the top of the mountain

Chusonji is spread out across a mountain, so the path up to it is quite steep. Mayuki decided that it looked a bit too steep, and decided that she wanted to be carried. Very soon I am going to give up climbing mountains while carrying her, as she is really getting rather heavy, but not quite yet. However, the view from the top of the mountain makes it worth it. This is actually the view from a cafe at the top; if you’re visiting, I’d recommend waiting until you get here to eat. We didn’t actually try the food, but the staff were nice, and the view is as you can see.

Buddhism is, of course, a religion that rejects worldly things, and values poverty and austerity. Naturally, then, the main attraction at Chusonji is a gold-plated temple, Konjikido. This was built in the early twelfth century, and has managed to survive all the vicissitudes since then. It is now housed in a very solid concrete building, protected by glass, and looks likely to survive for some time longer. It is quite impressive, but I have to confess that I don’t particularly like gilded buildings. It’s not the expense; I do like the ones that are lacquered. There’s something about the colour and the effect that just doesn’t appeal to me.

Mayuki getting water from a rock basin in front of a thatched Noh stage

Purification and the Noh Stage

After the gold-plated temple, we visited the shrine on the mountain top, Hakusan Shrine, where the tutelary deity of the complex is enshrined. The most notable feature of the shrine precincts is a large, thatched Noh stage, which is a National Important Cultural Property. It is still used for Noh Performances. The shrine itself is quite small, although there was a priest present, so I was able to get a Goshuin. There was also a set of twelve small shrines to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Since Mayuki and I are both boars, we went to that shrine to pay our respects together.

Mayuki was agitating to go back to the hotel by this point, but Yuriko wanted to quickly visit the museum. At first I didn’t want to, but I gave in, and it was a good choice. The museum contains a lot of Buddhist images, and one of them is a standing wooden statue of Thousand-Armed Kannon. As soon as Mayuki saw it, she was hooked. “Hasn’t it got a lot of hands!” she said, and refused to go and look at anything else. In the end, I stayed with her while Yuriko looked at the rest of the museum, and we bought her a postcard of the statue when we left to go back to the hotel.

On the way down the mountain, Mayuki fell asleep riding on my shoulders, so I had to take her down and carry her with her head on my shoulder, which is more effort. I was thus quite tired when we got to the bottom, but we made one more stop before returning to the hotel. This was at a lacquer-ware shop that has been in the town for some time. Their traditional product is called Hidehira ware, named after one of the twelfth century nobles of Hiraizumi, and uses red, black, and a gold-leaf diamond design. They also have a number of newer designs, some of which were very nice; wooden cups with lacquered interiors, for example. In the end, though, we bought a pair of traditional soup bowls and some chopstick rests. We’ve already used the bowls, and they’re very nice.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of a large cliff and the river


On our final day, we went on a side trip to Geibikei. This is a river gorge with impressive towering cliffs, but the river itself is very shallow, so you can go up and down part of it on a punt. Unlike Cambridge, you don’t get to punt yourself, but rather go on a guided tour. The punt operators tell you about the river, and the names of the various cliffs, and then you get out and walk past some rapids to see the last and possibly most spectacular cliff. It has a small cave on the opposite side of the river, and apparently if you can throw a small clay ball into it, you get good luck. Mayuki wanted to try, but couldn’t do it. One of the other people on the boat, however, managed to get his in; I think he must have played baseball as a young man. I might have been able to get the ball across the river, but certainly not into the cave by anything other than pure luck.

Mayuki throwing fish food from the boatOn the way back, Mayuki fed the fish. She wanted to feed them on the way out, but we didn’t see any. That was because they were all on the other side of the boat, so when we turned round to go back, there they were. Mayuki had a lot of fun, also telling off the ducks who kept stealing the fishes’ food.

The gorge was spectacular, and because we were on the noon boat, the sun shone into it, so we got reflections off the river onto the cliffs. After we got back, we had lunch at a small restaurant near the boat pier, and I ate river fish, which was delicious. Then we headed back home on the train. Mayuki enjoyed the shinkansen, playing the “piano” on the ledge under the window, but fell asleep on the train home after that. Of course, when we got home, she woke up again, and was lively until quite late.

I really liked Hiraizumi and Geibikei, and I’d definitely recommend them as a destination (although I’m not sure how the people at Geibikei would cope in other languages). Being inland and on very solid ground, both suffered very little from the earthquake. Indeed, according to the young woman at the shop at Geibikei, nothing even fell off the shelves there. So, go and visit.

Visit Tohoku! Aizu

I’ve been to Tohoku again, this time on a family trip in the middle of July. We spent two nights and three days in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture. Yes, that is the Fukushima Prefecture that has the broken nuclear power station. However, it’s one of the largest prefectures in Japan, and the Aizu region is at the other side, a hundred kilometres or so from the nuclear power plant. In terms of radiation, it’s safe, as evidenced by the fact that this is where a lot of the people who used to live near the power station have been evacuated to.

The Aizu region is in the mountains of southern Tohoku, and apparently gets a lot of snow in the winter. While we were there, the temperature was generally pleasant, although there were occasional showers that held our sightseeing back a bit. On the up side, the train ride from Koriyama (where we got off the shinkansen) to Aizu Wakamatsu (where we were staying) was very pleasant, winding its way along mountain valleys, and through occasional tunnels. Mayuki certainly enjoyed herself, but I don’t think that was primarily the scenery; she was having much more fun climbing all over us.

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of the Aizu mascot, a stylised red cow

At Aizu Wakamatsu station, in front of the Aizu mascot

The original plan was to get the bus from the station to the ryokan where we were staying, but that left us about 45 minutes to kill at the station. Fortunately, there was a festival/market being held just outside the station, and Mayuki decided that she wanted to go there, and eat shaved ice and fried noodles. This is hardly a local speciality, being standard festival food in Tokyo, but that is presumably why Mayuki wanted to eat it. Since she was enjoying it, and we were on holiday, I decided that we would get a taxi to the ryokan, so that we didn’t have to worry about the times. We left the festival as they were starting to clear up, and got in the taxi just as it started raining, so the timing was perfect there.

The ryokan where we were staying, Kutsurogijuku Shintaki, is in Higasiyama Onsen, on the edge of the town, and the area is very pretty, in a steep-sided forested valley, with most of the ryokan along the river. Quite a bit of the ryokan was accommodating evacuees, so the number of tourists was fairly small. That meant that we could book the open-air bath by the river on both nights of our stay, and go in as a family. Mayuki really enjoyed that, and since no-one else was there, she could play without Yuriko getting worried, or having to avoid bothering other people.

Me, Yuriko and Mayuki, with a samurai.

People in samurai costume walk round the town and pose with tourists for photographs, free.

We spent our full day looking around the town of Aizu Wakamatsu. This was the centre of one of the important domains of feudal (Edo-period) Japan, and is famous as the site of one of the important battles around the Meiji Restoration, in the late 1860s. There is a very well-known tragic story associated with it, as well. The domain had a number of groups of samurai, divided by age, and the White Tiger Group was made up of boys aged 16 to 17. When the domain was attacked, they were sent to relieve one part of the army, and attacked unexpectedly. Many of them managed to escape through a tunnel to a hill overlooking the town, but when they got there they saw the castle wreathed in smoke, and thought that it had already fallen. All but one of them committed suicide. The castle had not fallen, however. As a result of this, Aizu Wakamatsu is strongly associated with samurai.

It’s also associated with a number of traditional crafts, and we spent quite a lot of our time looking at those. One is lacquer ware, and we visited a shop with centuries of history, full of beautiful items. Another tradition is a particular style of cotton, while a final one is the manufacture of candles with lovely pictures of flowers on. We did quite a lot of shopping, partly to support the local economy, and partly to get presents for the people we would be visiting in the UK.

Apart from the samurai, the region’s other claim to fame is that it was where Hideyo Noguchi was born and raised. He was a famous Japanese scientist (a bacteriologist), and is the face on the current 1000 yen note, so he’s become very well known. He trained as a doctor in Aizu Wakamatsu, and we had a break at a cafe in the building that used to house the hospital where he pursued his initial studies.

Around that time, Mayuki fell asleep on me, and I was also getting a bit tired, so we debated going straight back to the ryokan. Yuriko, however, wanted to go to see the collection of Edo period houses, which were on the way back, so we did, getting there just before closing time. They were very interesting, in part because these were houses for more ordinary samurai. One was, admittedly, the former house of a chief retainer, but the chief retainer to a domain lord is a long way down from the shogun. One interesting point was that the toilet reserved for the head of the household had no ceiling, so that assassins could not hide between the ceiling and the roof.

I really like the traditional Japanese architecture, from an aesthetic viewpoint. From a practical standpoint, I’m not good enough at sitting on the floor to really be comfortable living in a house that was all Japanese style, and I’d need to find somewhere to put my books, but if I can ever afford an actual house somewhere in Japan, I’d like to have a Japanese-style section, not just a Japanese room.

Yuriko and Mayuki taking up a lot of space in the upper deck lounge of the tourist boat

Away From The Crowds

On our final day we went to Inawashiro, a small town on one of the larger lakes in Japan, Lake Inawashiro. The first thing we did was go out on the lake on the tourist cruise. We were the only passengers on the boat, so we went to the upstairs lounge and took it easy, enjoying the scenery and the commentary. The fact that we were there on a weekday outside high season probably partly accounts for how quiet it was, but I fear that the nuclear accident may also have been scaring people away.

From the boat, we went to a late nineteenth/early twentieth century house that was built for a member of the Imperial family. Yuriko finds these really interesting; I find them very similar to a lot of houses in the UK. Indeed, the main difference between this house and my friend’s house that we stayed at in the summer is that my friend’s house is bigger… After we’d looked around, Mayuki enjoyed watching the ants hunting for food in the lawns outside the house, before we got a taxi to our lunch stop.

Yuriko and Mayuki inside a reconstructed farmer's house

The cones are not historic

This was also on the shore of the lake, and as well as the restaurant it had several museums and similar. One was the Aizu Folk Museum, where several houses from the region had been reconstructed. These were farmers’ houses, so they were smaller than the samurai houses, and much more practical. Most only had one tatami room, with earth floors elsewhere, but they had upper floors, both for living and storage. Mayuki really liked one of the houses, and went round it three times. There was a route marked out, so that at busy times people would keep flowing, but Mayuki was able to go in whichever direction she wanted.

The other museum was the Hideyo Noguchi museum, because this is where he was born. If I understood the explanations correctly, it is literally where he was born; one feature of the museum is that house, and there was no indication that it has been moved and reconstructed. A famous part of Nogushi’s story is that, when he was eighteen months old, he fell into the hearth at home and burned himself very badly, so badly that the fingers of one hand fused together. Because the house is in the museum, you can see that hearth, and the story made a really big impression on Mayuki. She kept wanting to see the hearth again, and asking about the accident. When we got home, we bought her a picture book biography of Noguchi, and she still asks for it to be read. When Noguchi was in his early teens, his friends got together to pay for an operation on his hand, which was a success, and that is what set him on the path to studying medicine.

After we’d seen the museums, we still had a bit of time before our train, so we went to the big glass shop across the road and had a drink in their coffee shop. While Yuriko looked around, Mayuki and I “painted” the milk and syrup pots using the paper on the end of the straws. When we’d finished, we put everything back the way it had been, and Mayuki didn’t even need much prompting.

Mayuki fell asleep on the train back, but woke up when we got on the shinkansen, and immediately started crying that she didn’t have a packed meal like Yuriko and me. So I took her to find the lady with the trolley, where I bought her a drink and a box of chocolate almonds. That cheered her up, and she happily took bits from our meals to eat, in between dozing a bit.

It was a very nice part of Japan, and apparently it’s glorious in autumn, when the leaves on the mountains all change colour and get reflected in the lake. I’d like to go back, but I don’t know whether we’ll get round to it; there are so many new places to go. In any case, I can recommend it to people visiting Japan.

Visit Tohoku! Sendai and Shiogama

According to a recent article in the Guardian, the number of tourists coming to Japan has fallen sharply. This is, perhaps, because they imagine that Japan is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, glowing with radioactivity and, quite possibly, roamed by gangs of mutant bikers. And Godzilla.

Obviously, this is not the case. There is no problem with radioactivity in Tokyo. Mayuki’s kindergarten is keeping an eye on the readings from Kawasaki, and so far they haven’t felt the need to change their activities at all; we all went to dig up and then eat potatoes for Fathers’ Day, for example. Areas west and south of Tokyo barely felt the earthquake at the time, and weren’t affected by the tsunami.

However, what about Tohoku? As you may have guessed from the title of this article, it’s even an exaggeration in that case. There are still 110,000 people living in evacuation shelters, and less than half the rubble has been cleared even as far as temporary storage areas, but Tohoku is a large area, and there are quite a lot of places it is safe, and fun, to visit.

Yesterday, I went on a day trip to Shiogama Shrine, near Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, on the coast and in the heart of the area affected by the disaster. I decided a while ago that something useful I could do for the affected area was to go there and spend money, so I looked for things that I wanted to do. Shiogama Shrine is one of the Ichi no Miya (Number One Shrines), a system that dates back to the twelfth century, and designates some of the most important Shinto shrines in the country. I’ve had a plan to visit all of them for some time, but previously I’d only managed to visit one, so this seemed like a good opportunity to extend the list a bit. As the shrine is close to Sendai, which is a stop on the Tohoku Shinkansen, it’s possible to visit the shrine on a day trip, without a ridiculously early start or late finish. What’s more, JR East Japan has been running a campaign for a one-day pass for the whole region, for 10,000 yen. That’s less than half what it would normally cost to go to and from Shiogama, which decided it.

Of course, I was a little nervous before I went. I had confirmed that the shrine was still there, and still operating more-or-less as normal, and checking the town’s tourist information page, in Japanese, showed that they were planning to hold a festival next week. So, it sounded as though I could go and do tourism things. Of course, I was still a bit worried about what the people in the town would think. The idea was to support their recovery, so if they felt I was getting in the way, or just coming to look at “the victims”, then that wouldn’t be any good at all. Still, that wasn’t a good enough reason to do nothing, so off I went.

I went by myself, and so part of the enjoyment was the shinkansen ride. I really like riding the express trains, watching Japan’s scenery go past, and just relaxing. Obviously, it’s not quite the same when Yuriko and Mayuki are there, so yesterday was a rare chance.

The main purpose of my trip was to visit the shrine. The old “kuni” were very big in northern Japan, so Shiogama Shrine was the Ichi no Miya for current Aoyama, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima prefectures, which is almost all the regions seriously affected by the disaster. (Ibaraki and Chiba were also seriously hit, although to a lesser extent.) Thus, in a sense Shiogama Shrine is the tutelary shrine for the regions affected by the disaster, and I planned to go and have a ceremony done to ask for the fast recovery of the stricken areas. Even if you believe that those ceremonies have a supernatural effect (and I’m not convinced), one more from me wouldn’t make much difference, given that the people who live there are presumably making similar requests quite a lot. However, it did strike me as a good way to leave money in the area, which was another of my main purposes.

However, I was a bit nervous about it, for a couple of reasons. First, it is very unusual to make such general requests at a shrine. It might be normal to pray for disaster victims in a church, but it’s not what you normally do at a shrine. You normally go to a shrine to make personal requests. Thus, I was a bit worried that it might be out of order in general. Even if it wasn’t, I was concerned that it might not be appropriate for an ordinary person from outside the region to just turn up and do it, and that it might seem arrogant and condescending. Still, again, these were not good enough reasons to do nothing, so I went from the station to the shrine, as planned.

Beyond a torii, a steep flight of stone steps climbs a hill to between tall trees

The entrance to Shiogama Shrine

Arriving at the main entrance, the reason why the shrine had not suffered from the tsunami was immediately obvious. Indeed, since it is very common for shrines to be on hills, they have, apparently, suffered relatively little in the disaster. The older shrines, in particular, were built on firm ground, and above the reach of the tsunami. That’s not to say that no shrines were damaged, far from it, but, on average, they have not been major victims.

I managed to get all the way up to the shrine, and soon found the reception desk for ceremonies; there was a big sign just to the left of the entrance. There was hardly anyone in the shrine, but there was a group of people there when I arrived. By the time I had filled in my request form, they had gone to the waiting room, so when I handed over the request, and the money in the formal envelope, there was no-one else there. The priest on the desk didn’t react much, but then I hadn’t expected to be told I couldn’t have the ceremony done. He just told me that I would have to wait for the other group to finish, and directed me to the waiting area, which was quite large. I took my jacket out of my rucksack while I was waiting, because while you should dress formally, with a jacket and tie, for a formal ceremony, I wasn’t about to walk around in a jacket for any longer than necessary.

I had offered enough for a ceremony with kagura, sacred dance, because I wasn’t there to save money, and while I waited I could see the miko taking a koto and other equipment into the worship hall of the shrine. After about twenty minutes, a priest came to collect me. He was fairly senior (he had purple hakama on), but not the chief priest (who would have had white patterns on purple hakama, at least). I’d guess he was the senior priest on duty yesterday. I put my jacket on, and followed him across.

The buildings at Shiogama Shrine are over three hundred years old, so I had to take my shoes off at the bottom of the steps into the worship hall. Fortunately, I had anticipated this possibility, and worn new socks with no holes. Inside the shrine, there were no chairs, so I knelt on the tatami mats. Practising formal kneeling pays off for me repeatedly. I knelt to one side of the worship hall, while on the other side there were four of the shrine staff: two priests, and two miko. The miko were in their full kagura regalia. First, the junior priest purified us all, as normal, and then the senior priest went to the main sanctuary to read the norito. The sanctuary is a separate building from the worship hall at Shiogama Shrine, so disappeared from view. However, they have set up a system to allow you to hear your norito.

That was the point when I largely stopped worrying, because the norito was specially written to ask for recovery from the disaster. Now, I suppose that a priest with a lot of experience and talent could have written a norito in that twenty minute slot, as well as getting his ritual clothes on, but it’s not very likely. What that indicated to me was that other people had been making similar requests, enough to justify writing a norito for it, and so it was not strange at all.

During the norito, you bow your head, and when I looked up there were another two miko on the other side of the room. I’m pretty sure they weren’t there to start with, but they might have been sitting back a bit. One was sitting at the koto, the other at the drum. Next was the kagura, a dance called Ichi no Mori. Two of the miko danced, holding kagura-suzu, with lots of small bells and trailing ribbons, while one played the koto and the other beat the drum and sang.

Finally, I had to offer my tamagushi (sakaki branch), and I was briefly confused because there were two tables in front of me. Fortunately, a questioning glance at the priests elicited the information that I should put it on the smaller table. Then I returned to my place, and the senior priest brought my o-fuda, which also had “Recovery Ceremony” apparently printed on the paper; clearly not unusual. He also brought a really big bottle of o-miki, sacred sake, as part of the offerings that you always receive after a ceremony. That’s a bit of a shame, since neither Yuriko nor I drinks sake, but refusing it would have been very inappropriate. We will find a good use for it, somehow. (It will probably end up being offered on our kamidana.)

Me, the senior priest, and the two miko who danced

Spot the Foreigner

Then he asked me where I was from, and how long I’d been in Japan, and thanked me for having the ceremony. That set my mind at ease. The priests do not normally thank you, so it obviously meant that he was pleased that I had asked for the ceremony. Indeed, once we had left the worship hall he offered to have a photograph taken of me with him and the two miko who danced. For once, I remembered to ask for permission to put it online, so here it is.

After that, the priest stayed with me for a bit, explaining a bit about the shrine and some of the historic items in the grounds. There are a couple of very old iron lanterns, one of which is spectacularly elaborate. He said that originally there were four of them, but in the last war the government demanded three of them for the iron. He also said that all the lanterns fell over in the earthquake, although they have now been repaired. I got some o-mamori amulets, and the Scarlet Seal (go-shuin) of the shrine, and then took a lot of photographs.

By that time it was getting towards two pm, so I headed down into the town to get something to eat. It seemed that none of the traffic lights in the centre were working, so obviously recovery is still continuing, but the sushi restaurant I had chosen from the guidebook was open, and very nice, if not very busy. The sushi chef asked me why I was there, and when I explained he thanked me for coming all that way to support them. After a very nice lunch, I went to buy some o-miyage (food, so not exactly souvenirs), and the shop had a sign in the window announcing that they had restarted selling their most famous product, which is made with fresh cream. I bought four of those, but they had to be well wrapped-up to survive the journey home. (They did; they were very nice.)

My last visit was to O-Kama Shrine. A “kama” is an iron cauldron, used for cooking and similar, and this shrine literally enshrines four iron cauldrons. The shrine itself is a separate building, but the cauldrons are in an area marked off with shimenawa as a sacred space, and labelled as “Kami Kama”. I made the nominal offering required to get to see them, and the shrine priest explained that one is thought to be about a thousand years old, while the other three are maybe eight hundred years old. The cauldrons were all used for making salt. “Shiogama” means “salt cauldron”, and the kami of the shrine is supposed to have taught people how to make salt. The cauldrons are used once a year, at the beginning of July (so just before I went), to make salt the old-fashioned way, and I was given a packet of the salt as an amulet when I left. Following the priest’s lead, I paid my respects to the cauldrons with the standard double bow, double clap, single bow.

Then I had to head back to Sendai to get the shinkansen home. I took a different line, and the station in Shiogama, which is right down near the harbour, was still clearly damaged and being repaired, but it was also operating more-or-less normally.

Since Shiogama is right next to Matsushima, one of the most beautiful spots in Japan, I suspect that Matsushima is in a similar situation. Certainly, the trains are running between Sendai and Matsushima, and the tourist information web site for Matsushima looks like they are open for business as usual. So, I can recommend Sendai, Shiogama, and possibly Matsushima as places to visit. Normally, now would be a bit late to book for the summer, but this year I suspect you could find somewhere. I recommend it.

A Wedding and The Grand Shrines of Ise

Last weekend we went on a little trip. One of Yuriko’s cousins was getting married in Gifu (near Nagoya), so we went to that, and then extended the trip a bit to go to Ise and visit the shrines. The wedding was on Sunday, so Yuriko and Mayuki went to Nagoya on Saturday to stay with Yuriko’s parents. I was, as usual, teaching on Saturday, so I got the shinkansen early in the morning, getting up at half past five. Apart from that, however, the journey went very smoothly.

Mayuki in a blue dress and tiara

I'm a Princess!

The wedding itself was very nice. Mayuki was all dressed up in the dress she picked out for herself, and informed me on several occasions that she was a princess. She was quite lively when I arrived, but was happy to go into the ceremony. That was Shinto style, in a shrine room inside the wedding complex. Mayuki started getting a bit sleepy during it, and climbed on my knee. Then, while the miko were dancing, she fell asleep. She stayed sound asleep to the end of the ceremony, and all through the group photograph, and as we made our way to the reception hall, and sat at our table. Then the staff brought a bed for her, and as I went to put her in it, she woke up. Of course.

Her first reaction was surprise. “It’s not the kami’s place anyone. It’s turned into a restaurant!” She got into the restaurant aspect, eating quite a lot of her dinner, and using the bed as a place to play, and dance when there was music. At a Japanese wedding reception, there are very often performances by some of the guests, and this one was no exception. One of the first was an event at which the children (elementary school and under) would help. The staff came round to tell us in advance, so I was able to warn Mayuki in advance, and get her to agree to help.

What she had to do was help burst a balloon that contained a lot of heart-shaped balloons. Before they did that, though, the MC asked all of them questions, and she asked Mayuki how old she was. “I’m three!” she said, very loudly and clearly. Obviously, she hasn’t quite got around to being shy yet. Mayuki was very taken with the balloons that came out, and spent the rest of the reception playing with them. Towards the end, when all the emotional and sentimental speeches got going, I decided it was time to take her out of the reception hall, and go and play with the balloons in the corridor. I have no idea where she gets all her energy from, but there was a lot of playing involved.

We all spent that night at Yuriko’s parents, where Mayuki made the most of the fact that it’s a house, not a flat, so she can run and jump up and down on the floor without Yuriko getting stressed or annoyed.

On the Monday, we set out for Ise. The second typhoon of the season had gone over during the night, and it was still wet and windy, but Yuriko’s parents gave us a lift to the underground station, so we had no problem. The train to Ise, however, was delayed en route by about an hour, because the winds were too strong for it to travel. By the time we arrived at Ise, shortly after one, the wind had gone down quite a bit, and the sun was out.

The Grand Shrines of Ise comprise 125 shrines in total, of which two, the Outer Shrine and the Inner Shrine, are the most important. The long-established custom is that you visit both, but visit the Outer Shrine first. Conveniently, the Outer Shrine is about five minutes’ walk from the railway station, so there was little problem doing that.

Mayuki picking up stones

Stones are very interesting

The shrines are very simple, and set in natural woodland, which makes them extremely pleasant to visit. Mayuki enjoyed running around and picking up the stones and gravel on the paths, while Yuriko and I enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t very busy on a Monday. There were signs telling us to walk on the left, but not enough people to make it necessary.

The two main shrines are simple wooden buildings with thatched roofs, rebuilt every twenty years, surrounded by four layers of fence. The outermost layer is of planks, so that you cannot see through it, but the inner layers are of posts, so that you can see a bit. There is no worship hall, so most people go through the first fence and venerate the shrine in front of the gate through the second fence. However, if you’re a member of the sukeikai, as I am, you can go one layer further in.

First, you have to sign your name in the visitor book. Then a priest leads you through a small gate, and purifies you while you are still outside the second fence. At most shrines, this purification is done with an onusa, a wooden baton with many paper streamers attached. However, at the Ise shrines they do it by scattering salt from a small bowl, using a small branch of sakaki (the evergreen tree closely associated with Shinto). After the purification, the priest leads you round to a gate through the second fence (not the one that most people pay their respects at), and then to the centre of the area between the second and third fences, where you venerate the shrine from in front of a torii. Then the priest leads you out again.

Mayuki was being squirmy through all of this, and as we tried to leave, we found out why. She wanted to write her name in the visitors’ book as well. Our attempts to persuade her that it was not necessary failed, so in the end we asked the priests for permission, and they said she could. She made a definite effort to write her name; although the characters were not right, it was obvious what she was trying to write. I’m not quite sure what the next people made of her signature, though.

In addition to the main shrines, there are 123 smaller shrines, and three of these are up a hill just across from the Outer Shrine, so we visited those as well. Mayuki was in a good mood, although she wanted to be carried, but instead of clapping twice she patted her head and stomach, like a monkey. Luckily, I think the kami have a sense of humour.

We were staying at the Jingu Kaikan, which is associate with the shrines, and very close to the Inner Shrine. The room had a nice view, and the food was very good, so Yuriko and I were very happy. After going to the big bath, Mayuki discovered that a vending machine in the lobby sold her favourite blue ice cream, so she was very happy as well.

One of the services the Kaikan offers to guests is a free early morning guided visit to the Inner Shrine. That started at 6:30, so I left Yuriko and Mayuki to get more sleep. It was extremely good. The weather was perfect, not too hot, but sunny, and with the fresh air of early morning. As we arrived at the Inner Shrine before 7am, it was not very busy, although there were other people there. The guide told us quite a bit about the shrine as we went round, and while I knew quite a bit of it already, there was a lot that was new to me. For example, the next rebuilding of the shrines will happen in 2013, but the bridge over the river was rebuilt last year. This is because the first post-war rebuilding was supposed to happen in 1950, but Japan didn’t have the resources to do it then (and there was some resistance to doing it while Japan was still occupied). However, the bridge was getting unsafe, so that was rebuilt on schedule in 1950. The main rebuilding happened (obviously) in 1953, so the bridge, which was originally replaced in the same year as the main shrines, is now replaced three years earlier.

Similarly, most of the offerings to the kami at Ise are made by the shrine from the products of its own lands. The exception is the sake, which can only legally be made by a licensed sake brewer. All the shrine’s sake is bought from one brewer, Hakutaka in Kobe. Before the war, many brewers offered sake to the shrine, but as the war progressed and conditions in Japan got harder, most of them stopped. Hakutaka was the only one to keep up offerings all through the war, and now, to repay that, the shrines get all their sake from the company.

I have to say that I like these sorts of developments of tradition. You can’t work the reason out from the tradition as it currently is, so the history is important. No-one would have decided to do things this way if they were designing the tradition from scratch, so it gives the whole thing a natural feel, which is very appropriate to Shinto.

Mayuki posing at the bottom of the stone steps up to the Inner ShrineAfter breakfast, I went back to the Inner Shrine, this time with Yuriko and Mayuki, and Mayuki enjoyed collecting stones and running around again. We went to pay our respects at the Inner Shrine as well, and this time we asked the priests if Mayuki could write her name before we went in. Fortunately, they gave her permission, so she carefully wrote her name once more, and then joined us, walking into the inner area and venerating the shrine properly. For a moment, it looked like she was going to imitate a monkey again, instead of clapping properly, but she thought better of it. By many accounts the Inner Shrine of Ise is the most sacred shrine in Japan, so maybe the atmosphere suggested to her that she should not play around there.

After that, we went to the tourist trap street outside the shrine for lunch and souvenir shopping. It is a very nice tourist trap, and after lunch Mayuki stressed Yuriko by insisting on walking barefoot, but we did manage to get some nice souvenirs. While Yuriko was doing her last bit of shopping, a young woman started a taiko performance near the shop, so I took Mayuki to see it. She was rapt, turning to me once to comment that the drumming was fast. I enjoyed the performance as well, and there’s a taiko group fairly near to us, so that’s another possibility for Mayuki’s musical development.

As we headed to the station to go home, black clouds moved in and the good weather came to an end. All in all, we timed it very well.

Nara, Day Three

The pagoda and main Buddha hall at HoryujiThe third day was our last day in Nara, and the main stop was Horyuji, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. It was Japan’s first World Heritage Site, and it is said to be the oldest wooden structure in the world. The temple is slightly older than Nara as a capital city, so it is already more than 1300 years old, which is extremely impressive for something made of wood.

Horyuji is some distance to the west of Nara, and you would have to rush around quite a bit to see both it and the Great Buddha in one day. That was why I hadn’t been to Horyuji before; the trip to Nara I went on from Yamasa was to the Great Buddha end. We took a taxi to get our luggage to the JR station in Nara, and then put the big items in coin lockers while we got the train out to the temple. We wanted to put Mayuki’s inflatable deer in the locker to wait for us, but Mayuki wasn’t having that. So the inflatable deer got to see the World Heritage Site.

Mayuki with her inflatable deer, in front of a wall at HoryujiThe temple is quite big, and the oldest part is only one section. It is, however, extremely impressive, and under constant maintenance, in the hope that it will last another 1300 years. While we were there, the roof of the rear hall, where the monks originally studied, was being redone. You could make a donation, and write your name inside a tile which would be used on the roof. We did, and I managed to mess up the katakana on my name. So, my bad Japanese will be preserved at Horyuji for at least a century. If I manage to get famous, it could well be preserved for ever. Must be careful about that.

Mayuki was very good most of the time we were at the temple, but she isn’t quite old enough to really appreciate historic buildings. She enjoyed being carried around on my shoulders, or standing on bridges to look into ponds, far more. Still, there was plenty for her to enjoy in the visit, and she did seem to have fun. It was only when she got tired that she started complaining, or falling asleep on my shoulder.

Nara, Day Two

On the second day of our visit to Nara, we started by visiting Todaiji, home of the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Todaiji was founded in the mid-eighth century, to get the protection of Buddha for the Japanese state, but it was burned down a couple of times in civil wars, and the head fell off the Buddha, to be finally rebuilt by the Tokugawa Shoguns in its current state. The hall housing the Buddha is, apparently, the largest wooden structure in the world, even though it’s only two-thirds the width of the original version.

Mayuki coming out of the hole at the bottom of the pillar

Here I come!

As you might expect, it’s a major tourist attraction, which is why we planned to go fairly early in the morning, before it got too packed. We didn’t get out quite as early as I’d hoped, but the temple is only a short walk from Edosan, so we still got there quite early. There were, however, a lot of school parties. Todaiji is, unsurprisingly, a popular destination for school trips; as I mentioned, Yuriko went on a school trip last time. Just walking up the main road to the temple gave us the opportunity to see a wide-ranging sample of Japanese school uniforms; quite a lot of schools don’t use the sailor suits you see in anime.

Inside the temple, Mayuki was a bit scared of the big Buddha, and my mother and I agreed that the statue was rather more effective if viewed from off to one side, rather than straight on. Much like an English cathedral, the Buddha hall includes some exhibitions about the history of the temple and a gift shop. The other important site is one of the pillars supporting the roof, which has a hole through the bottom. It’s quite a big pillar, and a substantial hole, and the superstition is that if you can get through it, you will have good fortune. A group of elementary school students were being photographed coming through it by their teacher, and some of the boys found it a bit of a squeeze. Watching them overcame Mayuki’s initial reluctance, and she had no trouble at all. Obviously, the way to be lucky is to go to Todaiji when you’re young.

Mayuki running away from the camera, pulling the deer behind her

Let's go!

As we left Todaiji, Mayuki’s attention was caught by a red inflatable deer on wheels being sold in one of the stalls lining the path through the temple. Yuriko decided to buy one for her, a decision about which I was initially sceptical. However, Mayuki was really taken with the deer, pulling her everywhere for the rest of the day. It was nice to watch her when she reached obstacles that she couldn’t just pull the deer over, because she would stop and think about the best way to get herself and the deer round, and then, when she had succeeded, run off on the other side. It was only when Mayuki got sleepy and needed carrying that the additional item became a problem.

Yuriko, Mayuki, and my mother standing in front of the south gate to the palace complex

The rebuilt Suzakumon, the southern gate into the Imperial Palace

Our next stop, to which we got a taxi, was the site of the old Imperial Palace in Nara, which was also the main site for the celebrations of the 1300th anniversary. There is nothing original left at the site, although the outer gate to the palace has been reconstructed, as has the main hall, although one person told us that the main hall was a temporary structure; a very large one, if so. The Imperial Palace in Nara was enormous, as was Nara. It was built to the same pattern as the contemporary capital of Tang China, but on a larger scale. A fairly superficial knowledge of history will inform you that Tang China was the larger state, by a substantial margin, and I believe that Nara was never fully populated before the capital was moved again, to Kyoto.

One particularly interesting point at the palace site was a reconstructed garden. The site had been excavated, and the pattern of paths, ponds, and stones could be inferred from the results. Pollen and the like revealed the plants grown there, and provided hints as to where. Based on this information, the garden has been replanted, so that you can see what an eighth century Japanese garden looked like. It’s rather different from a contemporary one, but you can see where some elements have been continued.

In the evening, we went to the Nara National Museum. The Shosoin, which we visited on the first day, was a store room for items that had been used by, or important to, Emperor Shomu, dedicated by his empress when he died. For centuries it was opened once a year to air the items, and this created almost ideal conditions, so that even fabrics have survived in astonishingly good condition. Quite a few things have gone missing, due to rulers of Japan demanding private viewings and taking souvenirs, but the surviving items are priceless. These days, some of the items are displayed to the public once a year in the Nara National Museum. The exhibition is only on for three weeks, but we were lucky enough to be there during it.

We went in the evening because the staff at Aobajaya (the ryokan where we stayed the second night, which had absolutely nothing wrong with it but lost out in comparison to Edosan) told us that it wouldn’t be so crowded then, and they were right. We didn’t have to queue to get in, although the exhibit hall was still crowded. The central exhibit this year was a biwa, a musical instrument like a lute, decorated with mother-of-pearl, and still in good enough condition to be played, after about 1300 years. They don’t play it much, of course, but there was a recording of the last time it was played, about sixty years ago. I do suspect that the strings needed replacing, but things like that have survived in very good shape, so maybe not.

There are two classes of treasure from the Shosoin. One is the valuable and beautiful items that are displayed in the museum. The other is the bits of paper they were wrapped in, which were used records from the central government, and provide a staggering amount of detail on how that period worked. Obviously, they don’t look like much, but in historical terms they are far more informative. I’ve read quite a bit based on them, so I was about as excited to see them for real as to see the biwa.

Mayuki was getting a bit fractious by this time, so we called it a day after the museum.

Nara, Day One

We visited Nara in early November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san. Nara was basically the capital of Japan from 710 to 794 (with some breaks), before the capital moved to Kyoto. As a result, it has a number of very important shrines and temples built in those years, although many of them burned down and had to be rebuilt several times. It is also, unlike Kyoto, not currently a large city, which gives the whole place a very different feel from Kyoto. Mum had never been, Yuriko hadn’t been since she was in school, and I’d only done a day trip while I was at Yamasa, so it seemed like a good choice.

Another reason for going last year was that, as you can tell from the dates, last year was the 1300th anniversary of Nara’s foundation, and there were a number of events held to celebrate that. We were visiting right at the end of the celebration, but we were still able to take advantage of it.

We got the Shinkansen from Yokohama to Kyoto, and then an ordinary JR express to Nara. We actually walked from the station to the ryokan, which was a little further than I anticipated, especially since Mayuki was asleep most of the time and I had to carry her. I’d walk it next time if I was going by myself, but we did get a taxi back to the station on the last day. We left our bags at Edosan, and then set off on our first bit of sightseeing.

Mayuki standing by the pillar of the first torii of Kasuga Taisha, which is much wider than she is.

The first torii of Kasuga Taisha is, apparently, hundreds of years old, and one of the largest wooden torii in Japan

I’d planned our schedule to avoid being at the most popular locations at their peak times, so for the first afternoon we headed for Kasuga Taisha. This is the shrine to the tutelary kami of the Fujiwara family, and I’ve written about the Shinto tradition around it before. As I mentioned, Edosan is just inside the first torii of the main entrance road to the shrine, so we were well located.

The walk takes you through Nara Park, which is beautiful and full of deer. Mayuki was fascinated by the deer, but scared if they got too close. That was a reasonable reaction, as the deer are taller than she is, and as long as I was holding her out of their reach, she was fine with them. The deer are sacred to the kami of Kasuga Taisha, and the symbol of Nara.

At the shrine itself, we looked around, and Mayuki practised “writing” in one of the waiting rooms. We did see the main things, but obviously I’d like to see more. I can’t really do that when other people are with me, however, as they’d get bored.

From Kasuga Taisha, we went round the back way, along the hills, to Todaiji Temple. That is the temple with the largest bronze Buddha in Japan, but we didn’t go to the main hall on the first day. Instead, we visited some of the locations up in the hills.

The first was Hitokotonushi Shrine, which is attached to Kasuga Shrine. The name of the kami means “Master of One Word”, and it is said that if you ask for exactly one thing at the shrine, your wish will be granted. However, you must not ask for more than one thing.

Next, we came to Tamukeyama Hachimangu. This is a very significant shrine, because it was probably the first shrine deliberately founded to enshrine a kami from another shrine; Hachiman came from Usa Hachimangu in Kyushu to help with the creation of the Great Buddha, and this shrine was founded for him. This started the trend of enshrining important kami all over Japan, and also indicates the very close relationship between Hachiman, in particular, and Buddhism. We got there just before the shrine closed, so I managed to get my Goshuin, but they closed the gates behind us as we left.

A view over Nara and the Great Buddha Hall at sunset

The view from Nigatsudo. The large building is the hall containing the Great Buddha.

From there, we went to the Nigatsudo of Todaiji. This hall, which is called “Second Month Hall”, is the site of a ceremony in the second month. It is also on top of a hill, with a large platform veranda that affords spectacular views over Nara. We went down the covered steps into the main temple precincts, but instead of going on to the Great Buddha Hall, we went round the back, along some very quiet and rather charming roads.

The Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji, reflected in a large pondThese roads take you to Shosoin, an eighth-century storehouse about which I will say more later. You can only see the outside, and we couldn’t even do that, as we were just a bit too late, and the gates had closed. So, we continued round the back of Todaiji, to a point where you can get very nice photographs of the Great Buddha Hall. So I did. Mayuki was, unsurprisingly, getting a bit tired by this point, so we headed back to the ryokan for dinner.

I think I may have planned slightly too much walking for the first day, but only slightly too much. We did manage to avoid the crowds for the most part; Kasuga Taisha and Nigatsudo were busy, but not heaving with people. We also saw a couple of places I hadn’t been to, because we didn’t go to Tamukeyama Hachimangu or Nigatsudo when I came on the day trip. Overall, it was a very good first day.

Edosan Ryokan in Nara

A Japanese-style room with a large table, and a decorated folding screen in the background

This is where we ate, and where my mother slept, after the table had been moved.

At the beginning of November, when my mother came over for Mayuki’s Shichi-go-san, we all went to Nara, one of the ancient capitals of Japan. I do plan to write about our whole visit, which was very good, but first I want to write about where we stayed for the first night.

We stayed at Edosan, a ryokan in Nara Park. It was superb, so I want to recommend it. I should say up front that I don’t think the staff speak much English, but they do have forms for foreign guests to fill in, and I’m sure that they’d make an effort to communicate. The website, however, is all in Japanese, although you can see pictures.

First, there is the location of the ryokan. It is actually in Nara Park, the site of Todaiji and Kasuga Taisha, two of the major tourist attractions (and World Heritage Sites) in Nara. Because it’s in the park, the only noise at night when we stayed in November was that of the deer calling to each other. Every room is in a separate small building, scattered around near the first torii marking the edge of the precincts of Kasuga Taisha. The rooms all have toilets and wash basins, and there’s another small building with two private-use Japanese style bathrooms, which are also extremely nice, and very up-to-date in their fittings and facilities.

Then, there are the rooms. The buildings are all traditional Japanese style, some with thatched roofs, and the interior rooms are also traditional Japanese. You sit on the floor to eat, although there are back-rests provided (you can see one in the photo), and you sleep on a futon spread out on the floor, laid out by the staff when you are ready for bed. Our room was, I assume, typical, and was decorated with delightful traditional Japanese objets d’art, including the screen you can see in the photo.

The food, both evening and morning, was delicious. We had a full kaiseki meal (lots of small courses) for dinner, and a traditional Japanese breakfast (rice, grilled fish, and lots of other things); they don’t, as far as I know, serve western food.

My family, gathered outside the gate into the garden outside our room at Edosan

The entrance to our room

The service, however, was what really stood out. It was generally excellent, considerate and efficient, and the person responsible for our room even helped carry our luggage to the ryokan where we were staying for our second night. The most impressive thing, however, was how they dealt with Mayuki.

First, I need to say that I didn’t pay anything for Mayuki. At three years old, the website says that she should be half the adult price, but when I phoned to book (admittedly, you have to do that in Japanese), the ryokan said that she was probably too small to eat even half of the dinner, so it would be better not to pay for it. Then, in the evening, they still provided a chair, place setting, and rice, furikake, and seaweed for Mayuki to eat. Since this is just about all she eats anyway, she was very happy with it, and with the same again in the morning. After dinner, the staff brought a small basket of cheap toys, and let Mayuki choose three, as gifts. She really enjoyed that.

Overall, it was a candidate for the best ryokan experience I’ve had in Japan, and it was far from being the most expensive: it’s about 20,000 yen per night for an adult. Thus, it isn’t cheap, but it is, in my opinion, extremely good value. The contact email address is, although I should emphasise, again, that I only ever communicated with them in Japanese, and they apologised for not being good at English. If you email in English, keep it simple.

My only criticism is that, as it was high season, they would only accept a booking for a single night. I would like to go back to Nara, as there is still quite a lot we didn’t see, and I definitely plan to stay at Edosan again.

Shiobara Onsen

Last weekend (from Sunday to Wednesday) I took a trip by myself, to Shiobara Onsen. The idea was to recharge, and it seems to have worked.

Shiobara is in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, a little north of Tokyo. It takes about four hours on “normal” trains, but it’s not expensive, and you only have to change trains once going from our flat. It might take a while, but it’s no hassle. While Shiobara is a tourist town, drawing people to the hot springs, it’s not on the normal foreign visitor itinerary, so most of the tourists are Japanese. I did see a handful of other foreigners, but only a few.

A steep river valley in the early morning

The valley of the Hoki River in the morning, with the sunlight just touching the top of Tengu Rock, in the centre of the picture.

Shiobara has eleven hot springs, and is strung along the valley of the Hoki River, surrounded by forested mountains. Near the centre of the town, Tengu Rock rises a hundred metres from the valley floor. The hot springs are reputed to have been discovered about 1200 years ago, and the area has been a tourist attraction for centuries. As a result, it has a lot of hotels and ryokan, some old, some much newer.

I stayed at a ryokan called Myogaya, which is located on the steep sides of the gorge through which one of the tributaries of the Hoki flows. It’s a medium-size ryokan, serving standard ryokan food. The selling point is the hot spring baths. These are down ninety or so steps, at the bottom of the gorge, cut into a rock at the side of the river. While enjoying the water, you can watch and listen to the flow of the river, or enjoy the sunlight filtering through the trees. I enjoyed the baths several times, in the day, at dawn, in the evening, and at night, and it was always extremely relaxing.

I also found another very nice hot spring bath, near the Hoki River, called Fudo no Yu. In the valley of another, smaller, tributary, it sits next to a small waterfall, with views of the all around. The bath is completely open air, and the changing area only has one wall and a small roof.

Both baths are traditional Japanese hot spring baths, in that they are for both sexes, and you do not wear anything while bathing. I did see women in both, but there was a bias towards men, and towards older people. However, the latter bias is at least partly to do with the fact that I was there during the day on weekdays; most younger people were in work or school. I chatted to several people, and apparently Fudo no Yu is very full at the weekend, which I suspect does not improve the experience.

Arayufuji rising beyond a marsh

Arayufuji, which I climbed, beyond the marsh

My original plan was to spend most of my time at the ryokan, reading and taking baths. However, once I arrived and saw the scenery, I decided that would be a waste. Add to that the near-perfect walking weather, and I spent the whole of Tuesday seeing the area. First, I walked along the Shiobara “Nature Trail”. An English nature trail is aimed at children, and is an easy walk through pleasant natural scenery. The natural scenery was there. However, the trail was eight kilometres long, and went straight over the top of a mountain with a 1180m peak. If it was in Scotland, it would be a Munro.

It was a very nice walk, and, apart from around a marsh which had its own car park, I saw no-one. Large areas of Japan are not crowded at all, unlike the impression you might get if you just visit Tokyo and the main tourist destinations. The nature trail ended at another hot spring, where I was able to have another bath, which seemed to do my legs good, at least; they weren’t sore the next day.

I then walked back to the ryokan, via the main town of Shiobara. In total, I think I walked about 25km on Tuesday, including over the top of the mountain, so I was quite tired that night, but it was a good walk through gorgeous scenery. Only my body got tired.

I definitely want to go back to Shiobara, with Yuriko and Mayuki. They wouldn’t be able to do the walk, but there are plenty of places in the town I didn’t visit, so we wouldn’t be short of things to do. Now we just have to find time to do it.

Kanazawa, Day One

So, last weekend we went to Kanazawa, and had a really good time. Mayuki was good, and apparently enjoying herself, for most of it, with only one tantrum, and that on the last day. Kanazawa is a lovely city, well worth a visit. In particular, Yuriko and I both thought that my mother would really enjoy it.

We went there by train, first getting the Joetsu shinkansen, and then changing to a limited express. The transfer station is up in the mountains, so there was a lot of snow around, and some nice scenery. However, there were also a lot of tunnels, so it wasn’t the best train journey Japan has to offer. However, I did get to see the Japan Sea, as the line runs very close to the coast for a substantial distance. I think this fills in the last big gap in my travels around Japan; the Japan Sea coast was the only region I hadn’t been to. Mayuki also fell asleep on the express train, and got a good couple of hours before we got to Kanazawa.

Once we had arrived, we had lunch at the station (which was quite nice, and thus the worst meal we had on the holiday) before going to our ryokan. We were staying at Sumiyoshi-ya, a family-run ryokan right in the centre of Kanazawa. The woman currently in charge is the ninth generation of her family to run it; the ryokan has been in business for 360 years. The current building, however, is only about a hundred years old, although it has been refurbished (obviously…). It felt very much like a family business, as well; very friendly. It only has thirteen rooms, and since we were there on weekdays in the depths of the off-season we were almost the only guests; I think there was one other group each night, although the other groups changed every day. We had dinner there on the first night, which was good, and served in our room, and breakfast every day, which Yuriko described as good home cooking, a description I think is fair. The location is great; it’s within walking distance of just about every attraction, and of the railway station. We did most of our sightseeing on foot, although not quite all. In any case, if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Kanazawa, I recommend it, and as they have an English homepage I imagine that they can cope in English. (We spoke Japanese all the time, so I wouldn’t know.)

We didn’t actually do anything on the Sunday; it was a bit too late to do anything but relax, and buy Mayuki some milk. So we stayed at the ryokan, and sorted out our detailed plans for the next three days, including where we wanted to eat lunch and dinner.

The sightseeing started on Monday. First, we went to Kanazawa Castle Park, which is about two minutes’ walk from Sumiyoshi-ya. (You pass the post office on the way, a good place to withdraw money.) Kanazawa was the capital of one of the largest domains in Edo-period Japan, Kaga, and its lords, the Maeda, were extremely wealthy. They also spent most of their money on the arts, because they were, historically, rivals of the ruling Tokugawa, and so were always viewed with some suspicion. Spending money on the arts was a way to assert themselves without drawing the ire of the shogun. As a result, their castle was, originally, quite spectacular. Unfortunately, being a Japanese building, it burned down. A handful of outbuildings survived, but over the last ten years or so the city has been building replicas of part of the castle.

David, Yuriko, and Mayuki in front of an old Japanese building

Us, in front of a storeroom, one of the buildings that survives from the original castle.

We visited the main one of these, a long storeroom connecting two watchtowers, and it was very interesting to see all the details of how the wooden beams were put together, and the castle walls constructed. It’s also quite a nice park, with lots of open space, but it was very cold, so we weren’t very much into playing. We did, however, walk round and look at all the surviving buildings, some of which are Japanese Important Cultural Properties. They were only warehouses, but they were still built with a great attention to detail. It does make you wonder what the residence of the daimyo was like. Japanese castles are very different from English ones (as well as being, on average, several centuries newer), so visiting them is always interesting.

Yuriko and Mayuki sitting at a table, doing Kaga Yuzen dyeing

Practising Kaga Yuzen together

The next stop was the Kaga Yuzen Traditional Industry Hall. Kaga Yuzen is a particular form of cloth dyeing, and it is used in high-quality kimonos, which is why Yuriko wanted to go here. They have an exhibition, but they also offer hands-on experience. Of course, the process is highly simplified, so that people with no experience can produce something good in fifteen minutes, but it’s still worth doing if you have an interest. Yuriko did, so I was to watch Mayuki while Yuriko did her dyeing. Of course, Mayuki wanted to try as well. The attendant kindly gave Mayuki a brush, so I had to watch her like a hawk, so make sure that she only dyed the newspaper on the table, and not her clothes. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t wash out, after all.

Fortunately, Mayuki managed to play without making a mess, and Yuriko completed a nice floral design on a handkerchief.

That brought us to lunch time, which we had at Sakura Jaya, a Japanese-style cafe very close to the Castle Park, the Kaga Yuzen hall, and Kenrokuen, where we were going afterwards. This was advertised in the guidebook with a picture of the green tea parfait, so after we had the main course (I had a box lunch, Yuriko had a duck dish), we naturally had to order that. It looked just like the picture, and tasted great. We ordered one between two…

Yuriko and Mayuki in front of the Kotoji Lantern

Yuriko and Mayuki, and the symbol of Kenrokuen

After lunch, we went to Kenrokuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. It is the garden of the Maeda lords (which is why it’s next to the castle), and was created over 150 years. I’d say it lives up to the hype; I can’t say that it’s definitely one of the three best in Japan, but it certainly could be. It has a lot of ponds and streams, with tea houses and stone lanterns dotted around gentle hills and winding paths, all among great pine trees. There are other trees and plants as well, and the ume (Japanese apricot) trees were in bloom while we were there. This is appropriate, as the house badge (kamon) of the Maeda lords was the ume flower.

The most famous stone lantern in the park is the Kotoji Lantern, the one you can see behind Yuriko and Mayuki in the photograph. It’s famous because it has only two legs, and they are different lengths, as one (the more visible one) rests on a boulder. This apparently makes it unique, and thus instantly recognisable as Kenrokuen, rather than another garden. The image appears in quite a lot of places, such as as the mascot character for NHK Kanazawa.

Even on a cold day in March, Kenrokuen was not exactly quiet, but it wasn’t busy, which meant that we could enjoy it. Mayuki liked picking the gravel up off the path and throwing it into the streams, so she had to be picked up a bit, but then she got into playing letting us walk ahead, then shouting “Waaaaait!” and charging after us. When she reached us, she’d stop and send us ahead again, ready to do it again. We had some tea in one of the tea houses (Shiguretei), and we were the only people there when we arrived, although a few more people arrived before we finished. The screens were closed against the cold, but we were able to go out through them afterwards, and see the beautiful view across the lake.

Right next to Kenrokuen is Seisonkaku, a retirement villa for the mothers of the Maeda daimyo. The current structure was built just before the end of the Edo period, in 1863, and includes some glass imported from Europe. It’s a very elegant building, but it doesn’t seem to have made a great impression on me. I think I may have been keeping an eye on Mayuki; she actually fell asleep while we were looking round here. Photography is not permitted inside the building, which is why there are no photos of it here.

Red torii beyond a purification font

The red torii at Kanazawa shrine, from in front of the purification font

Sandwiched between Kenrokuen and Seisonkaku is Kanazawa Shrine. Yuriko agreed to hold Mayuki while I had a look around, took some photographs, and got the shrine’s red stamp in my book. I’ll probably post about the shrine again later, with a bit more detail, but, as you can see from the picture, the shrine uses a lot of vermillion. That’s another sign of sponsorship by a wealthy family.

We started walking home after the shrine, and Mayuki woke up, so we were able to drop into a Kutani pottery shop. Kutani ware is another famous product of Kanazawa; something else that the Maeda spent their money on. Yuriko bought a souvenir, and Mayuki, while very interested, managed not to break anything.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant (Omicho Kaisendonburiya Hirai) in Kanazawa’s Omi market, which seems to be the main market for the city. It’s also right behind the ryokan, so it was very convenient. Yuriko and I both had Kaisendon, or fresh sea food on a bowl of rice. It was very fresh, and the portions were very generous. Most of the fish was raw, but that just makes it tastier. It was certainly better than you would get for the same price in Tokyo, and included a number of local specialities. Yuriko commented that she’d like to eat there every day, but it was just a little too expensive for that.

And then, we went to bed.

Fresh sea food, completely hiding the rice in the bowl