Month: November 2012

Catching up

I’m still here!

I know my Japan trip blogging stopped abruptly in Matsumoto, but all is well.  We actually survived the trip illness and drama free.  Hooray!  I’m back home in Portland now, back for about a week, and trying to catch up with life here.

As for my travel blogging, I will catch up and fill in the missing days.  I have tons of photos to go through and share, so that is to come.  It will be like revisiting the trip for me, too.  So why’d I stop so suddenly?  The long days of sightseeing (and kilometer upon kilometer of walking that we do when we’re there) plus spotty internet access pretty much curbed any enthusiasm I had for blogging.  I just wanted to enjoy the time and relax in the evenings when we finally made it home.

As I said, we’re back home.  Now that all of my adventures for the year are over, it’s time to find some sort of part-time employment.  Even with two degrees, I’m not overly-optimistic at the availability of good positions.  So, wish me luck as I embark on this next life adventure.

In the meantime, I’m doing some sewing.  My shopping trip to Fabric Town in Nippori was very successful, so I’m starting to work through that stash.  My camera (the S100 with the lens error issue) has been sent to Canon USA for repairs, so hopefully I’ll be getting it back soon.  If not, I’ll borrow hubby’s camera and take some shots of my current works in progress.  (They’ll probably be Finished Objects by the end of the day.)

More to come on this channel, so stay tuned!

J2K12: Culture Day in Matsumoto

Today (November 3rd) is a national holiday, Cuture Day.  That’s good for us as tourists, as it means that whatever town or city you’re in at the time, you’ll get to see some excellent special cultural events.

Today we headed back to Matsumoto Castle, as that was the center of the special events: naginata and kendo tournaments and more.  Along the way we discovered that many of the major downtown streets had been cordoned of for pedestrian traffic only, and vendors of wares and food had set up stalls all along the streets.  Thankfully the day was clear, albeit cold and somewhat windy, so it was a good day for the festivities.   (A sentiment we heard echoed in several of the opening remarks by city officials at the castle later.)

A great shutter chance as we made our way to the castle.  We don’t know what the sign means, or if it’s just a list of brands.  In any case, it was amusing.

Once we reached the main street leading to the castle, we came across a group carrying a portable shrine (and young participant) along the street.  Then we were able to enjoy a couple of different regional traditional dances by the ladies of the area.  (Some of whom even appeared to be enjoying themselves on this lovely morning.)

Then we spied this little guy, who was determined to figure out how this manhole thing worked.  Sadly for him, he didn’t succeed before his father dragged him off.

We arrived to find the castle all gussied up for the day, with daises set up for taiko and other formalities.

What the events were, we had no idea, but soon found out: a girls and boys display of traditional uniforms.  And, being very smart, the planners put the cute kids first to get our attention.  Chibiko ninja tai (kiddy ninja squad), assemble!!  One little guy decided to do his own thing, having not yet been beaten into conformity by the system.  A handler quickly herded him to the rest of the group.

And after the little guys came the rest: various volunteers and members of several high school baseball teams.  (How many baseball teams are there in the area??)  It was quite impressive to see the flags bearing the various crests waving in front of the castle.

The emcee of the festivities was very good at his job, enthusiastically yelling out commands and such.  After the event was over, I decided to ask for his photo.  He happily agreed, then asked if I wanted one together, then proceeded to grab a random stranger and ask her to take our photo.  Yay!!

We watched more taiko, then I decided to watch some of the middle school and junior high kendo tournaments that were happening on the grassy area nearby.  Some of the matches were over about as quickly as you could say kendo, but some lasted quite a while.  The blows that these kids inflicted and took were quite impressive.  The sound alone made me flinch.  Having seen kendo on TV before, it was so cool to be this close to matches and participants.  There were no boundaries, so sometimes the action strayed as close as you (or the judges) would let it.

And it wouldn’t be an autumn festival if there wasn’t a display of chrysanthemums somewhere.  It’s hard to describe just how large these can be here in Japan.  Bigger than my face, sometimes.  And each one absolutely perfect.  The very opposite of the wabi sabi appreciated elsewhere in Japanese art and culture.  Japan always keeps me on my toes in ways like this.  Just when I think I might understand, I realize I don’t.

And lastly, on the way home, passing the train yards at Matsumoto Station.



J2K12: Exploring Matsumoto

Yesterday after breakfast we headed out to explore Matsumoto a bit.  We meandered from the station towards Matsumoto Castle, with lots of detours along the way.

We came across the karakuri (clockwork) clock, shaped like the handmade wooden balls that the Matsumoto area is famous for.  We were just about at the hour, so we waited for about 10 minutes and watched the show.  The ball splits open and a set of girls in kimono dance to a traditional tune, then the ball closes momentarily and opens again to reveal a set of boys playing musical instruments to the ‘Morning’ suite from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

After this we wandered into an old shop area near the canal, called the frog shopping street.  At the entrance to this street was an amazing styrofoam sculpture created by art students in Tokyo and presented to the shopping street.

In the middle of the shopping street we came across a small little shrine, quiet in the morning sunshine.

We wandered the back streets in neighborhoods where tourists seldom pass, if the looks from the natives were anything to judge by.  You could almost hear the thoughts in their heads, “Why are they walking around here?  The castle’s over there.”  Eventually we did make our way to the castle, like the good tourists that we are.  At the side entrance we came across an impressive stone.  So impressive is it that it is named, Gemba.

Above this entrance gate is a nice little (free) display with film that shows how they rebuilt this gate and the structure above it, using traditional techniques.  Well, traditional techniques and modern lifting machinery.

We strolled over towards the 本丸 (main castle building) and came across a swan.  OCD swan, as we dubbed it.  In the 10 or so minutes that we watched it, it never stopped grooming itself.  And it would suddenly, and quite dramatically, do a backwards barrel roll in the water from time to time.  As we three stood, photographing and filming this swan, we laughed about the situation: standing in front of one of the most important cultural assets in Japan and we’re mesmerized by a swan.  OCD swan was OCD.

We soon got serious (well, sort of) and admired the castle, taking dozens of photos at slightly different angles.  The day was chilly, but clear, allowing for some lovely shots of the castle against blue sky and the alps in the distance.

And once the obligatory picture postcard shots have been taken, it’s time for fun with Chicken.

We like to maintain a nice balance of serious and silly on our trips.

It was laundry day, so we returned to the ryokan earlier than other days.  While waiting on the wash, we heard crows.  We opened the shutters to see crows.  Lots and lots of crows. The Birds, in Matsumoto.  We did not go outside to see if we could reenact scenes from the film.  If you’ve ever seen a Japanese crow, you’ll understand why.  They are big.  Really, really big.  Three things I don’t want to tangle with in Japan: yakuza, spiders, and crows.

Although, if I could somehow train the crows to eat some of the huge spiders…


J2K12: Nagano

We started our day at Matsumoto station’s bakery, noshing on yummy seasonal breads, like ones filled with kabocha paste.  Then we (by which I mean hubby) got us tickets on the express to Nagano, where we spent the day.

The closer we got to the city, the more apple orchards I saw, so I figured that good apples are a specialty around here.  We exited the station and almost immediately encountered a local seller.  We asked how long she would be there, as we didn’t want to spent the day carrying a bag of apples around.

The main tourist attraction in Nagano (other than the remaining evidence of the 1998 Winter Olympic games) is Zenkoji, a Buddhist temple.  It’s about a 1.7km walk from the station, so we took our time and enjoyed the sights along the way.  By which I mean we took photos of Engrish and amusing signs.

This is advertising Lotteria’s  (a Japanese burger chain) Super Fry-day.  

Zenkoji is quite impressive, and feels blessedly uncrowded compared to Sensoji in Asakusa.

Rilakkuma wish boards at Zenkoji.

After our attempts at spiritual enlightenment, we turned to more mundane matters: food.  Nagano is known (so the signs told us) for steamed buns filled with vegetables, called oyaki.  We found a friendly vendor and bought one each.  He pulled them fresh from the steamer, then invited us to sit inside and have some 麦茶 (barley tea) as well.  As hubby joked, they looked they were filled with weeds, but such tasty weeds!  A few stalls down I stopped for a giant grape soft ice cream; they grow and sell giant grapes here in this part of the country.  And, unlike in the US, they are delicious and taste like grapes.  I later bought a pack to take back with us; they were the “small” ones.  (I put a 100 yen coin, about the size of  US quarter, in the photo for size comparison purposes.)

Hubby and our friend got miso soft ice cream, which was actually not too bad.  It was sold out of a little miso store, where we all also got some miso 焼きおにぎり (grilled rice balls).  So tasty!!  (Yes, food again.  Regional specialties must be tried at every opportunity!)

On the way back to the station we stopped into an exhibition of Nizo Yamamoto’s art at the Kitano Culture Center.  It was only on through November 4th, so we lucked into it by chance.  Yamamoto did artwork for films such as Ghibli’s Laputa and Mononoke Hime, as well as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Sherlock Hound.  To see his artwork, including preparatory sketches and actual cells, was stunning.  As we entered, they had a large setting from Mononoke Hime in which they encouraged visitors to take photos.  A gentleman from the museum approached hubby and me and asked if we would like our photo taken.  We said yes and thanked him, in Japanese, of course.  He then asked if he could take a photo of us with his camera.  Sure, not a problem.  And would we mind if he put it up on their webpage?  No, not a problem.  He then, in true Japanese fashion, thanked us and told us to take our time and enjoy ourselves.

After three floors of cells and artwork, we made our way back down to the main floor to gather our things and leave.  This kind gentleman we had met before (and assumed was just another employee) came out of a little office with an A4 sized envelope.  He said that he had printed a copy of the photo for us.  We thanked him, and he handed us his 名詞 (business card).  He was the director of the museum!  Color us surprised.  Once again, the Japanese skills coming through to allow us better interaction with the people we meet.

We headed back to the station, where I picked up my Hello Kitty charm for the area, and we bought some apples from the lady at the station.  And had a nice chat with her and her husband.  Super cute couple; he was teasing her about her English, and she playfully slapped him on the shoulder and told him to stop it.

J2K12: To Matsumoto

Walking around Hakone in the morning before we headed to Matsumoto, I spied this little guy in a pile of trash.

Soon after this we came across a soba noodle shop and decided to eat lunch there.  Within 15 minutes, the place was packed with Japanese tourists.  It seems we had stumbled across a famous handmade soba shop, which had been in business for more than 400 years.  The noodles were amazing.

After lunch we headed to Hakone-Yumoto station to start the journey to Matsumoto.

One of the impressive bits about Japan is all of the types of trains that they have.  To get from Hakone to Matsumoto we took four different types: a local, a こだま Shinkansen, a limited express, and a rapid.  Although not necessarily in that order.

As Matsumoto is in the Japan Alps, not too far from Nagano (of winter Olympics fame), the train ride to get there is quite dramatic.  And very difficult to capture in photos when your view is directly into the sun.  There are lots of tunnels along the route; often the train would emerge to reveal a beautiful valley below.  The rice has been harvested recently, with some of the rice straw still drying in the fields.  Other fields were cleared, with only scorch marks to show where the rice straw had been burned off.  As we got closer to Matsumoto, I saw more grapevines and signs advertising miso.  (Yes, our trips are all about food.  We joke that seeing the sights is just a way to kill time between meals.)

We arrived safely and found our quirky little ryokan, a mix of traditional Japanese elements and ostentatious 1980’s faux-neo-classical.  The bottom half of our room is strictly Japanese: tatami, futon, low table, zabuton.  The ceiling is an entirely different matter: fake embossed tin ceiling (in white, thankfully) with a chandelier that someone could have stolen from a set of Miami Vice.  The unisex toilet room has a green marble tile floor which has yet to be set in permanently.  I think it’s being held in place by the fully Japanese toilet.  The ceiling is copper foil covered.  Oh, yeah.  It’s cheap, clean, close to the station, and the owners are extremely kind.  What’s a little quirky decor?

And Matsumoto turns out to be quite a bit cooler than Hakone, so I’m glad I packed a few colder weather clothes.  I was starting to question my packing in Hakone.

(And I’m also relieved to be back in a city without the huge, heart-stopping spiders hanging around everywhere.)