A Travellerspoint blog

September 2013

Spring Scrapbook 2013 Part 1

Local treasures and Hanami in Shiga

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Winter has retreated from the fields leaving only a faint dusting of snow on the highest peaks of the surrounding mountains. Everything is waking up, and (despite what House Stark might say) Spring is coming!

The last couple of years I've taken trip to famous cherry blossom viewing spots around Kansai, but this year I've decided to stay closer to home and check out what spring has to offer on my doorstep. There are cherry trees everywhere, and I suspected that I could find beautiful blossoms with less crowds in Imazu.

So instead we went for a walk in a local park that I pass-by almost every day on my way to work. Sure enough there were plenty of trees in full bloom, and several different types of blossom as well.

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Going a little beyond the park there is also a local shrine, an army base and a cemetary, all of which were also fringed with pink. It was really pretty, and acted as a gentle reminder that you don't always have to make epic trips to see something worthwhile.

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We began to think of other local places that we had so far neglected to visit, and I recalled a big golden Bhudda statue that I'd often spotted on the edged of Makino as we drove past, but we'd never really stopped to look at. So we decided to go and check it out, and as we were going through Makino we called my friend, Josh, who lives there, and picked him up on the way.

As it turned out, the small temple attached to the giant stautue had several other interesting statues as well; though not as big as the main Bhudda.

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Hidden away inside the temples halls there was also an interesting collection of artifacts stashed away. Carvings hewn from naturally shaped roots and branches, giant folk masks of Demons and Goblins draped with flowers and beads. Though the statues suggested a Bhuddist temple, these natural elements seemed closer to the trappings of a Shinto shrine - but then maybe the two don't have to be so exclusive, most Japanese people will go to both temples and shrines and there is a fluidity of believe that would allow for such cross-pollination in a way almost unimaginable in the West: Can you imagine a Catholic church decorated with the Star of David?

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While we were looking around the temple we remembered another hidden part of Makino that we'd never visited. A distant village about 30 minutes drive up in the hills away from the main road in the middle of nowhere. So we decided to hunt it down.

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Actually there are two interesting points about this village. Firstly, it's a prime example of the declining number of childern in Japan. Once upon a time there were enough kids in the areA to justify the existance of it's own Junior High School. However, that's no longer true and the school now sits vacant, though well maintained, at the far end of the village. In the past one of Josh's predecessors may well have had to make the long trip out here to teach, actually Andrew still has a visit school like this in Kutsuki. He goes there once every couple of weeks to have a class with the six kids who study there.

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There's also evidence of the Japan economic decline. We found this wonderful old style house, with out buildings a good size garden and a koi pool - all abandoned and derelict. According to a local we spoke to this place was repossessed by the bank not that long after construction was finished. The owner couldn't keep up the payments, and, as nobdy else wanted such a lavish home in such an obscure place, it was left to go to seed. I would love to get inside and do a photoshoot there sometime.

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The nicest thing about this village though is that it has some fine examples of the old style Japanese thatching on several of the houses. Some even have external walls made of wood and dirt, and the straw of the thatch is green with moss in places, giving it a highly rustic look.

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We also picked a near perfect time to go visit as just couple of weeks later a fire ravaged several of these houses. Apparently, a couple who had moved up from Osaka and had just finished reconstruction of their own rustic cottage started the fire with hot oil from a frying pan. The fire spread from house to house and several of those thatched roofs were lost, most of the village inhabitants were evacuated to the old school for their safty until the fire was brought under control.

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I have actually been back once since then just to check, and I'm happy to say that it isn't as devestated as that news picture makes it seem. In fact I found it hard to see what had been destroyed though, most of the thatching is still there as well.

I'm going to wrap up today with a few photos from a second cherry blossom viewing trip we did a week or so later. Keeping to the creed of checking out smaller, lesser known places, we decided to visit a Lake Yogo.

Yogo is much smaller than, and located just north of, Lake Biwa - as such it doesn't get as much attention as it's grander cousin. It is a very nice place though, hemmed in be hills and rice fields for much of its circumference. One big advantage of Yogo over Biwako is that it's a nice size for an afternoon walk. You can easily do a full circuit of the lake within a couple of hours, which is a very pleasent thing to do when the cherry blossom are in full bloom.

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Posted by DKJM74 21:10 Comments (0)

Spain Mura

So, it's quite a regular occurrence that when I come to work in the morning various papers have been left on my desk since I was last sitting there. This may be school related information, community activity fliers or quite often travel offers from various agents who pop into the school. Most of this stuff gets filed under 'B' for 'Bin' - but every so often something worthwhile turns up, such as a special offer for discount tickets to Spain Mura (the Spanish village).

Intrigued by the idea of a whole theme park dedicated to the promotion of Spanish culture, and tempted by the hefty discount combined with the promise of more roller-coasters, I snapped up a couple of tickets. So it was that we found ourselves driving down to the Shima-peninsula in Mie Ken not long after.

As Mie ken isn't too far away the plan was short and sweet, drive down the day before stay overnight in hotel, get in the park early the next day and drive back that evening. When we arrived in Mie Ken we had a bit of free time for some sight seeing on the first day as well, which we spent at a frog based Shinto shrine be the coast... well, why not! When the amphibians take over you'll wish you'd prayed there too.

Actually, this isn't really intended as an appeal to our future overlords. The real reason, why many Shinto shrines have frog statues, is that the Japanese words for frog is 'kareru', which is a homonym for the Japanese word meaning 'to return, to come back'. So it symbolizes the wish for something or someone to return to you.

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The next morning, as planned, we hit the park in time to get in when the gates opened, and we were immediately struck by how closely they have cleaved to the classic theme park model (as you can see in places like Disney Land or Universal Studios).

The gates open on to a covered walkway, lined with various shops. The park has it's own cast of cartoon characters, based on an animated version of Don Quixote, who are there to meet and greet you (well, maybe not us - we couldn't get near them for all those pesky kids). Then from there you come out in a kind of hub area that links two or three themed zones. Not that I'm knocking them for this, there's a reason this model is used so often - it simple, clear and it works.

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To their credit, the park designers had really done their best to evoke various aspects of Spain within the confines of the park. It was possible to take quite scenic pictures that didn't give off any hint that you were actually still in Japan. There was a nice town square and plaza, a whole village street complete with a church and even a full size replica of the Castillo de Xavier.

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The castle actually houses the park's Museum of Spanish culture which covers modern art (with several statues around the site) and traditional culture as well. Many of the rooms have been dressed as they would have been in the original castle. Which is probably about the only chance many Japanese people will get to experience 'real' historical Europe.

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I was particularly impressed with the kitchens, and the intricate tiles that lined the walls there. Not regular patterned tiles, but each one hand made, unique and designed to makes a single mosaic like scene; for example, look at the detail on these cats stealing kitchen scraps.

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Other exhibits included displays with examples of Spanish crafts, traditional folk clothes and religious iconography.

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Leaving the castle and going down to the far end of the park you come to a small water themed area. Here there is a large pool with dancing fountains, a children's play area and a nice sedate boat ride attraction. There's also a replica of a Spanish galleon that you can board and explore.

It was in front of the galleon that we also found a group of Cos-players dressed as characters from the popular anime show 'One-Piece'. As the show is all about pirates they'd come here to find the perfect backdrop for their photo shoot.

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Spain Mura (like the Toei Movie Park in Kyoto), thanks to it's collection of historical buildings unlike those found elsewhere in Japan, has apparently become quite popular with Cos-players. We ran into several groups along the way, and (although I don't know any of the characters) I'm not going to pass up the chance to photos of pretty girls in cute costumes.

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In many ways Spain Mura is as pure a theme park as they come, it's theme is Spain and most of it's attractions are cultural rather than white knuckle. There are nods to the design work of Gaudi, you can eat paella on the plaza and watch flamenco shows in a custom theatre. Other things like the mirror maze and the ice house are fun, but seem incidental rather than essential. That isn't a complaint though, I actually had a lot of fun trying my hand at top juggling and made some pretty impressive high tosses and catches after a bit of practice.

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There are a few thrill rides on hand as well. There's a small log flume, and a run-away train style coaster. There's also a interesting (but not altogether successful) attempt to merge the Spanish theme with a unique indoor, bull fighting, roller coaster. Basically, as riders, you are put in the position of the bull, the track releases you down a corridor from which you emerge into an arena. The track them sweeps around under a series of red capes and menacing swords thrusting at you... I am not making this up! Well, I'm never going to be a fan of bull fighting, and I wasn't really a big fan of this ride either, not just because of the theme either - it was just too odd and the motion too jerky to really flow as a ride.

They do have one killer coaster though, a ride called 'The Pyranees'. An inverted coaster which you ride with your legs hanging freely. This is one of the smoothest coasters I have ever been on, and it's a real pleasure to ride. Also, as most visitors were either families with small kids, or people who wanted a taste of Spanish culture, there weren't too many people lining up to ride it either. We jumped on it as soon as we arrived, again in the afternoon and a third time just before we left without ever having to queue more than 15-20mins. Haru nailed a picture of us zipping past as well.

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So there you go, Spain Mura. Not a place I'd be clamouring to go to again, it was fun, but one time was enough. The discount tickets made it really good value though and I'm glad we went, plus I've checked another roller coaster off the must ride in Japan list. Next in my sights is 'The Steel Dragon' at Nagashima Spaland, which I will be visiting later this year.

Posted by DKJM74 21:09 Comments (4)

Okinawa - Part 3

So this is the third and final report from our trip to Okinawa (though as I write this a second trip to Okinawa prefecture, this time to take in some of the smaller islands even further south down the chain, is currently being planned).

Today we are trading fish for fowl, and are starting the day off with a visit to Neo-park, a kind of mini-zoo with a big empasis on aviaries and various birds. While the name Neo-park is a little ironic given now aged and run down the park seems in places, I will give them credit for not really trying to house any animals that were beyond their means. There are no cramped big cats or miserable elephants here, just a lot of birds and a few smaller easy to keep mammals.

The averies are big as well, and certainly well stocked. The first area, given over mainly to Ibises was impressively well populated with healthy looking birds. As well as the Ibises there were also a few other species, including some nice Crowned cranes, pelicans and Spoonbills.

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One advantage of there being so many of type of bird was that you got to see some interesting social behaviour, that you might not see in smaller collections. These red headed chaps (not sure what they are) were endulging in a lot of bill rubbing and clacking, and thanks to the size of the enclosure they were also building nests in real trees overhanging the water (no nesting poles or the like required).

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There were also some cute Scarlet Ibises to counter-point their monochrome relatives, and I was amazed by just how alien wild turkeys look. Those faces should be the basis of some creature in a Guillermo del Toro movie.

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As I said, it wasn't just birds though. There were also a few smaller beasts crashed out in the heat, such as wild pigs and wallabies.

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I have to confess though that the visit to Neo-park was simply a way to pass the time before our main event of the day, the thing we'd both been looking forward too most of all on this whole trip - finally, we're going whale watching!

After having to give up on our typhoon ravaged attempt to go whale watching off the coast of Shikoku we decided try again in Okinawa, and we've chosen a smaller company with a smaller, faster boat and less people on board. The staff are really friendly and keep a log on their website of their sightings everyday, and despite a high level of success there is no certainty that they will find anything - so we're all a bit nervous as we head out of the harbour.

Oh - there, spotted one, that was easier (smaller and more plastic) than I expected. Actually, that's just the handy model of a humpback whale that the guides hand around as they tell us what we will hopefully see once were out on the water. So fingers crossed we'll see the real thing.

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After about 40 mins of moving around to various points where they think we might have some luck the captian suddenly shouts 'Breach!'. Apparently he's seen a whale breaking out of the water in the distance and we are off, soon others on the boat have picked up on what he saw and other people are also shouting 'Breach!'. I'm shouting 'Where?' - I can't see at all what they (including Haru) are talking about, and as we get closer they stop breaching and move away. But then I DO see a flume go up, and we slow down and move in closer.

We've done it, we've found a pair of humpbacks. A mother and calf, and with a bit of care our captain gets us up quite close. According to Haru I missed another quite close up breach around this time as well, and I have no idea how; probably looked at the camera settings at the wrong moment. What I did get to see clearly though was fine display of fin slapping; where the whales role onto their side, stick their fin out of the water and slap the surface for fun.

It looked as if the mother was actually teaching the baby how to do this. If you look at the pictures below in a couple you can see the mothers larger fin and the calfs smaller one next to it sticking out of the water. Also on the bottom-left you can see the calf breaching, and sticking its head out of the water.

We got a really nice display like this for a while, but I never did see an adult breach the water. Then another bigger boat turned up with a less skilled captain, and basically scared our whales off. We scouted around for a while, but didn't find anything else. Haru and I were both very happy that we had seen the playful mother and calf though, even reading on the company's website that the next day they got close up to a group of three males who were breaching didn't even spoil it for us - it just made us decide that we'd have to go again sometime.

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Whale watching was, without a doubt, the high point of the trip for us both, and we're really drawing towards the end of out trip now. In fact our last day is reserved for a bit of souvenir shopping and one last historical site.

For shopping one of the most famous parts of town is a street called 'Kokusai Douri', or 'International Street'. Of course there are hundreds of Okinawan Shisa of all shapes and sizes for sale, but there is also a disturbing trend towards dead animal goods - dead frog purse anybody, or a bottle of liquor with a snake in it? No, thanks.

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Believe it or not though that wasn't the most upsetting thing we'd see that day. In fact, the last place we plan to visit on our tour of Okinawa is a place that serves as a testament to a very sad part of Japanese and Okinawan history - the Battle of Okinawa.

During the final stages of WW2 the allies planned to use Okinawa as staging point for an assault on main land Japan. The brutal fight (which saw the island's fertile ground burnt, mass civilian death and mass 'kamikaze' suicide attacks employed) lasted just over 80 days. Two months after it concluded, atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered. The hard won victory in Okinawa never did provide the tactical advantage it was fought for.

Today, we are visiting the underground bunker used by the Japanese Naval command during the battle. Over 4'000 people died at this location.

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The bunker itself is a series of passages and narrow rooms carved into the stone, in other areas of Okinawa civilians hid in natural caves called 'Gama'. These are now very popular places (along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki) for school students to visit and learn about the importance of peace. The third year students in my school make such a trip every year, and it is one of the things that they remember most from their Okinawa trip; it obviously makes an impact.

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Despite the narrow corridors and dingy atmosphere, it's hard to imagine 4'000 men packed in here and even harder to imagine them giving up their lives here. Yet in certain areas there is evidence of what happened, such as a pock marked wall where grenades were used by soldiers to commit suicide.

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Like my visit to the Atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima, or to Auschwitz in Poland, this isn't a nice place, not a place you really want to go I can't even say I'm really interested in such places; it seems to me that such an interest could only be academic or morbid, and I'm neither. They are simply important places, places you should go and not forget.

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However, after leaving the bunker it is good to be out in the open again, with bright tropical flowers, and it is easy to forget the tenuous sense of connection you had to what actually happened there again. Maybe a little too easy. So instead of leaving you with the bright flowers I'll leave you with
the words from the last telegram sent from the bunker by Admiral Minoru Outa. A week after sending this he committed suicide by seppuku for what he saw as his failure to protect the people of Okinawa.

(Transcribed below the picture for easier reading)
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Sent at 20:16 on the 6th of June, 1945: "Please convey the following telegram to the Vice-Admiral. While the Governor should be the person to relay this report on the present condition of the Okinawa prefectural inhabitants, he has no available means of communication and the 32nd Division Headquarters appears to be thoroughly occupied with their own correspondences. However, due to the critical situations we are in, I feel compelled to make this urgent report though it is without the Governor's consent. Since the enemy attack began, our Army and Navy has been fighting defensive battles and have not been able to tend to the people of the Prefecture. Consequently, due to our negligence, these innocent people have lost their homes and property to enemy assault. Every man has been conscripted to partake in the defense, while women, children and elders are forced into hiding in the small underground shelters which are not tactically important or are exposed to shelling, air raids or the harsh elements of nature. Moreover, girls have devoted themselves to nursing and cooking for the soldiers and have gone as far as to volunteer in carrying ammunition, or join in attacking the enemy. This leaves the village people vulnerable to enemy attacks where they will surely be killed. In desperation, some parents have asked the military to protect their daughters against rape by the enemy, prepared that they may never see them again.

Nurses, with wounded soldiers, wander aimlessly because the medical team had moved and left them behind. The military has changed its operation, ordering people to move to far residential areas, however, those without means of transportation trudge along on foot in the dark and rain, all the while looking for food to stay alive. Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of the Prefecture have been forced into military service and hard labor, while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones. They have served with loyalty. Now we are nearing the end of the battle, but they will go unrecognized, unrewarded. Seeing this, I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree, every plant life is gone.

Even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no more food. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war. And for this reason, I ask that you give the Okinawan people special consideration, this day forward"

Posted by DKJM74 02:46 Comments (0)

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