Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween.

Happy Halloween to all you ghosts, goblins, and assorted creatures who go bump in the night.

While Japan doesn't really 'do' Halloween, it is starting to catch on, and the the local English Teaching community is always interested in something that will let us party. With that in mind, the local Gaijin Bar, Apre, hosted a huge Halloween Dance/ Costume party. Just about everybody I know in Kanazawa was there, so you can imagine that the place was absolutly packed! A great time was had by all, but a few had perhaps too much of a good time. Kanazawa was pretty quite on Sunday!

Julie just had to get her photo taken with this Highlander Dude. I do kind of wonder how he could see with those dark sunglasses on, it was pretty dim.

One of the new ALT's, Travis, chats on his cell outside a really great Yakitori greasy spoon. At least he brought his hat for a costume. I do wonder if he still had the hat when he went home later though... hmm I'll have to ask him.

A little bit of live music kept things interesting, they weren't amazing, but live music is live music. Isn't it?

Whoa, its Dracula.. Run!

Michael all dressed up as a crazy doctor. The ironic thing is that his was one of the best costumes he is from New Zealand and they don't really *do* Halloween in New Zealand. All the Americans who should be gaga over the holiday were dressed up in the 200 yen masks available at the door. Like my awsome skeleton mask!

A giant group of ALT's. I'll admit I'm a little dodgy on some of the names, but I know most of them. Both this picture and the previous one were actually taken by Fiona, so give credit where it is due for a pair of darn good pics.

So have a happy, safe, and fun Halloween. Wow, its almost November! Where does the time go?

Monday, October 30, 2006


October has to be the single best month to be in Japan. Sure, it doesn't have the hipness of spring and the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves don't turn red until November, but for sheer great weather October can't be beat. This is the most sun I've every seen in Kanazawa, only one weekend of dreary rain. The days have been warm and pleasent and the nights cool.

This last Saturday was amazing, so warm that I wished I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts! I didn't have much to do before the big costume party later in the evening so I got on my bike and went for a quick ride around town. I decided it was past time to revisit a few of the more tourist oriented spots and take some nice photos.

The first stop was Kanazawa castle, where I had a bit of a shock. I knew that the city plans for the whole medieval castle will be restored, but I was surprised to see that work has begun on the next phase. Looks to be some sort of large fortified gate. I hope it will be finished while I'm still here, but I rather doubt it. Well I guess it provides another reason to come back in 2014. That's the year that the Kanazawa- Nagano Shinkansen link opens, and I just have to see that in operation.

The downside of Fall is the increase is spider size. They have been munching on flies all summer and only the gargantuan are left. I found Shelob here down by the Sai River, I think she was planning to spin a web across the bike path and snare Jr. High School Students. Yikes!

Near the fish market they had a rather sorry looking Shrimp Festival (Ebi Matsuri) all set up. There was loud music and an annoying announcer, yet remarkably few people stopped by to celebrate the glories of shrimp. Which for me just means that most people are sensible, and avoid shrimp whenever possible!

The end of the line was back at Oyama shrine. Again. But what can I say, its very photogenic!

next: the party!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Photo School

I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to all the people who I have held up as I fiddle with my camera to take a picture. However, this post is to show you why I do that. While I was in Koya-san with Zach a month ago I took several "double shots" to compare the automatic setting, and manual setting. Auto gives you speed. Point and shoot. Manual takes longer, settings to choose, light to measure, but usually gives you much better pictures.

For example, the morning shot above is a very tricky one, with the sharp shadow line. Auto sets the exposure for the shadow, so while you can see detail quite well, it blows out the rest of the photo, and imparts a strange, ghostly bluishness.

I bought a couple of photo books by Bryan Peterson a few months back, one of them devoted to digital photography. One setting you have with a digital camera but not film is white balance. By changing what the camera thinks of as "white" you can skew the color of the whole photo, in subtle ways. In Manual mode you can set your white balance yourself, and if you choose the "cloudy" setting, even in full sun, you get a nice "orange" shift. The shot becomes much warmer, and looks a lot more friendly and interesting than the harsh and blue tinted automatic version.

This was another tricky one. I wanted a shot of the detail in the ashes on this incense burner. On automatic the exposure is set to the background, and the detail is lost in overexposure. So when I reshot, I cranked down my shutterspeed a bit and voila! The ashes come through perfectly. While this does leave the background a bit underexposed, it *is* the background afterall, and not the focus of the shot.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The time's they are a-changin!

Well I decided it was long past time to freshen up my blog. Blogger has a ton of new features in Beta, so I decided to take the plunge and see what I could do. Let me know what you guys think, good? bad? Should I go back to Matsumoto Castle in the header? Or some other nice photo? Or is the more bookish brown looking good?

Also, may I be allowed a moment of pride and egotism... yes folks over 3,000 hits in the year since I installed my web counter. It comes down to about 9 or 10 a day of course, but thats still pretty significant when you figure thats all people coming to read my boring? rants about life in a very non-boring country!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Houses of Prayer

My trip to Takayama enabled me to kill two traditional Japanese birds with one bus ride. While our main goal was to see Takayama and enjoy the festival, the Kanazawa-Takayama bus route goes by Shirakawa-go. Shirakawa is one of many World Heritage sites in Japan, and is dedicated to the preservation of a unique style of farmhouse.

The gasshō-zukuri style of thatched roof is unique to Japan, and especially to this area, Gifu Prefecture. Located deep in the Japan Alps, the area gets enough snow in winter to crush a more average looking roof, so the locals started constructing at a steeper incline.

Gasshō-zukuri literally means Praying Hands Style, as each house does look like a pair of hands, clasped in prayer. Like most other traditional homes, most of these old farm houses succumbed to development, but here and in nearby Toyama prefecture a handful were saved for the tourists.

Sadly, the bus only stops for 15 mintues, so overall I've had a tad under half an hour to explore Shirakawa-go, not really enough time to see everything. In fact, hardly enough time to snap a few pictures and take a quick bathroom break. I may come again, but since there are only the two buses per day to and from Kanazawa there is the choice of 15 minutes to explore or about 5 hours, 4 of boredom!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Third Most Beautiful Festival In Japan

Why is that everything in Japan has been broken down into the top three? The top three gardens, beautiful views, festivals... According to whom? Well despite that, I'll admit that the Takayama Fall festival, what I saw of it, was indeed beautiful. It was also just a tad crowded.

Our first stop back in town was to swing by the morning market. I really wish Kanazawa had a nice riverside market like this every morning. The scenery and the wares on sale really complemented each other quite nicely. A good old-fashioned Farmer's Market! Well being it was festival day, it was a good, old-fashioned, overpopulated Farmer's Market!

Want a Fish on a Stick?

Next to the market the festival vendors had set up all their booths. I really, really love Japanese festival food. The supply of yakisoba, yakitori, shaved ice, chocolate covered bananas, steak skewers, chicken gyros, okonomiyaki... wait a minute, chicken gyros!? Luckily for my tastebuds there were a pair of authentic Turks dishing out some truly delectable pita breads stuffed with roasted chicken breasts. It was amazing. The Takayama specialty steak skewers were pretty nice as well, tender and juicy.

The real highpoint of the festival is the collection of floats. Now, for Takayama they have broken their festival up into Spring and Fall halves, and each half has its own floats. On the festival day they line the floats up for a few hours and let people take get up nice and close, then they parade around the streets. However, the real thrill comes at night when the floats are bedecked with lanterns and once again go on parade. Sadly both Anna and I had to work the next day, and couldn't stay for the night parade.

The floats were amazing, you could tell that a lot of time, effort, and talent had gone into their construction. It was too bad then that the whole area was just so insanely crowded. The crush of people was pretty intense, and the clicks, flashes, buzzes and whirrs from all the cameras, and camera phones, was seriously annoying. Everybody, including me, was jockying for position, and it was almost impossible to get a clear line of sight. Just as it was almost impossible to avoid being run over/ elbowed/ having your toes trod on by some crazed old lady in Festival Fever. *sigh*

The crazy crowd made sitting by the river and soaking up the autumn sun a popular option. The weather was glorious, the snacks delicious, and the din of the mob dampened. While there were plenty of families and groups enjoying the moment, there were far fewer than the slavering horde on the road above!

As our last action before catching the bus home, we hiked up to the ruins of Takayama Castle. There is not much more than foundation stones left, but it was a nice peaceful place. Anna's eagle eyes spotted a cute little grass snake, I had to surpress the urge to chase it down and capture it. I guess I have a bit of my father the trailside biologist in me.

Next: World Heritage Thatched Houses.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

A brief interlude

The new rage in Japan is an advertisement jingle for Kewpie Tarako Sauce. Tarako being cod roe. This music video is not only playing in just about every grocery store, I have also seen it in the conbini and in music shops! Yup, you can buy the Tarako single. Feal the fear. Please, watch the video, all of it if you can, but at least to about the 2 minute 30 second mark or so. It must be seen to be believed.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kooS8iTqo1w

Friday, October 13, 2006

Deep in Gollum's Cave of Gloom.

Monday dawned bright and clear, a welcome sight after the cold rain of Sunday night. Breakfast was plentiful but dissapointing. After all, I like rice, miso, and salmon, I just don't like them first thing in the morning when I have a splitting headache and would really just prefer some buttermilk pancakes and coffee. Luckily the owner had some pretty powerful headache tabets, she was sure to get through to me the fact that I should not be driving AT ALL after taking one of her little pills. Yeah, me, who hasn't touched a steering wheel in over a year!

Looking at our map of the area Anna and I saw that there was a limestone cave you could visit located on our way back into town. Thinking that this would be a fun diversion we hopped on the bus and hopped off a short drive down the mountain ready to do a little spelunking.

Hmm, except that there was no cave in evidence. We walked over to a man playing with his kids near the bus stop and asked him where the cave was. He looked at the map and started laughing. It turned out that I had totally misread the map, while the cave was attraction # 16, I hadn't noticed that attractions and accomodations used different colors. Due to my foulup we had disembarked near Motel # 16, and the caves were still several miles down the road. Oh and did I mention that the bus runs every hour?

Suddenly our map reader hustled off into the house to fetch his wife, who spoke excellent English. We started chatting and it turned out that her sister had lived in America for 5 years, in Colorado Springs no less! It makes you wonder about that 6 degrees of seperation.

She told us that her husband was going to drive us to the caves, and sure enough he starts piling his totally cute kids into the mini van. We hopped into the back and away we went. This was not the first time some random Japanese person has offered me an unlooked for ride, and it always surprises me just how polite and helpful total strangers can be here.

Adjacent to the cave system was a two story museum that had all sorts of geology/ gemology related displays. Fossils, sculptures, weapons, and models of castles made of pearls! This one is Nagoya Castle. Tacky yet fascinating.

Once we made it inside you could tell you were in a traditional limestone cave. For those not in the know, limestone caves are very much active, stream drivin cave systems. Lots of dripping, slipping, and rushing water. Especially as it had rained the past evening, there was plenty of fresh, and chill, water to supply the cave's stream.

There was no tour, just the opportunity to explore the labyrinth on our own. Most people in the area were probably either at the festival or still in bed, it was about 9 in the morning, so the cave was almost totally empty. The fantastic shapes of the stalagtites and stalagmites were well lit with eerie green and pink lights, and the whole experience was pretty fascinating. Of course I would have appreciated a little bit of English signage, but we were pretty far off the beaten tourist track.

At the end of the cave was a little shrine. And after the shrine was a... gift shop! Plenty of gifts, trinkets, keepsakes, snacks and other assorted bits of junk to spend money on littered the shop. We sped through quickly, jogging down the mountain to make sure we could catch the next bus. We made it by over 15 mintues, which gave me a brief window to call home and brag about my recent adventures.

Next: The Morning Market, Festival and a touch of chicken gyros!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sister Cities

Denver has sister city relationships with several cities scattered around the world, but interestingly enough one of those cities is Takayama, in nearby Gifu Prefecture. I have wanted to see Takayama ever since my original foray into Japan on vacation, but its rather remote mountain location has kept me away, until now!

With a three day weekend and tales of a huge festival (one of the top three in Japan!) I started making plans to visit. While at one time we had as many as four peope in our travel group, at the end it was just me and my good friend Anna. We eschewed the long trip on Japan Rail and opted instead for the cheaper and more direct bus. The trip up through the mountains was glorious, and on the way we stopped at Shirakawa-go for a brief photo stop and bathroom break. (As an UNESCO World Heritage site Shirakawa-go will get its own blog entry.)

Takayama is unique among Japanese cities. Not only did it not get bombed, it also avoided the ramapant redevelopment that has marred other once pristine cities like Kyoto or even Kanazawa. This isn't to say that Takayama is devoid of the "concrete look," but it does retain the original Edo-era downtown, a charming cluster of old merchant houses and shops. Shops offer lots of local wares and and nick-nacks. They also had frozen sake cocktails, talk about a wonderful combo!

The weather on Sunday was insane. Clouds, rain, bright sunshine, clouds, sun... all in about 5 minutes! It made setting up for photgraphs very difficult, I would get the exposure right and then the sun would come out and flood everything with light. At least it didn't pour rain all day, though later in the evening a chill bit of rain fell on the mountains.

I'm not sure who this is, but dang if he isn't cool. He had a less interesting long-legged counterpart across the street as well. The pair seemed to be a rather famous couple of mascots for the city.

With the third most popular festival in town, accomodations have to be booked months in advance. We booked a week or so in advance, and were lucky to get this ski-lodge located 40 minutes outside of town. It was half deserted, and had a musty, stuffy air to it, like the owners had been there a long, long time. There were cases of ski trophies and medals, stuffed animals, antiques, dolls, and assorted ... stuff. Anna commented that it was very "The Shining" and she was not far wrong.

While it was not the Comfort Inn, it was a warm, dry place to sleep and so was greatly appreciated. The proprietress was helpful to the point of smothering, I got the feeling that they don't get many foreign types in this neck of the woods.

Well it was a long great day, and we were pretty bushed. Bed time was around 7:15. The next day promised to be great... it was festival day!

Friday, October 06, 2006

A final bevy of temples.

While the cemetery complex is probably the star attraction at Koya-san there are certainly plenty of other temples and assorted religious sites. Danjogaran Temple is the head temple of the area, but that is not the reason Zach and I paid the admission fee.

Inside there was a room where some not terribly famous noble commited seppuku. This was enough to get the blood-thirsty American tourists to drop in for a visit. While we never pinpointed the exact room, I guess it had been cleaned in the intervening centuries, the temple was very beautiful and well worth the tour. And hey, included in the admission was a cookie and some tea.

This giant Pagoda stood out, but it too (alas) had an admission fee and we decided that paying 200 yen to look at MORE Buddist art was just not a compelling idea. I think with pagodas, unless you can go to the top, the outside is far more interesting than the inside.

We also swung by the Tokugawa family mausoleum but it was much less interesting than we expected. I mean for the family grave of the people who ruled Japan for two hundred years, you'd expect a bit ... More. I mean yeah I know they have the entire Nikko compex, but only Ieyasu and his grandson are buried there.

After getting up so early and walking around all morning on a breakfast of miso, rice , and pickled veggies we were ready for something with oomph.

So we hit up the Osaka branch of Outback Steakhouse for my second steak in a year. Yes, it was heavenly. I think I need to visit Osaka more often!