Tuesday, December 1, 2009

24 Hours in Osaka

I recently spent 24 hours in Osaka taking the GRE and wandering around the city. It was a surreal experience (ah, curse you scam of a test, GRE!), but I always enjoy a solo trip to an unknown place. (Above, a solo bus ride)
I was feeling rather gloomy after a night of sleeping in a bed right under the train line and truly failing the GRE, so I decided to wander around Osaka castle and its surrounding park. These bushes seemed like they should be in some Tim Burton creation.

The castle was surrounded by two moats with heavily fortified entrances guarded by flower arrangements!

Approaching the castle.

Bridge from castle to park to skyscrapers.

Moat! I love the idea of moats.

Castle walls made of amazing stones. Pondering the stones.

The castle. I have been disapointed so far in my visits to Japanese castles - the historian in me who grew up going to Plymouth Village and other historical reenactment towns always wants to see the inner workings of the castle along with people dressed as lords and servants. But most Japanese castles seem to have suffered seiges and bombing and have often very recently been repaired, so their insides were turned into museums full of miniature models of the castle you are in. I have yet to see a floor or even a room of a castle that is completely preserved as it was, but lots of funny videos.

The view from the top of the castle.

I guess iguanas like castles too? These people brought their iguanas to the front of the castle.

I was feeling really awful after my GRE failure, but after reading about the last seige of Osaka castle, where the lord and lady of the castle commited ritual suicide when they knew that they had lost, I couldn't help but brighten a little and think "Well, hey, at least I'll never marry a man whose status will force me to commit suicide in the face of defeat."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Goodbye October

The weather in Japan seems to be all about extremes. From May-September I was sweating when I woke in the morning, and then for a few weeks we had the most pleasant Fall weather, and then overnight it became frigid! The air has that biting chill to it that I remember all too well. When the evenings were warmer, Justin and I took a walk through his neighborhood, which is full of kitchen gardens and children at play.

I'm not sure if anyone here knows what "palatial" means...
The town that Justin lives in is called Kokubu and is about an hour north of Kagoshima city on the north side of the bay. It's a mediumish city that feels very agricultural - you can't miss the rice paddies and grandparents gardening. It's easy to forget that everyone at home who can has a lawn when in Japan everyone who has the extra space has a garden. Speaking to my home-owning, out-of-the-city-living coworkers, the idea of turning open space into a lawn (even when Japan gets a huge amount of rain) just sounds like a waste of space to them. Gardens aren't feasible in larger cities, but even in Kagoshima city my neighbors who have tiny slivers of land have turned them into patches of garden that change seasonally. They are all so right! Who needs a lawn when you can grow eggplant, chives, lotus and burdock root?! Driving through the countryside on a weekend you are bound to see ancient looking folk bent over their plots, perhaps pulling up a fresh carrot.

That said, I am now growing broccoli on my balcony!

The Kokubu rice fields.
Every year Japanese schools have a sports festival where all of the classes and clubs compete against each other and a "culture festival," which is more like game day/skit and song day. Different classes will turn their classrooms into haunted houses, game rooms, cafes (pictured above) or themed rooms vaguely connected to trying to have fun at school.
The waitresses at this classroom's cafe.
The school band played songs in the courtyard, my favorite was "Champs Elysees" in Japanese (it's a really popular song here!).
There are always unreal looking cute dogs around.
The sado (tea ceremony) club served us tea and sweets.
We fished things out of kiddie pools with chopsticks...
The courtyard of my school.

Justin has been perfecting soup-making. Since the cold front came in we have had garlic soup, French onion, and Japanese nabes (a kind of stew that you cook on the table and serve as indvidual items are cooked).
Riding in front of my house.

A recent festival in Kagoshima city.Onigiri are balls of rice that can be wrapped in sea weed, cabbage or meat and stuffed with pickles, fish, meat, or seaweed. They are basically a Japanese sandwich that can be eaten at any time of day. You can buy them anywhere and are such a good breakfast, lunch, snack! Also my friend Taelor and I decided that they were the perfect thing to be for Halloween!
We made these giant pillow onigiri, and with one in front and one in back, I was more comfortable and warm than I have evern been on Halloween. Japanese people LOVED it. Halloween hasn't been celebrated in Kagoshima for too long, so it is still in that stage where girls just wear cute animal ears and a cute dress, so they seemed really surprised to see us in these giant pillow costumes.

In downtown Kagoshima these fortune tellers sit in their kimono and for a pretty penny you can have your fortune told. The really popular ones usually have long lines at all times of day, but this 3am hopeful was in need of some business.
It's difficult to see, but behind the buildings there is a huge cloud of smoke that is coming from Mt. Sakurajima, our resident active volcano. Last month it erupted so loudly that I heard it in the kitchen and ran to look outside. It was pretty scary... I am not sure what the protocol is if the volcano erupts and lava comes across the bay at us...
Eating at our favorite organic restaurant. I am really in love with eating each piece of a meal in a separate dish.
A few leftover pictures from our hiking trip in Shikoku. The afternoon fog rolling in on top of the mountain.
Sitting in silence in front of our cabin.
Me, down by a river we ate lunch by.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shikoku Travels

Last month we took a road trip from Kagoshima to Shikoku (ignore the routes drawn on these maps). We drove from Kagoshima to a town near Oita and took the ferry to southern Shikoku. We hung out around southern Shikoku snorkeling and beach camping and then headed north along the coast until we hit Nasa, a beachy area with more surfers than I've seen since CA. From there we headed inland and over the mountains to Iya Valley, a winding river valley where the treeline ended right at steep river canyon cliffs.
One of the cool things about Shikoku is that is is home to the Henro Pilgrimage, which is a path that follows 88 temples in a loop around the island. People of all ages walk the path (it takes about a month and a half) in all conditions. The next time I have a month and a half free...
Taking the ferry from Kyushu to Shikoku.
Cars in a boat on the sea!

Our first night in Shikoku we set up the tent and swam out to an island in the bay where we were staying. There are enough small islands along coastal Japan to really awaken my childhood dreams of island survival skills and having an island all to myself...

This amazing 1960's futurist building happened to be around a cape from us. We were wondering what its deal was and I hoped that it led to a sea-floor viewing room at the bottom.

And it did!

An amazingly named pachinko parlour.
The rice fields ready to be harvested.
For quite a ways the highway followed the Henro Pilgrimage path and we could see the pilgrims in their uniforms walking alongside the road. We kept honking and cheering them on though I am not sure if you are supposed to do that for people on a spiritual journey.
I love how before people enter the sandy part of a beach, they take their shoes off in the same way as they would before entering a house.
Nasa beach surfers. We were there on a national holiday so it was packed!
For lack of surf board, Justin made a raft out of bamboo driftwood.
That didn't really hold up...
Wives of the surfers video them from the shores.
We headed inland, following a road that was barely big enough for our small car through mountain passes and villages that seemed like they were from another time. We would turn a corner and scare monkeys in the road and I started to get spooked by constantly being in dark forest.
We stopped along the road and cooked a riverside lunch of mabu-dofu, a sort of Chinese tofu dish.

We finally found ourselves in Iya Valley - a winding river valley that seemed like it was cut off from the rest of Japan where they grew their own buckwheat to make soba and once built bridge made out of vine to cross the steep river canyons.

Vine bridges!

The rivers were an incredible clear blue, but pretty frigid.
For the last few days of our trip we embarked on a mountaineering trip. With Lonely Planet's Hiking Guide to Japan as our main guide/map (never use this as your only map! What a shitty guide!), we managed to get ourselves thoroughly lost from morning til afternoon. Luckily our goal was the mountain ridge, so once we made it to the top we were able to followe the ridge to place where we planned to camp. However, hours of wading through steep hillside bamboo grass, and being bombarded by fierce monkey calling were demoralizing...

Our map made mention of a mountain "hut" near where we wanted to camp for the night, and we thought we'd check it out as there was a spring nearby. The "hut" turned out to be a deluxe cabin with loft and wood-burning stove that we had all to ourselves.
We heated a big pot of water over the stove with water from the spring and took showers outside.

After a day of uphill abuse, the fog rolled in and it felt so cozy and nice to be tucked away on top of a beautiful mountain range.
Mountain trail signpost.
Taking a gander in the fog.
Our hut.
The next morning we headed off again!

Houses along the river.
Narrow road.

On the way back to Kagoshima, we drove across a bridge from Shikoku, to Honshu, the main island of Japan and drove down through Hiroshima and back to Kyushu.

The bridge we crossed, like a great grey Golden Gate Bridge. Driving the eleven hours home, I marveled at how little the landscape changed - mountainous and foresty, with big cities coming up every half hour (because of all the mountains, driving on Japanese expressway most often means that you are spending a lot of time in tunnels). If I drove eleven hours in any direction from Ojai, the landscape would change really dramatically into high desert, or huge moutains, or redwood forest. I have really grown to love the Japanese mountains, bamboo forests and volcanoes.