Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Mt. Myōgi is one of the three Mountains of Jomo (Gunma), along with Mt. Haruna and Mt. Akagi. It is the furthest away from me, and the final one that I visited. After our group had so much fun on Mt. Tsukuba, we decided to tackle another hike the next weekend.

Like Akagi and Haruna, Myōgi is of volcanic origin, though it is far, far older than its two sister peaks. The massif is long extinct, and heavily eroded. Myōgi has no graceful hump, but instead a chaotic mass of spires and ridges, perfect for the adventurous rock scrambler.

There are ladders and chains to hold on to for the tricky parts, though I'll admit even the ladder up to this spire was a bit too exposed and a tad slick for my tastes, though I made it safe and sound. We got an excellent group panorama, and then headed further up the mountain for more scrambling and more vistas.

The climb wasn't technical, but it did demand a sure foot and a steady hand.  The heat and humidity conspired to make my hands pretty slick, and while this section was no problem, there was a pretty sheer face later on that had me a little worried, with steep,  slick rocks and wet hands.

The views we were rewarded with were far more expansive than those on Tsukuba, though the hiking was much more strenuous, as a few of the party were quick to point out!

I'd learned my lessons from Tsukuba, and had stocked a face towel for sweat and a pair of two liter water bottles from the store, though I found that a pair of hiking boots would have been fantastic to have on hand, especially for the steeper bits of rock scrambling. Despite the heat, humidity, and angry wasps I've fallen even more in love with hiking in Japan, and a return to Myōgi to climb a little higher is certainly in order, as are further vertical exploits. Fuji, here we come!

Monday, July 26, 2010

High Summer


The rainy season is officially over, though it went out with a bang a few days ago with a lightning storm that rocked the whole neighborhood. I unplugged my computer and hoped for the best, we had some pretty close hits. I've learned my lesson too, about trying to shoot lighting when the storm is right over your head. On a side note, the top three photos here are all panorama stitches, and I recommend clicking on them to get a larger view of all the details.

The weather has generally been clear and beautiful, but sticky and hot. Standing in front of a gaggle of elementary students doing activities and singing songs in a classroom with no A/C is not an experience I recommend.

However, now it is summer break, which stretches from late July to late August for me, though some have longer. It's not as epic as we used to get back in my Elementary School days, but it's certainly the longest employed time off I've had in forever. I just wish I had enough money to really travel and go somewhere new (like Korea!), but I'll be spending the month in Japan, hiking, hanging out, and entertaining guests.

Summer also brings with it fireworks, and ever town in the region is having their own display, so if you plan it right every weekend you can catch some fireworks somewhere in the area. Last weekend we had a show in Tamamura, and I made sure to catch at least part of the show, though traffic and a late start meant I only caught the last 15 minutes or so, but I wasn't too worried because there will be more where that came from. Tamamura was the first show of the summer, but far from the last!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tokugawa Ieyasu: Shogun

     When browsing for English books on Japan, you will find a great many that cover recent Japanese history. Reams have been written about the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration, World War II and the course of Modern Japan. You can also find plenty of books that cover general historical topics like samurai or castles. However, I have had a hard time finding a book that zeros in on the details of the reunification of Japan and the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
     Ever since I read James Clavell's Shogun I have wanted to read an actual history about the three great unifiers, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and of course Tokugawa Ieyasu. While I haven't found a book that fulfills that criteria, a friend pointed me towards this book, Tokugawa Ieyasu: Shogun by Conrad Totman.  In a brisk 197 pages the book concentrates on Ieyasu's life from about 1599, and his successful reunification of Japan through diplomacy and force. We see the diplomatic acrobatics that he used to build an maintain his power base, as well as the ruthlessness of the time. If a letter or a new wife wouldn't sway you to Tokugawa's way of thinking, a sword probably would, though of course by then it was too late.
     The book flits about geographically quite a bit, and it was fun for me as many places I know popped up in the text. Tokugawa was born in the castle town of Okazaki, which of course was where I worked back in September of 2005. The books also spends a fair amount of time in the Kansai region, especially the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. Edo (Tokyo) gets a fair amount of words as well as Totman describes the cities development from a muddy village to the base of the most powerful family in Japan. Kanazawa gets a few mentions as well as some areas I know near to Ogo!
      Really the only problem with the book is one rather inherent in Japanese History generally, names. The major daimyo (feudal lords) of the era all crop up rather often, as do their sons, grandsons, cousins, brothers, and more. Throw in shifting alliances, a multitude of wives and a plethora of children and sometimes it can be hard to figure out just who is doing what.
     That said, this really is an excellent introduction to a very complex and fascinating period in history.

New Old Kanda

While I was looking for older photos for the Akihabara, I found these pictures I took from Kanda Station back in August of 2007 but never blogged. Technically speaking these aren't proper Yamanote shots as I took them from the Chuo Line tracks. The Chuo line cuts right through Tokyo, connecting the East and West sides in a very convenient fashion. I'm off to Tokyo this weekend, for training and fun, so I should have a whole new batch of stations ready to keep the project going for a while.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


When I came to Japan in March I had been told I was going to Ibaraki Prefecture, and so I did a lot of research. Of course I was eventually placed in Gunma, but I still have several good friends in Ibaraki that I did training with. One of them invited me to climb Mt. Tsukuba as a prelude hike to Mt. Fuji, which we hope to climb in August. My day started pretty early to make it to Ibaraki by 11, and it included travel on this one car diesel train, a rarity in the generally electrified grid of Japanese rail. 

Mountains are often sacred to Shinto, and Tsukuba-san is no different. There is a beautiful large shrine at the base of the peak, and the trails start from there.

It has been a while since I had done much hiking, and for most of our group this was their first hike. We weren't quite prepared, especially water wise. Luckily one of us had brought a fair amount of extra water, so those of us who had only packed a little bit were saved. I really should (and do) know better, but I wasn't quite prepared for how the heat and humidity of Japanese summer affects hiking. To put it briefly, you sweat, a lot. I've now learned that any hike in Japan had better be accompanied by a small towel around your neck to absorb the sweat pouring off your face.

Despite the heat and the sweat, the hike was lovely. I had almost forgotten just how much I love hiking. The lush green forests were a remarkable contrast to the dry pine forests and wide open fields of the Rocky Mountains. The trail was also quite busy, but mostly with people coming down the peak after riding the cable car to the top!

As always once we got to the top all the work it took was forgotten as we looked out over the flatlands of Ibaraki Prefecture. Unlike most Colorado Mountains, there were vending machines, a restaurant, and a gift shop up top, so we had plenty to amuse ourselves with other than the view!

Though I must confess, we didn't actually make it to the TOP, rather we made it a large saddle that is between Tsukuba-san's two peaks. We were up very late in the day (5:00), and had to head down to avoid hiking down in the dark, as we were utterly unprepared for that. I suppose that means I have unfinished business in Ibaraki Prefecture, and I may just have to head back and make it to the top of BOTH peaks, and not take the cable car down next time....

Monday, July 19, 2010

Travel and Cultural Awareness, or Why Raw Horse is Delicious

I remember speaking to an acquaintance of mine, back in the states, and suggesting grabbing some Japanese food for dinner. The first response was "Eww I don't like fish." Ironically of course, I had beef bowls in mind, which is about as far from fish as you can get.

It made me think. While Sushi is perhaps one of the more famous aspects of Japanese cuisine, anybody that has spent much time with me, or in Japan, knows that there is much more to your standard Japanese restaurant than just seafood. In fact, Japanese cuisine offers all sorts of barbecued and even  fried hunks of  land critter to devour. However, my acquaintance simply rejected an entire nation's cuisine based on an incorrect preconceived notion. As a travel AND food junkie, I was pretty shocked by that response.

It made me think a bit about how travel really does affect your life and your world view. People always talk about how travel opens your mind, but I think it is more than just nice museums and interesting monuments. The reality of travel is much more interesting, and germane to the way we live our lives.

I myself am far from the pickiest eater I know, and could indeed be considered an adventurous eater by many. However, within my family I am probably the most inhibited of the bunch. To this day I disdain common place items like mushrooms and olives, shrimp and mussels and more. In the past I was even more of a snob, turning up my nose at any number of dishes.

While part of growing up is growing out of being picky, my multitude of experiences living in Japan have certainly accelerated the process. I have had no choice but to break loose and see just what strange things I could actually stomach. The results have sometimes been surprising. I imagine that very few people in America have eaten basashi, or to put it more simply horse sashimi, but I have. And to be honest, it was amazingly delcious. In fact, after I tried it the first time in Nagasaki, I often order it when I see it on the menu. I do this both to shock and amaze my dining partners and because I genuinely enjoy the dish. I didn't have to try basashi while I was in Kyushu, I could have got by on teriyaki or even McDonalds. But I didn't, I had traveled enough, experienced enough, and was brave enough (the beer helped) to go where few of my country men ever will.

Does this make me a better person? Of course not, and some horse lovers might think take my taste for horse flesh as a detriment. But I feel that it does make my life and experiences a bit richer and more enjoyable. In the same conversation, I had mentioned possibly traveling to Mexico for a nice relaxing beach vacation, and to that my companion said, "I won't travel anywhere that I can't drink the water." This could be called a sensible approach to life, but one of my favorite trips ever was to Thailand and Vietnam, and you most certainly can NOT drink the water in South East Asia. Luckily, bottled water is readily available as is beer, fruit juice, soda and more. Even such a sensible approach to life as limiting yourself to places with potable water will inevitably limit your experiences.

 So whats the point? Simply this. Every experience we have, no matter the location, adds another layer of complexity to our psyche and our soul. However, travel aids this, because it forces you out of your comfort zone. Living within the same city your entire life doesn't prohibit either personal growth or the accumulation of new experiences, but it does enable those that are so inclined to wall themselves away into a daily routine that never challenges them. Travel is not a prerequisite to being a better person, or to living a fulfilling and enriched life. However, it IS a bit of a shortcut, because it makes it that much harder to coast by on what feels comfortable. That is the key, because every time we try something that might be strange or different, we have the chance to discover something that is in fact even better than what we had in our life before then.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Akihabara Station 秋葉原駅

Japan is something of a destination for geeks as it is, but within Japan, the true Mecca off all that is Geekish is certainly Akihabara. With dozens stores from the tiny to the massive, in Akihabara you can get computer parts, video games old and new, costumes, anime merchandise and more. Even if you aren't really a geek, Akihabara warrants a look, as you can often catch interesting asides like maid street karaoke. As the guiding light of the 'otaku' culture, a fair number of trends have surfaced here, from maid cafes to super thick 'Kanazawa style curry'. I find that Akihabara is one of the best places in Tokyo to just kill time, but then spending an hour in a 10 floor camera shop is just the sort of thing I love! 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


In Japan the seventh day of the seventh month brings the festival of Tanabata, celebrating the meeting of the stars Altair and Vega in the sky.

There is a folktale describing the origins of the festival. Orihime (Vega) was the daughter of the Sky King. She sat by the banks of the heavenly river, the Milky Way, and wove cloth all day. She worked so hard, that she never had time to meet or love anybody. Her father wanted his daughter to be happy, and introduced her to Hikoboshi (Altair), a cow herder who worked on the other side of the river. The two fell in love and were married right away, but once happily married Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi stopped tending his cows, who wandered  willy nilly around the heavens.

The Sky King couldn't let this continue, and separated the happy lovers with the Milky Way. Orihime was distraught to be apart from her true love, and so her father allowed them to meet once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month.

The modern Tanabata is a bit of a date night, and mostly an excuse to get dressed up in yukata (light, cotton kimono made for summer wear) and eat lots of wonderful festival food. I looked into buying a yukata, but UniQlo didn't stock any men's styles this year, and the specialty yukata shop's wares were 150 bucks, which is a bit steep for something I may wear once or twice a year.

So I put on street clothes, grabbed my umbrella, and headed downtown to stuff myself on overpriced street food. I went with a lot of options I'd never tried before, including a mochi- potato creation with salt and butter, a Chinese flat bread like the ones I enjoyed so much in China, and a ramen burger, which was a creation of fried ramen noodle 'buns' with pork, fish cake, cabbage and ramen broth sauce. It was all amazing!

Monday, July 12, 2010


Some weeks ago I visited the city of Omiya, in Saitama prefecture. Omiya is mostly noted for being a major Japan Rail transfer hub for the northern part of the Kanto Plain. It's also a major suburb of Tokyo, existing in the sort of limbo that envelops large cities on the periphery of even larger cities. There's plenty of things to see and do in Omiya, but as the northern reaches of Tokyo are some 20 minutes away by train, a whole world of other, more interesting things to see and do exists right over the horizon. However, I had seen plenty of Tokyo, and little of Omiya, so I was primed to jump right on in.

The major attraction in Omiya is Hikawa Shrine, which is one of the major Shinto Shrines in the Kanto Region. In fact, Omiya the city is named after the shrine, Omiya means large temple/palace. Plenty of people still come to admire the long entrance avenue and huge torii.

For me, there was another good reason to make it to Omiya. The Japan Rail Railroad Museum! I'm a well known transportation buff, and my love of Japan's railway system is legendary. How then could I not be attracted to a huge museum devoted to trains from the very first steam engines to the latest in Shinkansen technology?

I have an old link to Omiya as well. Back in 2005, when I first visited Japan, I transferred through Omiya Station a few times. I never got to leave the station, but the view of the vast array of tall buildings and shops outside the train windows intrigued me, and I thought it would be an interesting place to live. I also transferred through Nagoya Station a few times, and when the time came to request a placement with GEOS, I got the two places mixed up, and asked for Nagoya! I remember living in Nagoya, and wondering why I mis-remembered the view from the station. It wasn't till my first trip from Kanazawa to Tokyo that I got another chance to look out the window, and realize that I had meant Omiya....

We stayed late into the evening, with some time at a cheap izakaya chain, though we were all too tired from an early start and a long day of walking to really get into a night life sort of mood, though a round of cold beer and some excellent Japanese bar food really hit the spot!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Kanda Station 神田駅

One stop counterclockwise from Tokyo is Kanda Station. I had never stopped there before, probably because there's not much at Kanda to stop for! I walked around a bit, and while the area had some nice looking bars and restaurants and such, it was nothing that was really all that special. Mostly, I think its a small, residential area close to the office towers and shops near Tokyo Station and the Ginza district.

Though I'll admit, I didn't feel much like exploring too widely on the day I went to Kanda. I had already walked around Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ebisu, and I was tired!

Even though Kanda may not be a prime tourist destination, I still feel like I got some cool photographs, and it was far from a wasted trip. 

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A few more stories from school

     One of the really fun things about living overseas is seeing how different cultures approach things differently. The other day I was in the teachers room for lunch, and a fly had been buzzing around the curry rice and generally causing a ruckus. One of the teachers grabbed a fly swatter and sent the little bugger to meet his maker. Now, so far so normal, after all we have fly swatters in America too. Swatter meets fly, fly gets smooshed, we all live happily ever after (well, except for the fly, who got smooshed.) However, in Japan, rather than use a tissue or even just your hands to transfer the recently deceased to the trash can, the teacher removed a pair of special, fly handling chopsticks from the handle of the fly swatter. What a genius idea, it’s quick, easy and relatively clean. The tips of those chopsticks did look pretty heinous though.
     That same day I saw the groundskeeper fire up a mini flamethrower to burn weeds. The thing sounded like a mini jet engine, and looked like both a chore and sorta fun too. Anytime you get to light stuff on fire you can have at least a little bit of fun. I have since decided that perhaps burning weeds is more common than I had thought, but for me it was an entirely new phenomenon. After all, it is so dry in Colorado that if somebody sneezes too hard you can start a forest fire that consumes thousands of acres. Burning weeds back home would be like swimming with sharks, without the shark cage and with an open cut!
     As I’ve mentioned, I live in the countryside. My schools are all even further from the city center, such as it is, than I am. A few weeks ago at one of my elementary schools they did a schedule change, because the 5th graders were planting rice. Of course, in modern Japan there are all sorts of agricultural machines that obviate the need for the backbreaking task of planting rice by hand, but I guess the school felt that it would be a good experience to have. Perhaps as a way of seeing just how people lived up until pretty recently. I wasn’t there to see the planting, though I did drive by the field on the way to work, but I did see the aftermath. The kids were drenched in mud. Now, I’ve never planted rice, though looking at those water filled paddies I can imagine its messy work, but I think that you could probably do it without looking like a victim of a spa mud bath gone horribly wrong. I saw that as a (responsible?) adult though, not as a hyperactive 5th grader. I suppose that if you took my 12 year old self and dumped him in a rice paddy planting those little shoots, I would have ended up much the same way.
     Many buildings in Japan have what is called a genkan, an area at the entrance for taking off and storing your shoes. Houses, schools, some hotels, restaurants and more all have this uniquely Japanese architectural addition. The idea of course is to keep the indoors cleaner by not tracking in mud, dirt and dog poop. The reason I bring this up is that it really didn’t matter that the mud drenched young rice farmers took off their shoes. It didn’t even matter that they had all been sprayed off outside, there were still little footprints of water and mud making a trail from the entryway to the changing room on the 2nd floor. I did an inform poll though, asking if their trip out to the fields had been fun, and 100% of respondents said yes!

Monday, July 05, 2010

The 29th

     I celebrated 29 years of continued existence last weekend. Several of my good friends, both locally and from the neighboring prefectures, joined me for a night of beer, pool and karaoke! While I missed the big fireworks shows and grilled goods of Independence Day back home, I must say that I had a really good birthday.
     I'll admit that of late I've been feeling pretty isolated. My nearest friend is a good 10 to 15 minute drive away, closer to 25 minutes if I'm at the speed limit. The rest of the Maebashi crew are even further than that, all the way across town. Add that to general culture shock and a sense of being alone is totally natural, though still unfortunate.
     However, if there is one cure for that, then surrounding yourself with good friends is it! We started off with a little big of all you can drink beer mixed with yakitori, french fries, and Japanese fried chicken. We then waked along the river to a really cool pool hall I learned of recently, with cheap import beer (Corona!) and 8 pool tables. Six of us caught the train back to my neck of the woods for some classic karaoke. Surprisingly, at midnight there was a 30 minute wait for a karaoke booth! We spent the waiting time planning out the songs to sing, and one of our number spent that time talking to a Japanese guy.. who gave him a beetle! Luckily, he gave it back before we went to the booth, I'd hate to think of what would have happened had that rather large bug been wandering freely in our darkened karaoke room...
     The next day, the actual 4th of July, four of us drove up to Ikaho, where I finally got a chance to try the famous rotemboro, our outdoor onsen bath. The water is laced with iron, making the whole area smell rather pungently of metal, but the hot waters were a perfect balm for our sore muscles, and the bath and surrounding area was truly beautiful.
     Special thanks to Scott Rothrock for the photo, he and his new 28 mm prime lens captured much of the party and a bit of the next day too.