Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nikko in Fall

This fall has been truly beautiful. While the past summer was baking hot, and in fact set a few records, October and November have been filled with clear and sunny days. Not too hot, not too cold.

Nearby Nikko, home of Toshogu Shrine that I visited in August, is famous across Japan as an autumn destination. The brilliant fall colors in the area draw people from all over the Kanto region.

This can certainly make for clogged roads and busy attractions, but luckily for us, most people access Nikko from the Tokyo side. The drive from my place to Nikko was easy and pleasant, with gorgeous views at every turn. I drove up with a trio of flatlanders, who really enjoyed the trip.

We met up with a few more friends from around the area in Nikko, though it took longer than expected due to brutal traffic through town. The shrines were as gorgeous as always, and the small garden near the entrance to Toshogu was a delight.

That is one thing I really love about Japanese cultural sites. No matter how many times you have been, and this marks my third trip to Nikko, there always seems to be something new to discover.

We then headed up into the hills, back to the Kegon falls. It was nice to arrive a little earlier this time, and get the chance to take the elevator down to the lower viewing platform. 

The geology nut in me loved that vantage point. We could see the bottom of a layer of columnar basalt, the same type of rock that formed the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. The meeting point between the basalt lava flows and the underlying rocks was very obvious, even in the fading light.

After a well deserved sit down and some dinner, we all went our separate ways, with the knowledge that the weekend had been properly seized.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


My area is served by the Jomo Electric Railway, a non Japan Rail local line that runs between Maebashi and the nearby city of Kiryu. The trains are small, old, and expensive to ride, but despite all that it has become my train system, and so I will defend it with all my heart.

              Despite not being JR, the Jomo line still maintains the Japanese reputation of punctuality. Though unfortunately the trains only run every half hour, so if my own punctuality is lacking it can be a bit of a pain waiting for the next train. Fairly often I will ride the train into Maebashi rather than drive, so I have amassed quite a few photos of Ogo Station.

             The line runs to Chuo-Maebashi station, which is a kilometer walk from the main JR station. There is a shuttle bus that connects the two for a mere 100 yen, but usually I like to walk it. It's fast enough, and as long as it isn't raining it can be rather pleasant.

              Ogo also marks the location of the service and repair yard for the whole line. A couple of weekends ago they held an open house where people could walk around the yard and the maintenance shed. The event was free, but there were souvenirs and food for sale, and I am sure they were hoping that people would ride the train in to see the sights.

              They have a few restored older train cars that are trotted out for special occasions. Sometimes they will even make the run into Maebashi. I haven’t had that opportunity yet, but it was still kind of fun to get up close and check them out. Though even the regular line trains are antiques of a sort, they date from the 1960s!

              It was nice having an activity going on in Ogo, it often seems that I have to leave my area to do much of interest, and I was happy to be proved wrong for a weekend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Festivals Both Sporty and Cultural

In Japan festivals aren’t limited solely to religious celebrations; every school also has a few festivals of their own throughout the year. In September every school has a Sports Festival. The basic idea is like the American Field Day, with races and fun sporty activities for the kids. However, the sports festival is a much bigger deal here. The schools practice for weeks ahead of time. Classes are canceled in the afternoon while the kids practice every aspect of every activity.

When the day comes, there are opening and closing ceremonies with speeches, and more. One of my schools even had food vendors set up in the parking lot! At the elementary schools the marching band took the field after lunch for a quick display for the assembled parents and siblings. Being September, and being that we were coming off a blisteringly hot summer, I didn’t envy those kids tromping through the sunny field in their full dress uniforms. 

In addition to the old field day standards like the relay race, they have more unusual events like whole class jump rope. One of my favorites was a team event where four kids would support one on their shoulders. The top kid would have a hat on, and their job was to collect the hats of the other teams, without surrendering their own hat. It was fun to watch and looked fun to play too!

The other, more recent, festival was the Culture Festival. Each school does something different for their Culture Festival. My junior high school set it up so each class (there are 7) wrote and performed a play. Each play was about 20 minutes, and they were wildly different.

One involved a young girl who gets a bad grade on her test, and commits suicide. She doesn’t die right away though, and has time to regret her choice. At the end though, she died anyway. It was beautiful and grim all at once, and absolutely fantastic even if you don’t consider it was written and performed by 13 year olds. Another featured a love story set in the turmoil of the Meiji Era, and climaxed with a sword fight vs the Shinsengumi.

While a lot of the more intricate plot details escaped me, my Japanese listening needs a lot of work, I still had a great time watching my kids give these plays their all. After the lunch break there was an interlude of traditional dances from a local dance troupe. That was followed by a musical presentation by some of the students. The elementary school students came in around then, in time to watch the last two plays. Some of them spotted me sitting in front and I could here whispers of "look, its Grant-sensei!" behind me. Like any proper movie star, I looked back and waved at my adoring fans.

              Both festivals were a lot of fun, a way to really experience some of the differences between growing up in America, and growing up in Japan.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Almost Autumn Myōgi-san

A couple of weeks ago a large contingent of locals headed to Mt. Myogi for a hike and some fall colors. Alas for our group, the fall colors didn't show up. The abnormally hot summer, one of the hottest on record, has pushed the changing of the leaves back a few weeks.

Our very large group.
We ended up splitting up naturally as we hiked along. Most of the group ended up taking the chain route that scared my pants off last time I went on Myogi. Lauren and I and a few other wise souls decided to take the short cut that avoided the steep chain area.

Luckily for all involved, the weather was fantastic. We had come off of a couple of weeks of pretty steady rain, but our day dawned bright and sunny, warm enough not to freeze but cool enough that nobody melted into a puddle.

One of these days I'd like to go back to Myogi on a really clear day, I imagine the view would be tremendous. The view is pretty good anyway, but the haze can really get in the way.

I felt pretty good once we got to the bottom, even though we actually hiked quite a bit further than last time. However, there had been one section of narrow, steep stairs that came back to haunt me the next day. Luckily, misery loves company, and I know I wasn't the only one to feel the complaints of disused muscles.