Monday, May 31, 2010

On a clear day, you can see for miles

The weather the past few weeks has been strangely cool for this late in spring. Rainy season is soon to be upon us, so it is no surprise that it's been raining a lot lately, but the nice even temperatures are a nice change from the soggy heat that often intrudes around this time of year.

One happy side effect of the rain is when it stops raining, the air is cleared of dust and smog and the views can be tremendous! On Thursdays I teach at a pair of elementary schools further up the slopes of Mt. Akagi, and I've been lucky to have had a pair of ultra clear Thursdays recently.

One day, I could see just a glimpse of Mt. Fuji poking above the mountain ranges that lie between us. If you are having trouble spotting Fuji in the above photo, I recommend clicking to enlarge it, and looking for the white spot in the middle left of the photo. While I'll admit that on first blush it's not much of a view of 'ole Fuji San, but consider the fact that the mountain is over 100 kilometers away and on the other side of mountains! I was pretty impressed. Heck, its only the second time I've ever gotten so much of a glimpse of Japan's most famous peak.

Last week we had another sparkling day, and while a line of clouds obscured Mt. Fuji, the view was open all the way to Tokyo! To the left side of this photo are the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, right in downtown Tokyo around 100 kilometers from Maebashi. In the center is the new TV tower that will replace Tokyo Tower as the primary broadcast point for the Kanto Region. The tower is called Tokyo Sky Tree, and even in its uncompleted state is the tallest artificial structure in Japan.  Upon completion in 2012 Tokyo Sky tree will soar 2,080 feet in the air, almost double the height of Tokyo Tower!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Black and White and Red All Over

Over the past few months I've been having fun with pictures by simply desaturating everything but red. The pictures are a selection from both my November trip to Asia, and a few more recent ones from around Maebashi.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A new view of Kanazawa

Our final stop on the Great Golden Week Road Trip was Kanazawa. The drive was long enough that we opted for the toll road expressway, but in the end we probably shouldn't have bothered. The road narrowed from two lanes to one then went back to two then went back to one again several times, causing a huge traffic jam. We were stuck in stop and go traffic for over two hours. That sort of jam isn't fun in the best of times, but with four people in a small, hot car it's even worse!

Once we made it past the jam things opened up and we made great time barreling south along the Japan Sea coast.  In Kanazawa, it was roundly agreed that a trip to my favorite yakitori restaurant, and  a few of the one liter Asahi draft beers you can get there, would be the perfect thing to wash away the unpleasant car trip. It was interesting walking around the downtown area that night, as it was so much more lively and 'happening' than downtown Maebashi. The economic contrast between the two cities was made starkly, depressingly clear.

The next day I played tour guide, and took my friends on a walking tour of all the great spots in the city. The displays outside the 21st Century Art Museum were a hit, especially the new 'color wheel' that they put out on the front lawn. As always Kenrokuen was the must see stop, and as always it was gorgeous. Though like anywhere else, it was jammed with sightseers and large tour groups.

Across from the garden is Kanazawa Castle. Much of the castle is a reconstruction, including a brand new gate that was recently opened. The only original structure that remains is the Ishikawa-mon entrance that faces the garden. Much to my surprise the gate was open to the public, and we could go inside for a look around, something I had never had the chance to do before.

While we didn't really have enough time to really see all that Kanazawa has to offer, everybody enjoyed their trip through 'little Kyoto.' I of course can't get enough of that city, and all the friends I still have there.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Haven't you alway wanted a monkey?

North-west of Nagano city is Jigokudani Onsen, home of the bathing snow monkeys. The cute little Japanese Macaques live in the hills and forests around the area, and come down to bathe and play in the hot springs.

The Monkey Park is unique in that there are no fences, the monkeys are free to leave at any time, and sometimes do, there is no guarantee that they will be swimming when you visit, though they do seem to be there more often than not.

The park forbids guests from feeding the monkeys, which is nice as the animals aren't as aggressive towards humans as they can be in other parts of Asia, though certainly I saw a few monkeys give chase to those tourists who got a bit too close in their search for the perfect picture.

I watched this little guy searching for tasty treats for quite some time. He flipped over every rock in the stream looking for food, but sadly I never saw him find any!

We had a great time at the Monkey Park, and even though it's a bit off the beaten path, I'd highly recommend a visit for any travelers in Japan.

Friday, May 14, 2010


The pleasant alpine town of Matsumoto is one hour south of Nagano by train. Despite the potential for crowded trains, our trip down was easy and the clear day made for spectacular mountain scenery. Nagano prefecture really shows why these mountains are called the Japan Alps, the high craggy peaks really do recall their European namesakes.

Nestled along side a traditional shopping district is this delightfully strange samurai frog statue. It really is the sort of whimsical and strange thing that can only be found in Japan. Samurai frogs aside, the prime reason for a stop in Matsumoto city is its castle.

Matsumoto is one of the few remaining 'original' castles that has been rebuilt in modern times. Like most of the rest, the keep was slated for destruction during the Meiji Era, but it was saved by local citizens who wanted to preserve their gorgeous landmark.

It being Golden Week, to actually enter the main keep would have taken at least two hours. We all decided that we had the photos we had come for, and that a retreat from the hordes of tourists was in order. Standing in line through the entire structure just didn't seem like that much fun.

Nobody regretted the trip though, the day was beautiful, the castle striking, and the Mos Burger we had for lunch was delicious!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sunrise Over Zenkoji

I had the misfortune of a pretty bad cold and very stuffy nose during the early part of our trip. This not only killed my voice, it also made it very hard to sleep. Our first morning in Nagano saw me wide awake at a shocking 5:30 AM. Rather than waste the morning by failing to get back to sleep, I grabbed my camera and made for the temple, primed to get some rare early morning photos.

Despite the hour, I was far from the only visitor out and about in the temple area. Zenkoji opens at 6 in the morning, and a fair number of people were there for the early morning service held in the inner area of the temple. The line stretched so far that I needed to shoot a panorama just to cover a part of it!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Next Stop Nagano

The last week of April and the first week of May sees the arrival of Golden Week, a collection of Japanese public holidays that meld together to form almost a week off from work. I've used past Golden Week holidays to show my Mom around Japan and to travel to Thailand and Vietnam. This year I went for something a little different, and a little cheaper.... Road Trip! Peter, my friend and roommate from training, was the first to arrive, and we packed up Hammond and made our way to pick up the rest of the crew.

Our first destination was Nagano City, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, and one of the larger and more famous Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkoji (善光寺). Visitors have a chance to go under the main alter in a tiny, pitch black tunnel to search for the "key to enlightenment", but being that it was Golden Week, the line for the tunnel stretched all across the inner sanctum. I had already found the key on my last trip inside Zenkoji 5 years ago, and the rest of the group opted for lunch over eternal enlightenment, which I think illuminates the human condition quite succinctly.

Traffic en route to Nagano hadn't been overly heavy, but the Golden Week crowds were out in full force in the shopping promenade near the temple. This didn't stop me from trying no fewer than three new soft serve ice cream flavors. First up was soba flavor, which is based on the buckwheat noodle that is famous in the Nagano area and tasted a bit like vanilla, though with definite hint of soba. Then I had a miso flavored ice cream cone, which I likened more to caramel, though again you knew that you were eating miso. Finally I had sakura (cherry blossom) flavor, and it was certainly cherry blossom flavor and not cherry. It actually hinted more strongly towards strawberry, though it smelled and tasted subtly of blossoms. Miso was the clear loser among the three, but even that flavor was far more delicious than it had any right to be, and all three were quite palatable.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Cherry Blossoms of Komoro

As you gain in latitude and/ or altitude, sakura trees bloom later. They bloomed in Kyoto weeks before they bloomed in Maebashi, and two weeks after the peak of blooms in Maebashi, they hit their stride in the small mountain town of Komoro, in nearby Nagano Prefecture.

Through random happenstance, I actually have two friends in Komoro, one who went to college with Zach, my old friend from highschool, and one whom I met at the Interac training. They both invited me to the festival, and I had to say yes. I needed a bit of time outside of Maebashi and Gunma, and I wanted to road test Hammond a bit, and see how he performed on a longer duration trip before the epic road trip planned for Golden Week.

The Komoro festival was held in a park set amongst the ruins of Komoro Castle. Like many old feudal castles in Japan, Komoro Castle was destroyed at the beginning of the Meiji Era, and now all that is left are the impressive stone foundations. Walking along the the top of the stone wall you see here and looking down at the flowering trees brought a new way of looking at the sakura, from above they looked less like trees and more like clouds of flowers.

The park festivities ended with a jazz performance. I didn't recognize much of the music, but a highlight track was some music from Lupin the 3rd. Only in Japan can you enjoy natural beauty, great street food, beer, and Jazz bands playing songs from animated films.