A Travellerspoint blog

January 2010

January Scrapbook

Killing Time, Botanic Garden and Snow Sports

Well, it's the Year of the Tiger - as you can see from this; one of several New Year's cards I got with super cute tigers on them!

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So to celebrate please listen to this as a cool soundtrack while you read this entry :-)

I've actually had e-mail complaints that I haven't blogged anything for a while!! Well, I'm sorry - but after blogging like a maniac over Christmas and New Year I finally caught up on all the back-log of things I had to blog and I was all up to date :-)

The downside of that is that now it's pretty cold and wet I'm not going out and doing as many things. So my blogging will slow down a bit over the winter months I guess; meanwhile I'll catch up on the backlog of movies I haven't watched yet (saw 'Avatar' and the amazing 'Where the wild things are' in the cinema recently) and also play a few games (currently going through 'Batman: Arkham Asylum'). I've also started taking regular lessons in Japanese language and calligraphy on week day evenings; finally, it took me a long time to find a teacher.

After new year I was back at work quite soon. However for the first three days of term the teachers were there, but the students were still on holiday (except for a few club activities). This meant that there really wasn't much to do. I prepared a few teaching aids, I studied Japanese, I started to design creatures that combined both the astrological sign and Chinese birth year of people I knew....

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Yes, I really had that little to do! Luckily, several other teachers were at similar loose ends so I asked them to teach me how to play 'Shogi'; which can be very oughly described as Japanese 'Chess'. Though having played it there are significant differences, most significantly it's very difficult to move pieces backwards, slow advance is better and any pieces you capture can be replayed anywhere on the board as part of your army!!

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Outside most days the weather was grey and cold now, with heavy wet snow falling and turning to mush around Imazu; though apparently not in other local places! So in the interests of getting out of the cold we decided a trip to the Botanic Gardens was in order.

Obviously in this weather the external parts were a bit colourless and bare -

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but we went to see the (warm) greenhouses - and it's nice and colourful inside them :-)

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It's actually a good sized garden so I think I'll be going back in a few times to see it in all seasons. One good thing about this weather is that I've finally had a chance to try my hand at snowboarding (which I wanted to try in Slovakia, but somehow never got around to doing). Well my first year students had 2-days of snowsports, so I asked if I could tag along and got permission to join for one day and got free gear and lessons all day :-)

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I have to say it's much easier to pick up than skiiing (which I did try in Slovakia, and would never try again!!!), and I did manage a few runs all the way down the slope without falling over (and several more with lots of falling over of course!). Haru was very happy about this as she really likes snowboarding and has been doing it for several years, so the following week I was at it again with Haru teaching me a few more techniques (like how to turn the board around, rather than just zigging and zagging on one side like I had done before).

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The little orange freak in the top right is the mascot of the ski slope; Hako-chan. It's kind of a bad pun, as the slope is on Mt.Hakodate and in Japanese Hako means 'box'; so an orange box with snow on it is their mascot! I'd really like to do more boarding this winter for sure, it is fun and a nice challenge.

After boarding we drove over to Kutsuki (a small place on top of another mountain in the woods) and visited the pool there to soak away the aches from my numerous falls. Luckily, I don't have any huge Yakuza tatoos as most pools in Japan won't let anybody in if they have visible tatoos.

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For some reason this particular Onsen also has an association with the Japanese Yokai called Tengu.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengu

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Having read about half of that Yokai book Haru bought for me now, I'm getting very interested in Yokai myths and legends and I really want to visit some places connected with with the various legends. Several temples display what are supposed to be Yokai remians which I'd love to go and see;

http://pinktentacle.com/2009/03/monster-mummies-of-japan/

but, again, that's in the long list of 'Things to do when the weather is better'. Still I do have a few things in mind for the winter; I want to go to see the Snow Monkeys in Nagano Ken.

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I'd like to go to Osaka again and see the tent city there; Osaka has the biggest homeless population in Japan (somewhere between 7'000 and 10'000 people); many living in one park and farming food with the aid of a 'Homeless people's association'.

And if I can find out the dates of their upcoming events I really, REALLY, want to go to one of the 'Tokyo Decadance' events - a couple of these people were involved in the Halloween party I went to in Osaka, but a real 'Tokyo Decadance' event blends performance art, music, Gothic horror, circus skills and burlesque into a tip-top A1 club night that actually looks like the kind of clubs you only ever see in Hollywood movies normally.

Still, it might be a couple of weeks before I blog again - but there are a few things to look forward to. Take care, meanwhile.

Posted by DKJM74 17:54 Comments (0)

New Year’s 2010

あけましておめでとうございます

I actually don’t have any photos from the 31st, which was even quieter than Christmas. Haru came around in the evening; we cooked and settled down with a movie. Now maybe it’s just that I’d been living in Slovakia for so many years, but I just expected certain things to be the same here; so I was really surprised by just how quiet everything was here…. total silence. As midnight got closer I kept expecting the fireworks to start, but there was nothing. Knowing my little alarm clock is a bit fast I turned on the PC to get the correct time and we counted down to Midnight and toasted with a glass of bubbly; but without the PC we’d never have know it was Midnight everything was so peaceful outside. Now in the bigger cities I’m sure it’s a bit nosier, but even in a small place like Imazu I expected something I guess. Still it was nice and I was happy to start the New Year in this way.

Anyway, the next morning (or the next three days) is actually more important in Japan. During this time people go to local shrines to pray for the coming year. So, on the first I took Haru to a shrine in Imazu.

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Offerings had been set up at the shrine and the stone guardians were wearing little snow helmets (I cleared the snow out of their eyes, poor little things!)

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The correct procedure is to stand in front of the shrine, throw a small coin into the collection box, clap your hands together three times then hold them in a prayer position at chest height and make your prayer. Short, sweet and simple; much better than having to sit in a big cold stone church for hours.

Haru’s usual habit is to visit Fushimi Jinja (The huge Inari Shrine just outside Kyoto) so the next day we met up in Kyoto and headed out there. This was a bit odd for me as it’s the first time since I arrived that I’ve really visited any of the places Nik and I visited during our holiday here in 2007. OK we stayed in Kyoto for two nights and I’ve been back and forth to Kyoto, but I hadn’t gone to any of the specific places we visited then; here we are back in the day ...

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I even managed to find the exact spot where we took a hilarious comedy perspective twisting shot of Nik, and here I am again almost 3 years later and with shorter hair!

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However the length of my hair wasn't the only significant difference between then and now. This is how the shrine looked when Nik and I went in April 2007.

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And this is how it looked at New Year 2010.

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Spot the difference – Yes, there are a few more people.

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It took about 30 mins to get to the front of the crowd, which was actually flowing very nicely and we moved forward quite quickly, we said our prayers (which is more like a birthday wish here it seems) and moved on. Haru told me I featured in her wishes, but I haven’t fallen down and broken my neck yet – so it can’t work that well can it! :-)

It’s also typical to buy a small talisman for good luck in the New Year from the shrine. These range from small phone charms and key chains, to stranger things like arrows with bells on them.

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Many things featured tigers as 2010 is the year of the Tiger (my year actually!). In the end, we both bought a small charm for each other, and we bought a bigger one that you have to write your wish on and leave tied to the shrine.

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Surprisingly, despite having been here several times, Haru had never walked the full mountain path behind the shrine (where Nik and I got terribly lost!). So this year we did it.

The mountain side is covered in an uncountable number of red gates (OK so I read somewhere it’s about 100’000 in total).

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There are also masses of small shrines and Shinto figures; mostly foxes, but there are plenty of other symbols, guardians and icons out there as well.

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My favourites though are still the foxes. When you first look at them they all look the same, but look closer and you find that many are quite unique and quirky.

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I think this old moss covered one was my fox of the day though, with the fountain fox being a close second.

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However, there was one thing that beat even the foxes – a real, albeit stuffed, Tanuki!!

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Tanuki are basically the Japanese Racoon-dog, but there is a rich tradition of folk lore about them as well. According to legend they are shape-shifting spirits that delight in playing pranks, often just to get food and alcohol. They love to drink and eat, so a ceramic Tanuki is a really common sight outside Japanese Pubs and Restaurants too. Actually, Shiga is famous for producing these ceramic Tanuki; Shigaraki (Shigaware). However, I haven't visited the place where they make them all... yet!!

The other very interesting feature about Tanuki is so well known even children sing about it.

たん たん たぬき
の きんたま は
かぜ も ないのに
ぶら ぶら。

Tan.. Tan.. Tanuki
no kintama wa
kaze mo nai no ni
bura bura.

(The Tanuki’s testicles swing-swing even when there is no wind.)

Take a look at these pictures, 1840's prints, that demonstrate the Tanuki’s remarkable testicular size and skill; not only huge, but versatile they can be used for fishing, scaring people or even as a temporary shelter.

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You can see the full set here -

http://pinktentacle.com/2009/06/all-purpose-tanuki-testicles-prints-by-kuniyoshi/

I was going to write a bit more about meeting Haru's family in Hirakata for the first time and what nice people they were, but I think that after all those Tanuki pictures, you're all going to be a little too distracted... so I'll leave it there for today! Just remember -

とらぬたぬきのかわざんよう!! Toranu Tanuki no kawa zanyou!!

Don't go counting the pelts of Tanuki's you haven't caught yet!

Posted by DKJM74 00:52 Comments (0)

Nagoya Port

I really enjoyed my last trip to Nagoya and wanted to go back and see friends there sooner, but I hadn’t had much contact with the Hanako and her friends since my last visit and I felt a bit guilty about just calling her and saying ‘Hi, I’m coming back!’. So, I was pleased when another friend in Nagoya, Tomo, asked me to visit.

I was very interested in seeing the Port area as it seemed full of interesting places, and despite having lived in Nagoya for many years Tomo had never been there either. So it was settled.

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The main attraction at the Port is the huge aquarium; I really wanted to see it, but I was a little worried that it would be very similar to the Kaiyukan in Osaka. Obviously there were some similarities, but I’m happy to say there were some significant differences as well that made it well worth the visit.

The first of the two buildings is really dedicated to two animals; white whales and dolphins. White whales are one of those creatures that just look so happy and gentle it’s a pleasure to watch them.

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I was fascinated by the powerful ripple of their abdominal muscles under the skin powering them forward, which you can see quite well in this video.

Dolphins are always a pleasure to watch as well, they are so naturally playful. Though it’s difficult to get a good photo of them the right way up, as they delight in shooting across the bottom of the pool upside down, curling up the glass and only going away from you right side up.

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Though we did get a better view of them during their show!

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I like the way you can follow them underwater on the big screen as well :-)

In the rest of the aquarium I tried to avoid taking too many pictures of things I’d taken photos of in the Kaiyukan and focus on the more unique things; so here are a few things that really impressed me.

Some wonderful tiny mudskippers and a huge school of ever shifting sardines.

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A giant octopus and a hyperactive sea cucumber.

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More jelly fish, a pig-nosed turtle and a lonely sea horse.

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Some very spiky urchins, a tiger eel and a pair of rock fish.

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OK the rock fish can have their own close up as they’re hard to see otherwise.

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However, perhaps the most interesting exhibition was one that didn’t even have much living in it; a collection of preserved deep sea fish. Pretty much impossible to take out of their high pressure environment alive, but they do get washed up dead sometimes after big storms or tsunami. Incredible things I’ve only ever seen in documentaries.

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They even had two examples of early diving suits; the one on the left is from about 400 years ago. It only allowed the user to dive as deep as the tube connected to the surface by a wooden float would stretch!! Fantastic devices, and as an added bonus they look like classic Scooby Doo ‘ghosts’.

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After leaving the aquarium we crossed the rather pretty rainbow bridge to the Antarctic Exploration Museum, which is housed on the actual boat used for the journeys (now decommissioned).

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I particularly liked the story of those two sleigh dogs, when weather conditions turned unexpectedly bad the exploration team was unable to get back to the station where these dogs were and had to return to Japan without them. However, when the following year’s expedition team arrived they found both dogs alive and waiting, having fended for themselves for a whole year in the Antarctic – yay! Brave pups.

These two things had taken most of the day to see and by now the sun was really going down. So what better way to finish the day than a visit to ‘THE ZOMBIE HOUSE’!!!

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Thanks to Gavin’s Christmas present I survived and got back to my accommodation; the same Ryokan I stayed in last time.

The next day was a much quieter day, as it was December 30th and pretty much everything was shut in anticipation for the end of year holidays. So Tomo showed me around the older parts of Nagoya (actually very close to my Ryokan), full of small back streets, little shrines and traditional buildings.

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These streets would look much nicer if it wasn’t for the mess of, frankly dangerous looking, power cables bundled overhead.

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My personal favourite spot on this tour was an recently abandoned live house or night club that had a great atmosphere – but I want to do a special report on called ‘The Haikyo and the Homeless’ soon so I’ll save that and all the stray cats we saw for later; but here’s one shot with Tomo outside that building.

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Thanks for showing me around, I had a good time!

Posted by DKJM74 02:41 Comments (1)

Miyajima Island

Beautiful!

A short train ride away from Hiroshima you can take a ferry from the port over to Miyajima Island; it’s a large island famous for oysters, its native deer that have free range over the whole island and a beautiful temple complex built to ‘sit’ on the high tide water in the bay. So after a night in Hiroshima this is where we headed off to the next day.

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It was a gorgeous clear day when we got on the ferry, and you could clearly see the oyster pots floating in the water and the mountain peaks of the island.

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As soon as you get off the boat there are deer strolling along the road, greeting visitors with a friendly ‘Oy! You, where’s the food!’ manner.

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As this photo proves if you don’t bring food in your jacket pockets, the jacket itself will do!

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But of course the deer can’t rely just on visitors for food and that are quite self sufficient too – here we can see them queuing to buy ice cream :-)

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Though there’s nothing stopping them, the deer seem to avoid the old covered market streets that line the route between the port and the temple. Most the shops are real tourist traps, but there’s still something nice about them, and as ever there are masses of places to eat (Japanese people love food!)

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Maybe they were afraid of getting spanked with the world’s biggest rice paddle??

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Who knows – but once you get through the market streets the photogenic little buggers are everywhere again.

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The temple is also located on this side of the market streets, its most notable feature being the huge gate built out in the bay. At high tide the lower part is submerged, but at low tide you can walk all the way out to it.

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When we arrived the tide was coming in, but you could still get quite close to the gate.

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This meant that the temple was high and dry as well, despite all the stilt like legs obviously intended to hold it above the high tide.

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The interior is the same typical red painted hallways and columns seen in so many temples here, but the spread out floor plan and openness of it gave it a nice fresh feeling that I really liked; and you have to love the honour system used to prevent people from entering via the exit without paying!

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As was clearly visible from the ferry, most of the island’s interior is pretty densely forested mountains; but traversing it is not too difficult thanks to a handy cable car line (or ropeway as the Japanese call it; ‘Wonderful scenery is seen by least.’ Indeed!)

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Going up the first stage we got a gondola to ourselves so we could really enjoy the view in comfort.

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The second stage used bigger gondolas and goes from one peak to another giving spectacular views over the Sea of Japan dotted with smaller islands.

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This final station is a great observation point, and for the end of December the weather was wonderful. I guess we were just that bit more south, closer to the sub-tropic regions further down the islands.

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From here it was possible to do one last stretch by walking a twisting path up to a final rocky peak. There was something so mysterious and reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, or level of a Tomb Raider game, about how a turn in the path would reveal just part of a structure in the trees ahead.

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At the top, after posing for some heroic pictures we took a well earned rest and just enjoyed the view.

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Soon it was time to head back down; another hike and two cable cars later we were back down to the temple. Only now the tide had come in, so we got to see the temple the way it was intended to be seen… floating :-)

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I can honestly say Miyajima is the most beautiful place I’ve visited in Japan yet. It was a great weekend with the history and sombreness of Hiroshima perfectly balanced with the beauty and vitality of Miyajima. It was also further proof that Haru and I can spend extended amounts of time together without getting frustrated and annoyed with each other; so hooray for that! I think both of us are looking forward to more trips like this in the future :-)

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Posted by DKJM74 01:14 Comments (4)

Christmas '09

with Boxing Day in Hiroshima

Christmas was a very low key affair not being such an important event in Japan. I had a small tree I had ‘liberated’ from the junk to be thrown away after the Bunkasai sale; but that was ok as there wasn’t much in the way of presents to go under it anyway.

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I’d had early gifts from my family before leaving for Japan and I didn’t expect any friends to send anything so far – except Gavin who surprised me by stepping up and sending me a heart warming / spine chilling gift. Thanks Gav :-)

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Obviously people think I need to be protected from supernatural beasties as Huru got me this surprisingly similarly themed book.

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Now I would have been more than happy with that book, but Haru really surprised me with a present so cool it needs a video to introduce it!!

Then we also exchanged Christmas traditions. Haru introduced me to Japanese style Christmas cakes.

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And I introduced her to ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ – best Christmas film ever!! So we had a nice little celebration on the 24th, because on the 25th Haru had to work; see told you Christmas not such a big thing here.

We did have more planned though and on the 26th we took the Shinkansen south-west down to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima is one of those unfortunate places that everybody knows because of its tragic history, it also makes it one of those places you feel compelled to see ‘lest we should forget’. The most famous feature and ‘symbol’ of Hiroshima is the A-bomb Dome that stands by the river; interestingly it's the design work of a Czech architect called Jan Letzel.

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The plaque can say better than I can what it is.

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The dome is actually a little way away from the very epicentre of the blast. Where that happened there is now a hospital, and just a small statue.

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The shadow around the base of the statue was burnt there by the blast.

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The peace park around the dome contains many other memorials to the day and its aftermath, but dome is always the main focus with park planned to always show it framed in new and unexpected ways.

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Another interesting memorial though is the one dedicated to Sadako Sasaki. I knew this little girls story well because of my previous involvement with CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). Sadako was a young girl who survived the initial attack, but later died of leukaemia due to her exposure to fallout from the bomb.

You can read her story: here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadako_Sasaki

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Her memorial is surrounded by display cases filled with paper cranes sent to Hiroshima from all around the world, many from school children who are learning about what happened there.

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Those last cranes are some of the ones folded by Sadako herself from her hospital bed, and they can be seen in the Peace Memorial Museum in the park.

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The collection is a mix of historical documentation leading up to the bombing, models of the city before and after the blast. Artifacts found in the aftermath and preserved, the most affecting of which for me were the watches and clocks; all stopped at 8.15. These things speak for themselves.

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Leaving the museum it’s good to be reminded that Hiroshima is now, once again, a living breathing city full of life. Even the trees blackened by the blast now put out new leaves in spring, and while it’s important not to forget some things, it’s also good not to think about them too hard.

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So, needing something a little lighter to finish the day, we were pleased to see that the town still had its Christmas illuminations in place; giving us a nice way to spend a wintery evening. Enjoy!

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Posted by DKJM74 03:58 Comments (4)

Manga Museum, Munchies and Makino

My School Trip and Hot Water

So here's my first entry of the new year - so I wish you all a great 2010.

Vsetko najlepsi v novy rok for my Slovak friends, and あけましておめでとうございます to my Japanese friends, and a Happy New year to everybody :-)

As ever I'm somewhat behind on my blog though so I'm still writing about December :-) This report is something I'm quite pleased about, it's the tale of how I came to organise my first mini, but sucessful, school event.

So, in December I was holding a 'Design an English Christmas Card' competition for the students. Of course this was totally optional, but I was pleased to see that I got quite a lot of nice cards made for me.

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The best thing about this though was that it also got me into some of the best conversations I've had with students outside the classroom yet. We chatted about Christmas and art and drawing; some of my third year students also told me about a Manga (Japanese comics) museum in Kyoto. It sounded interesting and both the students and I were interested in visiting it - but can't really socialise with the students.... without permission - so I asked Kyoto Sensei (The Vice Principle) if it would be OK to take the students to Kyoto. He said 'Yes' on the condition their parents approved it as well, so I asked my friend Muro Sensei to help me translate permission slips I wrote into Japanese and we gave them to the students. In the end only 3 students had both the parental permission and the cash to go - but it was enough to go ahead with it.

So on December 19th Muro Sensei and I took three 3rd year students to Kyoto by train.

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On the way we also met Peter, who teaches in Shinasahi, on his way to Osaka for Christmas shopping. Which was great as it gave the girls another chance to practice their English.

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Once we got to Kyoto the museum was pretty easy to find.

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I have to say that the Museum was not what I expected – I thought there would be exhibitions of art work and classic comics, but it was more like a big library with many, many volumes of Manga on book shelves for people to read. Photographs were not allowed in the museum – except for ONE place! (The 5 M's: Muro, Mitchell, Mika, Mai and Mayuka from left to right)

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The most interesting thing for me was the chance to see a ‘Kamishibai’ (かみしばい) show. Kamibashi is an old style of entertainment that basically consists of a hand operated slideshow of 'Manga' art telling an action story. The woman giving the show was very friendly and funny, and let us take a photo there as well – thank you!

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After we finished looking at the Museum it was time to go for lunch, but in the way to find a place to eat we saw a very nice small shrine. So we stopped there and had a look at that too - and Mika chased pidegons around :-) After that we had lunch in a cheap Japanese style fast food place.

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We still had a little time to look around the shops around Terramachi Dori, and the girls wanted to take some Pikura pictures; Pikura are special photo booths where you can take photos against a green screen and edit them with funky backgrounds and art work before printing them out. They're really popular here, anyway here are a couple of the results; I guess this is what out CD cover would look like if we ever release one :-)

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Well that was fun, but soon it was time to go back to Imazu. We took the subway to the train station, just in time for the train to Imazu and we sent the girls back home. Everybody had a good time and it all went very smoothly without any problems so I'm really happy about that, and on this base I think Kyoto Sensei will let me arrange some similar bigger trips in the future I hope; it was a big act of faith in me that he let me do this at all so I'm very thankful to him for that as well :-)

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Once we'd seen the girls off safely Muro Sensei and I went to visit his old university. As he only graduated about a year ago he still has many friends there, and that night several of them were playing music at a nice candle lit event on campus.

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Despite being bloody cold it was a really nice mellow atmosphere and very relaxing, and one of Muro's friends joined us for dinner - a wonderful English-Japanese hybrid meal that had me really laughing. Classic English Shepard's Pie, served with a side order of prawns .... ?? and eaten with Chopsticks ...... ????? :-) Well, it amused me!

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Then Muro and his friend left for Osaka and I stayed on in Kyoto to wait for Haru who was coming over for the weekend for an Onsen trip. So following a late night getting home from Kyoto, and an even later morning getting up, we finally headed out to Makino - which is the nearest place with a hot spa 'Onsen'. It was perfect timing too, fresh snow had just fallen but the skiers hadn't come yet so it wasn't so busy there.

So this was the beginning of my Christmas season; a wintery walk, a nice lunch and a soak in a hot tub surrounded by snow :-)

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Posted by DKJM74 22:09 Comments (0)

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