Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Another Osaka Weekend

I went back to Osaka for a quick weekend getaway. Poor Nick, stuck away in tiny Daishoji ("We have A bar!") wanted to get out of Hokuriku and see a real city, and I am always up for a trip to the best Mexican food in Japan.

Of course the first stop for us was the Osaka Aquarium. I was eager to run my Nikon through its paces in this most difficult photographic environment. I have to admit, I think it preformed quite admirably. Nice was wonderfully patient as he waited for me to catch up after shooting my many, many pictures.

While waiting an HOUR to get into El Pacho's we met Vickie, a JET from Shikoku. The tales of her deep boondocks town had the both of us admitting that Hokoriku isn't all that rural in reality. We all stuffed ourselves on Enchiladas and refried beans and quesadillas and... well suffice it to say that we left fat and happy. The half pitcher of margaritas worked wonders as well. Now do let it be said however, that while this is probably some of the best Mexican, IN JAPAN, it is a far cry from the real deal. For one thing, it's not spicy at all, and for another, its a little too sweet. Alas, it will just have to do.

Feeling a bit overstuffed, Nick and I meandered through the bright lights of Namba, stopping in one bar to watch some World Cup for a bit, but we retreated when a really, really drunk Kiwi decided I was his best friend. I'm not quite sure what he was talking about, but he was weird in a way that went beyond the alchohal. We ended up at Club Pure, THE Osaka late night hangout. It was Saturday night and you could hardly move it was so crowded. Heck, when we left there was a line out the door down the hall up the stairs and into the streets. At 1:00 AM. Sheesh, it was fun, but it wasn't *that* fun.

The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast then went north to the Umeda Sky tower. It's not the tallest building around, but it is certainly one of the most striking. The glassy twin spires topped by a "sky garden" is now one of the landmarks of Osaka.

Matt came up here when he was in Osaka, and while he enjoyed it, I recall him mentioning that the exposed elevator ride made him a bit wobbly in the knees. I can certainly understand his predicament. Its an amazing view of the city though, well at least it would be if it wasn't so smoggy.

We parted ways in the station, with Nick going to Kyoto for a day or two and myself heading back up to Kanazawa. I met up with Fiona and Dan and we went bowling for a couple hours. Wow we were bad. I actually won the first game (111) and lost the second (76?). Yeah, it was ugly. Yet it was also sooo much fun! We then met up with Paul and a great deal of others for the Japan vs Croatia game, and that was a lot of fun to watch. The bar was standing room only, and woe to anybody who had to use the restroom!

Next: Here Comes the Sun...

Friday, June 23, 2006

Samurai and Brass Bands

Early June brings to Kanazawa the Hyakumangoku Festival, the celebration of Maeda Toshiie's arrival at Kanazawa Castle in 1583. The name refers to the area's rice production, and the first time it reached 1,000,000 Koku. In the Japanese counting system Hyaku is 100 and Man is 10,000, multiply them and you get a million! A Koku was a measure of rice, equal to about 5 bushels.

The centerpiece of the festival, aside from the delicious yakitori chicken stands, is the epic parade that recreates Maeda's procession into Kanazawa. Things kicked off with an endless parade of school brass bands, which I kind of doubt they had in 1583. Nonetheless it was an interesting sight for a couple of reasons, like the immense drums that they put in the hands of some truely tiny kids. Also the cultural selection of music was... strange to say the least. While one can certainly understand choosing a few Anime themes (Lupin III anybody?), an elementary school band tooting away to YMCA is just plain weird.

Luckily things got lots better as soon as every school in Kanazawa had passed us by. First we had the old firefighters, with their bamboo ladders and house pulling hooks. They put on quite an arial show for us, sadly it was two blocks away and we couldn't really see it.

But the procession just kept getting better and better, with giant wheeled dragons loping down the street menacing small children. And of course we have the Toshiro Mifune wanna be above, he looks like he really wants to use his sword on somebody!

Of course what would a samurai parade be without a few samurai? I mean how cool are these guys? I think the Parade of Lights (The Denver Christmas Parade) could use a few more samurai.

Cute Kid! I'm not sure what his role is, but he looked at me just as my camera flashed and it turned out pretty well, I think.

The original Flower Children? Once again, I don't really know the cultural purpose behind the flower brigade, other than honoring the great feudal lord, I suppose. But the effect was certainly great, I suppose its obvious by damn if it wasn't like any parade that *I* had ever seen.

Once the cavalry came, I realized that we had enough firepower to take over a neighboring town or two and start our own Kanazawa-centric nation! I jest, but only slightly, there was a pretty impressive number of men at arms passing us by.

Outside of Oyama shrine they staged a quick mock battle. That was certainly something that I never thought I would see in my life, pre-Edo spearmen screaming and charging at each other. Then, of course, bowing to the crowd at the cessastion of hostilities.

We figured things were over after that, so we headed to Karaoke for a bit to escape the throngs of people throughout Katamachi. We emerged a couple of hours later to find the main road filled to the brim with dancers! They moved slowly to a mystic Japanese beat, but as soon as that finished it was time to fire up the Taiko!

This was probably the best thing I saw that day, the Taiko team was going great guns, and the pounding sounds filled the whole area. It was a feast of sight and sounds for sure.

But of course, if you have live drumming and dancers, why not combine the two? After the first round of skin pounding the dancers, after a short break, got back in the swing of things for a finale to the nights festivities. All in all I have to say that I really love Japanese festivals, when I can find them!

After all that, it was World Cup time, England vs Paraguay. The game was interesting enough, but it wasn't as fun as the Japan vs Croatia one I saw the next weekend.

Oh and on a side note, check out Zach's blog (linked in my links), as his adventures in China are making me rather green with envy. He looks to be having an amazing time, and his photographs of places like Beijing and Tibet are simply beautiful.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Kyushu The Last: Beppu

Leaving Aso, I caught one of only three trains a day that make the trip to Beppu. We traveled through some of the most beautiful scenery I have yet seen in Japan. Dense forests, green rice paddies, and deep rivers were the norm. It was pretty amazing. As for Beppu itself, some cities have a purpose, and Beppu's is getting clean, it is the onsen capital of Japan. From large, glitzy hotels to small public baths, Beppu has it all.

Being that I had spent some hours on trains and busses, not to mention walking around a sulpherous crater, I was in dire need of a bath. I checked into an almost full hotel, they had to give a triple bed room larger than my apartment! The next stop was dinner, as I hadn't had a chance to eat lunch on the mountain. Well unless you consider ice cream bars to be lunch... Luckily the hotel had three intergral restaurants, which was fine by me, I didn't feel like doing any more walking than neccesary.

As I tucked into a big bowl of marble tofu at the Chinese restaurant, I met a small group of college kids, and we struck up a conversation. They were here on a two week trip/homestay visit to Kuyshu and Kyoto and were on there last night in Beppu. They were going to Karaoke later in the evening, would I like to come? It was like offering an addict a fix, I'm always up for Karaoke! It turned out that there were a lot more than just 4 in the group though, I met many many people. It was fun, but I was kind of shocked just how.. immature they were. Still and all, it was a great night, certainly better than sittin in my room watching Patriot Games subbed into Japanese.

I awoke the next morning with the intention of hopping a few onsen baths and checking out the geothermal "boiling hells of Beppu." What I found was pouring, drenching rain. I was pretty tired from the hard day and the late night, and I was not looking forward to hiking through an all day Kyushu gullywasher just so I could keep getting wet! So I decided to just pack it up and make the epic journey back home. And it was pretty epic, two hours by express to the Shinkansen line, three hours to Osaka, then three more to Kanazawa. I made each connection with seconds to spare, which was nice for keeping long waits to a minimum, but it also kept me unfed till I made it home.

So here it is, the itinerary and a good view of just how far we traveled in those 5 days. Kyushu may be a lot smaller than Honshu, but it is still pretty big. Much bigger than I had actually expected! Well it was a great trip, and I really hope I can make it back down there, especially points further south like Kagoshima, the Venice of Japan. (Who comes up with these names?)

Next: Japanese numbers and dancing in the streets.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Life after the storm

Allow me to postpone the Beppu post a day or two for a look at life sans guests!

It has been pretty strange to be without visitors. Indeed, the weekend after Liz left was really the first weekend since before Matt arrived that I didn't have ANY plans. I didn't do any traveling, no parties, no guests, no nothing. In fact, of all the people I know, I was one of the only ones still in Kanazawa! Some were in Tokyo, one in Kyoto, on back in the States, and one has gone so far as China. I didn't know what to do with myself! I ended up watching a couple of movies and just generally relaxing.

The weather has been gorgeous lately, warm enough for shorts and Birkenstocks, but not overly sweat inducing. Heck, even the sky is blue, even if it can never that wonderous Colorado Blue that you just don't see anywhere else in the world.

I find lately that I am quite content here in Kanazawa. I guess I'm just more settled and in the swing of things. I have a nice range of friends to hang out with, a nice range of places to go, and in general life is good!

I got another Amazon Packadge last week, with Kingdom of Heaven Directors Cut in it. I never saw the release version, but from what I heard it was lacking in any character development or plot coherency. Luckily the extra 45 or so minutes of footage must have made a big difference, as I found it to be most excellent. Orlando Bloom did a credible job as a lead actor, and the story was interesting enough to string together the epic action scenes! Sir Ridley Scott is still at the top of his game, I can't wait to see what he does next.

Matt sent me an e-mail today.. I quote.

Don't know when, or with what money, but I-AM-COMING-BACK.

I was fighting a bout with (my usual) insomnia here around 1:30am, and decided to check the old posts you made of my trip to Japan.

I got that damn "I'm in Japan" grin again, and the damn thing wouldn't go away the entire time I was reading the blog.

I wanna come back.
I wanna come back.
I wanna come back.
I wanna come back.
I wanna come back.
I wanna come back.

I'll see ya soon.

Heh, so there ya go, another Japan addict. I can certainly see why he might want to come back, we did have a great time.

Well I guess thats pretty much it. Stay tuned for Beppu and then a look at the Big Kanazawa Festival of the year. Fun stuff.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Kyushu Part 5 Aso-San

So upon leaving Kumamoto Liz decided she didn't have any particular desire to see a Volcano or to explore the baths of Beppu, so she headed back to Kanazawa. This left me alone to pursue my geological interests.

As I have mentioned before, I'm a big fan of geology. Rocks, faults, mountains, crystals, I find all of it fascinating! I suppose it comes from growing up with the Rocky Mountains in my backyard. While the Rockies have plenty of old volcanic formations to peruse, nothing has been active for tens of thousands of years at the east, and more usually a few million years. So for me a chance to see an active volcano that erupts quite regularly was a chance not to be missed!

The Mt. Aso Caldera is right in the middle of Kyushu, roughly half way between Kumamoto and Beppu. It is the worlds largest still active calderas, with a circumference of about 120 kilometers encompasing several towns and onsen resorts. For the record, a caldera is the remnent of a large volcano that has collapsed, usually from a massive eruption. The Aso Caldera was formed about 90,000 years ago, and since then 5 new volcanos have risen in the center.

One of these "new" cones, Mt Naka, is the only one in the group that is still active, and in addition to constantly expelling sulpheric fumes and steam it provides the area with a major tourist attraction! To get there from Kumamoto I had to take two local trains, switching half way. As the track heads up the caldera ridge to the town of Aso, it has to go up a set of switchbacks where the train actually reverses direction a couple of times to climb the steep hillside.

Once a traveler has arrived at the sublimely beautiful caldera floor, it is just a matter of another hour on a bus to the Aso-san Ropeway, which carries the hordes of visitors to the rim of the crater. While it was very popular with the local tourists, I didn't see very many westerners that day, it seems despite the amazing views the area is a bit off the beaten track.

All and all Mt Aso was awsome. The constantly billowing steam reminded me that it was ready to blow its top again at any time. (In 1979 a surprise eruption actually killed a few tourists.) The twisted volcanic rocks that littered the area were a fascinating vision of Hell, or Mordor at least! Living things need not apply, there was not much greenery at the top, nor did I see any animals.

Well, with that marked off of my life's to-do list, I headed back down the mountain to catch the express to Beppu, the Hot Springs Las Vegas.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Kyushu Part 4- Kumamoto Castle

The proud central keep of Kumamoto Castle

The next stop in our grand loop around northern Kyushu was the city of Kumamoto, home to one of the largest and most advanced of castles in Japan. However Kumamoto castle has a few interesting connections with history, and Hollywood.

The prototypical Japanese castle town actually came about in a time of peace. Many castles were build or expanded by Tokugawa Ieyasu in an attempt to solidify his hold on Japan. However, since the Edo period was a time of peace and isolation, very few of the grand Japanese castles every saw war. They all met their fate in more mundane ways, Okazaki Castle was pulled down at the end of feudalism, Osaka Castle was struck by lighting, and Nagoya Castle was burned in World War II.

The Looming Shadow of the Keep

Yet Kumamoto Castle was one of very few castles to be involved in an actual land battle, and to be destroyed not through chance or bombing, but in an actual siege. Kyushu was the center of the anti-Meiji Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. Led by an ex-Imperial Army Field Marshal who had been instrumental in the Meiji Restoration, Saigo Takamori, the rebellious Samurai besieged the goverenment forces in Kumamoto Castle.

This is actually one of many defensive towers on the wall. It is original as the wind was blowing the other way when the keep burned. It is unique in that the structure is large enough to be the keep in a smaller castle, yet here is just a tower.

Unfortunatly for Takamori, while he did eventually take, and burn, the castle, it proved a rather disasterous victory as it allowed the Imperial Army time to mobilize a fresh army of 300,000 men. After weeks of bloody fighting it all came to an end in September with the death of Takamori, who has since become a bit of a folkhero.

Ahh but what about the Hollywood connection? Well remember the film Dances with Samurai? Oops, wait I meant The Last Samurai. Yup, a heavily fictionalized Takamori became Ken Wantanabe's noble character, never mind the fact that the rebellion was less about 'tradition!' and more about the Samurai holding on to their protected status and privileges.

Well enough about the history. The castle was Amazing. They haven't finished fully restoring it to a mostly pre-burned state, but what they have finished is pretty darn cool. The central keep is quite imposing, and has excellent historical displays on the area and of course the seige, including a few rare photographs. To a certain extent there is the 'typical' display in one of these castle museums, like armor and a few Katana, yet each is also a product of its area and so while there is always a bit of 'more of the same' there is also a lot of fascinating new information. Then there is the always impressive castle archecture, that NEVER gets old.

Next: A Parting of Ways and An Active Volcano.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Kyushu Part 3- Nagasaki at Night

To the west of Nagasaki, opposite Glover Garden, is Inasa-san, a 333 meter mountain looming above the city center. The summit promised amazing views of Nagasaki and the surrounding area, and I was not dissapointed.

I arrived at the cable car station shortly before sunset, and found just one other person waiting to board. Marc, a Nova teacher from Yokohama on a short weekend vacation. We struck up a conversation, and soon became good solid travel buddies. It turned out that he was nearing the end of his time in Japan, and was wrapping up a few travel loose ends. So on his 'weekend' of Tuesday Wednesday he flew down to Nagasaki, which was actually both cheaper and shorter than taking the Shinkansen!

From the summit, the views were glorious. I mean this was certainly one of the top sunsets I have ever seen, and coming from Colorado I have seen some nice ones. These photographs, while I am proud of them, simply do not do the view justice at all. It was amazing. And we had it all to ourselves... for a while.

As it got darker and the night view of the city came out, people started to accumulate in small groups. Well small until a huge school group showed up. Like any school group, they were loud just by being a group of 80 or so high school students. Yet these were really really loud. Shouting at their friends strung across the summit. Yelling, giggling and generally making asses of themselves. *sigh* and I thought American tourists were annoying.

Well we had our pictures, so Marc and I fled the growing school crowd for the safety of the cable car home. We exchanged numbers and then headed back to our respective hotel rooms to drop off cameras and such. Then we met up with another guy that Marc had met earlier, a Dutch man whose name I have forgotten. Renee maybe? Anyway, he was awsome, and on a 6 week vacation in Japan. We hit up an izakaya, where I tried Basashi. Think, horse sashimi. Yup, nice slices of RAW HORSE! Actually, it tasted great. I mean it, not only was it not disgusting, but I liked it. Who would have thought? Well after a couple of beers and some pool it was time to hit the sack in preperation for a 10:00 check out and our trip to Kumamoto.