A Travellerspoint blog

February 2010

Sen to Chihiro no Onsen?

Feat. xXx Rated Nudity

That's a trailer for 'Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi' ('Spirited Away') one of many wonderful films by Hayao Miyazaki
(My personal favorite is 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' - I'll put a trailer for that at the end of this entry!) Anyway the reason I post this clip is that the Ryokan we stayed in after the Snow Monkey trip has a pool that they claim was one of the ones that inspired the design of the spirit world onsen resort in 'Spirited Away'

I'm not sure if that also means that they had a six armed guy working in the boiler room served by living motes of soot ... I hope so!

Anyway, onsen are a popular means of relaxation for most Japanese people and many traditional Ryokan are built around good natural springs and they are the perfect places to go to have a really Japanese experience. This, of course, includes a big Japanese style meal in the evening.

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To be honest I don't know what half the stuff I ate there atually was, but it was highly amusing for Haru to watch my variously perplexed, unsure and downright disgusted expressions as I tried various things. There was some really good stuff, but there were also a few things I'm in no hurry to try again - have to say I'm not a huge fan of traditional Japanese food.

After that we returned to our room and got ready for bathing. Which means putting on out Yukata (which most people wandering about the Ryokan were wearing)

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Now, onsen are usually shared baths and, as it's traditional to bathe naked, in many places they are single sex only; though there are still some mixed bathing onsen around! However, as guests we could book a session in the private onsen for just the two of us - so that's where we headed first.

The basic rule of onsen bathing is that the bath is just for soaking and relaxing, not for washing - so you have to shower and wash before geting into the bath. So, dedicated to blogging every detail as I am, here's the traditional Japnaese way of pre-onsen washing; sitting on a little wooden stool.

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Then you can get into the onsen and enjoy the hot spa water.

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So having taken advantage of the private onsen, we then went off to check out our respective 'single sex' onsen. Which onsen is designated to which gender changes daily. Luckily for me, that night the large outdoor pool was men only.

When I got in there were maybe 9 or 10 other guys there (all Japanese!), after soaking for a while it slowly got emptier and emptier - go I guessed that in a while I'd be able to get the whole pool to myself. So after we got out I told Haru I wanted to come back again, with my camera, in a couple of hours.

So we messed around in the room for a while, playing with the paper screens and recreating classic Bond movie opening scenes.

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Then I went back, sure enough it was empty and I got to snap a few pictures - though the inside part was too steamy to capture anything.

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The combination of the soft lights, whirling steam, hot mineral waters and cold snow outside made for a quite magical atmosphere.

We spent the night sleeping on futons on a tatami floor, and the next morning got a full Japanese breakfast too.

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Then it was time to check out, and head back to Nagano city.

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However as we had some time to spare there we decided to bring the weekend full circle by going back to the temple from the lantern festival, and seeing how different it seemed during the day.

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One wonderful thing we found that we hadn't spotted during the night trip was a huge collection of small metal icons mounted in racks large frames.

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Then it was time to get the first of the three trains needed to get home. Trip like this are exhausting, but worth it!

So, that's the Nagano Ken trip two part report finished, and now here's a quick trailer for 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' to close as promised - though this trailer really doesn't do the film justice. Here it just looks like stuff blowing up, but the film is actually very thoughful with strong characters, emotional power and a great message as well. Highly recommended to everybody!

Posted by DKJM74 00:09 Comments (0)

Yuki Suki Saru

A trip to Nagano Ken Part 1

If you often watch wildlife documentaries then the chances are you’ve already seen the famous Japanese Snow Monkeys; lounging in the natural hot springs with a light dusting of fresh snow on their heads. I know I’d seen them on TV several times, and now having the chance to see them with my own eyes it seemed worth travelling the several hours required to get to Nagano Ken. So, with that in mind we set off about mid-day Friday for Nagano city (a local train to Kyoto, a Shinkansen to Nagoya and a Super-express train to Nagano).

The monkeys actually live another train ride out from the prefectural capital, but we were spending a night in Nagano city first to check out a local festival: for two nights parts of the old town are illuminated by candles and lanterns guiding visitors up the hill to the main temple.

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Each building of the temple complex was also illuminated with huge lighting rigs in various colours; such as a strong red on the main gate or a yellow hue for the bell tower which was really atmospheric.

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This was another nice example of a purely aesthetic ‘festival’, which does seem like a very Japanese way of doing things – there were also a lot of things on display recalling the time when Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics…. But having no interest in Sports whatsoever I didn’t take pictures of any of those things :-) Though I did snap a few random interesting things – like Haru getting her head eaten, a totally random London double-decker bus (converted to a small café) and a happy colon advertising… well, God knows what!

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And my Patio (I didn't even know I had a Patio!).

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The next morning we got on another train and headed out to Yamanouchi, which is a small place on the edge of the mountains.

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Getting off the train the first thing you see is –

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And you realise that apart from the hot onsen resorts and the Snow Monkeys there isn’t much to attract people here, which is why there are so many signs and references to the monkeys everywhere.

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However, trains, buses and even the ‘Snow Monkey Taxi’ have their limits - and the last part of the route to the monkey park you have to walk.

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As we got higher into the woods we began to see signs of both the hot springs and the monkeys.

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and once you get into the actual park it’s really easy to get up close and personal with the monkeys.

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The troop that goes to this onsen consists of about 200 monkeys, though I guess we saw less than half that number. They are free to roam, but come to the Onsen almost every day and are totally indifferent toward the many, many visitors; neither approaching them for food or running away unless you get really to close.

The downside of this is that the place isn’t as remote and wild as my romantic imagination had pictured it, the upside is that you can get some really good close up pictures (even if you are trying to work around all the other visitors). So, here is what you’ve been waiting for – Yuki Suki Saru (Snow loving monkeys!)

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When we'd had enough of living monkeys, we had a quick look at the dead ones on display in the hut that served as ticket window, gift shop and small exhibition.

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Then it was time to drive back to the hotel.... but there was a bit of snow on the car and Haru couldn't dig it out either....

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... so we had to walk back again!

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Luckily we had a night booked at a big local onsen resort ourselves so we could soak just like the monkeys... and I'll report about that next time :-)

Posted by DKJM74 00:34 Comments (0)

Lake Biwako Museum

Surprisingly good!

Today, just a brief update about a mini trip last weekend. I want this blogged as later today I'm leaving for a long weekend in Nagano Ken and and that'll be a big update when I get back (Festival, Snow monkeys and a nice Onsen - yay!)

So, Haru brought her car over this weekend, and I was hoping that I’d now be blogging about a full weekend road trip spectacular. However the weather was so bad on Saturday we never got beyond just peeping out from behind the curtains. Luckily, things picked up on Sunday and we managed to get across the lake and have a nice day trip at least.

One of the nice things about having a car is the freedom to stop and snap interesting things; like this small patch of land by the roadside full of elaborate stone carvings.

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I’ve passed it a few times but never in a situation where I could ask the driver to stop, so I was happy to finally be able to take pictures of these. However, even Haru can’t stop for me to snap the cool road signs on the highway – so I had to do my best as we zipped past; but I did finally get a picture of the ‘Beware Monkeys Crossing’ sign (and a Tanuki crossing sign too; just about)!

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The actual target for the day was the Lake Biwa Museum down in at the South-East corner edge of the lake. Despite sounding a bit uninspired (a Museum themed on the history of a lake) it’s actually a really good, well thought out place with a wide variety of exhibits.

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(Yes, we are going to make the hard hat the must-have fashion accessory of the year!)

Some of the best exhibits were the display of recent pop culture history (including the original ‘Star Wars’ figures; the skinny ones I had when I was a boy, not the ones they produce now where Vadar looks like he’s addicted to steroids!)...

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and there was also a really nice one recreating old style Japanese village houses.

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There was also a big aquarium section focused on the watery denizens of Lake Biwa (and some other global fresh water lakes), and while they may not be as spectacular as their tropical seas cousins there were some really nice tanks.

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In particular it was nice watching the lake birds diving for food and seeing them underwater.

We ended up spending a good three hours there and had a really fun time, the fact that so many things are presented in open, hands on, displays was a big plus; I poked just about everything I could. Any SHIGA JET’s reading this who haven’t been to the museum yet – I highly recommend it; they even have a nice free English mini-guide!! (I mean a phamphlet, not a dwarf who shows you around; though that would make it the best museum ever!)

There was also a nice little twist to this trip. When I got back to my school I told one of the science teachers about a exhibition of a light trap (for catching and studying insects) that I saw. It really interested me, and I want to try it in the spring with some students... making a light trap I mean, not attracting and trapping my students! Anyway, I thought Kurumi Sensei might be interested in helping me with a project like that, and he was is; but most interestingly when I finally managed to explain, with my bad Japanese, about seeing the light trap in the museum, it turns out he was actually involved in making that exhibit for the museum and is a respected entomologist!! So, come April were going to do a big bug hunt :-)

And 'a je to' (that's that) - except for one small thing; since the end of the year I've been meaning to link this video to my blog, but I keep forgetting. So, since my last day in Slovakia (back in June) I've been taking a self portrait snap everyday. So here's a condensed version of my first six months of self portraits covering everything in this blog so far; the sound track it the amazing Tom Waits... 'Big in Japan' of course :-)

Posted by DKJM74 16:07 Comments (0)

January Scapbook 2

So January has ended, and while it was a month that didn't have any big trips like December it did have some nice moments. Such as my trip to Tsuruga on the 23rd, which is a small coastal town at he opposite end of the local line from Kyoto.

The only reason for going there was that many local JETs do a monthly visit to the orphange there to play with the kids and give a bit of English exposure to kids who wouldn't get it otherwise. There are about 60 kids in the orphange and about 20 JETs turned up making for a great JET to kid ratio :-) Here's just a few of the folks who turned up -

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We started off with group snow flake making activity.

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But pretty soon this broke down into little groups doing different things.

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And even sooner that broke down into kids climbing on you as much as they could...

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I love the top right picture of Tyler being dragged away in that last one - it just begs for the caption 'And he was never seen again...' :-)

And while the kids loved the chance to play around and pose for photos...

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I think the best photos from the day were the numerous ones taken by kids just running off with my camera and snapping away.

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All in all it it was a fun, boisterous day that I'd be happy to do again (though next month I'll be away on the visit day.) The kids were all super genki (lively) and fun, though I did feel a bit sorry for the carers who'd have to deal with the hyped up masses after we all left :-)

The next weekend was glorious on the Saturday, which was great luck because the weather had been pretty miserable upto then and I'd arranged a hiking trip for the Saturday :-) The hike was kind of a fusion of two things I'd previously done - a walk up Hieizan to Enryaku-ji I did in August and the accidental night time hike I did with Bonnie and Connie. Though this time I was doing it all in planned and daylit manner with James and John.

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The first stage was nice, easy but uneventful hiking until we made a quick stop at Enryaku-ji.

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We all had a go at ringing the huge temple bell, which keeps putting out an amazing low frequency hum for ages after the inital strike - quite incrdible if you put your head close to it.

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I also sneaked this photo inside the temple (where you shouldn't take pictures) - It's only of the floor, not the religious iconogaphy, but I just lowed the shadows :-)

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After that the route took us past the old abandoned ski-lodge I'd seen with Connie and Bonnie, and with more light this time we couldn't resist a fuller search. The first thing that struck me was how obviously derelict it was, which hadn't been so clear in the half light before.

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The roof is really falling apart in the equipment store, but the sheer volume of stuff left behind is staggering.

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We also found that the other areas were open and easily accessible as well, so we saw the kitchens, dining room and offices too. Incredibly there's still running water and electricity connected though several wall calanders testify it's about 8 years since the place was in use.

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Now you might thing that this is a rare occurance, and that something special must have happened to make the owners abandon this place with so much stuff inside - but barely five minutes walk down the path was saw this place through the trees -

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Another building, older perhaps and more traditionally Japanese, but again packed full of skis. One side of the building was just hanging open so that the contents were clealy visible and yet there they were piled on top of each other - skis, skis and more skis!!

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So if you want some free skis, you know where to go!

From there it was the same long winding path I almost died on in the dark in November. During the day it's a lot quicker and more scenic, though it did make me marvel that we didn't end up with even one broken limb between us last time.

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And that was the hike - one high point was the various super cute signs warning against the dangers of forest fires...

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and another was the second hand shop we passed on the way home full of all kinds of wonderful trash...

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including another stuffed Tanuki; but this time as a golfer! (Well, Tanuki are suposed to have shape shifting powers and the ability to disguise themselves as humans!)

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The next day was the last day of January and to finish with a flourish Haru and I went iceskating :-)

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Neither of us had been on iceskates for sometime - but it kind of came back, and was good clean fun... but here's the spooky thing; remember what I said about Tanuki being able to take human form and disguise themselves as people... well maybe they still do that, and just maybe this is one who forget to hide his tail....

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You never know Japan can be a spooky kind of place :-)

Posted by DKJM74 00:49 Comments (2)

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