A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

Buds, Bats and Bots

Spring in Kansai: Hanami, bat research and the robo-cup

A bit of an eclectic round-up today of various outings and events over the last few weeks, all in an attempt to get this blog bang up to date before we depart for a two week trip to the UK and Czech Republic at the beginning of June.

April is always one of the most beautiful times to see Japan. For a few short days, all across the country, the cherry trees are blooming in a slow moving wave (from the south to the north) as spring travels the land and huge swaths of the country turn into soft pastel pink cascades. The Japanese have a special word - hanami - that means 'flower viewing', and everybody is out enjoying hanami at this time. Kyoto has many prime hanami spots, several of which we visited last year. Living so near Kyoto it's easy for us to drop in and enjoy the flowers there.

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These pictures were taken on the 'Tetsugaku no michi' ('The Philosopher's Walk' - where I ended up with Andrew a few weeks ago after visiting 'The Silver Pavilion'). We often ask people around us to take pictures of us together, but on this occasion we didn't have to. Japanese people often like to combine hanami with a picnic and an afternoon of drinking, and one guy who'd been 'enjoying' this tradition offered to take out picture. He was so drunk I was surprised he could stand up, let alone point the camera in the right direction - but he actually took better pictures than most of the people we stop and ask!

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Last year's hanami was very special for us, as it was then that I asked Haru to marry me and she said 'Yes' - a promise she'll have to make good on in England on June 11th (hence the upcoming trip). I still have this picture, from that day, as the desktop background on my laptop.

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Knowing that last year's hanami couldn't really be topped, I decided to try something a little different this year. I booked a double kayak, and took Haru out on the lake to see the Shiga cherry blossom from the water. I think I'll do the same again next year as it's such a nice way to enjoy the hanami without having to contend with all the traffic and crowds that flood into this famous hanami spot. This was also Haru's first time in a kayak and she had great fun too - not much else to say about this except it was a lovely day!

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May saw me returning to Taga to revisit another top event from last year; joining the research project that monitors the bat population in the caves there. It was really nice to meet Maeda San and Abe San again. We caught and tagged/logged around 70 bats this year (slightly more than last year) from the same group of rare tube nose bats (with a few non-logged horse shoe bats showing up as well). My role was mainly returning bats that had been checked and weighed to a safe recuperation spot on the wall of the cave. I got some really nice photos too. Here are a few samples, and you can see a full gallery here.

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I really enjoyed talking with Abe San from the Taga museum again, and I discovered that around October he will also be involved in a research project to explore some of the lower areas of the huge Taga cave system (which are usually sealed off, and include an impressive underground river) and I've been invited to join that group too. So, I'm looking forward to that.

Not everything this spring was a rerun of last year though, and I got a chance to explore another thing that Japan is famous for - it's technology. This May Osaka was hosting an amateur robotics event called 'Robo-cup'. The bots were all designed by students ranging from Junior High students...

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to University level (actually the white robot below is a commercial model, which the students had just programmed to play football - very sloooowly),...

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(Warning: The following clip shows just how sloooow these robots are - if you want to see fast robot action, skip to the later clips!)

and there were a few guest professional/commercial retail robots too

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Most bots were competing in 'football' matches (though not all the robots had feet), but there were also robots designed to dance, carry out search and rescue missions and do domestic chores like these.

Robot dance routine.

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The cat (above right) was just a costume over the same metal frame standing next to it - you can see the two running side by side in this clip.

This bot also had a rather nifty bit of programming, if you hugged it 'understood' what you were doing and hugged you back - so I've been hugged by a robot cat!

My favourites, by far, were the small black robots with coloured squares on their heads (the purpose of which was to help the computer locate and orient them via a fixed over head camera). These were by far the most dynamic of all the bots present. They scuttled (often in a sideways crablike manner) around the pitch at surprisingly high speeds, and had some nifty gymnastic routines to get them back on their feet after a fall (which happened frequently), impressive stuff. Here are a few exciting robot action clips -

'Oh, wow!' - The first time we saw the robots standing up after a fall!
(Note: The two teams have different styles - one arches backward then stands, the other does a splits and then rights itself)

More robots falling and standing up.

These ones look totally pissed, can't stay on their feet for two seconds.

A near miss goal attack.

A GOAL!!

One last little thing for today, after leaving the Robo-cup we went for a walk along the port side, checking out what was in the area and came across a rather interesting sculpture in one building. Apparently this is part of a city wide project putting odd art installations into various places around the city, which is a cool idea and I hope I get to see more of them. Anyway, here's a massive wrestler putting the smack down on a car.

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And that's it; I'm all up to date :-) Although I might be going to a giant kite festival, if I have time on Sunday, in which case I'll try and blog that before we leave for the UK a week later. If not I'll see you all when I get back with pictures of London (and the Doctor Who Experience), Nottingham and Derbyshire (the places I grew up and where we're having the wedding) and Prague (short break/mini-honeymoon). Wish us luck!!

Posted by DKJM74 16:56 Comments (0)

Minetopia

Shikoku Trip Day 2

Next morning we were up and out quite early, according to the (Japanese) haikyo guide book there was something in this area - but, lacking a translation, we didn't know exactly what. Following the mini map in the book we set off into the unknown.

The road soon began to head up into the mountains, sometimes in a quite spectacular way, such as this elevated loop in the middle of nowhere.

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Shortly after that another turn off lead us onto a long, narrow winding road heading higher and higher into the mountains. Almost every curve revealed another wonderful panoramic view, but we still had no idea what we were actually heading towards.

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What we eventually came to is a place they call (somewhat grandly) the Japanese Machu Picchu, the remains of an old copper mining community scattered in the mountain woods.

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In its heyday almost 4'000 people lived here and it was a thriving community, as archive photos from the visitor's centre show (note the kids playing with real swords).

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Despite seeing the evidence of what had been here though, it's hard to believe that so many people actually lived here. Much has been lost to time, and what remains isn't much to look at now - foundations and stone basins between the trees where small houses once stood, or random bits of brick and metal from the mine works long ago.

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The only intact original building is the one pictured in the haikyo guide book. Without the book and a small picture of this building, we'd never have come all this way out into the mountains and found this place; haikyo hunting is always a wonderful catalyst for random exploration and adventure!

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However, the largest, and most iconic, structure still standing is this huge edifice; which, I guess, is the basis of Machu Picchu comparisons.

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As we explored around the area, taking in the wonderful mountain scenery, we uncovered more and more evidence of the past, mostly in the form of tunnel entrances blocked off with huge iron gates, though one short one was open.

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Again it was the visitor's centre that revealed the full extent of what we were seeing; these tunnels were just part of a huge network that runs through the whole mountain. According to the map there was another major exit to the system at the bottom of the mountain where the copper was loaded into trains and shipped away.

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Curious, we decided to drive back down and check it out; it took about 30 mins to drive to the second site by car (and I dread to think how long it would have taken underground under through the mines when they were open).

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Originally we had planned to make a brief stop here and then try to find some other places in the haikyo guidebook, but finding ourselves in the middle of such a sprawling historical site it ended up taking most of the day just to cover all there was to see there. We really didn't have any time left to go anywhere else now, but luckily Andrew had spotted something in the trees across the road - the remains of some more modern housing that was probably nothing to do with the mines.

So we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring these monkey infested haikyo, that though I will save for the haikyo blog and write up later. For now, here a small taster of the haikyo, and the only picture I managed to get of the monkeys.

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Then that was it, time to go, we still had a long drive home and a lot of bridges ahead of us; this time heading back via the central route.

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There's still a lot I want to explore on and around Shikoku, and I'm already planning a couple of trips - I've heard tell of mysterious whirlpools in the waters under the bridges on eastern route, and stories of an island on the inland sea that's infested with a huge population of rabbits they both sound like must sees!!

Posted by DKJM74 23:29 Comments (2)

Buddhist Hell and Beyond

Shikoku Trip Day 1

Japan consists of four main islands, from north to south they are Hokkaido, Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū. I say main islands because further south there are also the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, which is known as the Japanese Archipelago. In almost two years of living in Japan, I've never been outside Honshū (I guess Mijajima is considered as part of Honshū as well).

Not long ago Andrew and I found ourselves exploring a haikyo hotel on the East coast that overlooked the bridge from Honshū to Shikoku and we began to lay plans for proper trip across the Inland Sea.

Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of the four main islands and it's connected to Honshū by three main routes, each consisting of two or more bridges. We opted to drive down to the Western most route, which hops across the Inland Sea, from island to island, by a series of nine bridges.

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The original plan was to stay overnight on the Honshū coast and start island hopping early in the morning, taking our time and exploring the smaller islands along the way. However we soon realised that this would mean getting on and off the highway several times, paying the base charge each time we rejoined it and really putting the cost up, so after a couple of stops we resigned ourselves to just following the main route across.

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Our main goal for the first day was a Buddhist temple I'd seen in a Japanese magazine all about 'roadside Japan'. On the face of it, it's a typical temple with typical buildings and decoration.

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Though there did seem to be quite a few interesting sculptures and carvings around. These ranged from the usual icons, to the more supernatural and even included some impressive pieces reproduced from a famous series of Indian Buddhist carvings.

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Thanks to Haru's previous explanation I also recognised a place to pray for 'lost' children.

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My personal favourite though was this dragon sculpture, rising out of the ground.

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However, it isn't just its sculpture collection that makes this place interesting; this temple is actually part of a famous trail that passes through 88 key temples all across Shikoku, making it a key stop on an historical pilgrimage route.

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Early pilgrims would have walked for weeks, or maybe months, complete this arduous journey. Modern pilgrims have the luxury or turning up in their cars, or with tour groups, and of renting pilgrim clothes on site.

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My main reason for wanting to come here though was to experience Buddhist hell!!! Which apparently lies just behind this doorway!

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Several temples around Japan have entrances to hell, and, although each is different in the details, the basics are the same. They comprise of a dark corridor or room, sometimes dimly lit with demonic sculptures haunting them, sometimes pitch black. They mark a passage through fear or ignorance to illumination and rebirth, symbolised by passing through the darkness or by finding some sacred object hidden in the dark.

This specific 'hell' was a rising passage and was regrettably short on demons; instead childlike innocents squatted in the dark leading us on.

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At the end of this 'ordeal' we were spat out on to the hillside behind the main temple, near the heavenly dome. This was evidently mean to be a place of light and peace with godly figures, but time and decay had reduced the godheads to crumbled ruins that seemed better suited in hell. Somehow it seemed quite profoundly prophetic (and amusing).

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The huge statute of the same emaciated prophet we'd seem earlier also sat here, rocking that thin and vulnerable martyr chic that's so popular in religious circles.

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Then, being the pure souls that we are, we passed within and up to the highest level of spiritual attainment - where, if I understood correctly, the truly enlightened can get some kind of basic woodwork qualification (Jesus, carpenter, it all ties in)! Yes, for some reason the end of this metaphorical and metaphysical journey was a room full of strange and twisted wooden carvings.

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Well, I obviously failed to have my moment of satori, and have probably damned myself to a few reincarnations at the lower end of the food chain to boot, but I did enjoy the mix of religion, superstition and downright bizarre that we uncovered there. Andrew assures me that there are still better Hells to uncover out there, so I'll keep searching for the ultimate underworld experience.

For now it was back to the car, we still had to drive half way across the island to get ourselves in the right area to check out some interesting looking haikyo the next day. Putting a rough destination in the sat nav we set off across the mountains that run East-west across the whole island. Luckily, by pure chance, that put us on a collision couse with this place -

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- the ultimate roadside junkshop.

This place was just incredible, and I'm so glad that Andrew never minds doing sudden U-turns on small roads to check out odd stuff we passby as this place is a treasure trove of the wierd and wonderful; behold!

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And that is just a fraction of the amazing collection the two proprietors had pieced together over seven years. Perhaps the best moment was when I asked one of them if he had a favourite item and he replied 'The Samurai swords.' then casually reached into a battered old wardrobe and pulled out a beautiful katana; a perfect bizzaro-road-trip moment.

We drove on without further incident until it was getting dark, then getting into the area we wanted to explore in the next day we set about finding a place to stay for the night - so let's end today's entry on a cliff hanger.

Did we survive the night staying in the incredibly horror-movie-sequel-sounding 'Hotel III'

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(Spoiler - We did, well I'm writing this aren't I?)

Posted by DKJM74 06:32 Comments (0)

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