A Travellerspoint blog

Plan B from Kochi Ken

Or when typhoons strike!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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





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

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


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


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



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

Posted by DKJM74 17:11 Comments (0)

Walking In Kiso Valley

Going the postal route

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

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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


Posted by DKJM74 22:23 Comments (0)

Steam Punks

Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum; Kyoto

Last year a new aquarium opened in Kyoto, the biggest non-costal aquarium in Japan I believe (though most of Japan is costal so that's not saying too much). Anyway, I decided to wait until the initial wave of interest (and associated crowds) had died down before going to check it out.

However, I mis-judged it and on the day Haru and I went the place was still heaving with visitors, and we decided not to bother. So we found ourselves in Kyoto's Umekoji park with no real plan, and no real idea what else there was around there.

Well, as it turns out there are two other interesing things in Umekoji park apart from the aquarium. Firstly, there's a Japanese style garden sperated off from the large public park. So we paid and went in for a look around, and while it's not too big it is nice with blend of older and more modern Japanese styles.


While we were wandering around the park though we heard the distinct sound of steam trains nearby. Sure enough, Umekoji park is also home to Kyoto's steam locomotive museum - which I didn't even know existed.

The main reason for putting the museum here is that the building was actually the original Nijo train station. The station building itself is the oldest wooden station building in Japan, and was in service from 1904 to 1997.

The rest of the buildings are mostly arrayed around the engine turn table behind the station building.


These are mainly the train sheds that house the museums collection of 17 locomotives, 6 of which still run and can be taken out onto a short stretch of private line behind the park (which is why we could hear steam trains from the park).

Now, I not a train geek as such, but as I made clear last time (while waxing lyrical about Jules Verne) I do like the the steam-punk genre, and aesthetics of steam trains appeals to me. I can't help but envision H.G.Well time machine style devices when confronted with so many pistions, gears and brass gauges.



Of course we took the chance to ride the train as well, though unless you've never been on a steam train before I wouldn't say it's essential. The track is very short and not very scenic, the UK still has a few really nice steam lines running (such as the one Nik and rode in Wales) and this just couldn't compare.


To be honest just watching the trains is probably more of a thrill, that thick plume of smoke coiling up and the shrill of the whistle is just so evocative of a time that has passed. For both of us it was also interesting watching the engineers clearing out the old coals from the furnace and refilling the water tank, before returning the train to the shed.

One lingering inpression I was left with was one of how much more physical the world used to be, corporeal, real, hands on as opposed to virtual and touch screen as it is now. There's a solidity to those engines. A reality to the relationship between them, their drivers and engineers that's hard to convey. A sense of connectedness that I often only feel when I'm looking at bygone ways and processes.

When I was living in Slovakia one of the main clients of the language school I worked in was a local steel mill. I visted the mill many times to teach classes, but I never got even a shadow of the feeling I got when I once saw a real blacksmith work a single piece of red hot steel with tongues and a hammer. I don't know what, if anything, that means. It's just a feeling that something has been lost - but I'm not sure it ever even existed in my lifetime.


Well, I'll leave this on that note and a few extra photos in sepia for that old world feel.


Next time, I'll be writing up our walking trip in the beautiful Kiso valley.

Posted by DKJM74 22:08 Comments (0)

Disney Sea; Tokyo

Welcome one and all to a world where Imagination and Adventure set sail. Tokyo DisneySea is dedicated to the spirit of exploration that lives in each of us. Here we chart a course for Adventure, Romance, Discovery and Fun and journey to exotic and fanciful Ports of Call. May Tokyo DisneySea inspire the hearts and minds of all of us who share the water planet, Earth.
—Michael D. Eisner, September 4, 2001

Day two at the Tokyo Disney Resort, and today we are trading Land for Sea.

OK a few facts first, actually the Tokyo Disney Resort isn't even owned by Disney, it's owned by 'The Oriental Land Company' who are assisted by Disney imagineers, but they licence all the characters likenesses and famous attractions from Disney; and probably have to adhere to lots of strict guidelines set down by Disney. Why is this important? Well it is in many ways the only reason that 'Tokyo Disney Sea' exists.

'Tokyo Disney Sea' opened in 2001, yet the outline for the park (it's theme, design and main attractions) had been around for about 20 years prior to that. Originally conceived by Disney imagineers as a second resort to be built in Southern California, the proposed 'Disney Seas' park was never built though. Having just taken a financial hit with the under-performance of the newly opened Euro Disney, Disney were in no mood to risk another huge scale project. However, when 'The Oriental Land Company' expressed interest in adding a second theme park to their resort in Tokyo it was the old 'Disney Seas' plans that were offered to them. The bulk of the development had already been done, it just needed the investment to realize it. 'The Oriental Land Company' stepped up and put in an estimated $4 billion, making 'Tokyo Disney Sea' the most expensive theme park ever built; and, unlike 'Tokyo Disney Land', a park that's unique to Japan having no direct American counterpart though some of the individual attractions can be found elsewhere.

The investment certainly paid off as the park hit 10'000'000 visitors within just 307 days (breaking the previous world record by about 30 days) and last year it was the 4th most visited theme park in the world.

The park itself is divided into 7 areas, or, to tie in with the watery exploration theme that the park is based around, 'Ports of call' as they are known - you can see them here.


The Island, Harbour, Waterfront, Coast, River Delta, Port and Lagoon and all connected by huge ring of water which adds to the aquatic atmosphere of each area, and plays host to several attractions around the park such as boat rides and floating parades.

In the panorama below you can see how the 'Mediterranean Harbor' (which serves as the main entrance) is divided into two parts. On the right the grand Venetian designs of the Venice Port (which serves as a functional hotel complex as well) which is connected via an elaborate bridge to the more medieval 'Fortress Exploration' which recreates a old Mediterranean walled city. Behind both of these you can see glimpses of the 'American Waterfront'.


Now, I liked the design work of Disney land, but I loved the design work here. Many of the area don't simply evoke a genre, such as 'Western Land' or 'Fantasy Land' but a much more specific place and time. It was a real pleasure just going around and absorbing the details each port of call. For example, here you can see some of the back alleys of the Aladdin themed 'Arabian coast' (where we rode 'Sindbad's Storybook Voyage'), and the gondolas plying the canals of the 'Mediterranean Harbor'. Attractions like this add a slightly more 'sophisticated' and adult feel to 'Disney Sea' over 'Disney Land', and it really feels like it has been designed with dating couples in mind as much as families and kids - in short it's a perfect example of what the Japanese call a 'date course'.


The American waterfront combines elements from the 1930s and 40s with touches of Art Deco and modernism. The two most obvious landmarks here are the Hightower hotel and the cruise ship the S.S. Colombia.

The Hightower Hotel is the home of the accelerated drop ride 'The Tower of Terror', which again differs from other versions of the same ride as it has a totally different backstory to avoid additional royalty fees required for the 'Twilight Zone' name attached to the ride elsewhere. Instead the Tokyo versions tells a story of Harrison Hightower, a rich explorer and plunderer who wasn't adverse to snatching valuable artefacts from various cultures around the world for his private collection. The hotel foyer is hung with some wonderful paintings showing Hightower's various thefts and pursuit by the artifact's irate, rightful owners. Of course, he gets his comeuppance when one of his prizes turns out to be cursed, and happily sends him on a one way trip down the elevator shaft of his luxury hotel.

I've always found tower drop rides to be very scary, and the build up to 'The Tower of Terror' is fantastic. However, I'm a very visual person and this ride, unlike most tower drops, is contained. The lights actually go out as you drop, or rather are pulled down at speeds faster than a free fall. For some people I guess this would be scarier, but for me without being able to see the ground rushing up to meet me a lot of the thrill was lost. Don't get me wrong, it was fun - just not as scary as I thought it would be.

The S.S. Columbia despite being a fully functional ship, is more of a show site and dining area. There are two restaurants on the ship, a large light dining room and the smaller, leather and wood furnished, 'Teddy Roosevelt Lounge', where we had a nice light lunch of roast beef sandwiches and cakes.


At the back of the park is the 'Lost River Delta' port of call, this South American adventure zone's key building is a huge Aztec pyramid that rises out of the trees. Two of the attractions here are Indiana Jones themed, though only one of them is in name; the 'Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Crystal Skull' ride.

However, Tokyo's 'Raging Spirits' roller coaster is actually a variation of the Disney Land Paris' 'Indiana Jones et le Temple du Péril' ride; unfortunately 'Raging Spirits' wasn't running the day I went so I didn't get to experience that.

The Crystal Skull ride is an EMV (Enhanced Motion Vehicle) ride, meaning your ride car, in this case an army jeep, is articulated to move in many surprising ways to simulate the effects of set pieces during the ride. The system was designed for the original Indiana Jones ride in the US and patented by Disney in 1995.


The ride backstory is a typical Indiana Jones tale; a race against time and rivals to find a powerful artefact. Despite it's name the ride isn't really a movie tie in with the 4th (terrible) Indiana Jones movie, thankfully it was designed and built sometime before the film came out and so it doesn't reference it at all. It does however have some impressive effects (a nice rolling smoke effect comes to mind now), and it does hit some of the classic beats from the earlier movies; including, of course, a rolling boulder chasing you at the finale.


In the collage above you can also see a couple of photos from the 'Mermaid Lagoon', this area is a mostly indoor, underwater themed area based on Triton's kingdom from the Little Mermaid. This is the real exception to my previous 'more adult' comment as this is an area really designed for very young children, but the 'Under the Sea' show in the Mermaid Lagoon Theater looked interesting enough to tempt us in.

Photography was forbidden during the show, but it was... magical. The stage was a very small circle, surrounded 360 degrees by seats, but most to the action took place in the air. The performers use wired harnesses to 'swim' and tumble through the air with just a slight shift of weight. Again the artistry, and design work was wonderful, and it really reminded me of the fantastic modern circus shows of troupes like Cirque Du Soleil. This was the only live show, apart from the parades, that we went to see during our time at the resort, but, if this is typical of their standard, if we go back again I'd certainly like to check out some more.

Speaking of the parades here are some photos from 'The Legend of Mythica' a water parade / show based around the concept of mythical, magical creatures. Like the Easter parade in 'Disney Land' this was a chance for fans to see their favourite characters, and I guess that we were just lucky that Mickey was in 'Disney Land' the day before and 'Disney Sea' that day. I mean there can't be two Mickey's, can there? :-)



Well, I've been saving my favourite two areas for last and here they are.

In second place, the Mediterranean Harbor's 'Fortress Explorations'; a compact recreation of a medieval walled city with a pirate ship moored at the docks. There are no big rides or shows here, the attraction is exploration itself. "The Leonardo Challenge" is walk around, puzzle solving, treasure hunt you can participate in that sends you around rooms that touch on the life and works of visionaries and explorers like Magellan, Columbus and of course Da Vinci himself. This includes rooms with pendulum clocks, handcrafted machines inspired by Da Vinci's designs, and an incredible, and huge, belt driven orrery that you can manually operate. There even a full room dedicated to one optical illusion, three of its walls, its ceiling and floor are all painted with an amazing perspective bending image of a devastating volcanic eruption. This image falls into wonderful, non-digital 3D when you view it through lens that sits where the fourth wall should be. Most of these things would be at home in a museum of the Renaissance science, and to find them so beautifully housed in theme park is unbelievable. (There's a quite detailed blog, with some nice photos, about this area here )

If you follow the clue trail to the end you can get a stamped certificate from the fictional S.E.A.(Society of Explorers and Adventurers) and help to prevent the eruption of Mount Prometheus; the impressive volcano that glowers over the whole park from it's central position.



Mount Prometheus isn't simply a piece of background scenery though, it's the home of the 'Mysterious Island' and a port of call in it's own right. It's also gets first place as my favourite zone in the whole resort. All things considered perhaps I should have given the top spot 'Fortress Explorations', in truth 'Mysterious Island' doesn't have anything to rival the genius of that area. However, I'm a sucker for all things steam punk. I fully intend to slowly start ditching my current wardrobe and gradually start wearing more top (or bowler) hats, brass-rimmed goggles and frock coats, at the very least I need a walking stick and a chronometer. So just the sight of the wrought iron work, and thick electrical cables, complete with heavy ceramic insulators, festooning the passages got me all excited.


You see, the 'Mysterious Island' is the home of all things Vernian, and Jules Verne is the Grand-daddy of steam punk. It's the secret harbour of Captain Nemo's incredible, electric, submarine the Nautilus, and the boarding point for two Jules Verne themed attractions; 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' and '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea'.

The former is exciting narrative based ride (similar to the Indiana Jones ride, but without the EMV cars) where you get to ride steam powered drilling machines down to the earths core and see the weird beasts that live there, the latter is a more sedate, though again heavily narrative based, simulated submarine ride where you can use mounted search lights to explore the murky world outside and discover a lost, sunken, civilization. Both are a lot of fun, and well worth checking out.


Actually, the only ride that I found disappointing in either park was 'Aquatopia' in 'Port Discovery'. It just lacked the design work or back story that really enhance the other big rides, so you are just pointlessly spinning around in a pool of water. I'd quite happily skip than on a return visit.

Oddly, I don't seem to have any photos of Port Discovery. I guess it's just the least memorable area, based around a fictional centre for weather control. The only photo I have is the bottom right one of the collage below, although the last attraction we went on was the 'Stormrider' there; a 4D simulator which has you aboard a flying weather lab trying to disperse a massive storm.

Like the previous day we made a point of taking one last walk around the park after it got dark to take some photos of the illuminations, and we got to enjoy a nice firework show as well



So there you go, a wealth of fun Disney facts and ride reviews for you. As you probably gathered by now, we had a really good time, and I'd certainly be up for a return visit to check out some of the shows and attractions that we didn't get to try this time - maybe our next anniversary.

Posted by DKJM74 21:10 Comments (0)

Disney Land; Tokyo

Despite Tokyo being the biggest city in Japan, and the place most people seem to want to go, I haven't been back there since flying in for JET orientation when I first came here in 2009. However, that changed in June when Haru and I decided to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary with a trip to Disney Land and Disney Sea.

We began our four day trip with a spot of sight seeing by visiting the recently opened Skytree. It is the tallest tower in the world clocking in at 634.0 meters (2,080 ft), though we only ventured as far as the outside plaza and lower shopping levels. It was so rainy and cloudy that we could barely see the top of the tower, and I doubt we'd have seen much if we had gone to the top.

That evening when we went to meet some of Haru's Tokyo friends I also got the chance to see the statue of the dog, Hachikō, outside Shibuya trainstation. If you don't know the story it's a bit of a tear jerker (well for me anyway). Hachikō was an Akita Inu dog born in 1923, he bonded with his owner, Hidesaburo Ueno, so strongly that he hated being apart from him and would go to the train station everyday to wait for his master to return home.

After just two years together Hidesaburo Ueno unfortunately died, but Hachikō never stopped waiting for him. He returned to the Shibuya train station the next day, and every day after that for the next nine years until his death in 1935. The story was made into a 2009 Hollywood movie, transposing the events to America; and turning Hidesaburo Ueno into Richard Gere. I haven't seen it, but it got good reviews if you're interested.


The next day the rain stopped and the clouds disappeared just in time for our day in Disney Land. Of course the park is designed so that the first thing you see when you leave the entrance arcade is the statue of Walt and Mickey with Cinderella's castle behind them, and if a view like that under a blue sky doesn't put a smile on your lips you're probably in the wrong place. Fortunately it made me grin from ear to ear.

As you probably know the Disney parks are divided into different themed areas, like this.


The first area we went to was 'Western land' to ride on the 'Runaway Train'. Now I know I'm going to repeat this several times through this write up - but I love the design work of the parks and how each area really has it's own feel. The wooden frontier town vibe here, complete with cacti and red rocks evocative of the deserts of the Southern American states, is a good example of that.

This was also the first of many queues, though they do operate a rather nice 'Fast Pass' system. Once you're in the park you can go to any attraction and put your ticket into a special machine there, you'll get a another ticket with a specific time printed on it when you should return to that attraction, and when you do come back you can enter the special fast pass line and get on the ride much faster. Once you've got a fast pass for one ride you are of course blocked out from picking up another one until a certain time which is also printed in your ticket. With a bit of good management though you can pretty much alternate between standard queues and fast pass queues which makes it much more bearable. If you didn't know about it, it'd be easy to overlook this system all together, so there's a good tip for you if you ever go.

The ride itself is fun, and about as close as you're going to get to a white knuckle ride at Disney. Unfortunately 'Space Mountain' was closed the day we went, as was 'Raging Spirits' at Disney Sea'. Haru isn't such a big fan of roller coaster, but I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to try them. However, Disney isn't really about thrill rides, and I can appreciate that now. (I certainly didn't get that at the age of 18 though. I was bitterly disappointed by a trip to Euro Disney, when a friend and I made our first solo trip abroad to visit the newly opened park. On the plus side, we did get to see a pair of naked girls in their room from our hotel window, which for a pair of teenage boys totally justified the whole trip.)


All through the day we tried to mix up the time we spent in queues and the time spent exploring, so we went to look around Cinderella's castle next. Inside the castle was an exhibition of Cinderella themed pieces of art. My personal favorite was series of elaborate mosaics that told the classic fairy story like a comic strip.


As we left the castle we found our way blocked as the Easter parade was just about to pass by, so we grabbed a snack and a good spot to sit down and watch it go by. I had kind of expected the various popular Disney characters to be wandering around greeting people and posing for photos, but actually that's not really the case, and, unless you want to go queue at an official meeting spot, these parades are probably the best way to get to see your favourite characters. Actually I'm not such a huge Disney fan, but having Mickey wave at you from his parade float has to be an integral part of the Disney experience I guess.


Our next stop was 'Adventure World' which has a quite wide remit including the African 'Jungle Cruise', the 'Enchanted Tiki Room' and the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' attractions under it's general umbrella of hot and exotic locations. There even a touch of Louisiana Dixie thrown in for good measure. As I already said Disney isn't really about thrill rides. Design, atmosphere and narrative are the real keys to many of the rides. Classics like 'Pirates of the Caribbean' use motion, dioramas and interesting effects to engage you and tell a story. They are also a fair representation of the type of attractions that visitors to the original 'Walt Disney World' would have seen back in the 1950. Though of course they have been updated, the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' now features Jack Sparrow and other characters from the movies who can be seen and heard at certain points throughout the ride. Interestingly, Walt apparently originally envisioned 'Pirates of the Caribbean' as a walk through wax work exhibit; I can't imagine that would have endured more than 60 years and inspired a Hollywood franchise.

After disembarking we decided to stay in the 'Blue Bayou' restaurant, which is connected to the ride, for lunch. It's an indoor restaurant that recreates the feeling of eating outside on a firefly lit evening by a Louisiana bayou with some subtle effects adding to the ambience - nice food and waitresses in period serving girl dresses are also a plus. I read that Walt created this restaurant as a response to critics of the low quality of food available at the original resort, he is quoted as having said "In this restaurant, the food is going to be the show".


After lunch we still had a lot to see in 'Fantasy Land' and 'Tomorrow Land'. We got to dodge rain showers and enjoy a mix of attractions. Classics such as the 'Haunted Mansion' with it's wonderful pepper ghost effects (the ball room scene is amazing), and the (recently revived) 1980s 4D Michael Jackson movie show, 'Captain Eo' (better than Avatar!) as well as newer Monsters Inc and Toy Story themed rides.

Tokyo also boasts an exclusive, and very popular, Pooh themed ride called 'Pooh's Honey Hunt'. Apparently it's quite different to the Pooh rides in other Disney parks as it features an interesting trackless guiding system. This means that as the cars pass through the areas that make up the ride they can take off on their own, and each rider might see something that others don't, adding more variety on multiple rides. At heart though it's a simple Pooh style story of a lost balloon and honey, that (as a big fan of the original A.A.Milne stories and the Disney 'Many Adventures...' movie) I enjoyed quite a bit more than an almost 40 year old man probably should.


As we headed over towards 'Toon Town', which is built in the distinctive larger than life 'toon style seen in Roger Rabbit, the light was already beginning to fade.

The only ride we went on there was 'Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin'. Roger Rabbit is another movie that I've got a lot of time for, its blend of wacky and yet slightly sinister cartoons and noir is certainly unique, and again the ride captures that quite nicely. The queue winds through twisting alleys, seedy back stage areas and chemical stores full of the dreaded dip. The actual ride is based on one short moment in the movie when the Toon taxi hits a patch of dip poured out by the weasels, and spins out of control throwing everybody out of the car (and a boys of all ages scrambling for the remote control as apparently there's 2 frames worth of animation where you can see up Jessica Rabbit's skirt as she lands on the floor and she's sans panties - urban myth or fact? Go rent the DVD and find out!). Turning the steering wheel of your taxi will send it into a wild spin which hopefully won't throw you out, though I did read that actually did happen in the the US in 2000 when a four year old boy was seriously injured after a safety bar malfunctioned. He fell out and got trapped under the car, he never really recovered from the incident and died 9 years later as a result of related medical issues. See that's the kind of facts I find out when I write during the school holidays, and have plenty of free time to research for these blog entries. Actually, after reading articles about things like the history of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and how the ghosts are created in the Haunted mansion, and bizarre factoids like Jessica Rabbit's fabled flash and Wikipedia's 'List of incidents at Disneyland resorts' while writing this up, I'm quite tempted to invest in book all about the history and hidden facts behind the the Disney movies and parks. It really does seem quite interesting.


After leaving 'Toon Town' it was really getting dark, and time was running out. However, we were already holding past passes for one last ride.

That last ride was on the 'Critter Country' log flume 'Splash Mountain'. That ride is interesting for being based on scenes and characters from 'Song of the South', a 1940s Disney film that has almost fallen into obscurity having never been officially released on video or DVD due to content 'which Disney executives believe would be construed by some as politically incorrect and racist toward black people'. Having rewatched the film recently myself (after riding Splash Mountain), I can see that it is set in a time and place that is always going to be sensitive for such issues, however it never comes off as malicious and is a generally a quite innocent if occasionally ill-advised piece of work.

By now it was almost closing time, and most of the attractions were closing up. However, it was worth one last wander around to snap some photos of the illuminated versions of some key spots like the castle, The Disney statue and the main street. By the time we got back to the monorail station it was already 10pm and we were ready for a nice relaxing evening at the hotel.


Tomorrow we'd be exploring the second of the resort's two theme parks - Disney Sea!

Posted by DKJM74 22:24 Comments (0)

Parks and Recreation

Sometime I struggle to find a bridging theme when I'm writing up a new entry for my blog. However as soon as I began to look back for my photos from late Spring I soon noticed that I'd apparently spent a lot of time in various parks of one kind or another; which, let's face it, isn't a bad way of spending your spring.

Some of these were very local, like this seasonal flower park just one stop down the train line from Imazu and where Haru and I passed a couple of hours one idle afternoon.


Some were familiar spots, like the bit of woodland where I often meet with my 'Satoyama no kai' friends. On this occassion we endulged in a spot of outdoor tempura cooking and hiking.


However, some spots were totally new to me such as this botanical garden located not too far from Haru's parents house. We had decided to take Junko, Haru's mother, out for the day, and this is where we ended up. The park, whilst not too exotic, is big and has some nice walking trails with woods, small streams and ponds - and, when we visited, it was heaving with frogs, lizards and snakes waking up in the first of the really nice weather. Yeah!

Yes, that's a real, live, but still very sleepy snake hanging off that stick in the picture below (bottom right).


From the botanical gardens we took a long walk along the nearby river, and up a winding and wooded hillside path, to find this bridge.


Actually the bridge doesn't serve any real practical purpose (it doesn't even really connect two disconnected points, after crossing it and walking back down the hill you ultimately come back on to the same path you came up on), it's just there to enjoy the view from and to look down on the tree tops from above. It does make a rather nice jaunt to go there and back though, and it was nice to get out and stretch our legs.

Our next park was far less rural as it's actually located in Osaka. I'd seen a flyer for an exhibition of dinosaurs with both real skeletons and modern animatronics being used. When I was a kid I was a bit of a dino nerd, probably no more than a lot of young boys but I could rattle off a long list of dino-names and beat all contenders at Dino-top trumps. I still remember how awesome (in the original and literal sense of that word) it was going to see the dinosaurs at the national natural history museum in London back in the day. So I thought it might be interesting to check this out too.


Now firstly, the animatronics were pretty impressive and having that huge T-rex curl it's lip and lunge at you does induce Jurassic Park flashbacks. I did like seeing the more classically paleontology oriented displays as well, but.... the price to amount to see ratio was very poor. Basically two small rooms, and I was expecting something much bigger.

So finding ourselves with more free time than expected we decided to go check out the nearby Osaka natural history museum as well; which was much cheaper and had almost as many dinosaurs (sans animatronics). While there was nothing really mind blowing on display and it did have all the, slightly tatty, hallmarks of a typical old style museum and it was worth visiting once at least. Plus, it is housed in a large park which we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around and enjoying.



Another habit I've kind of got into here is sometimes taking the day off work when there are exams (which means no work for me) and going somewhere that may be full of kids normally - but isn't on a school test day :-)

To that end, I asked Andrew if he fancied a bit of a road trip with the aim of checking out a theme park and doing a spot of haikyo hunting: he said yes.


The above pictures were taken in Hirakata park (again very close to Haru's parents where we stayed overnight). The park has been open for 100 years now and actually started life a rose garden. With the passage of time it has changed, and for a while it housed a lot of animals (which has now been scaled back to only a few that seem well cared for), it has pools which are used for swimming in summer and skating in winter, and it has a quite nice selection of family oriented rides and attractions.

I was here once before with Haru and Yoko, but we made the mistake of coming in the middle of the holidays and had to wait so long to ride anything that it was terrible. Well this time our school test day stategy worked perfectly, we barely had to queue for anything, and had a lot of fun.

We got an all day unlimited pass and rode on pretty much everything no matter what it was. The best rides are a really nice wooden rollercoaster (which isn't exactly white knuckle, but is really fun to ride) and the tower drop (which really scares me). There's two or three other small coasters, a couple of water rides, smaller rides like merry-go-rounds and a small train.

Other attractions include track rides like a really unscary ghost train, a safari shooter and a (much creepier than the ghost train) 'It's a small world style' circus ride and some labyrinth style puzzlers with goals to achieve (that we barely understood, but had a go at anyway). One of them you had to charge a magic wand by finding charge points that matched the colour of your wand, at the exit you could exchange your 'magic charge' for a Pokemon style creature card - I got a level 15 apple bug, whose card is now the bookmark in my Japanese textbook :-)

Like the Brazillian park Andrew and I visted out of season, these smaller parks can be great if you catch them on the right day.


The next day we set off on a haikyo hunt, trying to track down an impressive looking restaurant building I'd discovered with a bit of internet research. That meant driving all the way down to the border of the next prefecture; Wakayama. It was a long drive, but we found it without too much bother. The only problem was it was in a far more visible, and populated spot than we had expected.


Located right next to the main road with an active business using the area in front of it for car parking, getting in without being spotted was going to be tough. After scouting around and considering our options we decided to err on the side of caution, and despite the long drive gave up on the idea of getting inside.

So it was that we found ourselves in another unexpected park, Misaki koen. When we told Junko we were driving down here she told us that there used to be a zoo here, but it had closed down - however nobody seems to have told the zoo or the animals that. It was very much open and active when we turned up. So we traded an afternoon of urban decay photography in for an afternoon of nature photography.






A personal favourite at this park were the kangeroos, who didn't move at all until they were fed when they swarmed the feeding station. I have never seen an animal look quite so pleased to be holding an apple. There was also a mother with a big joey in her pouch, if you look at the bottom right below you can see his legs sticking out and a big bulge.


Also if you walked up past the monkey mountain to the back of the park there was a lighthouse styled tower on the top of the hill looking out over the coast with a great views on all sides.



So - do you remember when you were a kid and you'd have conversations with your parents that went something like this -

'Where are you going?'
'I'm going down park.'
'What are you going to do?'

Well if you haven't had that conversation for a while I suggest you do, go on - go and check out some parks with little or no idea of what you are going to find or do there - it can be a lot of fun! Just take a friend and a frisbee, you'll have a good time!

Posted by DKJM74 22:32 Comments (2)

You Know It's Spring When....

Today - Three ways to tell it's Spring in Japan.

One - you see 'Koi-nobori' flying everywhere like this.


Two - the world becomes a soft, pink, cherry flavoured explosion.

Here's an example of some incidental cherry blossom that I saw at a small shrine while I was out with Andrew.


Though I was actually far more smitten with the resident pony than the cherry blossom.

Pony: Cough, cough...
Me: Are you OK?
Pony: Yes, I'm just a little ho(a)rse!

Ahh - that's why puns only work when you don't have to write them, and commit to one spelling. For a far better version of the same joke go and watch the great 80's spoof movie,'Top Secret'.

One of the biggest signs that spring has sprung locally is the blooming of the cherry blossom around the north end of the lake. However, this year the cold weather really dragged on, and, as a result, the blossom weren't as robust in previous years.


However, having told a lot of people about our kayak based cherry blossom viewing last year, I'd already committed myself to arranging a group trip to Makino via kayak this year too.

Makino Elementary school kindly offered to let us use their Kayaks for free (as we all work in local schools). The Principle, and one teacher, even came in on their own time to help us out (and make sure we didn't destroy ourselves or school property). Thanks to them, and despite the cool grey weather, everybody had a good time.


A few days later Haru and I took a drive back up to the same spot in the evening to see the illuminated blossom by ourselves. Next year I think I'm not going to arrange any big group event, having experienced both types of hanami I can say for sure that it's better as a couple 'date'.



The final signifier of spring isn't quite so universal, in fact it's pretty much just for me and a few other people - but nevertheless it's become a regualar part of my spring routine in Japan that I really look forward to. The annual trip to Taga to survey the colony of bats living in the caves there.

As usual we gathered at the Taga museum before heading to the caves, and it was nice to see several people who I only ever see at this event again. There were a couple of first timers as well though, including Andrew who I invited to join us.


I promised myself I wasn't going to post too many bat pictures this year as I posted many the previous years - but damn, it they're so cute, so here's some bats!


Here's a bit of bat biology for you as well - so in the picture below you can see (top left) a bat peeing (the interesting thing about this is that to conserve their limited body fluids the pee comes out almost like an small bead of jelly rather than as a liquid), and (top right) a bat nipple (bats, like other mammals, suckle their young). So there you are, my blog is now officially educational.


We spent a few hours in the cave catching, logging and tagging bats before releasing them again. This year a reporter from a local TV station in Nara came and recorded what we were doing as well - I even got interviewed, but I wasn't in the final broadcast (probably due to my incomprehensible Japanese).

So that, in a nutshell, was my spring. I'll close today with a collage of sunset shots taken during a spring evening drive.


Posted by DKJM74 19:25 Comments (0)

Khao Lak, Thailand - Part 2

Mangroves, movie sets and monkeys (but no mantas)

Part two of our Thailand extravaganza, and we're starting out in fine form with the biggest day trip of the vacation.

After a morning pick-up at the hotel and a taxi transfer we're climbing down onto our boat and zipping down a wide river. When I say 'our' boat, I actually mean it as well, we've gone all VIP for this one and hired our own boat for the day. Not having to squeeze in between other people, and the freedom to move around and look out from anywhere at anytime, was wonderful - and there was a lot to see too. The river itself was like a watery highway, with isolated rocky peaks jutting out behind the trees on both sides as we scooted past small fishing villages built on the water.


What we're actually heading for is the mangrove forests, which is one kind of environment I've never visited before. The water level was up when we went and the flooded forests were only accessible by boat. Despite it's length the (aptly named) long-trail boat moves quickly and easily through the maze of waterways. It really is like a road system too, with clearly marked big thoroughfares and smaller back ways, though in all the time we were there we only once saw another boat, and that was at a distance.

I really enjoyed the calm beauty of this jaunt into the 'groves, and was also so excited to see one of my all time favourite critters, the mud skipper, in it's natural habitat. When I was a kid on holiday in the UK, I remember going out into the mudflats at low tide and playing a game called 'mud skippers' - basically you run in the mud then belly flop, and see how far you can slide - and coming back to the camp site happy, but black from head to toe. So with this obvious affinity I was thrilled to see real skippers clinging to some of the roots.


Eventually we follow the river all the way down to it's mouth and hit the sea, from there we pick up a bit of speed as the boats skips over the waves, and makes for some of those volcanic islands that rises almost vertically out of the water. The closer we get the more boats we begin to see, and by the time we reach out destination there is a small flotilla of boats from various tour companies lashed together to serve all the visitors. We transfer onto a sea kayak here and start to explore around the island, if you can call it exploring where you're a link in chain of kayaks all doing the same route... well, at first at least, I'm really glad we went for the VIP option as our guide broke away from the everybody else, and took us down a small winding path into the interior of the island. The access route was a cave so low that we had to lie flat for the kayak to pass through (see bottom right, below). Inside the island there's a small system of canyon like waterways that are really impressive and somehow primal, I can imagine this hasn't changed much for a long time.


After switching back to the long-tail boat we make a beach landing on Khao Phing Kan, the biggest and most popular of these islands. Have a look at the pictures below and see if you can work out the reason for this popularity.


Well, how did you do? It was a bit of a movie geek challenge I'm afraid, but the main reason is that it was used as the shooting location for Scaramanga's private island in the James Bond movie, 'The Man With the Golden Gun'. See the big mushroom like rock behind us (above right), well that's directly behind Bond and Scaramanga when they start their duel on the beach (bottom right below); and later with some wonderfully dodgy special effects a radar antenna also pops out of the top of that rock!


Well it's been quite a morning, and for lunch we're making a stop at one of the bigger fishing villages which, like the ones we saw in the mangroves, is built on stilts over the water. As we got out of the boat I snapped a shot of the long-tail behind it. Basically a long pole, but the propeller that drives the boat is at the end of this pole instead of being fixed to the boat like an outboard motor. This is what gives the boat it's great manoeuvrability.

There was also a real LOL moment for us here, you can really see our VIP status here - we were the only people in the restaurant to get a table cloth, look how white that is!! Of course it would have been very disappointing to have a nice table cloth and lousy food on top, but luckily we got a fantastic spread of dishes that did the table cloth proud. Now, I'm not a foody by any stretch of the imagination, in fact I find having to eat a bit of an inconvenience most of the time, but I have to say I did like the food in Thailand. The range of curries, the sour soups, lots of salad and fresh fruit - very nice.


After lunch we had plenty of time to look around the village, which survives on it's duel income from fishing and tourism, and catch a glimpse of how people really live here. One really nice feature of the village is it's floating football pitch. The story goes that one boy, who was a huge football fan, hated not having anywhere to play his favourite sport. So he collected wood and old plastic bottles, and slowly built raft to play on. The locals were so impressed with his tenacity and effort that they decided to help out and so a real floating pitch was created.


It was time to head back to main land now, though we still had one more stop on the way back to the hotel. We were finishing up our day with a visit to the grandly named 'Monkey Temple', which didn't quite live up to it's promise. Sure we saw a couple of banana stuffed monkeys, but frankly I'm used to seeing more monkeys in my back garden living in rural Japan - I guess I'm just spoilt for simians!


The main part of the temple is actually housed in a cave, and that was far more impressive. We hadn't had any time to visit any galleries or museums on this trip, so this was our only real contact with traditional Thai sculptures or art of any kind during our trip. The contrast of te sleek, soft golden figures and the rough, dark rock was very nice. I also liked that fact that a huge colony of bats living in the cave had been allowed to stay, which gave the place a harmonious feeling of culture and nature co-existing (something which should be promoted more I think).


When we got back to the hotel we both agreed that it had been a great day, and one of the best trips we'd been on. We still had one more thing on the agenda though before we had to go back home, the almost obligatory day of scuba diving :-) The diving had been the high-light of last years trip to Bali, and we were hoping for similarly great experience in Thailand.

We chose a dive site that has a reputation for frequent sightings of giant manta rays, and a company that focused in manta dives (they help out with a global manta tracking project). Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told the mantas about this and they failed to show up for us; though apparently one was spotted by another group diving the same site while we were there (it's the whale shark I never saw in Egypt all over again!!).

I did see plenty of other nice sea life thought, and caught a glimpse of a black tipped shark too. So it was enjoyable even if the manta near miss was frustrating. I didn't have an underwater camera with me this time, so not much to show I'm afraid - though we did get a treat on the surface when a small school of dolphins started playing in the wake of our boat. This was my first time seeing dolphins outside an aquarium show, which almost made up for the mantas. (One of the pictures below was provided by a guy called Joshua who was also on the boat with a much nicer camera than mine - so thanks for that Josh!)


The last day or so of the holiday was mostly spent in and around the hotel, pool and beach, just relaxing and recharging. Mainly to avoid that feeling you get when you come back from a holiday more exhausted than when you go.


As you've probably gathered by now I really enjoyed this holiday, and would happily go back to Thailand again. I really wasn't sure what to expect from this trip. It seems that Thailand is all too often linked to images of sex tourism, and confusing genital surprises, in the media. I'm sure that that does exist, but there's a lot more here than that stereotype - which we didn't see any evidence of at all. Thailand, there's more to it than lady boys!

Posted by DKJM74 17:12 Comments (0)

Khao Lak, Thailand - Part 1

Beach Life and Asian Elephants

Japan - eh!

If you've been reading this blog, for the last three years, you'll have seen quite a lot of Japan on these pages. So let's take a break, and have a look at something else today! It's time we had a nice holiday.

Yes, to escape the lingering post-winter cold, we decided to jump on a plane and head off somewhere warmer for a week. So we're going to Thailand - yay. Khoa Lak to be specific; which is actually one of the places that was really devastated by the tsunami here in 2004, not that you'd know that to look at it now.


We arrive, at roughly mid-day, and set out to explore around our hotel almost straight away. The stretch of beach behind the hotel is really nice, sandy and not at all crowded. A few resort hotels share this beach, however it isn't private and it's good to see some locals with their kids playing here as well, also there's what looks like a really nice beach cafe right on the sand as well. The water temperature is great for swimming, and there are rock pools teeming with bright green crabs.

Now, I don't have much experience with Asian holiday resorts, but my first impressions here were far better than those in Bali (and I'd say that impression held for the duration as well).

After a quick nap back at the hotel, we decided to explore in the other direction away from the beach. As it turned out it was market day and we spent a good part of the evening looking around market stalls. Haru tried some Thai style fried shrimp and I had a really nice banana pancake. One thing that made it really nice was that the locals were all polite and freindly, but not pushy or aggressive in trying to sell as often happens in tourist areas. They really let us just look and buy or move on as we wanted, which I really appreciated.


By the time we got back to the hotel, we were already very pleased with our choice of holiday, and really excited about the rest of our stay. We had three big plans for this holiday, and tomorrow we were kicking things off with some elephant trekking.

Again this was something we tried in Bali, but that was at a big, busy, elephant park whereas this was a smaller and much more personal. We were driven to our starting point were met our guide and elephant; we saw three of four elephants there, but I think that mostly they were owned by there handlers and 'commuted' to this camp for work.

Our route went up through a rubber plantation (a common feature in Thailand) and into the fringes of the jungle to a small waterfall. The rolling gait of the elephant is both relaxing and sickening in almost equal measure; which makes for an enjoyable, but slightly queasy experience. Although this route was in a working plantation we didn't really see anybody else, and the scenery was beautiful. We heard a few strange animals cries coming from the jungle, but the only thing was saw was a huge monitor lizard that slipped off into the trees as we got approached.


The elephant looked content and well cared for, the handler was always gentle and the elephant got a nice break to wander and graze when we reached the waterfall. Back at the camp another elephant was being fed its favourite treat; some kind of large nut (maybe an unripe coconut) with a thick green husk, which it'd cradle in it's trunk before laying down and crushing underfoot to get at the flesh inside. Impressive and slightly scary (if you imagined it doing the same to your head).


The highlight of the trip though had to be the chance we had to join our elephant for an afternoon bath. Done with our trek, it was time to ditch the passenger seat and have a nice cooling dip in a nearby pond. So we decided to jump in too, fear of potential parasites and leeches being overcome by the promise of what might be a once in a lifetime chance. Actually, despite being murky, the water felt great and I haven't suffered any ill effects since, and the chance to ride directly on the back of the elephant and to play with it in the water was amazing.


By the time we got back to the hotel and showered we were getting very hungry, so we decided to check out the beach cafe we'd spotted earlier - good prices, good food and a great sea view; what more could you want? We ended up staying there until the setting sun painted the horizon red, and we went back again several times over the following week. In fact, we spent so much time there, that the pair of the birds, made from woods and coconut husks, that you can see (bottom left photo below) ended up being the memento that we bought for ourselves from this trip; they are now bobbing their heads in the breeze from my air conditioner, and enjoying their first Japanese summer.



Well that's all for today, next time will be the rest of our trip to Thailand featuring vast mangroves swamps, a fantastic day trip to James Bond Island and scuba diving.

Posted by DKJM74 23:30 Comments (0)

Winter Is Coming!

(as the Starks say)

A bit of a scrapbook entry today covering December 2011 to early March 2012.

During the winter months I tend to stay home, hibernate and play games rather a lot, but we did make a few forays into the great outdoors.

Despite having lived here for three years now there are still a few local spots that I hadn't gotten around to seeing yet. So now that Haru (and her car) were living with me in Imazu we decided to check a couple of places off the list.

Both places I wanted to go were lakeside shrines. The first is right on the city limit of Takashima, and is notable for its red tora gate standing out in the lake that you can see as you drive past.


The second was much further south along the lake and a little more hidden away. This one seemed worth hunting down as it seems to be a bit iconic for Shiga Ken as photos of it always turn up in guide books and tourist brochures. The main reason for this is that one of the shrine buildings was built on a platform raised over the lake and accessed via a short bridge - might not sound like much, but it is pretty.



Shortly after that the snow fell and fell hard, the whole world was a white out and I had to wear goggles just to cycle to school (on roads that were just a thick layer of compressed snow).

Actually, despite how that sounds, I quite enjoyed it, and what I said about hibernating through the winter isn't as true as it used to be. I do actually have a winter sport now, as I've taken up snowboarding since I came to Japan. There are three reasonable snow parks in and around Takashima, and, as I bought my own gear this season, I was out on the slopes a lot more than previous years. Haru also convinced me that I was ready for a bigger challenge than Takashima could offer now, so late in the season we took an overnight trip to Gifu Ken to try out one of the bigger snow resorts there.


As you can see from this map, some of the courses there were really long, it could take 20 minutes to get down one run as opposed to the 2 minutes it takes at Kutsuki snow park. My legs were really aching after a few runs, but the greater scope to run free, try out techniques and play around with what I'd learned so far was great.


I think I really got a lot out of that trip and improved quite a bit, it's just a shame it was our last run of the season so I couldn't really build on that, still I'm already really excited about next season. The other big advantage was the scenery, the views from the top of the longest run were great - and of course, being Japan, I met a cos-play snowboarder too!


The last of the snow began receeding not long after that trip though it remained stubbonly cold well into April.

With this in mind I'd arranged the next block trip for the Takashima ALTs somewhere indoors, namely the Lake Biwako Museum.


As this is a pretty tough place to get to with your own car, so I called on the kind assistance of Andrew and Yoshii to help us get everybody there and Yasushi (who is actually the Head Curator of the museum) gave us a guided tour


We had a pretty good turn out with about 10 Takashima ALTs coming out, including Miriam even getting rolled around in a wheelchair after breaking her ankle during the winter.

The museum is big and varied and I think everybody got something out of it (Geoff loved the elephant skeletons and Andrew had a close encounter with a Biwako Catfish), but the tour was a little long and attention spans did get strained.

My favorite area, without a doubt, is the aquariums below the main museum, which is why most my pictures are of fish.



After the visit was over Andrew and myself joined Yoshii for a ride out into some of the local satoyama landscape. We walked for well over an hour through the wintery fields while Yoshii told us some interesting local facts and history. He also shared one of his hobbies with us.

Yoshii likes to make and play his own ocarinas. The ocarina he played was a ceramic one (that kind of looks like an aliens head). Although I have no musical talent I was really impressed with it just as an art object, and when I commented how nice it was he gave it to me as a gift - so now it's on display in my flat (Thank you).


Despite the cold there was a feeling of potential in the air that day. The hills had thrown off their winter whites and soon enough the muddy browns of the fields would be putting out green shoots and the whole world would wake up again.

Posted by DKJM74 19:22 Comments (0)

A Warm Reception

Our Japanese Reception Party in Kyoto.

So here we are sitting in a small back-room below a restaurant in Kyoto. Best suits and pretty dresses, I straighten my tie while the make up girl traces the line of Haru's lip with a red brush. This feels like getting married all over again, and in many ways that's exactly what we are doing. It's time for our Japanese reception party, a chance for all our Japanese family and friends who couldn't come to the UK to celebrate our union with us.


Outside it's a crisp, beautiful autumn day and before the guests arrive we're heading back to the botanic gardens where we had the kimono photo shoot for another, more modern, shoot. Today we're super spies with guns, which might not be as traditional - but it feels a lot cooler!


It's only a couple of weeks since the last photo shoot, but the colours have really deepened and there are richer reds are all around; going perfectly with Haru's dress.


Although many of the locations and shots were basically repeated from the previous shoot, I think I enjoyed this one more. The photo below (top left) of us back to back is now my laptop background too.


There was a good reason for the guns as well. Not only had we used them to make a short spy-thriller movie to entertain our guests with before the party started, but we also used them for our big entrance as well - holding out guests up at gun point 'Pulp Fiction' style... with music from 'Kill Bill'.


One of our guests caught the whole thing on camera so here it is -

Don't worry, the 'money' we were stealing was special 'wedding money' I prepared in advance and littered around the tables.


After that, all the various groups of friends wanted photos with us; Haru's best friends and colleagues, our family, and my guests and overseas visitors.


Now, one of the biggest differences between an English reception party and a Japanese one is that whilst the former is basically a nightmare of drink, bad dancing and potential violence the latter is more of a variety show designed to entertain and involve the guests.

So our first 'event' was a cake decoration competition with Haru's friends on the Red team and mine on the blue. Who could make the cutest cake design?? Well - my team of course with a cute bear design.


The couple feeding each other the 'first bite' of the cake is a big tradition here, so I fed Haru a small fork of the winning cake - while she tried to shove a boulder of cream and cake into my mouth. Then, as we had two cakes, we persuaded Nik and Tomoko (the best man and bridesmaid in the UK) to couple up for first bite of the second cake. (Yes, this was a thinly veiled attempt to push them together as everybody thinks they make a good couple. Unfortunately, Nik has a girlfriend back in the UK and has some crazy ideas about being faithful.)


So far so good, the first Act was drawing to a close now - so it was time to exit stage right, and make a costume change for the second Act. Again this is another typical thing here - at the mid point of the party the couple withdraw, and only to return shortly in different clothes. Normally this allows them to change out of the wedding clothes, and to put on party wear. However, we're doing it in reverse - as we did the wedding a few months ago we decided to start off on our party clothes, and to change into our wedding clothes later.

It's not enough just to walk out though, we have to choose escorts to lead us out - however, after a rigorous selection process ('Eeny, meeny, miney, moe' for my escort and 'Rock, paper, scissors' for Haru's) we were ready to go! I know... I was there and all this still seems a bit complicated to me too!

Anyway, we ended up selecting Atsushi and Hiromi (my brother and sister in Law) and took our leave.


While we get changed, our guests are watching slide show video about us, our history and our UK wedding (a 'profile video', which is another essential element at any Japanese reception party). When we re-enter we have gift baskets instead of guns, and this time we go around giving a little gift to everybody instead of taking from them.


We've saved the best for last though, and the final event is my big musical performance. As the guests didn't even know I had any musical talent this announcement comes as a bit of a shock. Two of my friends (Muro Sensei and his wife) have agreed to accompany me on the piano and sax, so they started to play while I prepared myself for my cue - and believe me I hit that triangle perfectly right at the end of the song! Yes, I have no musical talent at all, but they do - and after my cover was blown of the first song that played another for us.


I can happily say that everything pretty much went according to plan, and I think everybody had a good time, but the party is drawing to a close now. Outside it's getting dark and it's time to call it a day. Final thank you speeches, gifts for Haru's parents, bows and sayonara. The Mitchell's have left the building...


...but we haven't gone too far away. We see all our guests off individually at the door with one final gift, a photo of us with them at their table... a photo that was taken, processed and printed while we were having the party; that's Japanese service! So that's it, we're officially married on two continents now.

I'll leave you all with a beautiful picture of seagulls, and a rainbow, over lake Biwa that I took a few days later - it's nothing to do with the reception party, but it is very pretty!


Posted by DKJM74 21:20 Comments (0)

Monkeys and Momiji

Concluding our road trip with Nik and Luke

Well, despite being about two months since I last wrote here I'm actually picking up again with events that took place the day after my last entry.

Having just wrapped up our island hopping trip around the Hiroshima prefecture coastline we had one stop left before heading back home; the wide river and rolling green hills of Arashiyama.


Anyone who has been a regular reader of this blog will have seen Arashiyama before as this is about the fourth or fifth time I've been there, but it is a great spot to show off the Autumn colours to Nik and Luke. Arashiyama is a great momiji (maple leaf) spot and it has the added bonus of a monkey park as well.

The way up to the park is through a small, easily missable gate by the river and a path that winds up through the woods. I was delighted to notice that at the ticket booth they had posters up advertising the recent 'Apes' movie, 'Rise of the planet of the Apes'. I thought that was a wonderful if slightly misguided bit of marketing synergy, what message were they trying to send?? 'Love monkeys? You'll love this movie', or, 'The revolution is coming, meet your new overlords today!'. A banana in the right paw today could save your life tomorrow.


This was my second visit to the park which is worth it not just for the monkeys, but also for the great views you can get from the top of the park where the monkeys gather. The troop of Japanese macaques that hang around here are in no way penned in or caged, they have simply learned to co-exist with the visitors in exchange for free food.

Actually, if you want to feed them it's you who has to be caged. In order to feed the monkeys you have to go inside a small shack and pass the nuts and fruit to them through the mesh windows; this is mainly to stop the monkeys from simply mugging visitors and stealing what they want.



Once we'd had enough monkey magic we made our way back down the hill and headed over to the temple area in search of momiji. Somehow we ended up on path I'd never walked down before and ran into a small garden full of Buddhist statues.


Passing on we soon came to the temples and, as expected, some wonderful red momiji. This year the autumn wasn't as wet as the last one so the colours were deeper and richer. The red leaves contrast sharply against the green of the non-maples to wonderful effect, most notably the soft green of the bamboo groves.



I was glad that I got the chance to share this slice of real Japanese beauty with Nik and Luke, and they couldn't have asked for a nicer example - or a better way to end our road trip, but here it does end. Now we have to head back home and get ready for the Japanese reception party that is coming up very soon.

Posted by DKJM74 20:07 Comments (1)

Rabbit Island and Other Oddities

A Road Trip to Hiroshima Ken

OK - This is going to be a big entry covering about a week spent travelling around with Andrew, Luke and Nik - the latter two having popped over for a visit and to attend the Japanese reception party. They arrived in Japan on November 15th, and turned up in Kyoto a day later having spent a day in Osaka.

We are using my In-laws house as our main base of operations for most of their visit, but we don't plan on spending too much time there. After getting them settled in we started off small, with a local trip to Universal Studios in Osaka - my second time there, but my first time on the Jurassic Park ride as that was closed last time.

The highlight of the day though was seeing how scary Nik looks standing next to the metal frame of a terminator!


At the other end of the scary scale we also got to see the incredibly twee Christmas tree light up show; I'm sure I saw Luke shed a tear :-)

Ok that was fun, but it was also enough typical tourism. The main thing I’ve planned for their visit is a three day trip to take in some roadside Japan, and for that we headed down to Hiroshima Ken.

The first day was mostly taken up with driving, but we've planned pit-stops at two unusual shrines along the way. The first one I discovered in a Japanese book and although I was intrigued by the photos I didn't really know what it was. Obviously I know now - but have a look at the pictures first and see if you can figure out what kind of shrine this is.


Any ideas - well, the answer is a cow shrine. All of those collared plastic and metal bands are 'Hanagari', or nose rings, from cattle that have been that have died so we can have meat, leather, milk and so on. The shrine was built on the remains of an old mausoleum - whose mausoleum isn't known. It had been lost and forgotten, and when it was rediscovered it was decided that a shrine should be built on the site - the founder then decided to make a memorial to all the cows that give their lives for human needs. However, since every part of the cow was used (the meat, hooves, bones, skin etc) there were no remains go to the shrine. That's when he began to collect the nose rings; I can't even imagine how many there are now in that main pile - they estimate that there are over 7 million now. I have mentally dubbed this place 'Cowschwitz' - by which I honestly mean no disrespect, I have visited Auschwitz in Poland and the uncountable piles of glasses, false teeth, hair that they have there really came to mind looking at the hanagari in this shrine, which is also a testament to death on a grand scale. Every April 18th a festival of remembrance is held in this shrine. In Japan vegetarianism is almost unheard of, and I myself am a meat eater, but I think it is important to be reminded and acknowledge that out food comes from something more than a supermarket.

OK - to counterpoint that rather sobering point, here are some comedy breasts!


Actually, I'm not sure they are intended as comedy. This breast shrine was the second of our 'odd shrine' stops and for me it makes the full set of bodily shrines having already visited a penis and vagina shrine before. Actually I'd guess that it was a fertility and motherhood shrine, as symbolised by swollen milk heavy breasts. As you can see though it was already dark by the time we got there so we didn't hang around for long trying to decipher the information boards - we still had to find some accommodation for the night as we had set off without any reservations!

Our main target for the next day is Ookunoshima, a small island off the Hiroshima coastline. Luckily after a bit of searching we managed to get a big Japanese tatami room for 4 people in a hotel not far from the port. They also had a pretty good spa with a wide range of baths, including one with a mild electrical current in the water - which I didn't know until I jumped in. Shocking! (Best read in a, Roger Moore, Bond voice with raised eyebrow).

Anyway, next morning we were placed only a short hop from the ferry port and we were soon skimming across the water to Ookunoshima.


The best way of getting around the island is to rent bikes and then you can easily cover the whole place in a couple of hours taking in the winding paths, sandy beaches and great views.


Luke was even lucky enough to have this close encounter with a rabbit along the way.


Actually - he wasn't that lucky! The truth is the whole island is infested with rabbits and is locally known as 'Rabbit Island' - that's why we’re here. Everywhere you look cotton tails are dashing around and they aren't afraid of approaching people either. In fact Nik ended up with his own security detail of three rabbits for a while.



Again all this cuteness comes from a rather dark place though. During WW2 this small island played a key role as a production centre for poison gas that was used against China. Having signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical warfare, Japan was keen to keep this new chemical weapons plant a secret when its construction begun in 1929. At that time it mainly produced mustard gas. Later on the island was even removed from some maps, its very existence denied. At the end of WW2's hostilities the factory was taken apart under Allied supervision and the remaining lab animals were set free.

Luckily for those rabbits the island was too small to have any natural predators and they thrived until they became the symbol of the island. In 1988 a small museum was opened on the island that addresses the 'secret' history of the island, displaying items and photos from the old factory.


The fact that remnants of some of the old defensive and industrial building are still standing was the second reason for visiting the island. At the height of its military significance the island was defended by 10 small forts. All that remains of these are a few low walls, one or two gun ports and some underground storerooms. The almost catherdralesque shell of another building can be found looking out over the open sea on the side facing away from the main land. Exactly what this building was I don't know - but it was probably connected with the gas production judging by the strings of origami crane (a Japanese symbol of peace) left on alter like stones.


By far the most intact edifice still standing is the old power station. Although it’s totally stripped inside, the skeleton of this two storey building is still pretty imposing to look at.



After returning the bikes we spent the time until the next ferry back looking around a small, but nice visitors centre and then we were off. I really enjoyed visiting Ookunoshima, and would really recommend it to anybody looking for some interesting 'off the beaten track' spots to visit. Having checked Rabbit Island off our list of things to do though, we were pretty much wandering aimlessly now.

We set of along the coast briefly taking in hill top castles and roadside porn vending shacks as we passed by. Yes, every so often in Japan you drive past a kind of porta-cabin at the road side that houses adult shop goods in vending machines to avoid the anxiety of having to buy such things from a real person. I'd only seen such places twice before, but oddly enough just as I was explaining this phenomenon to Luke and Nik we passed one - so a brief stop had to be made.


Eventually we ended up stopping in another big four person tatami room in a hotel by the coast, you can see it in the picture below; the tall white building on the right.


The view from the hotel window was really nice too! I snapped the panorama below shortly after we checked in.


Once we got settled in we decided to check out the facilities on offer - trying the (not as good as the last hotel's) onsen and playing perhaps the most bizarre game of table tennis any of us had ever participated in (it would take too long to explain).

It also turned out that on the roof of the hotel there was a small hot tub looking out at the same view that was open in time to watch the sun rise - so Andrew and I dragged ourselves out of bed and upstairs at about 5.30 am. I have to say it was worth it though - watching the light creep over the horizon, shatter into bright shards on the water and illuminate this amazing vista was spectacular.

Having spotted another small port in front of the hotel we decided to do some more island exploration, so after breakfast we were back on another ferry. This time we knew nothing about this island we were heading towards (not even its name). The fact that it wasn't so well known meant that we pretty much had the place to ourselves though. We saw almost nobody else as we wandered around the beaches and coastal paths.


The weather was cool and crisp, and the water was so clear that we could see all kind of beasties below.

As well as various small silver fish we could see quite a lot of fugu (puffer fish) and even one or two busy little cuttlefish - which I've never seen outside of an aquarium before. A spot of rock pool exploration also turned up masses of tiny hermit crabs.



After getting back to the main land and into the car it was the last leg of the trip - time to head back. However we still had half a day and a lot of road between us and home. Plenty of time for a spot of haikyo hunting!

I'd thrown the guide book into my bag as I usually do on these road trips, so we decided to take a little detour and try to track down a nearby old hotel - and this is what we found.



At some point I will eventually catch up on backlog of places due for write-ups over at my haikyo blog, and then I'll write about this place in more detail there. For now though here's just a taste of the interior of surprisingly large and complex building.



That was the last stop on the main road trip. We spent the next night staying over with my In-laws near Osaka, and although the main road trip was over we still had plans for the next day back in Kyoto - monkeys and momiji in Arashiyama.

Next time.

Posted by DKJM74 05:50 Comments (0)

Kimono-chan and Hakama-kun

A photoshoot

Today's entry is basically just going to be a short photo gallery from the Kimono photoshoot that Haru and I had two weeks before the Japanese reception party. This was my first time wearing the traditional man's Hakama, which is the name for the 'skirt' I'm wearing in these pictures (though a Hakama can be divided like trousers or undivided like a skirt). Men don't get as much choice as women as men's kimonos are always dark subdued colours whereas women have a wide choice, the black and gold kimono that we chose for Haru was really beautiful. (So if anybody was playing the 'Guess the colour of Hau's Kimono game I set up last time, you now know if you were right or wrong - no prizes, sorry!)

The photoshoot took place in the Kyoto botanical gardens, just across the road from the reception party venue on a lovely Autumn day. Oh, and we saw a Kingfisher fishing in the garden's pond as well :-)

O.K. that's enough preamble - enjoy the pictures.








Actaully they snapped so many photos of us during the course of the shoot, that I was able to put together this rather natty 'flickbook' movie of the day!

The same day, my friends Nik and Luke arrived from England for the upcoming reception party, and we soon embarked on a three day road trip with Andrew - which I'll be reporting on next time!

Posted by DKJM74 04:02 Comments (0)

David Attenborough's Satoyama

As featured on the BBC

A few years ago the Japanese national TV station, NHK, produced a film about life in the special areas where mountains slopes ease out and farming starts - these areas are called Satoyama and are often typified by terraced rice fields on the lower slopes. Shiga Ken has a lot of Satoyama landscapes around the area I live in, made extra special be the fact that on the side not bounded by the mountains we have the vast expanse of Lake Biwako. Maybe that's why the producers chose this spot, and maybe that's why David Attenborough decided to act as producer (and voice) for an English language version of the film.

You can see most of the English language version here (I say most as part 1 of the 6 parts is missing, but the rest is there) -


As it turns out the location where this film was made is only one train stop along the line from where I live, and thanks to the increased interest in the area following the film there are now regular eco-tours around village focused on how the water from the mountain streams is harnessed by the local people.

So I rallied the Takashima JETs, called in my friends Yoshii San and Kusuoka San to act as translators, and arranged a tour.


After meeting at Shinasahi train station we walked down to meet our tour guide and started by sampling the local spring water.


We were then taken to several local houses where we could see how the water is run into special 'kabata' that the local people use for washing food and dishes. The kabata are like stone troughs located just outside the house, though many residents have pumps and heaters to use this water in the house as well. They also have a very eco-friendly method of getting rid of the scraps, huge koi in the separate part of the kabata!


There are also a lot of koi in the waterways outside the houses, which we got to feed :-) Interesting fact #4'693 - Koi have teeth, not in their mouth, but half way down their throat somewhere around the level of the gills!! Live and learn.


Koi weren't the only creatures we saw though; in fact it was a bit of a sub-urban safari. We also encountered grey herons, black kites, crayfish, land crabs and in one of the kabata there was a soft shell turtle and a giant salamander - an amazing creature that's unique to Japan.


We also had a chance to check out the local temple and shops, like this sake brewery.


Another local speciality on sale here is 'funazushi' a kind of fermented fish meat that's made by laying down the fish to... mature between layers of salt and rice. I didn't try it but I've been told it's more like blue cheese than fish. Andrew was the only person brave enough to buy any!


For me it was a strange feeling, after years of jealously admiring David Attenborough and all he's seen and done, to discover that the site of one the programs he produced was so nearby. The world isn't a place that's always happening somewhere else, sometimes it's right on your doorstep.

MEANWHILE - in the Batcave Haru and I were still gearing up for the Japanese reception party that we'd be holding in November.
So here is a bit of a teaser for next time. Some photos from the dress and kimono trials that we had to go to choose what she'd wear. Write ups of the kimono photo shoot in Kyoto and the reception party will be coming in the near future, but between now and then you can all have fun trying to guess which kimono and which dress Haru chose.



Posted by DKJM74 17:45 Comments (1)

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