A Travellerspoint blog

Kyuushuu Part 1 - Nagasaki, First contact

Internationalization, indoctrination and industrialization

Today, we are embarking on the first of three enteries about my first trip to Kyuushuu; the southern most of the four main islands that make up Japan (excluding the islands that make up Okinawa).

After a short flight from Osaka we arrive in Nagasaki, a town well known around the world as being, along with Hiroshima, one of the two cities to be targetted with Atomic bombs during WWII. However, Nagasaki has a much richer history that isn't quite so well known as it was the first point of real contact between Japan and the rest of the world; a fact that has shaped the city in a way that is still evident to this day, with clearly visible European and Chinese influences abounding all over the city. Such as this hill top church looking down on the waterfront


The map below shows Nagasaki as it used to be in 1792, in particular the placement of foriegn colonies around the harbour. On the right is Dutch trading post, Dejima; more about that later. On the left are the Chinese settlement and Shinchi Warehouse complex. There is still a small China town in Nagasaki, a few intersecting streets strewn with Chinese resturants, but not much remains of the orignial settlement bar a few gateways that open onto nothing. There was a vending machine full of Chinese specialities, including canned 'Bird's Nest Soup' right where the historical heart of the settlement would have been.


The Dutch settlement has been far better preserved. Actually Dejima wasn't just a Dutch colony, it was in fact built in 1634 to contain traders from Portugal. More specifically it was to contain the threat posed by the new religious ideas that came with the traders. However, only a few years later an attempted uprising (called the Shimbara Rebellion, mostly undertaken by peasents who had converted to Christianity) Japanese attitudes towards foriegners took a harsher turn. By 1639 all the Porugese had been expelled and from 1641 only the Chinese and Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan, and only via Nagasaki. The Dutch were allowed to stay, mainly due to there professional and business like approach to relations, and because of an emnity with Portugal that the Japanese now sympathised with. So between 1641 and 1853 Dejima became a Dutch trading post.

Dejima was in fact a small artificial island built in the harbour; 'Dejima' literally means protruding island. It was walled off and seperated from Japanese Nagasaki to satisfy the requirements of the Japanese Sakoku (an isolationist policy in effect at the time). Strict rules about inhabitants of Dejima leaving the compound and, vice versa, about Japanese entering it were put into place. It was purely business, and no more seditious ideas were going to be tollerated.

Over the years the expansion of Nagasaki has swollowed up Dejima so it's no longer and island. The area that used to make up the island is still preserved behind a wall that seperates it from the city, and many of the original buildings (a hybrid of European and Japanese styles) have been reconstructed exactly where they used to stand (there are plans to raise even more of these over the next few years)


Although the exterior of the buildings may be a hybrid of two cultures, but many of the interiors are strictly classic European. Real beds, fine lighting for fine dining, plush wall paper and elegant flourishes that betray the fashion of the times are everywhere; except in the areas where the Japanese would have worked, the fireplace in the tally house where the Japanese importers would have counted the goods it very Japanese in style for example.


There is also a fine collection of objects preserved from the period, including somehting else that Europeans brought to Japan that would forever change the country - guns. Though what you can see here is an encrusted pistol the weapon that had a real effect on the course of Japanese history was the Matchlock rifle, but that's another story.


By the time Dejima ceased to serve as a trading post the political tides had begun to shift again. Although anti-Western sentiment was still rife it was largely aimed at the Japanese Shogante who had entered into agreements unbalanced foriegn trade agreements. There was a rising movement to topple the Shogante, and restore the Emperor as ruled of Japan.

One man who sympathised with this cause, and even helped provide weapons for the rebels was the Scot, Thomas Blake Glover. After the eventual establishment of the Meiji Government, Glover's became in instrumental figure in the industrialization of Japan.

This bust of Thomas Glover stands in the grounds of Glover Garden, a park built around the site where his and his comapnion's old houses once stood.


Although initially in Japan to trade in green tea, Glovers role in supplying weapons during the Boshin war saw him soon expanding into other areas thanks to the gratitude of the new government.

The patch of asphalt road (pictured above) is just one of many firsts that Glover brought to Japan. He was also responsible for setting up Japan's first coal mine and first dry dock. This latter development was part of the establishment of the shipping company that would later became the Mitsubishi corporation that we know today.


Glover, for most of his life in Japan, lived with a Japanese woman called Awajiya Tsuru with whom he had a daughter called Hana. The couple never married, but Awajiya is regarded as Glover's common-law wife. Though the fact that he also adopted another British-Japanese child born of another woman, whose connection to Glover is unknown, suggests it may not have been a strictly exclusive relationship.


Yet, despite a strong Japanese influence in his life Glover built a distinctly European world aound himself. The buildings of Glover park may be roofed with Japanese tiles, but inside (like Deshima) they are bastions of European style. Though at the time the Georgian style may have seemed a little outdated to the modern Victorian gent; surprising for a man who brought so much modern edge to all his business concearns.


As you've probably gathered by now, all this history makes Nagasaki quite a unique place in Japan. It was the first point of contact for Japan with the world, and that first contact sent out ripples that that can be traced through the landscape of the city, and maybe even through all of Japan. Through the Portugese and Dutch Deshima traders bringing goods, Gods and guns. Through the missionaries and the martrys, the failed and the sucessful rebellions, the influx of new ideas and technologies that started here - Nagasaki has shaped Japan just as much Kyoto and Tokyo have.

Posted by DKJM74 22:11 Comments (0)


I guess different people measure the passing of time in different ways. For example, sports fans perhaps move from season to season through which tournament is coming up next, fashionistos maybe mark time until the next big collection is released, for me it's nature.

Just as the cherry blossoms mark the start of spring, I'd say that the fireflies herald the end of the season. As June starts I'm already anticipating the few days when they will briefly illuminate the night. We aren't quite there yet though, but we are getting close.

One day I'm out driving with Andrew and we stop to look at a temple that catches out eye, but what I notice even more is how the rice has grown so tall and lush in the fields. It only seems like a few weeks ago that the seedling were being planted and there was more water than rice in the fields.


As the rice grows, so the tadpoles that once swam in the paddies mature and start to leave the fields. A closer look at the leaves on the bushes, turns up little froglets hiding everywhere. This exodus is another sign that spring is drawing to a close, and soon it will be fire fly season.


We still have places to check off out list of things to see in Shiga before we leave, and now seems like a good time to go and see the ruins of Azuchi Castle; once the seat of Oda Nobanaga in the late 1500s, and a site of great strategic significance given it's proximity to Kyoto.

Now there is nothing left standing, and only the foundations show where the castle once stood. However, there is a festival held there every year, so not only do we get to stroll around the site, but we get to see some taiko drumming and can mingle with some mock samurai as well.


Actually, the quiter part of the ruins up on the hill away from the festival is far nicer though. With paths running along the wooded slopes, and reminants such as an old pagoda and a gate house hidden away waiting to be discovered. The complex must have covered pretty much the entire mountain back in day. It must also have been an impressive place, as much a display of status and power as much as it was an exercise in military defence; very much befitting a man of Oda Nobanaga's status, the man who paved the way for the unification of Japan under the Shogunate sysytem of rules.


However, on the grand scale of things even ventures this grand and people this powerful are ephemeral as the fireflies I'm hoping we'll finally get to see this evening - how's that for a segue?

Yes, the real reason we are visiting this side of the lake isn't just for the castle ruins, it's to spend the evening one of Shiga Kens firefly hotspots, Maibara. We've aready seen references to fireflies on several local signs, and, of course, on the drain covers (as I've mentioned before each town has it's own unique drain covers that feature things that the town is well known for; in this case fireflies).


Now, as it begins to get dusky we head down to the riverside, a stretch where the town has been making an effort to keep the water conditions and surrounding environment suitable for fireflies, then we wait.

Sure enough, as it gets darker, small dots of luminescent yellow-green start flicking on and off at points along the river.


From that point on the numbers start to increase rapidly and, leaving the safety of the reeds, begin floating up into the gloaming. Of course, using a flash on your camera would just drown out their delicate glow, so the only way to capture them is by slowing down the shutter speed and opening up the aperture. The result is that, instead of blinking lights, you get ghostly trails scrawled across the picture tracing their lazy erratic flight.

It really was a wonderful display that lasted for about an hour, at the peak of which there must have been at least a couple of hundred fireflies displaying.


This was actually just the first of four firefly viewings I enjoyed this year, the others were all more local though as there is a field just a few minutes walk from my school where you can also see fireflies; though not in the numbers you can see in Maibara.

The last trip was especially fun though as I decided I wanted to share this wonderful sight with my students as well. So, I asked the Principle if I could arrange a school trip for interested students to go and see for themselves. I got permission and the assistance of the science teacher who would help wrangle the kids. However, the day we planned the trip for was forcast for bad weather... after a quick scramble to replan, we realised that only the evening of that day was a possible substitute - this meant that the students wouldn't have time to bring the permission papers signed by their parents back to the school in advance. However, it was unavoidable so we simply told the students that is they wanted to join they had to go home get the signature, and return to the school at 7.30 for the field trip.

With this sudden change of plan I didn't expect many students to make the effort to come, but, much to my surpise around the time of the trip students just kept turning up with permission papers. In the end more than 30 students turned up eager to go and see fireflies, and two of my colleagues fron the English department also volunteered to come along and help out as it was far more than we expected.

So these last few pictures are from that evening. Kanda Sensei (the science teacher) gave a brief talk about fireflies, then we went to the stream to observe and catch some. Everybody had a lot of fun and we must have caught around 40 in total (which we let go again before we returned to the school).


Posted by DKJM74 19:41 Comments (0)

Shigaraki and Nagahama

Clay and glass


Shigaraki, home of the ceramic Tanuki; as previously featured within these very pages.

I did indeed come here once before on my way to the nearby Ninja Mura, and I snapped lots of Tanuki pictures then. Of course, as you can see above, I couldn't resist snapping a few this time too. However, Tanuki hunting wasn't the point of our visit this time, and in may ways the Tanuki are merely a by-product of what Shigaraki is really famous for - ceramics and pottery.

That local tradition for making ceramics, or Shigaraki-ware, has a long history and covers a lot more than just racoon dogs. Today we came to try and hunt down some of the old earthen ovens where the more traditional ceramics were originally fired.

The best know of these original kilns is up on a hillside a bit away from the main road, and not so easy to find; as a couple of wrong turns we took will testify. It is a rather impressive structure though, built of stone, earth and clay, in a series of stepped chambers that climb up the slope of the hill.


At the lowest point is the red brick hearth where the fire would have been lit, the heat being conveyed to each subsequent chamber via a series of small internal openings. That way each chamber, according to how near or far away it was from the fire, could be kept at a specific temperature. I assume this could be used to fire various specific types of ceramic or to make different glazes and effects possible. It could also simply be an early example of mass production in action. The kiln had obviously seen a lot of action as well, and over the years the internal walls themselves have become black and cracked with use.


Although interesting, the kiln was pretty small and it didn't take us long to look around. So, after that, we headed off to the Shigaraki Ceramic park for a spot of lunch in the cafe there.

As you might expect the lunch bowls were made of a very pretty hand crafted ceramic.


Unfortunately, the Ceramic Park itself was rather a disappointment. I think I was expecting a far larger collection of grand statues, or abstract pieces, to be on display. As it was, while there were a few nice bits and pieces, there was nothing really that impressive there. However, being increasingly aware that this could well be my last year in Shiga, I'm glad that we went and checked another place off the list of 'Things we should check out whilst still in Shiga'.


In a similar vein, soon after, I decided that Haru should also go and see the Kurokabe Square area of Nagahama while we are still here. As Shigaraki is to ceramics, so Nagahama's Kurokabe Square is to glassware. There are many glass workshops and stores around the square selling a wide range of glassware. In many of the store sell the good of specific local craftsmen whose workshops are attatched to the shops. In some cases you can see right inot the workshops and see the craftsmen, blowing and shaping the hot glass.


In translation Kurokabe square literally means Blackwall Square, and is named for the black-walled old bank building that stands at the heart of it. Nowadays, not surprisingly, this building (whilst retaining many of it's original fittings) now houses one of the biggest and best glass shops.


The surrounding streets are also full of other well preserved period buildings, with many housing other craft and glass shop; several of which we to browsed around.

There are even a couple of places where you can try your hand at crafting glass for yourself, and we might well be going back to try that out some time as we didn't get a chance during this trip.



Perhaps my favorite though was the gourd shop tucked away on the second floor of yet another glass shop. It just seemed so random, a whole store devoted to decorative gourds - almost as if long ago at the height of the glass boom someone had said, 'You know what, I think this glass thing is just a fad - gourds that's where the future lies, mark my words!'. The stock probably hasn't changed much since that fateful day.

Plus, the only thing that gourds brings to mind for me is one very funny scene in 'Life or Brian' - I was very tempted to ask the owner if they had any fake beards to sell, and then try to haggle a free gourd into the bargin.


Posted by DKJM74 23:08 Comments (0)

Spring Scrapbook 2013 Part 2

Mother Lake and Grandfather Time

Spring is a time to rekindle love affairs that withered on the vine during cruel winter. Which is just a fancy way of saying that every year I fall in love with the place that I live in all over again during the spring.

After being holed up in the house for most of the cold months it is always a joy to rediscover what a wonderful scenery there is right on my doorstep, and Lake Biwa in spring is a beautiful sight.


All of these lake view pictures were taken within 5 mins cycling range from my flat as well. I will miss this so much when I have to leave next year.


Continuing the theme of trying to find new aspect to familiar places, which I started in the last entry, I also took a spring time trip down to the Lake Biwa Museum. I've visited this place many times with the Satoyama group, but there is actually a whole side to the site that I've never seen that isn't directly connected to the museum. For example there is a rather nice garden park there as well, which I visited with Andrew and Josh.

The outer garden has many of the Japanese staples, such as a ponds with red bridges and koi. It also has it's own wind turbine which is less typical.


There is also a glass house which houses some very nice lily ponds.


Best of all though was the small tank of axolotls (not a word I have to write often), because... well because axolotls (there used it again) are amazing creatures!


After the park closed we decided to go hunting for a recreation park that Josh had seen on the internet that looked interesting. We found it eventually, but it wasn't so interesting, despite some rather impressive (and possibly dangerous) playground equipment that we were too old to use (and which Andrew and I most certainly didn't climb to the highest point of).


Maybe the biggest surprise of this spring though was Haru offering to introduce me to her Grandfather, who I was quite sure had been dead for several years.... What made this all the more suspicious was that she suggested this when I said that I wanted to go to Osaka to seen an art exhibition about Japanese ghosts, spirits and monsters. Just exactly how was she planning on introducing me to him??

Well on the day, we went to the exhibition first (which was excellent, but photography was prohibited) in an area close to the heart of Osaka. Deep Osaka as it's known, away from some of the more tourist areas and full of Osaka residents. It is also home to many small resturants and the ageing Osaka tower.


From there we walked to a nearby temple. Things began to make sense, she was just being hyper-bolic I thought, we're going to visit his grave.... I thought....


In the end I was half right with both thoughs, we did stop at the temple to pay our respects to Haru's grandfather but in an odd way he had also been raised from the grave and I did 'meet' him personally as well. You see this temple has a rather unique project, with the permission of the living relatives, the bones of dead held there are ground into a powder which is then used as the base of a kind of plaster. In turn that plaster is used to create new devotive statues of Bhudda for relatives to pray for their ancestors at. So the statue in the on the far left of the row of three (see below), which you can see more clearly in the middle of the collage - well that kind of is my Grandfather-in-law.


As far as my school is concearned Spring is also a time of tournaments, and many of the kids travel to play big matches with their various teams at other school. In fact there is one day when there are basically no kids in the school because they're all out playing matches, so I'm allowed to go and watch some of the local games as well.

Despite not being a sports fan in any way, shape or form I appreciate the chance to get out and cycle around a bit, so I decided to go and check out the baseball club who had a match just a train stop away.


I watched for a while, and chatted to the team during a break in the game, but I was far more interested in the big hill behind the sports field. So as soon as I could went off to do a spot of hiking and exploration instead. What I found was a rather nice network of paths running up to the top of the hill, and a couple of nice observation platforms built to look out over the lake.


In the Spring haze the sky and the lake kind of merged into one seamless blue, but it was still a heck of a view and a nice reminder too; just how wide open the horizon is, how much there is still left to see and do.


Posted by DKJM74 23:20 Comments (0)

Spring Scrapbook 2013 Part 1

Local treasures and Hanami in Shiga


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)

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)

Okinawa - Part 2

One of the most popular tourist spots in Okinawa is 'Churaumi Aquarium' located in the impressive Ocean Expo Park complex. Knowing that the Expo Park would take a good few hours to visit, we set off early intending to pack as much into the day as possible.


As well as usual suspects seen in any half decent aquarium, Churaumi also boasts an impressive shark tank (with proper big toothy sharks as opposed to the small nurse sharks that English aquariums try to bill as sharks. If you're not afraid of getting bitten by it, it's not a proper shark - fact!).


The most famous of exhibit thought is the massive main tank (which holds 7,500 cubic metres of water and is made of acrylic glass panels 60cm thick) which houses the giant mantas and whale sharks. These graceful oceanic blimps , which can reportedly reach sizes of up to 14m in length, are a real pleasure to watch. Slow moving, filter feeders, they are the very definition of the gentle giant.


One of the, several, great points about the Ocean Expo Park is that several attractions are free, even without paying to go into the aquarium you can go down to the performance area and enjoy two different dolphins shows for no cost at all - and both were really good shows! The first was an educational and acrobatic show mixing dolphin facts with high jumps and stunts and some humour (one dolphin was trained to spit out the fish he was given and to hold out for something bigger).


The second show was in a smaller pool, but you could get closer up, and featured a star turn from a lovely 'False Killer Whale'; just look at the concentration on his face as he carries that box across the pool.


We also got to meet 'Fuji', a rather cute bottle-nosed dolphin with a perplexing problem. A while back 'Fuji' got some sort of infection in her tail fin that began to spread the only way to stop it was to cut away the infected areas, which unfortunately left her with almost no tail. So they built her a new artificial one. Like this (photo from Reuters)


She doesn't wear the fin all the time, and when we saw her she was swimming quite well without it (top right, below is the tail stump). She is obviously well aware of her star status as she will come right up to the glass and 'chat' with anybody who comes to see her.

Below that you can see another of the free attractions at the Ocean Expo, a manatee pool with manatees donated to Japan by Mexico.


Being able to take your time and really explore a place like the expo park is really nice, but it's also good to just hit the road and go exploring too. So having spent quite a bit of time in one place that's what we did next, our vague goal being to take a run out to some of the smaller islands that are connected to Okinawa by a series of impressive water spanning bridges.

Our first stop, still on the main island, was another historical site. Okinawa is littered with the remains of ruined castles on hill tops, now reduced to nothing more than foundations. This is a good example of that phenomenon.


A little further on we hit the ocean roads and bridges and began our island hopping tour.


Stopping off at random small beaches around these islands we got so see some of the beauty Okinawa, as well as the clear blue water that it's famous for. It should be noted that we were visiting in the middle of February which is why I'm wearing a sweater, though often I didn't even need that. Actually the weather was wonderful, and a welcome escape from the bitter cold back in Shiga.


Almost as if to prove how clement it actually is on one beach we found an absolute mass of land hermit crabs hanging out on craggy rock face. I have never seen so many crabs of any kind all together like that. I was sorely tempted to pocket a few to take home and add to my 'crabitat', as my pet crabs were said to have originated from Okinawa they were probably distant relatives anyway! They were so small and cute, but I resisted the urge.


This also seems like a good time to talk about the Okinawan love of Shisa decorations. The Shisa is a kind of dog-lion hybrid mythical creature, that serves as a kind of guardian spirit to protect Okinawan homes and businesses (the former it does with mystic powers, the latter it does by helping to sell lots of Shisa merchandise). The story of how the Shisa became the protector of the island is quite nice so I'm going to copy it here from wikipedia -

When a Chinese emissary returned from a voyage to the court at Shuri Castle, he brought a gift for the king, a necklace decorated with a figurine of a shisa-dog. The king found it charming and wore it underneath his clothes. At the Naha Port bay, the village of Madanbashi was often terrorized by a sea dragon who ate the villagers and destroyed their property.

One day, the king was visiting the village, and one of these attacks happened; all the people ran and hid. The local noro had been told in a dream to instruct the king when he visited to stand on the beach and lift up his figurine towards the dragon; she sent the boy, Chiga, to tell him the message.

He faced the monster with the figurine held high, and immediately a giant roar sounded all through the village, a roar so deep and powerful that it even shook the dragon. A massive boulder then fell from heaven and crushed the dragon's tail. He couldn't move, and eventually died.

This boulder and the dragon's body became covered with plants and surrounded by trees, and can still be seen today. It is the "Gana-mui Woods" near Naha Ohashi bridge. The townspeople built a large stone shisa to protect it from the dragon's spirit and other threats.

So there you have it, the Shisa, even mighter than dragons!

Anyway, as we walked around some of the residential areas of the islands there were some lovely unique examples of real Shisa sitting guard on fence posts or rooftops (one family who were repairing their roof tiles even let me climb the ladder to get a closer look at their Shisa).


Gradually, we were winding out way, island by island, out to the end of the road. Until at last we came to the furthest island we could reach, a small mostly agricultural place with the remains of a small (almost unmarked) stone age village in the middle of one of the fields. There was no museum, or visitors centre, just a few information boards and and of the huts had been reconstructed - a very random find indeed.



Having gone as far as we could we had very little choice but to turn around and head back to the main land. By now it was starting to get late, and there was another sunset view spot we wanted to visit, but first it was time to try an odd Okinawan food; taco-rice!

Tacos were one of the foods that the US army introduced to Japan, but the Japanese decided that what it really needed was less of those taco shells and a bit more rice adding. So, yes, taco rice is basically just taco filling slapped on top of a pile of rice, still the place we ate it in had a certain ambiance that was kind of cool.


After eating we headed down to the coast again, this time to a spot with a white lighthouse sitting on top of a cliff. As we walked along the path towards it, the wind was whipping the waves against the cliff and sending white spray cresting up in to the air.


Unlike the white sand beaches we had been walking on earlier the coast here was all hard rock, and pools fringed with sea weed. The geology of the place was fascinating though, just what kind of rock this was I don't know, but it had eroded in very precise geometric lines. At first I thought it looked like a series of old man-made building foundations. I almost couldn't believe it was natural, it seemed so straight and regular.




Exploring this expanse of square rock pools and discovering starfish, crabs and sea cucumbers was really fun for me. I could have spent much longer there poking around this aquatic playground, but by now the sun was really starting to go down. So we got to close another day with another spectacular Okinawan sunset.


Posted by DKJM74 18:33 Comments (0)

Okinawa - Part 1

If you want to travel within Japan, Okinawa is just about as far as you can go. Although Okinawa prefecture is actually comprised of a chain of small islands that stretch out over almost 1'000km, most people think of the biggest and titular 'Okinawa Island' when they say Okinawa. Located in the East China Sea, almost equal distant between the Japanese mainland and Taiwan, it takes about two hours to fly there from Osaka Itami Airport.

The airport itself is quite interesting as it was originally built as an air-force base and was later re-purposed as a commercial airport. However, urban sprawl has totally surrounded the site now, making it impossible to expand further. As a result Itami is mainly used for short haul and domestic flights while the newer Kansai international Airport is used for longer flights. Still, having an airport in such an urban location is a little strange; when you take off or land you can really see just how close the houses really are.


Once we arrived around mid-day, we picked up the rental car and began driving across the island. The difference in the weather was amazing, back on the mainland it was still the cold tail-end of winter, but here it was like glorious Summer already. As we drove there was also a reminder of another thing that distinguished Okinawa from the main land, the presence of American troops. Specifically, we saw one of the controversial Ospreys flying far overhead.


Due to their complexity a number of them have been involved in accidents, and their presence in Okinawa is considered dangerous and a further slight in a long historty of uses and abuses at the hands of domestic and foriegn politicians that began almost 70 years ago in WW2. Last year there was a wave of big anti-osprey protests all across Japan, with as many as 100'000 people gathering outside the Diet in Tokyo.


However, we are here to enjoy a relaxing holiday and to do some sightseeing, not to embroil ourselves in the knotty socio-political issues between Tokyo, Washington and Okinawa, and with that in mind our first port of call is Sefa-utaki. A heritage site tied to the very ealiest periods of recorded Okinawa history. None of the buildings that were once here are standing anymore, but the vestiges of a shrine can still be seen worked into the caves, overhangs and rocks of the area.


One of the main reasons for choosing this as our first place to visit was simple logistics, we only had half a day after the flight and Sefa-utaki was on route between the airport and our hotel. Following the same logic we also planned to make one more stop on the way to the hotel, at a cliff top view spot well known for its sunset vistas.

We arrived a little ahead of time and followed the stream of people all heading down to the cliff edge like Disney's apocryphal lemmings, and soon the sky began to shift from a deep blue to range of rich and fiery oranges and reds. I'm tempted to use some and simile here and say it was like something fanciful and amazing, but the truth is (like all the best things) it was simply what it was - pure and authentic enough to make Jean-Paul Sartre cry - a beautiful sunset.



So, that was the end of our first half day in Okinawa, just time to go back to the hotel and eat, which meant another slice of (not quite so beautiful) authenticity... Yes, that's a real pigs head.


So that concludes our first day in Okinawa, more next time.

Posted by DKJM74 18:23 Comments (0)

A New Year and a New Camera !!

It seems odd to be writing this up as I sit here in a short sleeved polo shirt, with the air-conditioner on, to keep out the early Summer heat, but here's my Christmas and New Year report :-)

As has become our habit we celebrated Christmas at home with my home cooked Western-style Christmas dinner, the Doctor Who Christmas special and this year's Christmas movie of choice - the rather good 'Arthur Christmas' (the 'Muppet Christmas Carol' is still the number one Christmas movie thought).


Outside our flat though you would have been hard pressed to find any sign of Christmas spirit in Imazu, so we decided to make an overnight trip to Osaka for the German Christmas market again.


We also combined this with a return visit to the Sky Building, which was nice as the last time we were there was in 2009 when we'd only just started dating (I was still calling Haru by the her full name, 'Harumi', back then).


These were almost the last photos I took with my old camera (a Fujifilm Finepix F300) as well, though I did take it out one more time after that for a Satoyama group meeting where I snapped these pictures.


I was time to retire the trusty F300 though. Recently I'd run into a number of problems with it (not focusing correctly, the protective shutter not opening or closing correctly) and I was already itching to upgrade a bit. (I should say that these problems were mostly likely due to excessive use, often in not very camera friendly environs, and that overall I was very happy with that camera.) It was simply time to move on, so I decided to invest a bit more and go semi-pro with a micro four thirds digital camera. So here are some trial shots from my first couple of trips out with my new Olymus E PL5 Pen; which I'm now going to ramble on about for a bit.

Firstly a few Macro mode shots of various things we passed as we walked up to a local waterfall. I got to play with the touch screen auto-focus for the first time here, which can give a really nice depth of field.


A few hero shots to mark our not-so-epic ascent to the falls.


Some portraits taken sneakily with the aid of, something totally new no me, a second lens! Switching lenses, and not having any digital zoom, will take some getting used to.


However, I did discover, when I took these photos on the lakeside a few days later, that even though I have to get closer to the subject the resulting photo is better quality and can stand more close cropping than I could do before.


A few more macro shots where I was playing with some of the art and colour filters available.


Lastly, some photos taken at the Lake Biwa Museum. This was a good chance to play around with the manual settings for the aperture and shutter speed. This let me get some pretty good shots of both fast moving water birds, and the huge sturgeon in a rather dark tank. These photos are much better than the ones I took on my last visit, and many are almost frame for frame the same so I could compare.



I still feel like I'm learning how to use this camera, but I am mostly using the manual aperture and shutter settings and quick menus (for stuff like white balance) which gives great control and scope. I'm very pleased the hardware and think that when I fully learn how to use it I'll be able to take some photos I couldn't have managed before.

Posted by DKJM74 00:20 Comments (0)

Momiji in Nara

Cherry blossom in Spring and Momiji in Autumn. it's such a familiar cycle now that you can mark the passing of time with it like the hour and half hour on a clock.

This year we decided to pick up Junko (my Mother in law) and to drive over to the park with the suspension bridge to see the momiji there. However, as we got closer we saw that the car park there was overflowing with like minded people, and they were waving cars away so as not to totally block up the narrow road, so we just kept driving until we hit Nara instead.

Between 710 and 748 Nara was actually the capital of Japan, during the aptly named Nara era. As a result there are still a lot of grand old temples there, and it's a popular tourist destination which I have visited before. That was a while ago however, and it was nice to make an unexpected return visit to check out the Autumn colours in Nara's spacious parks.


Of course the term Momiji, although being a general word for the Autumn foliage, usually refers to the red maple leaves. This year the conditions were perfect as well, after two damp and slightly disappointing seasons, here there was shocking red in abundance.


There were also some wonderful yellows on display, though to be honest I have no idea what those trees are (feel free to inform me in the comments).


Another nice thing about winding up in Nara was the chance to see all the deer again. Nara has a large semi-wild population of deer that are something of a cross between the flying vermin of Trafalgar Square and the scared cows of India; they do have some status in local religious beliefs, but their most sacred powers seems to be the ability to attract tourist and part them with their money for deer food. Not that I'm complaining, as cynical as that might sound, I actually really like the deer; and I'm fully in favour of every town having its own signature animal to roam its street in large packs - I want wallabies in my town!!


A lot of deer were taking advantage of the pools in the park to cool down, and as that seemed like a smart thing to do we decided to a bit of strolling around the lakes as well.




Another nice surprise came when we headed into the centre of Nara to find somewhere to eat, after passing a lot of the usual fare we spotted a Vietnamese restaurant. We decided to give that a try, and I really enjoyed it - Vietnamese food can now be added to the list of Asian cuisines that I like (which includes every Asian cuisine I've tried except Japanese unfortunately!)


Nara certainly makes a great Momiji viewing spot, and, for a totally unplanned day out, we really couldn't have asked for a nicer time.

Posted by DKJM74 08:17 Comments (0)

Fujii-Q Highland - Rollercoasters with a view!

As regular readers may have noticed riding roller coasters all over Japan has become a bit of a habit for myself and my friend Andrew. Although it started off as an accidental project, in a 'Oh, we're near a theme park shall we check it out?' kind of way, we have now reached the point where we travel for the roller coasters, and if you're going to do that... well you have to go to Fujii-Q Highland, home so some of Japan's best roller coasters.


So following our tried and tested method of taking a week-day off work when the kids have tests, at a time not long before a school holiday (this means the park isn't half as busy as it is if you went at the weekend or during a holiday), we set off in mid November for the long drive to Mt.Fujii.

By the time we got there it was dark and we had to find a cheap hotel for the night, luckily there are several business hotels near the park and we got a decent enough room without any bother - we also got a surprise in the morning when we woke up to discover that we had a spectacular view of Fujii-san directly from out hotel window (which we hadn't been able to see the night before!).


With great weather, and high-spirits, we headed straight for the park - even as we approach the roller coaster tracks make quite an impression and cranked up our anticipation levels.


The park has a number of well known 'named' roller coaster - details of which I'm copying straight from Wikipedia :-)

Fujiyama, 79 metres tall, 130 km/h, opened in 1996 and was once the world's tallest roller coaster. As of 2007 it is the world's 8th tallest, 5th longest, and 10th fastest roller coaster.

Dodonpa, 52 metres tall, 172 km/h, opened in 2001 and was once the world's fastest roller coaster. As of 2013 it is the 4th fastest in the world but still has the highest acceleration at launch time.

Eejanaika, 76 metres tall, 126 km/h, opened in 2006 and is only the second "4th Dimension roller coaster" ever built (the first being X² at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California). As a "4th dimension" roller coaster its seats can rotate 360 degrees forward or backward in a controlled spin, thus allowing Eejanaika to invert 14 different times, even though the actual track inverts only three times. It surpasses the first built "4th dimension" roller coaster, X², in both height and speed.

Takabisha, opened on 16 July 2011, contains a 121° free-fall, as well as seven major twists over 1000 metres of track, and a drop of 43 metres.

The first one we jumped on was the 'Dodonpa', just because it was nearest and not much queue had formed yet - that also meant that we didn't see the ride before we got in the queue. As we got into the car, I looked at the long straight tunnel that the track starts with, and turned to Andrew to say, 'I think this might be a fast start.' - what actually came out was 'I think this might be waaaghhhh! as the car blasted off like a shell being launched from a cannon. It is scary fast, rocketing around a long sling shot curve before hitting a near vertical incline and drop.

(photo from stripes.com)

It was certainly an impressive start, and we reeled off that straight into the line for 'Fujiyama'.


It may no longer be the tallest roller coaster in the world, but it's probably the tallest I've ridden at 79 meters tall. Despite our off season, mid-week, plan the park was getting pretty busy, and already the queues were getting longer; but still acceptable. Plus, Fujii-Q does have some quite entertaining videos featuring their park mascots, a team of Power ranger look-a-likes, that you can watch while you wait. I also got to snap this shot that shows you just how close to the real Fuji the park is.


We also kilkled a bit of time by looking over the ride plan to get an idea of what was coming up.


As you can see it's not only high, but also a very long track. I enjoyed this one a lot, after the initial drop it's a long series on not too harsh curves and dips that are quite smooth to ride. However, for Andrew this was the most scary ride of the day, the sound of the car being ratcheted up to the top of the first drop also ratcheted up the tension making him really nervous on this one. Personally I was way too distracted by the increasingly amazing view of Fuji appearing the higher we got to actually get too scared about the height!

After just two rides we were already ready for something to eat, so we had a sit down lunch at Mos-Burger. A big mistake, not the Mos-burger, that was fine, but sitting down! We should have just got pizza or such like and eaten standing in a queue. We lost a lot of time there, it's a novice mistake people, learn from us!

By the time we'd eaten and decided to what to do next the park was getting really busy. Despite the long queue (and extra fee) we decided to commit to the Super Scary Labyrinth of Fear, a Haunted Hospital attraction.


Unlike the Disney Haunted Mansion this is actually a walk through attraction where you explore an abandoned hospital with a nasty past. Props, lighting, special effects and real actors in ghostly costumes are all used to up the creep factor. Having never tried anything like that before we were both eager to give it a go, but it was a big time commitment with an hour and a half in the queue - and almost another hour inside the hospital. In the end it was a new and fun experience, I'm glad we did it, but I wouldn't do it again just from a 'best use of time' point of view.

Time was indeed slipping away fast now, so we headed straight for another big coaster thinking that with a bit of luck we'd be able to do that and get into another queue before the lines were closed. That was the theory, but our luck ran out here. We jumped into the line for 'Eejanaika, the 4th dimension coaster'.


However, there was a technical problem with one of the two cars they usually run on the track. So shortly after we got in the line they took that car out of service, which meant that only one car was running, and the line went down at half the usual speed - of course safety comes first, and if they had even the slightest reason to think the car needed to be checked they did the right thing, but it was unlucky that we got caught out by that.

In the end, we did get to ride 'Eejanaika', but it was the last ride of the day, and for me the most scary. Whereas Andrew was affected by the slow wind up of Fujiiyama, I was far more freaked out by the 4D style of this ride. To start with all the seats are facing away from the track so you go backwards, then just when you pick up speed and hit the first twist the seats flip over in the middle of it - so you're upside-down, back-to-front, inside-out and god knows what else. It's so disorienting, my heart was racing and I was screaming through most of the ride. Still isn't that what you want from a good roller coaster?

So, despite getting in early on a not-so-busy day, we still only managed to try out 4 attractions. Which does make the cost per ride of the 'All day pass' a bit high, but we both had a lot of fun and agreed that we should make a return trip to finish off the other rides. Actually, as I write this that return trip is about a week away - next week, Friday is a school test day, it's before the Summer holidays and Fujii climbing season hasn't started yet - so all the stars seem aligned, we're going back again! - I'll add an update on what we managed to ride as soon as we get back!

The next day we had to head back home, but we had a bit more time to do the trip in so we took it at a slower pace, with a few stops to snap more photos of the majestic Mount Fuji along the way.



OK - Here is the the update; Fuji-Q 2: The Return!

Well straight off, our reasoning and timing was faultless this time. The lines were much shorter and we got to ride a lot more attractions - plus having already done the Haunted Hospital last time we didn't loose time on that, in short we got to ride everything we rode last time and everything we didn't!

That includes the last of the named coasters as we got to ride the 'Takabishi' coaster as well this time.


The track is full of loops and twists. It also has has a nerve wracking drop that beyond vertical, it actually tilts inwards, cranking up to that and being held for a few seconds before the drop is very scary; but the actual drop happens so fast you barely have time to react. Another good coaster, making all four of the named coasters 'must rides'.

There's a small 'Mad-Mouse' style coaster too, which we also rode, but it's in no way essential.


We also got to ride a number of non-coaster attractions this time including a really high 'Chair-a-plane' ride with great views of Fujii, a kiddy sky-ride and a couple of walk around attractions themed on 'Gundam' and 'Kitsune Zorro' respectively.


We even discovered a toilet with the most amazing bit of random English I've come across in Japan yet.


Perhaps the biggest surprise though was the quality of the water-rides which were by far the wettest I've ridden in a long time. The log flume is short, simple and pure of intent - you curve out of the station go up, loop around, and drop - for a couple of seconds you are blinded by a tidal wave of water, and you no longer have dry underwear! (More fun than it sounds).

The rapids ride though has a more complex design that's almost like a swimming pool water-slide. It really whips the car around, and sloshes waves everywhere. As an added bonus, we also got to ride it with a couple of girls we started chatting to in an earlier queue, and having real screaming girls is a lot more fun than just Andrew and me screaming like girls.


All in all, a great day second time around, the difference in time spend queuing and time spent riding stuff this time was incredible. By the end of the day I felt like I couldn't ride another roller coaster, I'd reached my limit and had certainly got my money's worth.

So, let's cap this off with a couple more Fujii snaps from Round 2 at Fujii-Q



Posted by DKJM74 01:59 Comments (0)

Touring the Inland Sea: Part 3 - Inujima

Last day of our tour of the inland sea, and today we're checking out the Inujima art project.


Inujima is by far the smallest island of the tour, with only 54 residents actually living there, but in many ways it's the one I've been looking forward to seeing the most because of the industrial heritage of the island.


All those chimneys once belonged to a copper refinery that was in operation here (for a mere 10 years) between 1909 and 1919. After it closed down the site was left mostly untouched for the the best part of the next century. In 2008 the site was finally reclaimed as the site for the art project in 2008.

The art housed in the main facility has a kind of deconstructed (or exploded) architectural vibe to it taking common elements of houses and suspending them in place without any actual house to hold them together. It does create an interesting effect that is somehow both familiar and unsettling at the same time. Another interesting structural piece is the long underground walkway you can see in the picture below - again not all is what is seems here. The apparently straight tunnel is actually made up of a series of 90 degree turns with 45 degree mirrors at each corner that just give the illusion of a single continuous passage.


Back on the surface though, all renovations aside, a large part of the attraction was the chance to simply poke around the ruins. This is effectively a tourism approved entry level haikyo spot. Even Haru was comfortable exploring here, so it was nice to be able to share my hobby of Urban Exploration with her in some small way.




After we'd finished exploring the Art project we still had some time, before our last ferry, to explore the rest of the island. As I said before the actual live in community is very small, only 54 people, but the there are a fair amount of people who come to the island for work (at the art project or fishing etc). Most of the building are very old style wooden structures, including this rather charming old firestation (below, top right; check out the fire bell hanging off the ladder on the left and side).


Another highlight for me was the thriving community of fiddler crabs on one of the beaches, look below - see that muddy patch behind the row boat, well all the crabs in the other pictures were hanging out in that little area. A veritable crab-tropalis.


Having circumnavigated the whole island our trio was finally drawing to a close, a last stroll along the coast to the back to the ferry station where we had just enough time for a cool drink and short rest before our final ferry back to the main land.


One thing really worth noting about this trip is how surprisingly 'off road' it is, back at work none of my colleagues had ever been to these islands or really knew much about them. Likewise until I suggested it Haru had never considered going there, it's not exactly a hidden or secret spot but it certainly isn't well known either. So if you are in Japan, have a bit of extra time and want to do something that other visitors might not do - a tour of the inland sea is well worth considering.

Posted by DKJM74 17:35 Comments (0)

Touring the Inland Sea: Part 2 - Teshima and Naoshima


We left Shodoshima early this morning, boarding another ferry, skirting around the south coast and heading west to Teshima.


This is the second and briefest stop (just half a day) on our island hopping trip.

After disembarking we jump on a bus and cross the island to get to what I wanted to call the island's most famous site.... but I have just discovered that actually the island is most famous for something I wasn't even aware of during our visit. Apparently the island is most famous for being the stage of one of the biggest ever industrial waste scandals. Over a period of time, up until the early 90s almost 600.000 tons of waste were illegally dumped on the island

"Teshima Residents took Kagawa Prefecture to court over the waste scandal and made the prefecture take responsibility for correctly processing and clearing the waste from the island. Since 2003, the waste has been transported to nearby Naoshima and processed in one of the most modern facilities in the country. The residents group offers guided tours of the site and of the island in Japanese."

As I say, at the time I knew nothing about that, but it does kind of explain some odd, industrial looking, seemingly abandoned buildings we could see in the distance. Anyway, oblivious to this fraught past, what we came to see was the island's second most famous point, it's UFO crash site. (See bottom right below).


OK, so it not an actual UFO crash site, it an art facility that looks like a UFO crash site from the outside.

When I say 'art facility' that's what I mean as well, it's not a gallery. The structure itself is the art. Primarily it's an experiment in form and space, but learning about the waste scandal certainly lends a bit of back story to this place that helps make a bit more sense of it's abstract aesthetic. After enduring such a massive and prolonged assault on the local environment the idea of a work of art to re-affirm the possibility of a finding a balance, and harmony, between man and nature must have appealed to the local residents.

The shell like body of the building is punctured with two wide holes that frame ever-changing planes of sky, forest and sea. They also open the whole to the elements allowing the seasons, weather and the facility to influence each other. If that didn't make the structure fragile and permeable enough, the floor is also peppered with small holes that birth (and consume) a network of small rivlets, and pools of water that criss cross the whole area inside.

As photography isn't allowed on site, I've had to scavenge photos from around the net to put together a collage that gives you a sense of the place.
Also you can read a fuller article about the facility by clicking here if you want.


Teshima isn't the only local island to dabble in the world of art though. In fact it's something of a local trend in the area, and several of the Seto Inland Sea islands play host to art in one form or another. It's a good way of drawing visitors to the islands, and (truth be told) it's why we are here too. Checking out some of the best art installations on the islands is actually the main goal of this trip. Without a doubt the biggest collection of art to be found here is housed on Naoshima, and that's our next stop.

We'll be spending two nights on Naoshima, and our transport of choice...


... bikes. Noashima is the perfect size for cycling around, and it's a great way of hitting all the various galleries and enjoying the scenery at the same time. As you can see on the road sign below there are three main galleries on the island, however there are also a lot of smaller art installations and incidental art scattered around; such as the giant red and yellow squashes which have almost become the icons of the island.


On our first day we only had the time to visit the Benesse House gallery. To get there it was a nice run along the coast, passing through a sculpture park full of simple, brightly coloured animals. Then a short steep hill climb to reach the gallery itself, which sits on a atop a small peninsula overlooking the sea.


Again the photography was mostly off limits in the gallery, though I managed to work around this in a few places by standing outside and taking photos through open doors into the gallery... so I wasn't in the gallery taking pictures... it's a grey area :-)

The exhibits were all modern art and tended towards abstraction, often imposing order and form onto naturally chaotic and random objects; for example see the circle made of stone chunks below. There is something very Japanese about this aesthetic sense that can also be seen in raked lines of a zen gravel garden, the careful placement of flowers in the art of ikebana (flower arranging) or trimmed perfection of a bonsai tree.


By the time we left Benesse House it was already getting dusky and we had to cycle back to our accommodation, we made one brief stop by the harbour to snap some photos inside the red squash (and getting some nice ghosting effects with the long exposure). Then it was time to call it a night.


The next day, we wanted to see the other two main galleries (The Chichu art museum and the Lee Ufan gallery) and also check out some of the smaller sites. I able to take any photo, at either the Chichu or Lee Ufan galleries. Stylistically though they were very similar to Benesse house, all three place being mostly built from large smooth white slabs, and the style of art also continued in the abstract aesthetic vein.

Despite not being able to take my own photos I did find this collage of photos from the Chichu museum that give a good overall impression of the place. In the top right picture you can see how most of the museum is actually underground with 'skylights' carved into the earth to allow natural light into various parts of the gallery.


It is worth saying that that touring these islands can soon get quite expansive, as each of the main art sites is charged for separately (though you can get a 'passport' ticket that covers all of the smaller sites). With each site (and the 'passport') costing around 1'000 yen per person it soon adds up, so if you do find yourself here and running low on cash, or short of time, I can say without a doubt that the Lee Ufan Museum is the one to skip. It is the smallest and least impressive by quite a margin.

Anyway, one thing I could take pictures of was the water garden near the Chichu museum. A series of Lilly ponds, modelled on Monet's water garden in France, line the road side. This is obviously in honour of the fact that the museum, in addition to it's modern art collection, is home to three huge Monet canvases. According to the museum's website, 'The rationale behind Chichu Garden is one where, through physical experience, it is believed one's understanding and appreciation of Claude Monet's work can be deepened'.


Again, this next picture isn't mine, but it shows the room where Monet's pictures are displayed, and you can see how (whilst the roof isn't totally open) the sunlight is bounced off the white walls to provide natural light inside the room.


As I already mentioned in addition to the main galleries there are also a number of smaller installations, called 'art houses' scattered around the island. These smaller sites were each the work of a different artist and varied wildly in terms of style and content; from very formal displays of traditional Japanese crafts to much more personal and quirky pieces. Here are couple of my favourites.


At first glance this shrine (above) looks no different to thousands of others you can see anywhere around Japan. However, take a closer look at the steps leading down to the ground - they are made of massive blocks of glass and they don't stop when they hit the floor (Below, right hand side). To really appreciate this place you have to follow a small path that winds down the behind the shrine, and then enter a narrow passage that cuts under it. There you'll find those same glass steps cutting down into a world that was invisible from above, and where, when you decided to leave, the passage you came in by now leads out to a flare of light that blooms at it's mouth.

The beauty of this place is that it uses it's location to do something that it couldn't do in a gallery. The spiritual nature of the shrine naturally shapes the way you think about the experience of moving between these various, discrete yet connected, spaces. There is something very Buddhist about passing from the plain above, to the plain below, and then being 'reborn' into the light as you leave the dark.

The left hand side of the collage (below) is an old dentist clinic that has experienced an id explosion, there isn't any apparent rhyme or reason to why the artist has filled it with the things they have, but it's interesting to walk around inside someone else's head-space made real for a while.


Between visiting the various art sites we were of course still cycling around the island and enjoying the natural beauty of the place as well. The weather was glorious, and still warm enough for swimming in the sea. As the day wore on, and the sun began to set, we were treated to some truly wonderful sea views.




We still had one more night on Naoshima, but we'd be leaving early tomorrow the last leg of our journey. So what better way to spend the evening than relaxing with a soak at the local spa. So, ladies and gentlemen, I7ll leave you with the final art site of our from Naoshima tour - the rather funky local bath house.



Posted by DKJM74 22:12 Comments (0)

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.


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.


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!!!


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.


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


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!


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.


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).


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!'


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.


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.


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)

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