Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Golden Myōgi

Mt Myogi is one of my favorite spots in Gunma. Located about an hour south west of me, the craggy eroded volcano reminds me a lot of the Rocky Mountains. It is one of the few local areas with nice rock formations. In fact, it is officially listed as one of three most noted areas of rugged beauty in Japan. Japan does love their lists. You may recall the Three Most Beautiful Gardens, or the 100 Places of Unique Smell. 

We started our loop at a small shrine on the east side of the mountain. It was actually pretty busy because we were there on a holiday, 3-5-7. Families bring their children to the shrine at those ages, 3 and 7 for boys and 5 for girls, to be blessed. We saw an adorable kid dressed in a suit with shorts. I suppose that is pretty excellent formal wear for a 3 year old.

Starting the hike proper, from the shrine you walk up a long, steep staircase that gets you up to the base of a tall pillar of rock. It is a pretty intense start, but it does gain you a lot of altitude quickly, and that is always to be admired.

A spur of the trail leads around the side of the spire and up to the top. Making it that far requires some rock scrambling with a bit of assistance from chains and an old metal ladder. The climb is easy enough with some care, but any fear of heights will be tested.

Unless you are this kid, who showed zero concern peeking over the totally sheer drop down to the shrine. I am a born rock hound and even I was sweating it a little bit from my vantage point. Bungee jumping sans bungee is not my idea of a good time! Though, to be fair, bungee jumping in and of itself is still not my idea of a good time.

Mt Myogi is one of the areas locally quite famous for fall leaves, which was one reason we made the trip. We timed it perfectly, this week and next are peak season for fall colors around here. The trail winds around and through rock arches and along narrow ridges that offer spectacular views of the north Kanto. It was a little hazy the day we were there, but I imagine that Tokyo would be visible if the day were clear enough. 

Monday, March 04, 2013

Odawara Castle

We came down out of the cold, blustery hills to find a warm late February day that hinted at the spring to come. Winter had not given up its grasp, especially not when the wind gusted, but the plum blossoms were just easing their way out. That first harbinger of the change of the season. And not a moment too soon, based on my last heating bill.

Odawara castle is a concrete reproduction constructed in the 1960s. Like many of Japans feudal castles, Odawara was pulled down during the Meiji Restoration, a victim of the laws that propelled Japan out of its Samurai past. The current donjon, or keep, is actually much smaller than the castle that stood here at the height of its powers in the mid 1500s.

That version of Odawara Castle was ruled by the Late Hojo clan, a group that dominated most of the Kanto. Their holdings stretched all the way from Odawara, which is south of Yokohama, to Numata, which is a small mountain town north of me! It is a distance of some 200 plus kilometers, which is quite the journey by horseback.

That version of the castle was broken in 1590, along with the power of the Hojo. Toyotomi Hideyoshi besieged and defeated the Hojo, and ordered the fortifications torn down after his victory. The castle was given to future Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, along with the rule of the Kanto. Hideyoshi did this to break Ieyasu away from his family's power base in Aichi Prefecture. Sadly for him, that plan did not pan out very well, and Ieyasu eventually brought the whole country under his direct control. In the meantime, he transferred his seat of power from Odawara to Edo castle, which was located where the modern day Imperial Palace is, right in the heart of Tokyo. And that's why Odawara isn't the capital of Japan!

The current castle is still plenty impressive, and offered expansive views of the surrounding area and the vastness of Sagami Bay. I always enjoy visiting Japanese Castles, they seem just as deadly as your standard European castle, but with more of eye towards aesthetics.

As my train home closed in on Tokyo, I looked back the way I had come and saw Mt. Fuji peeking back at me, saying farewell for now.

Looking the other way I saw the skyscrapers of Shinjuku welcoming me back to the Tokyo megaplex and modern Japan.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Hills of Hakone

Gunma certainly doesn't have a lock on gorgeous mountain scenery and active volcanoes with plenty of boiling water flowing out of the ground. One of the more famous mountain getaways in the greater Kanto region is the resort area of Hakone.

Hakone is a short express ride south west of Tokyo, close to Mt. Fuji. In fact, Mt. Fuji is one of the big draws of the Hakone region. The spectacular views of Japans most famous mountain is a big draw to tourists from around the country and the world. Though as it is said, Mt. Fuji is a very shy mountain, and it may not always make itself available for photography.

Hakone itself is located in an ancient caldera. Twice before a volcano has risen here, exploded and then collapsed. Today there is a smouldering central peak surrounded by deep valleys and a beautiful lake system. The prescribed way to enjoy Hakone is to make a multi-mode transit loop around the central cone, starting with a very cute narrow gauge railroad. The route from the plains below is so steep that the train must make three switchbacks on the way up, swapping back for front three times.

The next step is a cable car right up the side of the mountain. It was quite a bit of fun to watch the funicular system in action, with the cable slowly lowering the car down to the bottom station, then pulling it (and us)back up past the counterweight car.

It is here that the most spectacular part of the journey begins. A gondola system that carries people up and over a hissing field of sulfur vents, and then crests a ridge and presents visitors with the splendor of Mt. Fuji and its perfectly shaped cone. Unfortunately for us, while the view was still tremendous, Fuji-san was feeling a little shy, and the summit was wreathed in clouds. Though we did have a nice view of the sunlight glittering off of the far away ocean.

The next step in the course was one we were unable to take. There are "pirate ships" that take you around the lake, but we were there a little late in the day and things were starting to shut down. It is hard to imagine just why the closing time of the ropeway was an hour before sunset, but Japan is known for having some pretty early closing times. At least, to my western eyes. (Sometimes I want to go grocery shopping past 8pm.)

Though I have yet to mention the best part of the whole trip, our hotel. While there are many options for staying in Hakone, from the dirt cheap to the excessively luxurious, there is only one hotel that is historic enough to be mentioned on the guide map on the wall in the train. The Fujiya hotel was founded in 1891, and is the oldest western style hotel in Japan. Previous guests include the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Charlie Chaplin, The Emperor of Japan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. That is a pretty illustrious list. The hotel has grown remarkably over the years, and now covers a wide area with several eras of architecture represented.

Rooms in the oldest, most historical, and least luxurious part of the hotel are remarkably affordable, especially considering the country and the area. So we were thrilled to get a chance to stay there. The mix of Western and Japanese styles that typifies Meiji period architecture is fascinating and very beautiful. The interior of the main building is all old wood of a rich dark brown, something that you don't see much of in the modern Japan of bland, drab concrete. Like most resort areas in Japan, Hakone is an onsen town. Fujiya approached the onsen hotel role very differently from most. Rather than have a huge and gorgeously appointed public bath, they just piped onsen water to every room. Every room is its own private hot springs bath.

We didn't have dinner at the hotel, that was a bit beyond our budget, but our room came with breakfast included. Now, I love Japan. I really do. But I do not love Japanese notions of breakfast. Rice, miso soup, and grilled fish does not make for an appealing first meal for me. Neither does spaghetti and fried chicken. The weak coffee, terrible toast and a spot of jam that you sometimes find is almost insulting. Natto for breakfast moves from insulting to downright ludicrous.

All of that is to say that the breakfast buffet at Fujiya was amazing. It was the best that I have ever encountered anywhere in the country. We had freshly prepared omelets, bowls of fruit and yogurt, fresh good bread and rolls, bacon, sausage, eggs, cereal and plenty of good coffee to wash it all down with. I had to be very careful to not just shovel it all in my mouth as quickly as I could, and to try and savor this watershed.

So, properly fortified by breakfast, we headed downhill into the nearby town of Odawara, eager to add a new castle to my list.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sulfur and Snow

Gunma has the dubious luck to be a prefecture rich in volcanic activity. While in historic times this has tended more towards the cataclysmically dubious side, these days the forces deep under the area brings plenty of tourist dollars to the many, many thermal hot springs. My love of Japanese onsen has been pretty well documented, both here and by my friends. One even dubbed me the Onsen Otaku (an Otaku is a super obsessed fan of something.) In this aspect, living in Gunma has been great.

The resort town of Kusatsu is one of the more famous hot springs towns in Gunma, and in Japan. Its history stretches back centuries, and it is one of my favorite places in the whole country. I think a big part of my love comes from the combination of mountain scenery, great waters, and the eclectic feel of the town itself.

A couple of friends of mine had never been to the baths in Kusatsu before, and I decided that this was a situation that had to be rectified. We honestly could not have picked a better day. The chill temperatures and heavy snow fall were a perfect environment for enjoying a nice, hot, bath.

I have been to Kusatsu many times, but this time was my favorite. The steam rising off of the emerald blue waters of the massive outdoor bath and mingling with the fat windblown flakes was magical. There is just something so compelling about that strange conjuncture, of icy wind blowing in your frozen hair while the rest of you sits warm and relaxed in water that was heated and treated deep below the earth in the bowels of an active volcano.

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!