A Travellerspoint blog

The Meiji Mura Museum

Inuyama Trip Day 2

For the second day of our Inuyama trip we hadn't planned anything special, so we decided to just pick up some local sightseeing leaflets and see what the options were.

One place that caught our eyes was the Meiji Mura (Meiji Era Village), a park out in the hills that had collected historical Meiji Era (1868-1912) buildings from all over Japan and reconstructed them in one park.

We didn't have any great expectations for this place, but it turned out to be a huge park with a very impressive collection that took all day to look at. This first vista that greeted us might give you some idea of this place.

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The building on the right, behind the pond, is an original Frank Lloyd Wright hotel and as tempting as that was to see, we stopped off at this smaller old photographer's store first.

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One thing we soon noticed was how open and hands on everything was here, you could pick things up and look at them, sit on the furniture (except for a few cases) and generally really interact with everything. I even got to try a neck brace that would hold you in place long enough for an old glass plate photo.

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One interesting point from this building was its connection with this guy.

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Major Theodore Von Lerch was, although the English notes refer to him as Austrian, actually born in Slovakia. So here's something for my Slovak friends to be proud of, this is the guy who actually introduced skiing to Japan.

Next up was the Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, or rather the lobby of the hotel - as that is all that's preserved here. The original Imperial hotel stood in Tokyo between 1923 and 1967 (the Meiji Mura Museum opened a year later in 1968).

I knew the Frank Lloyd's name and reputation but had never (knowingly) seen any of his works before. I have to admit it was impressive, and we both commented on how the complex decoration reminded us of ancient South American designs (I read later that Mexican designs influenced him, though he never admitted it).

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This biggest problem with blogging this place is that it is HUGE! Even though we arrived just after opening time, and were pretty much the last ones to leave, we still felt a bit rushed and had to skip a couple of buildings. So I'm not going to give too many details about each building, more of a brief over view.

In front of the hotel was a collection of 'justice' buildings, consisting of a court house and two jails from different periods.

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The last couple of shots there are from a Sake Brewery behind the jail.

Just down from the brewery was another significant piece from the collection, the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral (Kyoto, 1890).

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Opposite the Cathedral are the old Cabinet Library building from the Tokyo Imperial Palace and a grandiose bank foyer.

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It is certainly no mean feat that these buildings have been transported from all over Japan (and sometimes other countries) and been rebuilt here. It's even more remarkable that it all stemmed from one man's desire to save these building. Tanigughi Yoshiro was so disturbed to see the destruction of the Rokumeikan (which had become a symbol of Japan's Meiji era Westernisation) that he created a preservation foundation that resulted in the creation of the Meiji Mura Museum.

Tanigughi Yoshiro's co-founder and friend, Moto Tsuchikawa, was (vice- then) president of Meitetsu; a Nagoya based Railway Company. So it's no surprise that the museum also boasts a working steam railway, a couple of old rail bridges, a nice collection of industrial pieces and a train shed housing the Imperial carriages used by the Emperor.

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(These imperial trains were absolutely gorgeous inside, but with the light and reflections of the glass I couldn't get any worthwhile photos - sorry!)

Next up are a Kabuki theatre and another early Christian church. Though I was amused to note that the way the statue of Mary had been placed in a diamond crevice that she held more than a passing resemblance to some of the vaginal icons from the fertility shrine we'd seen the day before - maybe there had been a blending of Western and Eastern religious sentiments at work here.

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Followed by the Japan Red Cross Society Central Hospital (1890).

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One really nice service offered by the museum is the ability to send letters from this original Meiji post office, not just ordinary letters either. They have a special service you can use to time delay the delivery by ten years, so you can write to yourself in the future. This seemed like a wonderful idea so Haru and I took one sheet each and secretly wrote to each other. Both papers went into the same envelope, and, all being well, we should get them via her parents address in ten years time.... waiting, waiting, waiting....

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The next area was a collection of immigrant buildings made by western settlers. My personal favourite of these was a Dutch build house with beautiful wood grain doors.

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After a much needed lunch break we began exploring this street.

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The buildings here mostly consisted of shops and services such as a butcher's, or this small doctor's office which Haru really liked.

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And finally, about 6 hours after we'd arrived, we made it to the front gate... yes, somehow we'd come in the rear gate and gone through the whole park backwards, not that I think it makes much difference.

Near the entrance there was a nice middle school (where I got to school myself thanks to my camera's panorama mode).

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There was also another very grand residential building here, though exactly what it was I don't know, by now I was tired and not taking as much notice as before.

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Whoever had lived here had certainly had no shortage of money, the furniture was amazing, and again (with the exception of one chair that was almost popping its springs) you were free to sit on anything and pick up the plates, glasses, etc. It made it very easy to imagine yourself living there - welcome to our new apartment (I wish).

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Several rooms here also housed more typical museum collections, including historical watches, telephones and even traditional Japanese ceramic pillows (which are much more comfortable than I would ever have thought).

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With closing time fast approaching we still had one more small area to visit.

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That long single storey building in the bottom right might not look like much in comparison to some of the other buildings in the park, but it has an interesting history as famous Japanese writer Soseki Natsume used to live here. That's why the (fake) cat is slumbering in the doorway, in honour of his celebrated novel 'I am a cat'.

This wasn't the only building in the park connected with a famous writer, and although we saw it much earlier in the day I saved my personal favourite until last. Lafcadio Hearn's Shizuoka summer home, where I got to come face to face with the man himself (if I bent over, I never knew he was so short)!

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In the back room of this small unassuming shop Hearn had passed his summers penning the first western interpretations of Japanese traditional stories. His works are a treasury of insight into a long lost and magical Japan. Writing with an acute eye, his observations of everyday life make wonderful reading, but it's the folk tales he collected on his travels that I really love; they are Pandora’s boxes full of goblins, ghosts and other night terrors such as these.

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Here isn't the place to start a detailed account of Hearn or these stories. No, the place for that is in my haikyo and yokai focused blog, and Hearn's entry can be found by clicking here. So I'll finish off this epic entry with a double recommendation. First, pick up some Hearn from your local library and try it, the best spooky stories are in a book called 'Kwaidan'. Second, if by any chance you ever find yourself with a day to spare in the vicinity of Inuyama then check out the Meiji Mura, it's certainly worth it.

Posted by DKJM74 04:50 Comments (1)

Praise the Penis: Japanese Fertility Shrines

Inuyama Trip Day 1

Today I’m writing up the first part of a trip we took on the 13th and 14th of March, which means that this happened the day after the earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, hit Toufuku. I’m not going to write anything more about the disaster, I already addressed my feelings about it in earlier post, but this will put those comments into context as here you can see what inspired me to write what I did.

This trip to Inuyama had originally been planned as a three day trip from the 13th to the 15th. You see Inuyama is home to a pair of twinned, female and male, fertility shrines which have their respective festivals on those days. Unluckily, the 15th clashed with my school’s graduation ceremony, and I didn’t want to miss that, so we cut it to a two day trip and had to miss the male festival.

As we drove north on the 13th the road was full of emergency vehicles from all over Japan en route to assist with the disaster relief work, which was impressive, depressing and admirable all at the same time.

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We arrived near the shrine late in the morning and began looking around. About the first thing we saw was several small children in bright red festival clothes and white face paint. As we’d only just arrived I only snapped a few quick pictures, thinking I’d see more of them later on in the festival – but no, this had obviously been a morning event and the costumed kids soon vanished (or changed clothes)!

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The shrine itself was set on a hillside amid fresh blossoming plumb trees, which scented the fresh spring morning as we explored.

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Although the cherry blossoms are much more famous the plumb blossom bloom sooner and are just as beautiful.

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Nothing was really happening yet so we just took a wander around the shrine to check it out.

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I’ve long since learnt to always look at the small prayer boards tied up in the shrines as the image on them always tells you something about the place – in this case, a young woman with very pert breasts was the first hint of feminine fertility.

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The next was his small stone gate which, if the correct ceremony is observed (which basically seemed to be waving around a stick with some paper streamers on it and saying a short prayer), can grant a woman fertility if she crawls through it.

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The ‘challenges’ are quite popular at Japanese shrines and temples. I crawled through a similar sized hole in a temple pillar at Nara and in Kyoto’s Mizu Diera there are two stones that, if you can walk in a straight line between them with your eyes closed, will help you find love. Not quite sure I’d want my daughter going through a fertility passage at quite such a young age though, not because of the fertility implications, but rather because of the mass of middle aged Japanese photographers blatantly enjoying the chance to try and get photos of girl’s asses to the point of trying to encourage other girls to go through so they could get pictures.

There was more slightly pervy photographer action going on amid the plum trees. One girl in particular seemed to have become the focus of a ‘gang’ of snap happy guys. We later found out that there was a photo competition going on with prizes for the best photo of the day, and we think this girl was paid to pose for anybody in their competition photos.

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Poor lass, they really didn’t seem to have anticipated how much these guys would enjoy having the chance to pose a real model and she did look a bit creeped out. I found a far nicer model for my own spontaneous snap shot.

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Maybe I should have entered the competition.

It was around this time that we began to notice the massive ghost infestation around the shrine.

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Quite what the point of these sheet-over-the-head ghost outfits was, I’m not sure, but quite a few women were wearing them.

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With red beneath the cloth flaps and the small round faces sticking out of the top there was something distinctly vaginal about them that seemed to suit this shrine they were praying at. This was the actual fertility shrine, which housed a collection of natural vaginal effigies.

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I do like this sense of fertility, sex and sexuality being integrated into the very fabric of the religion instead of being marginalised and loaded with guilt associations as it is in some cultures.

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It was about time for the parade to start so we left the shrine, picked a nice shady spot a little down the road, and waited for them to come past.

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(The woman's face decoration at the back of that float was also distinctly 'feminine')

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Unluckily just as the line was about to reach us the police stopped them to let an ambulance pass down the road to the shrine, and as it was the only access road everybody had to wait until the ambulance came back so the road wasn’t blocked. This did give me a chance to snap a few pictures right in the line, and get up close and personal with a Tengu.

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As we weren’t going to be able to stick around for the second festival in two days time we decided we should at least drive over and check out the male shrine too.

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Quite an impressive phallic collection they had too, though the objects here were all carved (rather than natural) and some of the huge wooden ones must have been incredibly heavy.

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My favourite one by far though was the bell hanging over the entrance, simply because of the how well it suited English penis slang – bell end personified; ding dong!

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This was another one of those things that, despite seeming very Japanese to me, Haru had never seen before. I think I’ve introduce her to a whole new hidden Japan – movies, sub cultures and places that ARE Japan for foreigners, but are not so well known in their own country.

The last port of call for the day was a bit more classic Japanese culture – Inuyama castle, set on a hillside overlooking the river that forms the border between two prefectures.

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A nice close to a lovely day, and let me just remind you that all this was the day after the Tsunami. What were Japanese people doing? Staying in brooding over the news? No, they were going out, like us, enjoying their festivals and the beautiful spring weather. It was easy to forget what was going on in the north, until you closed your door on your hotel room and switched on the TV. Terrible things happened that day, but I prefer to remember it this way.

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Posted by DKJM74 19:30 Comments (0)

February Scrapbook 2011

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That is supposedly the mummified body of a Kappa (a Japanese water imp) which is kept in Zuiryūji temple in Osaka.

Being a big fan of all creatures great and small (real, crypto zoological and fantastic) I was really excited about the chance to see a 'real' monster mummy for myself... but despite being able to track down the temple and confirm that they have the mummy I was refused entry. It's not on public display and even mentioning it resulted in us being waved away. Very disappointing - but there are others and I will try again!

Anyway, finding myself in Osaka without a plan all of a sudden I began just snapping the local love hotels - until now I've only put pictures up from inside the hotel rooms, or from the smaller haikyo hotels (Like these 1, 2), but here you can see what big business these places really are. These are big, urban love hotels, densely packed together (as they usually are in a specific downtown area or near a highway exit). One of these places even had a discount for lesbian couples, how sweet.

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Even these are not the best examples I've seen, the best ones are often found by the highways where they need some really eye catching or quirky design to quickly grab your attention as you drive past. Forget castles and temples, love hotels and Pachinko parlours have by far the most imaginative and impressive architecture in Japan. Take this nice oddball example we saw on the way back from the naked man festival - a whale shaped love hotel!

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A few days later I found myself at a loose end again when I ended up staying over at Haru's flat while she was at work all day, so I decided to take a wander around and see what I could find. Of course in Japan you are never more than a stone's throw away from shrine or temple so I checked out a couple of the more interesting ones nearby.

The first place I went to caught my eye with this sign, basically it's a temple dedicated to a Goddess called Benzaiten, who protects all sentient beings with magical music - what a great concept!

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You can see Benzaiten working her mojo in the top right and bottom left corners below. Interestingly the instrument she is playing is called a Biwa, and it's where Lake Biwa (which I live beside) get's its name from due to its similar shape.

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(A biwa and Lake Biwa)

Next, heading off up a random hillside road, I came across this place - which seems to be dedicated to horses going by the statutes and carvings dotted around. There also seemed to be a strong military connection here as well, with a huge anchor on what seemed to be a navy monument.

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The link between these two things was in this small white building.

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Inside it housed a small one-up-one-down museum, with an honour box to pay when you go in (Yes, I paid) and no lights unless you find the switch yourself.

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The exhibits here seemed mostly connected with military history, in particular the navy and cavalry. I suspect that the officer, carved in wood along with his wife, was the main connection but who he was exactly is still a mystery to me; he certainly liked horses though.

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There was also a second small side building with a room full of Daruma Dolls. I've seen these dotted around all over Japan, but never such a huge concentrated collection. I'd always considered them as toys and never knew they had religious connections before, but apparently they are modelled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. All I knew was that you buy them with no eyes painted on them and then you have to draw them in yourself, doing so brings you luck (perhaps greater luck according to your artistic skill in providing they eyes).

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Anyway, by the time I finished up in these two places I was starving so I began looking for a place to eat and I stumbled across a really nice cafe - now I don't normally food blog, for me food is fuel and not much more, but this place was very nice. Very small too, just two tables in the corner of a country farm style shop, but the food was fantastic. Simple, all handmade and delicious - I hope they do well, but they deserve a better location!

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The next couple of weekends, either on Saturday when Haru was working or on Sunday together, we made the most of the cold weather and returning snow to get in some snowboarding. Despite having only gone a few times myself I offered to teach Andrew as well, so the three of us ended up on the Kutsuki slopes (longer and nicer than the ones in Imazu).

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I've certainly improved this year and think that I'll actually invest in my own gear next season, it's fun and living in a place with slopes all around I should make the most of it.

One other bit of oddness worth reporting from February is our visit to Maki's house.

I kind of know Maki as she worked as substitute English teacher in a local school and we spoke at a teachers' meeting once. I remember her being an unusual, adventurous and interesting individual who'd travelled across much of the world on motor bike, and spent a time crossing Mongolia on horseback following and sometimes staying with the nomadic horseman.

So it was quite nice to run into her again in the Shinasahi Waterbird Centre, which has a nice cafe with a lake view that Haru and I sometimes go to. We chatted briefly and Maki invited us to come visit her in her new house that she had built on a friend's farm land. Intrigued, we agreed and drove over after finishing lunch.

We headed up to the spot that she'd marked on the map for us, but we'd obviously got it wrong as all we could see was this plastic green house... but there is smoke coming from it! Yes, that's actually Maki's house and she lives there with her two horses - obviously her time staying in Mongolian yurts had a big influence on her.

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We stayed for a couple of hours and left feeling partly impressed with her choice to live in such an alternative way, and partly thinking that I'd still need a few more creature comforts - like a bathroom of some description, which I didn't see any evidence of. As long as it was warm enough though I could certainly live this way.

Well, that's it for February - let's march onto March which will feature a trip to Inuyama with fertility shrines, castles and Meji era architecture as well as my first time off Japan's main island (Honshu) for a trip to Shikoku.

Posted by DKJM74 17:41 Comments (0)

Naked Men and Brazillian Women

The naked man festival (Hakada Matsuri) in Okayama is the original and biggest of dozens of similar festivals around Japan.

Technically there is only one naked (and totally shaved) man at a naked man festival usually (and in Okayama none at all), but there are plenty of scantily clad ones in special loin cloths.

In many ways the Naked Man festival is the polar opposite of the fire walking festival. This is a big and well known festival, it's noisy, crowded with people from all over and somehow totally impersonal. You can't help but feel that it's only the naughty sounding name that's bringing in so many people, and (I guess) for some Japanese people the chance to cut loose a little as participants are encouraged to drink copious amounts of sake to psyche them up and proof them against the February chill.

We drove over from Shiga and arrived just in time to see the last few groups of men chanting and marching (or hopping in the case of one guy we saw who was missing half a leg; see bottom left below) to gather around the main temple.

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Once there they wait until the stroke of midnight when special good luck tokens (in the form of small wooden batons) are dropped from inside the temple onto the waiting throng below. What follows is probably a spectacular free for all as everybody fights to get these lucky charms. I say probably, because high screens are erected around three sides of the temple, meaning that unless you get one of the limited seats up front (which I guess you have to pay for) your only chance to see anything is a narrow angle view from the rear corners. Meaning this was all we got to see.

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However, here is an artist's impression of how the internal action must have looked - recreated with me and mural painted on the side of a local shop (guaranteed to possibly be approaching an approximation of quasi-factual accuracy probably).

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Unable to get any closer we drifted off to get something to eat and see what else was going on, this is obviously a very intense and very physical event and every year there are people who get the worst of the cold weather and the crushing throng. Just as we came past the ambulances I was surprised to recognise a fellow JET getting checked over by medics, CJ (from the other side of the lake) had had enough of being smashed around and wisely got out.

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We paused to check he was OK then moved on to the sound of rhythmic drums??

For some reason there was a group of Brazilian's trying their hardest to defy the cold weather and spread a little carnival cheer, it just seemed so oddly out of place. I went over to snap a couple of quick shots and got a flier thrust into my hand, suddenly it all made sense, they were promoting a Brazilian theme park somewhere around here.

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By the time we headed back to the temple it seemed like things were winding down, the last of the loin cloth clad figures were being encouraged to leave and the temple was opened up again for anybody to check out.

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For me the most interesting thing of the evening was seeing all the attendants and police officers line up to get appraised and dismissed by their officers at the end of the evening, I don't know why there was just something about it that was even more Japanese than the festival itself somehow.

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Considering how long the drive down had been I think that we were both a little disappointed with what we saw, but we'd decided to make a weekend of it so I pulled out the haikyo guide book and found an interesting looking site near by for exploration in the morning and then set about finding a hotel on Andrew's smart phone.

We found one near where we needed to be so I called and asked about a twin room, they said there was one so we drove over, only to find out when we got there it was a double bed not a twin at all. Still, too tired to care we took it anyway.... and I'm sorry to disappoint everybody, but nothing happened despite what Haru keeps suggesting now.

Next morning we drove over to the Rainbow Hotel haikyo, a massive 6 floor place with a sky view tower and a very impressive collection of graffiti artwork.
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We spent a few hours exploring and documenting that (a full report will be on the haikyo blog when I get to it), before turning our attention to the other side of the road where we could see a couple of roller coasters and other rides.

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Curious to find out what was there we headed over, and found out that by pure chance we chosen a haikyo next door to the Brazilian theme park the girls had been promoting at the festival the previous night. Pulling the flier out of my pocket I realised we had discount tickets as well, so we decided to check it out.

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The park was quite small, but it has a couple of nice roller coasters and being an off season early spring day there were no lines, so we got to jump on and off anything we wanted to ride - which meant I got to learn all about Andrew's habit of screaming on roller coasters; I say habit as it obviously is a conscious choice as this clip shows!
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Interestingly this is actually the very roller coaster that was used to set the world record for 'Longest continuous time spent on a rollercoaster'.

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It ended up being a fun morning and I got to try out a couple of new things -

1) Having a nap in a hammock.

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2) Finally getting to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Ross on Japanorama and ride a giant mechanical panda!!

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Now that has to be one of my proudest moments.

Posted by DKJM74 01:55 Comments (0)

Holy Firewalkers, Batman!

Firewalking at Sugahara-Jinja

OK It's time to resume normal service and get back to travel reports instead of disaster updates I think.

So after the ice of Mt. Rokko it's time for the fire of Sugahara-Jinja.

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I've been to quite a few festivals in Japan since I arrived, many are grand affairs that take place on public holidays or weekends and pull in huge crowds. This one by contrast took place on a Friday morning (meaning Andrew and I had to take a day off work to go) and was held at a small unassuming shrine on the east side of Lake Biwa.

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It was, however, probably the best festival experience I've had yet. The festival is essentially a spring rite of rebirth and purification, symbolised by a passage of fire. I've never tried fire walking before, and as it's important to start the New Year on the right (blackened) foot it seemed like a good thing to try.

We drove over early and put our names down on the list of walkers and then watched the preparations. All the priests were in full ceremonial gear and welcoming local officials who had come to participate. Soon the head priest went inside the shrine and intoned a ritual blessing chant, then the crowd were blessed with green branches and bells before a flaming bamboo torch was brought out and walked down to the waiting pyre.

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The pyre wasn't finished just yet though, inside it was a stack of Jenga style towers covered with green branches, outside though special boards had to be placed that had been covered in prayers and wishes for the coming year - this is what we'd be walking on.

Once this holy pyre was finished the bamboo torch was thrust deep inside and smoke began pouring out.

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The fire, like any big fire, was both impressive and quite hypnotic to watch.

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There was one moment of high drama when a hot flying ember got caught one of the overhanging trees and set it alight. The flame wasn't so big, but it was high up, hard to reach and spreading. It was time to call... a small doddery old man with an aluminium ladder and a low pressure garden hose....?? Hmmm, not so effective, and in the end they did have to get out a proper fire hose and douse the flame.

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Meanwhile, despite the fire hazard, the festival continued unabated. The first to walk on the embers is the head priest, followed by the town officials and then anybody else who has signed up. The priest was now preparing himself with prayer and by bathing with blessed water.

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The last step was to scatter salt and offerings on all four sides of the charcoals. The priest then showed the preparations to the shrine's icon (for approval I guess) and he crossed over.

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Then soon it was our turn to go as well. I handed the priest my official paper I'd been given when I signed up - he read off my name, indicated I should look and walk straight ahead then slapped me on the back so hard I had no choice but to start walking. It only takes a few seconds, and for some reason I focused on the paper in my hands - but it was like everything else just fell away, for a moment there was just me doing that. Then it was over, I was there with no damage, just a quite pleasant sensation of pins and needles tingling on the soles of my feet.

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One of the nicest things about this festival was the fact it was so small and friendly. The pictures above were taken by a total stranger who I entrusted with my camera (and he did a nice job). After we finished our walk, we got to ink up our feet and make footprints to keep as a memento. The Japanese people were amazed by the size of our feet and we became instant celebrities with lots of photographers wanting to take pictures of us with our certificates.

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We even got interviewed by a local TV station (in Japanese); though I think our responses might have been a little too incomprehensible to be usable. Lastly we got talking to a local man who'd been taking video all morning, it turned out he'd been travelling around a lot of Europe and had even visited Slovakia. He very kindly offered to send us a copy of the video on DVD for free, and true to his word it turned up in the post yesterday - I'm going to send him one of the Slovakia guide books I have here as a return gift.

All that remained was to clean our feet, say goodbye and enjoy the rest of a fine early spring morning complete with the first fresh plumb blossom blooming.

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Posted by DKJM74 16:55 Comments (0)

The Nuclear Situation: Recent Expert Opinions

No personal comments today. This time I'd just like to pass on something I got in my inbox this morning from the JET program prefectural advisors (PAs). They have been doing a good job of trying to provide up with up to date sources of information in English and keep us abreast of the situation as it unfolds. Today they addressed concerns over the situation with the nuclear powerplants here.

Several of my friends have also expressed, understandable, concerns about this. Thank you for the thoughts, prayers and kind messages you have variously sent me, it is appreciated! However, I get a strong feeling that much of the information in the mainstream media is (as ever) somewhat exaggerated to grab and hold public attention.

To somewhat balance that, here are some quite straight forward comments on the situation made by a panel of experts who recently met at the British Embassy in Tokyo. I though some of you might appreciate this more down to earth assessment of the situation.

So here are the comments as relayed by one attendee.

I have just returned
from a conference call held at the British Embassy in Tokyo. The call
was concerning the nuclear issue in Japan. The chief spokesman was Sir.
John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, and he
was joined by a number of qualified nuclear experts based in the UK.
Their assessment of the current situation in Japan is as follows:

In case of a 'reasonable worst case scenario' (defined as total
meltdown of one reactor with subsequent radioactive explosion) an
exclusion zone of 30 miles (50km) would be the maximum required to avoid
affecting peoples' health. Even in a worse situation (loss of two or
more reactors) it is unlikely that the damage would be significantly
more than that caused by the loss of a single reactor.

The current 20km exclusion zone is appropriate for the levels of
radiation/risk currently experienced, and if the pouring of sea water
can be maintained to cool the reactors, the likelihood of a major
incident should be avoided. A further large quake with tsunami could
lead to the suspension of the current cooling operations, leading to the
above scenario.

  • The bottom line is that these experts

do not see there being a possibility of a health problem for residents
in Tokyo. The radiation levels would need to be hundreds of times higher
than current to cause the possibility for health issues, and that, in
their opinion, is not going to happen (they were talking minimum levels
affecting pregnant women and children - for normal adults the levels
would need to be much higher still).

  • The experts do not consider the wind direction to be material. They say Tokyo is too far away to be materially affected.

If the pouring of water can be maintained the situation should be much
improved after ten days, as the reactors' cores cool down.

Information being provided by Japanese authorities is being
independently monitored by a number of organizations and is deemed to be
accurate, as far as measures of radioactivity levels are concerned.

This is a very different situation from Chernobyl, where the reactor
went into meltdown and the encasement, which exploded, was left to burn
for weeks without any control. Even with Chernobyl, an exclusion zone of
30 miles would have been adequate to protect human health. The problem
was that most people became sick from eating contaminated food, crops,
milk and water in the region for years afterward, as no attempt was made
to measure radioactivity levels in the food supply at that time or warn
people of the dangers. The secrecy over the Chernobyl explosion is in
contrast to the very public coverage of the Fukushima crisis.

The Head of the British School asked if the school should remain
closed. The answer was there is no need to close the school due to fears
of radiation. There may well be other reasons - structural damage or
possible new quakes - but the radiation fear is not supported by
scientific measures, even for children.

  • Regarding Iodine

supplementation, the experts said this was only necessary for those who
had inhaled quantities of radiation (those in the exclusion zone or
workers on the site) or through consumption of contaminated food/water
supplies. Long term consumption of iodine is, in any case, not healthy.

The discussion was surprisingly frank and to the point. The conclusion of
the experts is that the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, as
well as the subsequent aftershocks, was much more of an issue than the
fear of radiation sickness from the nuclear plants.

Posted by DKJM74 21:16 Comments (3)

Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Straight off I want to say that I was personally well away from the area(s) affected by the quakes and tsunami.

It is impossible however to continue to write a blog about my life in Japan without acknowledging the terrible events of the past few days.

I don't want to try and write an account of the events, which by now have been exhaustively covered on the news. What I would like to do though is to give a slightly different perspective, some things that you won't have seen on the disaster focused news - life going on.

I was at work on Friday when the quake struck and tsunami swept the coast several hundred miles away from where I live. Suddenly there was a buzz in the teacher’s room unlike any before, obviously everybody was talking Japanese but I could pick out enough to get an idea of what they were talking about - though I doubted I'd heard correctly. Soon the TV was on and the teachers were gathering around. We were watching, live, the images that must have soon been relayed around the world... but somehow it felt unreal. Maybe it was the language barrier or the fact that it was just so out of the blue, but I found myself literally asking my colleagues 'Is this real?'.

We all know that Japan is an earthquake prone zone, and once or twice I've been woken up by my apartment gently rolling - nobody takes any notice of quakes of that magnitude, so I had no idea if what I was seeing now was common or something in a different league - but everything just felt wrong. The more I watched, the more I registered the shock and surprise in my colleagues reactions, the more serious I realised it was. I learnt two new words that day 'osoroshii' (dreadful, terrible, frightful) and 'maji de' (an exclamation meaning 'Really - it can't be!'). Finally it dawned on me that it wasn't the language barrier, it was just the sheer incomprehensibility of what we were seeing.

I wanted to call Haru even though I knew she'd be safe, but my phone was at home. I left school as soon as I could and called or wrote to all of my family and friends to assure them I was ok, then went straight to Kyoto to be with Haru (where I live the trains were running normally).

We spent an exhausting evening watching the incoming news of missing people, more quakes and nuclear meltdowns. I do have a couple of favourable observations to make about the news coverage though.

Firstly, the actual tsunami coverage was done with a notable degree of compassion. Several times there was helicopter footage of cars trying to outrace a wall of water obviously faster than them, yet every time the camera moved away before the car was engulfed. Once I said out loud, 'God, there was nowhere for them to go!' and the only answer I got was a nod. What happened next was inevitable, and there was no need to show it.

Secondly, the death toll was never exaggerated or speculated to make horrific headlines. At all times only statistics which were believed to be verifiable were reported. I think we all expected the toll to be in the tens of thousands of lives, but until Sunday afternoon the numbers on screen here were only around 1000 as that was all that could be confirmed in the chaos. Once rescue workers got down into the devastated areas the figures leapt and the last I saw was around 15'000.

To be fair though not all the reportage was so good, as the flow of disaster news began to slow down it began to be replaced with in your face interviews with people in no state to talk to film. Putting a camera in the face of person who has just lost their lifelong home or their family (or both) should be against the law.

Friday night, faced with what was happening and what we could see on the TV, we had a tough choice to make; should we go ahead with our plans for a long weekend away or not? In the end we decided to still go away, and I'm glad we did.

On Saturday we drove over to Aichi Ken, sharing a long stretch of the road with a stream of emergency vehicles; relief was pouring in from all over Japan and heading north. I learnt several more new words during that drive; 'kyuukyuu-sha' (ambulance), 'kyuumei-shi' (paramedic), 'shoubou-sha' (fire engine) and 'shoubou-shi' (fireman).

On Sunday, as planned, we went to a festival in the small town of Inu-yama. We were out all day, enjoying the beautiful plumb blossom blooming on the trees in the grounds of the local temple. Everybody around us was smiling and laughing, there was a parade, festival food, children in costumes and life... so much life.

In the evening we went back to the hotel and turned on the TV again, more disaster, more death and destruction. Somehow it didn't tally with life outside... yes, something awful was happening and yes, it was very real and terrible... but it was not everything that was happening.

The TV is like a window, a small window on a wide world and like any window it offers a limited view of something much bigger and grander. Turning away from that view, going out, looking at the wider picture in no way diminishes or ignores what happened, but equally a disaster (no matter how great) cannot diminish the all encompassing totality of life either. We have a moral responsibility to acknowledge, think of and help those stricken at a time like this, but it does not help anybody to only see death and to forget life. Turning off the TV and going out was by far the best thing we could have done at that time.

Today, back at the school, it was the graduation ceremony for the third year students. After the opening address we were called on to observe a short silence for the victims of the tragedy. I've never really thought about this tradition of silence before, but today I did think about it... and it makes sense. Somehow a silence is the best way to acknowledge something like this.

What is a silence? An anomaly, something that disrupts the normal flow, a blister in the sounds that comes before and after it, but beyond its limits everywhere else there is still sound. As a silence is to sound, so is a disaster to life - an anomaly, a disruption, a raw and painful point in time - but all around it there is still life.

When you are watching the news, don't forget this. Don't think of Japan as a wasteland of destruction because that's what a little box is showing you right now, as I write this outside the window I can see my students running in the grounds, practicing baseball on the diamond and doing just the same as they always do.

Thank you for all your concern and kind message, but rest assured life is also an unstoppable force that will continue regardless.

Posted by DKJM74 01:01 Comments (6)

Choco and Rokko: Valentine's Day

Work, wedding planning and sickness has kept me from blogging much recently, but here's a nice, quick update from our Valentine's day date.

This year I got double the chocolates because Haru's mother decided to buy some for her 'son' as well, which was very nice of her.

So the pink box is from her and the cool kitty collection is from Haru.

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The fish was also from Haru's mother as a joke on me as Japanese people eat a lot of fish, but I don't really like it that much. They put it in the fridge and made out like it was actually real. When I finally decided I should eat it, as it's a gift from my (soon to be) mother-in-law, I soon found out it was actually a fake and full of chocolate covered nuts - which was nice though I did feel like I was eating fish poo.

I got Haru chocolates as well (of course), but I also planned a nice Valentine's day out for us.

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This is Mt.Rokko, just outside Kobe. It looks like a really nice place for a relaxing stroll around on a warm Summer afternoon... but it was very bloody freezing when we went. There was a reason for me taking Haru there though, and that was to see an exhibition of ice sculptures.

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This was the first time I'd ever seen ice sculptures. We had originally planned to travel up to Hokkaido for the huge snow sculpture festival there, but it just wasn't possible this year - so when I saw this advertised I though it's make a nice smaller substitute.

There were all kinds of sculptures from the esoteric fairies to traditional sumo wrestlers via aliens and dinosaurs.
(Fuller gallery below)

We got to see the one sculpture being carved with a chainsaw too which was impressive. We did a double trip around. Checking all the sculptures out when we arrived, taking a nice warm lunch break in the cafe, then doing a second round to see the sculptures all lit up once it got darker (the lights effects really made a difference as you can see with the dinosaurs below).

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Once it got dark it was really cold, but the night view over Kobe was pretty spectacular. Then it was time to get back on the funicular line and head down the mountain again... though confusingly the Japanese call these funicular lines 'cable cars' and what we call cable cars they call 'rope ways'. A point that became quite important recently as at our wedding we plan to ride a cable car to get to the wedding venue (an old farm house in the Deryshire dales), we'd talked about this a few time together and how we could do it logistically with Haru in a wedding dress - then when I finally showed Haru a picture of the cable car in question she said 'That's not a cable car, it's a rope way' and I realised we'd been talking at cross purposes a bit :-)

Anyway, here's a gallery of the ice sculptures.

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Posted by DKJM74 04:06 Comments (0)

Mii Dera

The winter seems to have been hard, but short, this year. February has bought some really nice spring like days with weather as nice as March or April, which means I've come out of hibernation a bit earlier this year and have had a couple of nice trips already.

I travelled to see several of the major temples in places like Kyoto and Nara, but for some reason I've never been to the biggest one in Shiga Ken (where I live). Mii Dera is one of the four biggest temple sites in Japan, I simply never got around checking it out, but with a free Sunday in hand Haru and I decided to rectify that and I have to say I'm glad we did. I turned out to one of the more interesting temple visits we've made.

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At first glance there isn't much to set it aside from any of the other big temples; there's an impressive wooden Sanmon (main gate), and a wide range of halls and shrines set in gardens around the site. All told there are more than forty buildings spread over a wide area.

I guess going in winter made a significant difference though; there was something quite Zen like about seeing a Buddhist temple surrounded by bare black trees and without the usual crowds you get at the major sites.

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The main reason for finally coming here was that I'd recently found out that Mii Dera was connected with a rather interesting old Japanese myth. The story of a monk who used to live here, called Raigo, who was transformed into a rat like demon called Tesso (The Iron Rat). I was hoping that there might be something here to elaborate on the story.

I immediately spotted a rather promising rat-like demon painted on one shrine, which housed a rather fine collection of bronze Buddhist figures, but there was nothing to say for certain it was anything to do with Tesso.

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Across the courtyard a statue caught my eye, a serene figure holding a baby. Under it, sheltering in little houses, were small wooden figures. Most temples sell unique little offerings to use when praying for something specific at a certain shrine, but I'd never seen any like these before.

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I'd heard of fertility shrines (and we're actually planning to visit a pair of male and female shrines in March) where women will sometimes make offerings of their post-menstruation underwear and pray to conceive. Given the baby motif I thought this might be something similar, but Haru explained that it was actually a place to pray for the forgiveness and happiness of lost children - mothers' of miscarried, still born and aborted babies made those offering and hopefully made their peace as well. It was a strangely sombre, but touching, thing to have visualised so clearly.

Still looking for traces of Tesso's tale (or tail) we went into the main shrine behind the statue, which had some incredible rotting (and quite possibly ancient) piece of art on its walls - maybe it was because of the statue outside and all it said of passing and mortality, but part of me really felt that this was how art was meant to be treated - perhaps the 'Sunflowers' and 'Mona Lisa' would be better off hung here and allowed to fade and pass. Klimt's kissers have been in that same clinch for so long, wouldn't it be better to let them finally grow old and die together?

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All these thoughts and reflections were fine, but I was still no closer to finding what I came for - so I decided to ask. Luckily I hit on a monk who, despite being surprised that I knew about the legend, was more than happy to tell the story of how Raigo was turned by starvation and rage into the ravenous demon Tesso.

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The story itself is quite long, but if you want to know the details click here. The short version is that Raigo used his new demon form to take revenge on the monks of Enriyaku-ji, a rival temple in Kyoto, who he blamed for frustrating his plans to build a monastery of his own. Along with his army of rats he ravaged the libraries and cellars of his enemies destroying many precious texts.

When the story was over, the monk pointed us in the direction of the only building in the temple where Raigo is remembered (which you can see below to the right of our story teller).

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It's a small unassuming building with nothing, but a bland wooden sign telling the basics of the story. It was a shame, but Haru was quite impressed with the story we got from the monk. She'd never heard of Raigo or Tesso before, and as always when I know about something Japanese that she doesn't she doubted I was right - but bless her, she always trusts me and comes along for the ride to check out whatever it is I'm currently chasing up!

Despite having found what we came for there was still a lot to see here and a couple more stories to uncover. The bell (top right, above) that Haru is looking at was also part of the rivalry between Mii-Dera and Enriyaku-ji. During one of the many battles between the two sects, a huge warrior monk, called Benkei, from Enriyaku-Ji stole the bell carrying it away on his back in an incredible feat of strength and endurance.

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Legend has it that once the bell was housed in Enriyaku-ji it began to toll a protest, and every chime sounded like an appeal to return home - “eeno eeno”, which means “I want to go back” in the Kansai dialect. Eventually, unable to take the constant noise, Benkei threw the bell back down the mountain to Mii-Dera. It still bears the cracks and scars of this adventure to this day.

The temple also has a Kannon-do (a hall dedicated to Kannon, The Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion). This is the 14th Kannon-do on a pilgrimage route through the Kansai region that takes in 33 Kannon-do in total, as such it is closed except on rare days when the pilgrims pass through - by pure chance this happened to be one of those days.

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This shrine, to put it into a bit of British history context, was built 6 years after the battle of Hastings - which makes it, well - pretty old! Surprisingly (or maybe not if you saw 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' and learnt the lesson there about religious objects not being all sparkly and bright) the rare icon of Kannon isn't the golden figure on the right, but the smaller black figure on the right. OK it was a rare and religiously significant object, but to be honest I was far more impressed with the peacocks and peahens in a pen behind the shrine.

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I have no idea why they are there.

By now we'd worked our way down to the Hondo (main building) and slipped off our shoes to go take a look around. A corridor running around the perimeter of the building housed another fine collection of Buddhist icons. I was happily surprised to find none of the usual 'No photography' signs and took my time, snapping several pictures as we went around. When we came out the other end of the corridor, we realised we'd entered from the wrong end and gone backwards - at the entrance was a big 'No photography' sign. Oh well, too late, another advantage of visiting a place like this in February when it's all empty.

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Actually the lack of people really did make a nice atmosphere, and perhaps my favourite photo of the day is this candid one of Haru looking reflective and quite small as she stands, on the wooden walks of the massive Hondo.

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What she's actually looking over to is the building housing the sacred spring on the right. Three of Japan's emperors were given their first ritual bath here, and Buddhist masters have used the waters here in a rite where they symbolically pass, or pour, their knowledge onto their students.

Here pure water gurgles up from deep underground in a very vocal way. Another Mii-Dera legend says that it's actually a dragon sleeping deep below that you can hear. A carving of the dragon hangs above the spring which is considered to be the work of Jingoro Hidari, a sculptor thought to have created many of Japan's most famous Edo period deity carvings.

In the past the dragon is reputed to have flown from the spring each night and wrecked havoc on the area, until Jingoro Hidari himself tamed the beast by driving iron spikes into its eyes. Since then the dragon hasn't caused any trouble and is now seen as a protector of the temple.

To add another twist to that story, although attributed with a considerable body of work and being linked with many stories (like the dragon taming episode) there isn't any historical proof that Jingoro Hidari actually existed - his whole life could just be another story to add to the already rich collection of tales linked to Mii-Dera.

Yes, Mii-Dera may look like the other temples at first glance - but dig a little deeper and there's a lot of really interesting folk law rooted here.

Posted by DKJM74 00:30 Comments (0)

A Japanese Western Wedding

Not mine... yet!

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From those pictures and the title you might be excused for thinking that Haru and I decided to get married, but this was actually her brother, Astushi, who was getting married to his fiancee, Hiromi.

The western element wasn't me, but their choice of wedding style. Unlike my friend Naomi (who had a traditional shinto wedding) Astushi and Hiromi decided to have a western style wedding.

On the surface this might seem just like a typical western wedding - the church location, the wedding suit and dress, even the minister presiding over the ceremony.

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However, there are some big differences. Firstly, this isn't a real church, it's a Japanese 'western style' wedding chapel. These places are built just to recreate the 'fantasy' of a western white wedding. Likewise, the chances of the minister being officially ordained are very slim, in reality he's probably no more a minister than I am. I actually read an article about foriegners in Japan taking wedding chapel work for extra cash and thought about looking into it for myself.

This is more Las Vagas than St. Paul's, and while that might seem a little strange to me this inauthenticity is probably lost on the Japanese clients. The imporant thing is that the couple are happy - and Astushi and Hiromi certainly seemed very happy.

One big adventage of this style of wedding is that the wedding venue and the reception venue are in the same building - just seperated by a flight of stairs (or an elevator if you're feeling lazy).

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Last time I'd only attanded the ceremony, so this was my first Japanese wedding reception. What really struck me was how planned out everything was. There was actually an MC who presided over events informing everybody what was going to happen next, and what was happening was a quite tightly coordinated series of set-pieces.

First we watched a movie made by Astushi and Hiromi (a retelling of them getting ready for the wedding made in stop motion with soft toys 'acting' their parts) which was nice, then there were parents speeches, and best friends speeches, then the cutting of the cake, with their parents by their sides, and they had to feed each other the first spoonful of cake (Hiromi shoving a huge lump into Astushi's mouth), then the couple left the room and we were all given candles (with our names on) and they came back, but in different clothes, and we all had to light the candles and then we had to blow them out again and yes, I know this is all one incredibly long sentence just divided up with commas and hyphens, but that's what the reception felt like, one long flowing carefully orchestrated sequence designed to carry you from one thing to the next. More than once I had a slightly confused 'What's happening now?' feeling and I must have had a bemused expression a lot of the time, but it was all quite entertaining.

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Some of their friends did a dance routine they'd prepared, we ate a lot, we watched a couple more short movies (including one right at the end that was a movie of the wedding we'd just attended which the cameraman must have edited together while we were watching all the other stuff - Haru tells me this is quite normal here)!

Despite my confusion it was good fun and I got to hear a bit of family gossip from Haru (though I think my presence was probably the biggest bit of gossip as it was the first time most of Haru's extended family had heard that she had a fiancee and I'm not even Japanese). Then with a final round of speeches and the couple giving gifts to their parents it was all over - no dodgy wedding DJ and drunken dancing I'm very happy to report.

I also discovered the difference between kimonos worn by single women an married women - as demonstrated by Harua and her mother here - the single woman's kimono has long sleeves and a more decorative obi (the sash knotted at the back of the kimono) whereas the married woman's has short sleeves and and a less decorative obi.; there you go this blog is educational as well.

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One more round of photos outside the reception hall - so this is me with my future wife and in-laws.

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After that it was back up to the lobby where I could finally get a nice picture of me and Haru together before she had to return the rented kinomo to the chapel. While she changed I checked out the rather racy selection of books on the shelves, then it was time to go home - where I got to enjoy the super cuteness of Haru cooking with full wedding hair sill in place :-) (Which still looked pretty awesome even after I later spent 30 minutes helping her remove all the hair pins holding it in place).

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To be honest I'm still not sure what to make of this Japanese-Western wedding style, it seemed like a show that had to be constantly guided (by the MC) because it wasn't quite natural for anybody there; as evident in the way the 'minister' had to tell everyody, in advance, that they should repeat the work 'Amen' after him. I'm sure that everybody left thinking they'd had a wonderful authentic western wedding experience, but in many ways it was more of a window into the Japanese perception of the west than anything else. I was happy to be invited, Haru's family have really accepted me I feel, and I wish Astushi and Hiromi a happy and loving future together.

Posted by DKJM74 20:16 Comments (0)

Satoyama Saturdays

Usually I blog everything in chronological order, but today is a bit of an exception. First, I'm going to rewind back to mid-November then jump forward to January to write up a couple of Saturday outings with the Satoyama-no-kai (a local nature appreciation group I joined).

So, on November 13th I was out in Makino with Andrew enjoying a bit of a relaxing woodland walk with the group (and getting surprised because I didn't know there were any sheep in Makino).

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However, the main purpose of this meet was to run a nature quiz for local kids, which meant that as we walked we also had regular stops for questions about the surrounding flora and fauna. These questions were asked by the Satoyama group members, and as I'm an official member that means I had to ask a question as well ... in Japanese (about the shape of the seed inside a berry). Luckily my Japanese has improved a lot over the last few months so the kids understood me and were all very interested to look at the seed (which was spiral shaped actually).

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As a hike it was very easy going, but it was fun and a good chance to practice my Japanese conversation skills. Also as it turned out that the walk ended quite near an old abandoned factory I'd recently discovered and it was the perfect chance to go back and take a few more photos of that.

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Recently exploring old buildings like these (haikyo as they're called in Japanese) has become quite a hobby of mine, so much so that I actually started a new blog to write reports about my haikyo trips and about some of my other interests that kind of compliment, but don't exactly fit in with this blog (the other main topic being Yoakai - beasties from Japanese folktales and legends).

The report about this factory can be found here

The next Satoyama group outing we attended was a couple of months later in January on the other side of the lake. By this time it was much colder and quite snowy, so I was glad that the main plan was to make campfires and cook on them. This meant that not only did I get to hack stuff up with an axe, and poke food skewered on bamboo into flames, but we also got to craft clay decorations and fire them in the hot ashes. I made an owl and a leaf (Happa).

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As for the food we got hot soup, fresh fire baked bread on a stick and roast edible acorns - which is something I never thought I'd eat. I seem to remember being told acorns are poisonous, but these were quite sweet.

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Just like last time, after leaving the Satoyama event we ended up checking out an old building that was falling apart - though this time it was a love hotel and it was in the middle of being demolished.

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From over the fields it looked like it was maybe under renovation, but the view from the other side told a different story.

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The front wall had been stripped away leaving the guest rooms gaping open, whilst some of the back rooms and offices were still totally intact.

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To see more of my haikyo photos and articles click here.

To find out more about Yokai and Japanese myths click here .

To see a Japanese-Western style wedding - wait, that's what I'll be blogging here next as I attended Haru's brother's wedding in Kyoto last week. See you then.

Posted by DKJM74 06:37 Comments (0)

Christmas and New Year

I think Haru is having an affair - I even secretly caught her on video dancing with another man!

Oh - well I guess I only have myself to blame for introducing them at Christmas.

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Well, I don't mind - I got two nice new books to read anyway.

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Kwidan by Hearn (which is a collection of Japanese folk stories which he beautifully translated in the early 1900s), and Ninja Attack (which gives you the facts about real ninjas, and details places connected with their lives - several of which are near where I live)! I got a few other nice presents as well (special thanks to Gavin for the great Batman DVDs), but generally it was a nice, quiet and domestic Christmas - I even managed to figure out the logistics and cook a pretty good English Christmas dinner this year.

For New Year we headed over to Hirakata and stayed with Haru's parents overnight. One thing that amazes me about New Year here is how quiet it is, after all the fireworks in Slovakia it is just so QUIET. Yes, they do celebrate at midnight, but for Japanese people it's New Year's day that's really important. It's traditional to eat specially prepared lunch boxes called O-sechi on New Year's day, almost everything in the box has some symbolic meaning connected with health, wealth or happiness; for example, bamboo shoots represent the path of success as bamboo grows straight and true.

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Knowing I'm not actually very keen on Japanese food Haru's mother kindly bought one O-sechi with Chinese dishes which I like more, which was very nice of her.

After lunch we hopped on the train, and climbed a big hill, to go to a local temple where everybody goes to see in the New Year (and enjoy the market stalls). One notable feature of this temple was the two huge bamboo poles attached to the main entrance and fletched to look like massive arrows embedded into the ground.

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We slowly moved up with the crowd until we finally reached the front where we could throw in our loose change, clap our hands and make a wish for the coming year.

All around people were buying lucky charms, or fortune papers (which we did too - actually getting the same one as well). The arrow was a popular charm to buy here and many people were queueing to get theirs blessed.

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The men kneeling at the front here were collecting the arrow charms from visitors and placing them in a stand - then two girls danced a short ritual dance which ended with them shaking a small tree of bells over the crowd and blessing them; I guess the blessed arrows were then returned to the owners, but I never actually noticed that happening.

By then it was already getting dark, we made our way back down the hill, checked out the market stalls and headed back home.

A couple of days later the, already cold, weather finally broke and it snowed - making cycling to school hell (too far to walk and no bus = no choice). The snow ploughs were out clearing the roads, but anywhere off the main paths was deep snow - but on the plus side this does mean I could have another go at snowboarding :-)

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That's all for today - despite basically hibernating and not doing much in the winter I am getting out a bit, so next time some winter fun with the satoyama group.

Posted by DKJM74 05:15 Comments (0)

Tennoji Zoo and 'Deep' Osaka

A week later than originally planned (due to an over-sleeping incident the week before) we finally got to go to Osaka zoo.

Built a stone's throw away from Osaka Tower (which stands as a back drop to many view in the zoo) it's a typical innercity zoo with all the good and bad that entails. It actually shares an entrance with an art gallery and gardens complex that has the same name - Tennoji Park/Zoo. Some day in the spring I'll probably go back to check out the gardens, but this time we just focused on the zoo.

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Some areas are old and look it (check out the retro candy floss machines). Likewise, some cages and enclosures could do with some expansion and a redesign, but in other areas they've done a good job of making nice environments within a limited space. We decided to cover the right hand side first - whichmeant monkeys, apes, asian elephants, koalas, bears and a big aviary.

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Some of the grey cages (top right above) certainly seem outdated, and, as in many zoos, it seemed to be the apes and bears that got some of the least inspiring environments. Things can change though, I remember the old bear cage in Kosice zoo (Slovakia) when I first moved there, which was small and depressing to say the least - but in recent years the bears there have been moved into a large natural open area, with many trees and a stream, which is incomparable to what they used to have. I do believe that most zoos strive to make improvements when possible.

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The polar bear, however, seemed to be loving the fresh cool weather and was in very high spirits - I've never seen an adult bear acting so playfully. He had a range of plastic tubes and balls that he was pulling underwater then releasing so they would rush up and burst out of the water. He then spent several minutes trying to carry everything out of the water (dropping and retrieving thing several times), so he could put a tube on one of the balls, and ride it with his front paws like a balance board.

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I also liked the rather amazing architecture of the aviary.

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I have to admit I actually liked the building more than the birds it housed - most of which seemed to be Japanese species that I often see outside around the lake anyway. I did like the dramatic sillouettes of the storks nests in the in the dome against the grey sky.

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There were other birds outside the main aviary as well, including a lot of local 'non-exhibit' birds hanging around trying to steal pieces of fish that visitors were throwing to the sealions.

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Our next stops were the elephant house (which I didn't photograph as I took a lot of elephant photos in Bali) and the koala house (where photography was prohibited). Both were pretty good, the elephants had a large, interesting outdoor paddock beside their house, and the koala house was the biggest I've seen.

The zoo offers a good Japanese and English PDF about the Asian Rainforest exhibit (where the elephants are), full of information and nice picture, that's free to download - http://www.tenzoo.jp/pdf/asian.pdf

There were also interesting, but unremarkable (nothing I hadn't seen before), nocturnal and reptile houses.

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After some lunch we headed over to the left hand side to check out the animals in the paddocks, a lively wolf pack and the well thought out African wild life area. Again I skipped taking pictures of animals that I'd recently taken nice photos of elsewhere - like the rhinos in Wakayama. I really liked the wolves and big cats here though.

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By then it was near closing time so we left the zoo, and Haru gave me a quick tour of 'deep' Osaka. The only real landmark here is the not-so-impressive Osaka tower. The narrow streets below the tower are mostly packed with small resturants, including many places serving fugu fish; the one that has a poisonous gland that can kill if the fish is incorrectly prepared, and correctly prepared means with just enough poison left in to make you lips pleasently numb when eating it... no, I didn't try it!

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The golden figure on he top left (above) is Billiken. While he might look like some ancient buddist icon he was in fact created by an American art teacher in the very early 1900s, and his likeness was sold as a charm doll bringing luck. Bizarrely Billiken caught on in Japan and was even enshrined in some places. In deep Osaka Billiken serves a double function as a symbol of Americana and as "The God of Things As They Ought to Be".

This was all very interesting but I still wasn't sure exactly what deep Osaka meant. According to Haru's definition deep Osaka is the area where most of the people you see actaully live in Osaka - the area that outsiders don't have much reason to visit as it's away from the cool shops and tourist spots. This means it also has more than a few discreet seedy spots, Haru (knowing what a pervert I am) lead me down a couple of side streets to show off a couple of still-in-business porn cinemas - one of which oddly shares a building with a kabuki theatre.

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You might think that there isn't really a place for porn cinemas in this world of home cinema and internet - but the guy in the top middle picture (above) bought a ticket and went in while we watched - and I was delighted to see there were also 'couples seats' available! How romantic.

Just across the street, there are also the semi demolished remains of 'Festival Gate'. An indoor entertainment and shopping centre that went bankrupt and closed down a while ago - though 'Spa World', which is kind of part of the same complex, is still in business. The sight of the Festival Gate rollercoaster track cut off in mid air got me excited about the possibility of exploring a great urban haikyo - but the whole place is tightly sealed off and nobody is getting inside.

It was getting late now so we stopped off to get something to eat, and by the time we came out onto the streets again it was a different, brightly lit, world of glowing fugu fish we stepped into.

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Sure, it's basically a run down urban nest of little streets, but all lit up there's something there that at least the likes of Jean Genet would find beautiful - to paraphrase Jeff Noon, sometimes 'in Osaka town, even our fugu flicker like jewels'.

Posted by DKJM74 23:38 Comments (0)

Festive Fun 2010

Christmas Hols around Osaka and ...

Happy New Year everybody! The weather finally broke about a week ago and it started to snow, as I write the playing fields outside the school are burried under two days worth of, almost constant, snow. It looks very pretty, but it makes the cycle to work tough :-(

Anyway, Christmas has come and gone, and this year we stayed fairly local (unlike last year when we went to Hiroshima and Miyajima) - mostly this was about saving money and holiday days for plans later in the year, but we also wanted to see a few local things. I'd heard nice things about the German Christmas market in Osaka, so we dicided to head over and make a day trip of it... well, I say day trip, but we seem incapable of getting out of bed before 11 O'clock when we don't have to work so it wasn't really a full day.

When we did get to Osaka we headed down to the port area (where the Kaiyukan aquarium is), it was still too early for the illuminations so we decided to ride the huge port side ferris wheel which gives a nice panoramic view of the area.

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One of the buildings we could see was the Suntory Museum (more of a gallery and exhibition centre) so that was our next stop - where we ended up watching an IMAX 3D movie about the underwater kelp forests of Calafornia - which was very nice, if not very festive.

By the time we came out of the cinema the aquarium's illuminations were all lit up and looking very nice.

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It seemed like now was a good time to head over to the Christmas market, which was in the grounds of the Sky Building; which means we ended up mirroring one of our first dates in December last year when we went in the Kaiyukan and up Sky Building.

The market was smaller than I expected, but it did actually have quite of lot of traditional European Christmas snacks, drinks and decorations - from the giant Christmas tree to soildier style nutcrackers - and a ridiculously cute pug in reindeer costume.

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As ever Haru was more interested in the food and drink - in particular the mulled (warm spiced) red wine - which was expensive, but you got to keep the Christmas Stocking shaped glass it came in; bargain.

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Of course there were some very Japanese twists to it all as well - like the seemingly obligatory cute costumed girl group singing a Christmas songs. At first we felt sorry for the one who had to wear the not-so-sexy reindeer costume, but looking back she was probably the only one who was warm.

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Western boy/girl bands typically have about 5 members which is enough to cover most of the 'types'. Japanese boy bands are similar (as you can see from this 4 man combo that was on after the girls); some popular groups include SMAP, Greeen, Arashi and Exile (I don't listen to them but I know about them). The girl bands however are often HUGE, with 20 to 40 members; AKB48 is probably the best known of these; there are many others as well, including at least two imitators with the number 48 in their name!!

So we'd looked around, eaten, drunk and I'd perv'd a bit - it was time to go home. The plan was to get up early next morning and head back into Osaka to check out the zoo and an area Haru calls 'deep Osaka' ... remember what I said about getting up when we don't have to work?

Well, when we finally got up, we both agreed it was too late for a zoo trip.

A while ago when were heading out on one of our road trips I saw a sign for 'The insect museum' on route, since then whenever we've been without a plan I've always said 'Let's go to the Insect Museum' - well this time Haru finally agreed; yeah! So we got in the car and drove over to 'Itami City Musuem of Insects', and although going there had always been a bit of a joke I was glad we finally went in the end. The museum was building in a nice big park and turned out to be pretty interesting.

It had lots of bugs - pinned, living and edible! (Actually I've tried that once myself so I can't comment).

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It also had bugs that look like faces, and places for faces that look like bugs.

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and we got to meet a huge Santa Wasp - who hasn't had that fantasy??

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but, best of all, it also had a very nice big glasshouse full of butterflies (with another nice Christmas touch - a christmas tree decorated with bright shiney cocoons).

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Most of the butterflies were species native to the Southern most territories of Japan (the Nansei islands which include Kagoshima and Okinawa). I was particuarly impressed with one species that had amazing I'm-a-dead-leaf camouflage when it's wings were closed, but was red and black when it displayed.

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Now I know a lot of you know I'm pretty keen on bugs and creepy crawlies, some people say I'm a little too keen and that I might just 'bug out' one day, like this -

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but don't worry, I found the perfect product in help you keep it together in the museum rest rooms.

Introducing -

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'Sanity - for toilet' no more going insane in public conveniences for me. Hurrah!!

Posted by DKJM74 01:31 Comments (0)

Koka: Home of Tanuki and Ninja

In the south-east of Shiga Ken there's a large area away from the lake side (that I often forget about) , the largest part of this area is Koka city.

Koka is a another one of those 'cities' (like Takashima where I live) that was formed by combining several local towns; this means that it's a mostly rural place that looks nothing like a city. Wikipedia puts the population density at 195 humans per km², which gives you an idea of what kind of place this really is.

Koka does have a couple of interesting points though; firstly, it's rich in natural clay which has lead the area becoming famous for local pottery called Shigaraki ware, and secondly, it has a historical connections with the Koga Ninja clan. That was enough to get me interested so we decided to head over to Koka for a daytrip.

O.K. If I'm really honest what really got my interest is that by far the most popular thing made by the shigaraki potters is tanuki (Japanese racoon dog) figurines - like these.

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Tanuki folklaw has interested and amused me for a while now, I actually wrote a couple of articles about them on my other blog recently (so if you want to know more about them, you can check those articles here and here). For now let's just say they are a kind of mischevious, shape shifting, happy-go lucky animal spirit that's well known in Japanese culture. So the chance to see the place that probably created most of the tanuki I've seen around here was kind of exciting - and I wasn't disappointed, there was a host of tanuki on display including giant, sumo and Ninja variations. There were even something like bizzare tanuki totems.

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Of course ceramic tanuki are generally good natured and friendly, but you should remember that they are still essentially wild pottery, so make sure you have all your injections before messing with them in case one bites you!

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In Shigaraki we also met up with Connie and Jessica, who had been persuaded (by my enthusing and the chance to hang out with Haru) to come along for the day. Once we were all in the car we set out for our next stop, the Ninja village; a kind of theme park where you can try authentic ninja skills apparently. We had it bookmarked in the GPS and set off down more country road; the park itself is actually quite ninja-like and even though you know it's getting close you can't see any sign of it - until what might be a small car park opens off the side of the road...

Let's just say the Ninja village has seen better times, and what is left now will probably be a abandoned (and a great haikyo) in a few years time. There is a small gift shop, a cafe and a trick house with trap doors and hidden passages.

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There was also a one room museum (that we couldn't be bothered to take our shoes off to enter and look around) and lastly a pond and small climbing wall to practice your ninja skills on (or not as the case may be; we saw one boy fall in the cold water). That's about it. Luckily we went on a nice November day and we saw some of the nicest Momiji (red maple leaves) that I've seen since I came to Japan.

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It was all very pretty, and it was funny seeing people wander around in brightly coloured ninja costumes.

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The only really fun thing there was the shuriken throwing range, and you had to pay extra for that! Still I managed to get a few of my lethal ninja stars to stick into the deadly paper targets thus stopping them from taking over the world (you can thank me later)!

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(Thanks to Connie for the pictures).

On the way out of the park I spotted a pair of stuffed Tanuki in the window of the shop and decided to get a couple of photos to feed my Tanuki obsession. The girls went back to the car and I went inside, where I got into an odd conversation (because it was all in Japanese and that's very tough for me) with a woman who invited me to join a Ninja training class. I said I had friends waiting and didn't have time, so she insisted that I at least pose with a katana while she took my picture - after which she gave me a certificate declaring me to be an official and fully trained Koga Ninja.

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So the Ninja clans of old may have long since been dissolved, and their drink dispensing machines may no longer work ...

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... but their legacy, the true Ninja spirit, lives on in me.

The girls said that the certificate didn't actually have any value and was just for kids... but my Ninja senses told me they were only saying that because they were jealous.

Posted by DKJM74 22:55 Comments (0)

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