Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lightning over Maebashi

We had a whopping great storm go by about an hour ago. So of course I was out and about with my camera and tripod, snapping away!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


There are all sorts of festivals held all across Japan and all throughout the year. Of the many that I have experienced, the Abare Matsuri may well be the most exciting. Nicknamed the Fire and Violence Festival, and held the weekend of the first Friday of July in the small fishing village of Ushitsu Abare is like no other festival I have seen.

There are certainly plenty of similar elements at work, like Taiko drumming, food stalls, and plenty of summer yukata. However, there is much that is quite unique.

The Saturday night festivities begin with a parade of huge kiriko lantern floats. Kiriko are unique to the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa  Prefecture, along the north coast of Japan. Many festivals have floats of some sort involved, but floats of this sort can only be found here. At Abare there are over thirty of them, each representing a different neighborhood. Held aloft by shouting men and women and carrying children playing drums and flutes the kiriko are noisy yet wonderful to behold.

As loud as they may be, the kiriko are neither on fire nor particularly violent. Though they are very, very heavy. Those aspects come into play a little bit later. Most Japanese festivals have their roots in Shinto, and as such often have mikoshi as their centerpiece. Mikoshi are portable shrines, and the basic idea is usually to take the local kami, or deity, out for a party. The kami leaves its usual abode in the shrine, and is carried all over town for a day or two before being put back in its house. Shinto has to be one of the only religions where one of the aims is to literally party with god. Sometimes they will even pour sake on the mikoshi, to get the kami drunk. Well, that is how things are normally. The people of Ushitsu don't like their local kami very much. So while they do parade around town with two mikoshi, they also stop at various areas and beat the stuffing out of them. They will slam the mikoshi on the ground, kick it, jump on it, pick it up and do it all over again.

At one point they dump it in the river and carry it around there for a bit. All the while dropping it, slamming it and beating it. So there you have the violence part.

The fire comes a little later, around 2am. A huge torch is lit over another section of river, and the mikoshi carriers deliver the same beatings as before, only now outlined in a shower of sparks and embers. Some of the group is entrusted with splashing water all over everything so nobody gets burned, but I still saw the mikoshi itself catch on fire a couple times, as well as the hillside. Which is why the fire department was on hand.

Despite almost five years in Japan, I have never before seen something so interesting, so crazy, and so much fun as a group of very drunk Japanese men kicking the utter crap out of shrine in a river with a huge fire overhead. Its the sort of thing that probably has to be seen to be truly appreciated, my writing about it just seems so tame in comparison.

Thursday, July 05, 2012


I will admit, with my new computer set up it has been more and more difficult to post updates here. Though, it's not all the fault of my too large screen and Japanese keyboard. I have been doing much of my photography on my iPhone. While the results are a far cry from my trusty Nikon D80, the ability to shoot and edit "on the fly" is fantastic and the results can be surprisingly strong.

A few weeks ago Tess and I fulfilled an ambition and visited Tokyo DisneySea. DisneySea is a more adult themed take on Disney, with less cutesy and more thrills. I was most impressed with the Disney ability to create several entirely convincing fake worlds within the confines of the park. The entrance is a real hotel set in a Venice/ Italy theme with a few restaurants and shops but no actual rides.

The Indiana Jones ride had a dank jungle themed exterior, with a fantastic Mayan temple excavation interior. The heightened reality was perfect, delivering all you would expect of a temple being excavated by Indiana Jones. The nearby Mexican Restaurant, using that term loosely, had such menu items as teriyaki pork tacos. That might have been a knock against the verisimilitude of the area. Though of course I had to try it, if just to get something semi Mexican into my diet. The result was about what could be expected from something called Teriyaki Pork Tacos.

 The Mysterious Island had a Jules Verne theme, which was fitting as I was actually reading 20,000 leagues under the Sea at the time. We ended up waiting in line for the Journey to the Center of the Earth roller coaster twice as the first time it was closed for rain maintenance. We were pretty upset, but the staff handled it all quite well by passing out tickets that would enable the bearer to jump any one line in the park. The ride ended up being the best in the park, with a thrilling tour of the underside of the earth culminating in a volcanic eruption. My kind of roller coaster! Speed and geology!

While Disney Parks in America seem to skew more towards children and families, here in Japan they are also very popular date spots. The pan generational love of cute characters probably helps there, as does an increased enjoyment of general cheese. I certainly had a great time, though by the end of the day I was running on fumes. We did manage to ride every major ride, so it was indeed a day well spent!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Drums of Spring

If there is anything Japan loves more than traveling, its making travel related lists. They have been doing it for centuries, and lists include the top 100 mountain peaks, the top 100 scenic places of unusual smells and the top 3 gardens. Living in Kanazawa as I did, I saw plenty of Kenrokuen, which is one of those top gardens.

However, I had failed to see any of the other two until this past weekend. Kairakuen in Mito city Ibaraki prefecture is the newest of the gardens, built in the mid 1800s. It is best known for its plum blossoms, and we are fast approaching prime plum blossom season. Please note I said, fast approaching rather than in the middle of. Last weekend was pretty chilly, and while the flowers want to bloom, few of them had managed it.

Despite the weather and conspicuous lack of flowers the garden had set up a large festival and light up. Food booths, candles, lanterns, taiko drumming, dancing and even a fireworks display were all on tap for the evening.

One booth had a glowing image of the Japanese guardian of the underworld looming over it. They were selling local sake, and I just had to buy some. You could buy it in cheap paper cups, or for a bit more in a cedar box. The box was yours to keep, and refills were only two dollars. Not a bad deal at all. Also on offer were some amazing beef strips on a stick and a chashu burger. Chashu is the pork rounds you get on ramen, and is generally quite salty, fatty and smoothly delicious. This massive chunk of it on a bun was amazing, far better than I had expected, and I had expected great things.

Strangely enough, there were dozens of cosplayers. All over the garden were people impressively bedecked as their favorite character. Some I recognized, but a lot went over my head. We saw two different versions of Date Masamune, samurai overlord of Sendai city and general all around badass. There was also a Naruto, and a mini Naruto, a Ruoni Kenshin and plenty more. You could tell that a lot of time and effort had gone into these costumes, and they were really into it.

One of the best bits was the taiko. I always enjoy a good taiko show, and the Mito players were excellent. Tess enjoyed how the style in the Kanto was very different from what she has seen up in the wilds of the Noto peninsula. I went ahead and shot some video, its a little shaky and cuts off early but should give an idea of how the performance went.

The fireworks that finished the night were short, but fun. It was getting pretty cold by that point, and I doubt anybody really wanted to watch a more typical show. We all had a fantastic time, though I don't know that Kairakuen will supplant Kenrokuen in my heart.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Riding the Shink

 Shortly after Christmas Tess and I took a trip to Sendai. One reason we wanted to go was less about Sendai and more about the mode of transportation you can use. The new E5 Series Shinkansen, which runs the northern route from Tokyo to Aomori Prefecture at the far tip of Honshu.

We had to change trains at Omiya station, to catch our E5 Hayabusa. This is the newest Shinkansen, and only went into regular service last March, just a few days before the earthquake disrupted the northbound trainlines. 

This new trainset is one of the sleekest yet, and has a top design speed of 320 km/h (299 mph), but currently only runs at 300 km/h (186 mph). This is still fast enough to cover 321 kilometers between Omiya and Sendai in a mere 71 minutes. 

I have always said that the Shinkansen is the only way to travel. For pure speed and comfort, it is just pure bliss on tracks. And the new trains are even better!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012


Tokyo Waterfront

Snow in Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.

Plum Blossoms in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

Cherry Blossoms in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture.

Rice Paddies in Ishikawa Prefecture

Shibuya, Tokyo

Shirane-san crater, Gunma Prefecture

Starbucks, Insaong shopping street, Seoul.

Candles, Takasaki

Fritz the family dog, Rocky Mountains of Colorado

Garden in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

Panda Bear in Ueno Zoo, Tokyo

Panorama, Ikaho Onsen, Gunma Prefecture