A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

Touring the Inland Sea: Part 1 - Shodoshima

All together now - 'Ferry cross the Mersey Seto inland sea'.

Doesn't quite have the same ring to it does it. Still that's how we'll be spending the next few days, touring some of the islands of the inland sea via a series of ferry crossings. The inlands sea comprises of the stretch of water that separates the main Japanese island, Honshuu, from the smaller Shikoku.

I've been to Shikoku several times (including the last entry's aborted whale watching attempt in Kochi Ken), and usually we just cross the inland sea quickly via one of the three bridges that connect Honshuu and Shikoku. Travelling by ferry certainly gives you a different perspective though, suddenly the sea seems much wider and more significant, also many of the small islands that you spot from the bridge are more clearly defined communities that depend on these ferry links to connect them to the main land. With a clear blue sky above, and smooth clam waters beneath, ferry is also a quite relaxing way to travel.

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Our first port of call is Shodoshima, and (at 153km2 and boasting a population of about 30'000 people) it's also the biggest of the islands we'll be visiting during the trip.

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Travelling takes up most of the first day, but we do have time to do a bit of walking around near our hotel after we arrive. So we get to see what is perhaps Shodoshima's biggest claim to fame. Behold!!!

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While it might look like an unimpressively narrow canal it is actually called the Dobuchi Strait. At it's narrowest point it is only 9.93m wide, which makes it officially 'The world's narrowest strait'. It runs for about 2.5km, and totally separates Maejima and Shodoshima's main island. Fascinating eh! Luckily that isn't all there is to see on the island.

As we've left the car behind on the mainland we have to find other ways of exploring the islands. With that in mind we've decided to go full tourist for our first full day, and take a bus tour around the island.

The first place they take us is to the monkey park right up in the mountains at the centre of the island. Now, I see monkeys around where I live quite often during certain times of the year, and this is the third monkey park I've visited - the sheer number of monkeys here and how f***ed up some of them were was quite spectacular though. I guess it comes from being an island population with no predators and no where else to go, they just hang out in one big raggedy gang; or two big raggedy troops to be more accurate. Apparently there are two distinct troops, each with their own bosses leading them, living on the mountain.

Both troops total around 500 monkeys of all ages, sizes and states. Life in the wild has really left it's mark on some of the older monkeys, and some of them look pretty messed up now. These grizzled veterans really caught my attention, they've got so much character and history in their scars I could have spent the whole day taking portrait pictures of them. However, being a bus tour we're on a schedule so I have to content myself with a few quick snaps - but just check out the old couple on the bottom right of this collage and you'll see what I mean.

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Before leaving the mountains we also drove over to a popular lookout point to take in the views and have a spot of lunch.

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If you look carefully in the centre of the panorama below you might be able to make out a metal hoop next to the bushes. This was the Shodoshima version of a wishing well. For a small fee you could buy some charms (basically small plates made of clay with lucky phrases painted on them), then you make a wish try and skim the charms, Frisbee like, through this hoop. The ever watchful Gods, impressed with your charm flinging dexterity, then have no choice but to indulge your whim. While we were there many people tried, but only one person managed it - and that was Haru!

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After lunch we were given the choice of riding down on the coach, or of taking the cable car down the gorge and rejoining the coach at the bottom. We opted for the cable car :-) The gorge itself cuts into Mount Hoshigajo (817 metres high), carving out steep cliffs and rock walls that the cable car drops down between as it descends. Quite a ride, and one that I'd love to try in Autumn above the red leaves.

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Coming down out of the mountains on a long snaking road we make our way back towards the coast and our next stop is this picturesque village. This was a good chance to try out some of the special flavours of icecream sold locally, soy-sauce ice cream anybody? (Actually, much nicer than it sounds).

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To be honest though, this isn't even a real village, it's a movie theme park. Hence an abundance of wonderfully recreated posters for classic Japanese movies. My favourite, of course was the original Godzilla - to paraphrase Nicolas Cage in the woeful 'Wicker Man' remake; 'Aaagh the flames, not the flames! Aaagghhh!! My eyes, my eyes!'

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The whole village was actually built as a movie set originally. There are two versions of the movie 'Twenty-four eyes', one made in 1954, and another made in 1987. This was the set built for the 1987 version. The story is about a schoolteacher named Ōishi who lives on Shōdoshima during the rise (and fall) of Japanese ultra-nationalism during the Shōwa period. The tale starts in 1928 with the teacher's first class of 1st grade students and follows her through to 1946, in particular it shows, how as a result of that nationalism, many of the children she teaches are called away to fight and die.

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Despite its apparent popularity I'd never heard of this movie until I came here and Haru explained the story to me, I really feel I should watch it now though.

We still have one more stop on our bus tour to go, and that's the 'Olive park'. Shodoushima was the first place in Japan to attempt the cultivation of Olives was attempted, fortunately the mild climate suited them and they thrived. Today, the island is Japan's top Olive oil producer.
The groves with their (purely decorative) windmill were a nice place for a stroll on a sunny afternoon, but I got a weird feeling of deju-vu. Then it hit me, it was like taking a walk through the 'Olive Coast' golf course from 'Everybody's Golf' on the PSP.

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The gift shop is of course packed with all kinds of products made from Olives, from hand cream to chocolate, with lots of free samples. So blue skies, scarred simians and free chocolate - plus not a single typhoon in sight - this trip is certainly off to a better start than our last one :-)

Next time, we get artistic with a brief stop at Teshima and a longer stay on Naoshima, culture capital of the Inland Sea.

Posted by DKJM74 20:26 Comments (0)

Plan B from Kochi Ken

Or when typhoons strike!

Be warned the top part of this entry is very text heavy (with borderline rants on the topics of typhoons, hermit crab keeping and whaling), but don't worry I won't be offended if you just skip down to the pretty animal pictures at the bottom - to be honest I won't even know you've done it.

Still here? Then let's talk a bit about typhoons.

It seems an almost constant source of surprise for Japanese people to learn that we simply don't have typhoons in the UK. Sure we have strong winds that topple chimneys and send trees crashing through greenhouses (much to the delight of regional news shows who routinely leap on this kind of meteorological calamity). However, we don't have typhoons.

Japan has typhoons, in all the time I've worked here there has never once been a snow day at the school (despite winter weather that would have shut down schools in other countries), but kids have been excused from coming to school due to typhoon warnings a few times; and when I say the kids, I mean the kids - I still had to cycle to work in the torrential rain and then sit there doing nothing all day because there were no kids.

This isn't the only reason I don't like typhoons, it's more the fact that they seem to have something personal against me. Having recently checked one point of my list off things to do while I'm in Japan (with a visit to Kiso valley; see previous entry), I was now determined to set my sights on bigger fish - whales to be exact.

Whale watching has been something I've wanted to do for a long time now, and having looked into it I'd found a couple of good spots in Japan. The nearest place being Kochi Ken on the south coast of Shikoku. So Haru and I booked time off work, hotels and spots on a boat... then watched in dismay as the day drew closer and so did a big typhoon - heading directly for Kochi Ken.

The whale watching company confirmed it wouldn't be possible to go out on the day we booked and cancelled the booking. So we did some quick back peddling - I cancelled my time off work, the timely death of a non-existent relative got us off the hook with the hotel reservation without paying anything. Then, we set about re-planning and booking everything again. The typhoon passed and we were on track - until another typhoon came in on exactly the same course to co-coincide with our new plans....

Well - it wasn't possible to back-out again, so despite the whale watching being cancelled again and leaving us with no real reason to go we went ahead with a trip to Kochi Ken. Luckily, the typhoon didn't really have any visible effect on the main land (it was the waves it was kicking up that got the boat cancelled), and the weather was fine as we made the 6 hour drive down.

I've got quite a soft spot for Japanese road sign graphics, and I often try to snap pictures of the road signs as we zip past. In particular I like the animal crossing warning signs, and Shikoku has some great ones... however, snapping them at speed isn't easy. I really think photographic frustrations such as this were a big drive in me deciding to upgrade my camera recently. I still have quite a bit more to blog about 2012, but when I get to 2013 I assure you that you'll see a leap in the quality of the photography on this blog :-)

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The main city of Kochi Ken is also called Kochi, and we spent our first afternoon wandering around the streets and markets. One of the towns most famous points, Hariyama bridge, turned out to be be very small, unimpressive and quite out of place on an otherwise modern street. For me by far the most interesting things was a stall on a street market selling hermit crabs, I'd been thinking about getting some crabs to keep for a while so on the last day we went and bought five to take home.

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Now this was about eight months ago, and I regret to say that of that original five only two are still alive. Two died at beginning of winter as I simply wasn't prepared to keep the environment to their liking when the weather changed. Some frenzied research made me realize that I wasn't keeping the atmosphere moist enough for them or providing for all their needs. I improved their diet and water supplies (separate bowls for fresh and salt water). I also got a temperature and humidity gauge, a suitable heater and added some extra plastic sheeting inside the tank lid to control their environmental conditions more. The remaining three really thrived then, until last week when I disturbed one of them while he was buried in the sand moulting, the shock of this caused him to abandon his shell whilst still in a semi-soft state. At the time I noticed this I was just about to leave town for a five day trip, and I totally panicked. Not knowing what to do, and not having time to research the problem, I handled what needn't have been a really serious situation badly and unfortunately when I got back from the trip yesterday that crab had also died; leading to a major guilt trip on my part.

Now, there are a couple of reasons I'm writing about this in detail. Firstly, it's fresh in my mind, and both Haru and I are really sad about loosing another one. However, I've also learnt a lot from these experiences, and have become a better crab owner through continued research. I plan to buy some more crabs from a good pet store in the summer, and improve the tank even more. They are really interesting creatures, we've really enjoyed keeping them, and I hope other potential owners can learn from my mistakes. That's the second reason I'm writing this. Hermit crabs are sold as easy pets for kids, less smelly versions of hamsters. However, if you don't want your pet to suffer and die they actually have very specific needs. You do need to research how to keep them, and to be sure that you can meet those needs before you buy them. Although, I've really done my best to make up for the mistakes I made and to learn from them, I've always been playing catch up - researching problems only when they came up rather than having knowledge in advance and being prepared - I regret that and I realize that it's a direct result of having made an impulse buy from a non-reputable seller. There is even a distinct chance that the crabs I bought are a protected variety that shouldn't have been sold in the first place; another good reason to not buy from places like market stalls. Anyway, I've already talked about this too much, so let's move on. However, if anybody is interested in keeping hermit crabs and has any questions I've be happy to answer them if I can, and point you in the direction of some of the better resources I've found that really helped me.

Back in Kochi Ken, our next stopping point was the castle. Whilst it isn't anything drastically different to the other Japanese castles I've visited, it is a nice example of pre-restoration design work and also quite lucky to be standing intact following heavy bombing of the city in WW2.

"Kōchi was selected as a target by the United States' XXI Bomber Command because of the city's status as a prefectural capital, and the fact that it was a centre for industry and commercial trade. On July 3, 1945 at 6:22 PM (JST) 129 Aircraft took off to bomb Kōchi. 1060 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped on Kōchi, destroying 48% of the built up areas of the city."

Considering that it's large size and hilltop location it is quite incredible that it wasn't seriously damaged.

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This visit was also the closest I got to any whale watching during the trip, as the castle had an exhibition about whales in the main building. However, it wasn't about the more eco-friendly tourist trade building up around the passive observation of them, it was more about the old (and pretty brutal) hunting techniques used to catch the whales.

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Japan's relationship with animals is very strange. There is a distinct preference for cute things linked to a disturbing trend towards the anthropomorphising animals. Of course his can be done by dressing animals up and behaviour training, but it's usually done in a more indirect way via the use of comedy sound effects, dubbing and/or subtitles showing the animals 'thoughts' during TV shows to make the their reactions seem more comic and human.

So, while in the UK we get the wonderful documentaries of David Attenborough to educate, inform and delight us, one of Japan's most popular animal themed shows, "Tensai! Shimura Dōbutsuen" (guilty of all the above mentioned tactics) is filmed in front of a live studio audience with the main focus on making animals seem as cute and unthreatening as possible. The bigger eyed, fluffier and more playful the creature the better, of course this is all presented by uninformed variety show celebs, and there is at least one basket of puppies per episode.

In short, animals are presented as objects to be 'Oooed' and 'Aaahred' at, but it's all very surface with very little sense of real connection or responsibility. The result is that Japanese people have a deeply fractured relationship with animals, they'll pay a small fortune for a pedigree dog to carry around in their designer bag, but protest about the opening of an animal shelter near their home (in my town). This disconnect enables these same people to then walk into a zoo or aquarium and comment on how cute, and delicious, certain exhibits look in almost the same breath (Yes, I've heard comments like that several times, mostly in aquariums).

So it shouldn't come as any surprise then that Japanese people simply don't get why whaling is so objectionable to many people, in fact more accurately most Japanese don't even realise it is a controversial point. In my time here whale meat has been served for school lunch twice; meat which, no doubt, arrived via the 'whaling for scientific research' loophole that Japan blatantly exploits. The only reaction from my colleagues was along the lines of 'Oh, whale meat, we don't have that often now do we, I wonder why? We used to have it all the time when I was at school'. I thought about explaining why, and did roughly sketch out how Japan's hunting of whales is mostly 'frowned on' internationally; the main reaction was surprise and defensiveness. Consuming nothing but their own national media they have have almost no idea how Japan's whaling is perceived abroad. Powerful proponents of whaling within Japan have been very sucessful in aligning the issue in the minds of the people with a concept of Japanese identity, so what we might see as anti-whaling attitudes elsewhere are seen more as directly anti-Japanese attacks here. Most Japanese people are not, contrary to what some people might think, anti-whale fanatics. Sadly they are with very little personal thought, accepting, and defending, a policy decided by a few.

Anyway, to counter balance the text heavy top half of this entry, and to prove that Japanese people can also be very nice to animals, let's have some photos from Noichi Zoo. A very nice wildlife park built in the hills outside Kochi where we decided to fill the time that should have been spent whale watching. As I visit a lot of zoos I try to focus my photos on animals or behaviour that I haven't seen too much else where, in Noichi Zoo the highlights were a very nice Lemur island environment that was a pleasure to watch, a really good tropical house and their personalised toilet paper!

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So whilst we did get to see a castle and a nice zoo, meaning that the trip was not a complete disaster, I'm not sure that Plan B in Kochi really justified the long road trip needed to get there - damn typhoons!

After we got back things at my school where just gearing up for the annual kayaking trip across the lake, which I'll pass over with just a single photo collage this year as it was my fourth time participating in this event. This year we were blessed with blue skies and calm waters most of the way as you can see.

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I did get to try out a fun, new water sport this year though, water bugging on the Seta river. Water bugging is a little like riding down the river on a rubber ring, only with more control. Your 'bug' is more like a horseshoe than a ring, so you can dangle your legs in the water and kick with your fins. You also wear webbed gloves that convert your hands into an extra pair of paddles making it easy to move around.

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We got some basic training on the river bank, followed by some exercises in the water before we got to ride down two sets of rapids. After a couple of hours in the water we reached the end of our run, and finally we wrapped it up with some big jumps off the rocks into the water.

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Our next trip was a spent island hopping around the inland sea in late September. A trip so epic it's going to make up the next three blog entries to come!

Posted by DKJM74 17:11 Comments (0)

Walking In Kiso Valley

Going the postal route

I remember reading about the Kiso valley walking trail when I first came to Japan. Through a lot of Japan's history the 60km long valley has been an important route for travel and trade. In particular during the Middle ages it was a key trade and postal route with eleven post stations set up along its length. Walking this old route was near the top of my list of things to do in Japan for a long time. However, for various reasons I never actually made it there until now. This summer Haru and I went for a day of walking along a short stretch of the route running between Magome and Tsumago.

Our starting point was the village of Magome, a beautiful place the centre of which is a stone paved street running straight up the hillside. A great effort has been made to hide the more obvious signs of modernity; so there is no car access for non-residents and no telegraph poles or overhead power lines spoiling the ambiance. In short the place has been preserved as much as possible, and really feels like a living museum piece as a result.

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The hiking trail proper starts where the village ends at the tops of the hill. The stretch we are going to walk is only about 8km, but we're planning to take it slow, and take a few diversions along the way. The scenery below was a verdant sea of wooded hills under a blue sky, needless to say the views were amazing.

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After a couple of kilometres (and a very nice ice cream) we came to the site of one of the old post stations. The original wooden building is still there and have been converted into a tea shop. An old tree spreads it's branches over the path directly in front of the main door, offering a shady place to rest and consult the map. The proprietor came out and chatted to us for a bit, and asked me to sign his guest book. He obviously took great pleasure in all the international visitors that came past his tea house, and proudly showed off signatures of visitors from all around the world. He also told us that in the past Japan had been much more divided than it is now, with the current prefectures often being split into several smaller regions. This had been the border between two such regions. This hadn't been just a post station, it had been passport control also. Without the correct papers you couldn't go past this point. All that remains of the border now is a symbolic wooden gateway.

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Just after we passed through that gateway and began to cross a small wooden bridge beyond it, there was a soft thud as something dropped right in front of Haru. Looking closer it was one of the biggest, greenest and hairiest caterpillars that I've even seen. Looking up, we saw that the branches overhead were full of them munching on the leaves and occasionally falling down. Now wanting to get one down the neck we hurried on.

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Caterpillars were by no means the worst things lurking in the woods though. Tsumago had several warning signs that hikers should "Be Bear Aware!" and along the way there were several bear bell stations; apparently bears can be deterred by the clanging sound of a bell. I even bought my own personal bear bell as a souvenir of the trip. I'm half happy, half disappointed, to say we didn't see any bears along the way though.

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After a while the woodland path joined the main road at the point where we crossed the prefecture line, going from Gifu prefecture into Nagano prefecture. Somewhere around here we made a short detour to visit the local waterfalls. To reach them we had to make our way down a steep winding path, but we were rewarded with a fine misty spray coming off the falls to cool us down again.

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The falls were just one example of the many varied types of terrain you can see along the way. There's also the small villages that dot the route, the woods (sometimes ceder, sometimes pine) already tinged with autumnal reds sometimes opening up onto rolling vistas of more distant hills and valleys or to the more immediate susurration of pre-harvest rice fields, full and heavy, in the breeze.

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Sometimes it was difficult to decide if a place was a village or not. Like this tiny place, which seemed to be build around a trout farm. Does such a small, loose collection of buildings on a dirt road constitute a village?? The English village I grew up in as a kid was so small it didn't have a shop, but it had a pub, a phone box and bus stop at least, making it a veritable metropolitan centre by comparison.

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Finally we reached the next postal station, and our goal, Tsumago. Much like our starting point this village boasts a well preserved main street lined with buildings mostly dating from the mid 18th century. According to wikipedia the main drive to restore the town (which had been on the decline due to being bypassed by local rail lines) came in the late 1960s.

"In 1968, local residents began an effort to restore historical sites and structures within the town. By 1971, some 20 houses had been restored, and a charter was agreed to the effect that no place in Tsumago should be "sold, hired out, or destroyed". In 1976, the town was designated by the Japanese government as a Nationally-designated Architectural Preservation Site. Despite its historical appearance, however, Tsumago is fully inhabited, though with tourist shops as the town's main business."

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One of the nicest items sold at those shops are examples of a local traditional craft - horses handmade from dried woven plant stems; a bit like English traditional corn dollies. These horses serve as a symbol of the area and appear in many forms. Mostly small in size, they actually come in all sizes, including one or two impressive life size examples. We bought a small pair to take back home, which now graze on the fresh pastures of our bookcase.

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Luckily, the popularity of the route means that there is a regular bus service to whisk you back to Magome from Tsumago and avoid a long walk back. We arrived with enough time for a relaxed stroll around and managed to get on a bus just before the it started raining.

It may have taken me a long time to get to Kiso valley, but it was worth the wait I feel. The walk is enjoyable and suitable for almost any level of physical ability, I certainly wouldn't consider it much of a challenge and you can take it at a nice relaxed pace. As i said before, the scenery is not only pretty, but surprisingly varied too; blending nature and history along the way. Highly recommended for a pleasant day out.

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Posted by DKJM74 22:23 Comments (0)

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