A Travellerspoint blog

Underground Antics and Outsider Art

Despite being a quite out of the way spot, away from the lake and off the main train line, I've ended up in Taga several times now. Twice to help out with bat research, and once haikyo hunting and visiting Abe San at the Taga museum. Through this connection I got an invitation to join a special event in Taga, for one day only the lower levels of the cave system where the bats roost were going to be opened for a guided caving tour. In my mid teens I did a lot of potholing in the peak district (around the area where we had the wedding) and I was excited to have the chance to poke around in underground Japan.

After a brief orientation at the Taga Museum, we headed out to the cave and I finally got to slip beyond the locked door I’d seen on my last two visits here.


The route we followed after that was a mix of very narrow crawl ways and huge open caverns, and while it wasn't a beautiful as some systems I've seen there were some nice features including some cave coral, drapes and stalagmites.


In a highly Japanese twist on things after a couple of hours we everybody stopped one of the larger caverns and the guides unpacked a small stove and began brewing drinks, cooking soup and handing out snacks.


After a good chat to some university students I met there, and a group picture (above bottom left) it was time to head back to the surface.


By the time we resurfaced we were all dirty and tired but happy, and as a nice footnote to this story I got a lift back to the train station (quite a long way away) from a really nice couple I'd never met before - the kindness of strangers :-)

Actually, this was also a busy time in the calendar of events at the school with both the local English speech contest and the school culture festival coming up. Unfortunately I have to be very careful about posting student pictures so I can’t put much up here - but I will boast that out of the four kids I coached for the speech contest three of them won prizes!

And here is a small taster of the culture festival.


Including a video of me *singing* in Japanese with the PTA chorus,

and a perfectly timed photo of the moment I managed to split the back of my trousers wide open jumping to catch a frisbee - which meant I had to sneak home and change my trousers before sneaking back again.


The culture festival took up most of my weekend that week, so the following weekend Haru and I decided we should do something together. There are still several smaller interesting spots around the lake that I know about but haven't had the chance to visit yet. One of those is the Omi-Hachiman Outsider Art Museum, so we decided to go and check that out.


In fact the museum is actually housed in... well, a house. It isn't very big at all, but it has a regularly changing collection of Art Brut (Outsider Art - simply put art made by people outside the world of trained artists, this can often include art from amateurs, people with disabilities or social outsiders such as prisoners).

One of the fun things about the museum is spotting the many scattered objects from the collection that have been set in odd places, be it a bright yellow bull dog or a hand reaching up from under the stones of the path. Outsider art is quirky and unusual, but not in a self promoting kind of way, it simply is what it is because of the equally quirky and unusual people who made it.


There's often a pop art element to this type of art and that was very evident in the collections we saw with models that looked like a manga brought to life, enlarged and highly detailed replicas of collectable figures, yokai rendered out of tape and coloured paper, toy soldiers turned into twisted mutants with some kind of spray foam and a black pen.



Other oddities included a centaur that had been rudely hacked from a far more conventional carving of a horse, an army of angular pigtailed girls and a stained pillow monster.


I actually really enjoy seeing this kind of stuff, there's a lack of pretention about much of this work that helps it side step the debates about what constitutes art or the correct placement of public funds. You can't help but feel that the people who made these bizarre objects would have made them, and will continue to make them, with or without an audience or wider support. You're simply being given a glimpse of what goes on in another person’s head, what makes them tick, what excites or amuses them - and that is always interesting.

Posted by DKJM74 23:53 Comments (0)

Cormorant Fishing in Uji

Japanese traditional fishing.

Going to see the cormorant fishing, or Ukai as it's known here, is something I've wanted to do for a while now so I decided to ask the other JETs if anybody was interested in going and arrange a trip.

Despite conflicting schedules, troublesome sports days and bad weather we eventually overcame all odds and got a small group (Andrew, James, Nick and myself) together for an evening of Ukai on the Uji river in Kyoto.


The reward for our perseverance was a relaxing, interesting and very Japanese experience.

When we arrived in Uji it was still raining as it had been all day, but as it began to get dusky the rain stopped leaving a fine, fresh early evening that was far better than we could have hoped for. The area around Ujigawa is really pretty with old style tea shops and little red bridges scattered around it’s banks.


We headed down to the small island that the boats launch from, bought our tickets and found a good place to sit. Soon we’re gliding down the black river…


On the far shore they’re preparing the flaming brazier that they hang over the side of the fishing boat to attract the fish up to the surface. Then it’s about to start, the fishing boat eases its way between us and we get a brief introduction to the birds and their handlers. There are very few women who practice ukai, and Uji is proud of it’s skilled handlers - apparently the main handler works in Uji tourist office during the day and demonstrates ukai by night (like some awsome, yet very traditional, superhero figure).


She has selected five birds from their collection for fishing today. Each is tied to its own line in a way that doesn’t hamper it from using it’s wings to propel itself underwater. It also has a collar that prevents it from swollowing the fish it catches so the handler can retrieve them. The skill with which she tracks each bird, keeps them from becoming entangled with the others and recalls them if they catch a fish is incredible.



The demonstartion lasts about an hour, but seems much quicker. Then we’re being punted back to the pier.


After getting back to land the cormorants are taken from the boat in large wicker baskets and returned to their friends where they all get fed from the nights catch, and I also got to meet the fisherwomen and get them to pose for a picture :-)



As I said, Ukai is something I’ve wanted to see for a long time, and we all agreed that it was well worth going. It was certainly different to anthing else I’ve seen in Japan. Something about the dark river, darting birds and graceful talent of the handlers was very calming and I’d happily go again (maybe next year), and on the way back home we had a random encounter with a tanuki (Japanese racoon dog) by the roadside.



Posted by DKJM74 21:22 Comments (0)

Biwako Valley, Biwako Waves

A long overdue update!

Wow, it's been a long time since did an update here.

This is mostly due to the arrival of three new things in my flat - my wife (Haru finally moved in November), a PS3 and most recently a Kindle. Between them those three things have been taking up a lot of my time, but I vow to try and catch up a bit on my blogging!

To that end here's a quick report from a fun day out way back last August (told you I was a bit behind).

Rika, who invited Andrew and I to go windsurfing previously, got in touch again with another great proposal - zip lining in at Biwako Valley (which is oddly up a mountain) - of course we said yes :-)

So it was that we met Roxy again at cable car station at the foot of the mountain all excited for another adventure. Though slightly nervous of the fact that the cable just disappeared into a mass of grey clouds overhead.


Rika (above hiding behind her camera) was snapping photos already as we set off in the HUGE gondola. The scene that greeted us at the top, all swathed in mist and cloud, looked like something out of Silent Hill. Still unperturbed it was time to gear up and get a basic zip lining safety drill.


By the time we were deemed ready the weather had cleared up a bit and we could head out to the zip lining course.

Each line on the course is named after a bird that represents the length and height of the line. These range from the Blue Bird to the Golden Eagle, and true to their name you really do 'zip' along through the trees on those lines.


The course we did had a total of seven lines getting higher and longer along the way.


The final line was the Mountain Hawk. Which, unlike the others, we were strapped into Superman style and sent down face first flying over the tree tops with a panorama of the lake behind us - Yes, it was as cool as it sounds :-)


After that it was time for lunch so we hit the part of the hill that's a ski slope in winter and ride the lift up to a nice spot with a great view.


Then packed lunches with nice views (and Rika still snapping photos), a great end to a fun day!


I'm also going add a few photos from the 2011 Imazu Junior High School Kayak trip here as well.

August marked the start of my third year in the school and my third time crossing lake Biwa with the second year students by Kayak. As I am so far behind and this is the third time (and I'm not allowed to put clear photos of my students online) I'll keep this brief.

This year we started out from Imazu directly, instead of cycling to Makino first like the last two years. We also had new 2 person kayak with a sit on, rather than 'in', style.


We also had gorgeous weather and some of the most beautiful, almost ethereal, vistas I've ever seen on the lake as we headed out.


By the time we pulled the kayaks up onto the pebble beach of the small village at midday we were ready for a rest and some lunch.


In fact I've never seen the lake so calm and clear, the heat shimmering off the water. We soon found one big disadvantage of the new style of Kayak as well. Put two kids on one kayak and they tend to mess around more, plus 'sit on' kayaks may be lighter and move faster, but they also roll more easily. The number of kids plopped into the water was much higher than the last two years combined (though everybody had life jackets and was perfectly fine of course).


We reached our target, Nagahama, in good time, and stayed over night in the same hotel (I'll soon qualify for a regular customer discount or something). Next day it was time to head back again.

The same good weather continued into the return journey. Long stretches of the the lake shore were lined with white egrets and herons hunting for fish, and launching into lolloping flight when we came paddling past.


After stopping off at the same village as the first day for lunch (with extra dragon flies), we're on the last leg and I'm on a bright pink kayak paddling for home.


I can't help but smile at the fact that I now live a life where this kind of things seems normal to me. It pays to remember that these things, which for some people might constitute a once in a life time adventure, are things that are always there for me. The longer I live here the easier it is to forget that, but writing these blogs cause me to stop and consider and to remember just how lucky I am.

Posted by DKJM74 19:17 Comments (0)

Watery Adventures in Shikoku

Recently this blog has slipped further than it's ever slipped before, and I'm now several months behind on my updates. Unfortunately whenever I get behind it's always because a lot of stuff has been happening which makes catching up even harder, fortunately it'll be the winter break at the school soon so I should have some free time to slave over the keyboard then.

Anyway, as winter begins to dig it's frosty claws into our bones let's travel back to a simpler time! It's almost the end of July and we've decided to make a return trip to Shikoku in the two week gap between mine and Haru's birthdays. The idea is to head down to the a popular white water spot on the river to do some rafting, and to try out a bit of canyoning at the same time. We're both bringing a single friend along to wallow in the smug glow of our recently married bliss as well, so Andrew and Yoko are joining us.

The place we're headed to, which takes the best part of a days driving, is a middle of nowhere spot called Oboke. Which only seems notable for having a connection to the creator of Anpanman, a popular bean-bread-headed cartoon character, who we saw on the side of a train in Oboke station.


The rafting place we're booked in with is mostly run by New Zealanders and we're staying in a very basic guest house run by one of their guides. We stop by the rafting centre to check in and some of the guides offer to drive ahead of us to guide us to the guest house. If we hadn't already known that they were Newzealanders we'd probably have figured it out when they made a detour to buy beers from a vending machine for the drive home (in case you didn't know Japan is a zero tolerance on drink driving country). Despite a fair bit of tutting and surprise in our car we arrive intact, without a police record and settle in for the night. Basically we've got a big tatami room for the four of us, a kitchen and a charcoal grill outside that we're sharing with two other Japanese guests.


One BBQ dinner and a reasonable nights sleep later we're ready to slip into our wet suits and... well, get wet.

We're doing a half day of canyoning first, which is a new thing for all of us. Even as we ride the mini-bus up the hill to the start point Haru and Yoko don't really know what they've signed up for, and if you, gentle reader, don't know either let me explain. Canyoning is basically an assault course style descent along a mountain stream.


We begin with a bracing shower in the stream and a couple of team photos (so the bodies can be identified later) then it's straight into it with a slide over the lip of a scarily high waterfall. Take a deep breath, tuck in your elbows and bombs away!


We then proceed via a series of climbs, dives and zip lines to work our way down the mountain side.


I've since found out that in the summer there's a canyoning course pretty much on my doorstep in Takashima, which I'll try out next year. However, this was a great introduction to the sport and we had great fun, next up is a spot of lunch at the base and an afternoon of white water rafting on the Oboke river.

Rafting wasn't so new to me, but it's one of those sports that really changes depending on where you are and who you're with. In this case our seasoned river guide, Gordy, with a taste for the fun side of reckless really added a lot to the experience. The river was a mix of rapids and quiet stretches, and on those stretches Gordy had several tricks and games to ensure that everybody got booted, dropped or hurled out of the raft several times. This really kept us on our toes, and one stretch where we just glided downstream in our life jackets, without the raft, was really enjoyable.

Unfortunately, we didn't get such nice pictures as we did canyoning so we didn't buy the disk - meaning that all you're going to get is this place holder photo of a raft. (That is until we go back again, we all agreed that a full day rafting on the more intense Koboke river would be a great trip too!)


The second evening we retired to a more comfortable spa hotel to relax after the action packed events of the day, which meant much needed hot baths and beds.

Our third and final day begins with a spot of yokai hunting, just behind the hotel there's a yokai trail winding off into the hills scattered with some very tattered carvings of various beasties and things that go bump in the night. The most famous of these is Konaki-jiji (Crying Uncle) whose story seems to have originated from this area.


Konaki-jiji is another classic yokai who has enjoyed a recent popularity boost as he's strongly featured in the manga 'Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro'. The story is that stray travelers would hear a crying like a child, and if they looked for the child and didn't quickly escape the area then Konaki-jiji (who was really the source of the crying) would jump on their backs and make them carry him around. The biggest problem is that Konaki-jiji can make his body get heavier and heavier until it's like stone and collapses the poor person beneath him.

The apparent explanation for this is that in some areas rotting matter would create a natural gas, one side effect of breathing this gas would have been a ringing in the ears (crying) and a feeling of heaviness in the limbs dragging them down like having a heavy little rider on their back.

I'll post a full set of Oboke yokai photos on my haikyo and yokai blog eventually, for now here's just a quick taster.


We still had one last point to visit before the long drive back home.


For that authentic Indiana Jones experience, I really wanted to visit a wood and vine bridge built over a rocky river gorge not far from Oboke.


The original bridge was built long ago, and, despite the fact that the modern version has concealed steel cable to keep visitors safe, it's still pretty scary being about to look down (and through) the gaps between the supports at your feet and see the river and the rocks waiting below.


There's still a lot I want to see and do around Shikoku, and the islet spotted inland sea that separates it from the main island. This is my second trip down that way, and it won't be my last, that's for sure. In fact I was back again in November to check out a couple of the smaller islands down near Hiroshima - a trip that included a poison gas factory, free range fugu, the cutest rodent infestation I've ever seen, praiseworthy breasts and the cow equivalent of Auschwitz... as I said I've been busy!

Posted by DKJM74 20:32 Comments (0)

A Very Kansai Summer (Fireworks, Cosplay and Bugs - Oh My!)

A Spectacular Summer Scrapbook

It's July, the end of my second year in Japan and the arrival of the new JET intake is fast approaching.

That means hot weather, long days and beautiful red streaked sunsets are all in season.



I'm just about to start my third year on the JET program, I'm pretty well versed in the job and very comfortable in my role as an ALT now, so I've decided to step it up a notch and have volunteered to be the block leader for Takashima this year. Exactly what that means is quite flexible, but what I want to do is ensure that there are regular events that are open to everybody in the block (13 ALTs in all) and go beyond the boring 'Hey, let's go out drinking' type get togethers that have dominated the last two years (and are the main reason I never spend time with the other JETs - except my travel buddy Andrew).

So I'm trying out a proto-block trip this month before the newbies arrive by suggesting a day out hiking in Takashima. Actually we're heading back to the 8 waterfall hike near Gulliver's village that I walked with Leila almost 2 years ago. Four of us are going today, Haru, Andrew, Natalia and myself.


Hopping across the fast flowing stream from rock to rock clinging onto a chain is grade 'A' fun in my book - though I'm not sure Natalia would agree after nearly loosing a shoe :-)


Still we all made it to the top safe and sound with big grins all round.


We headed back down the way we came up, but I've since learned that if you know the route you can actually continue along the mountain and come down further south near the next train station - I'll have to find that route and try it one day.

Of course summer is a good time for just generally getting out and exploring, so this wasn't the only hike I did. Here are a few highlights from another trek into the woods with Andrew. We were actually haikyo hunting (following up a very flimsy rumor of a lost village out here), and while that came to nothing we did at least see a huge handsome toad!


Summer is also festival time in Japan and one intriguing event I've managed to miss the last two years is the Biwako Birdman Competition. On the surface it sounds very interesting - every year a large launch is built over the lake and teams compete in distance and time trial unpowered flight competitions. So lot's of wacky folks in winged costumes jumping off a high board, right?

Well, no! That's how it is in the UK at the Birdman competition, but it's a more somber affair here with more serious teams flying gliders.


Even then, it could have been quite exciting watching the gliders pitch off the launch and either pull up and fly or plummet into the water - like this one.


The big problem though was the huge gap between launches when the debris of the last glider was cleared away and and next one was set up, this could take 20 or 30 minutes - and if the next glider dropped like a stone that mean a few seconds of action before another long wait.

Still I've finally seen it with my own eyes and I know it's not worth repeating again next year.

One thing that has been a very positive influence on this summer though has been meeting Rika and Junpei, who work to promote Shiga as a tourist destination. As part of that work they arrange trips for local foreigners (all expenses paid) and take lots of pictures of you to use in promotional material and websites they run.

After getting hooked up with them via my friend James I found myself heading down the BSC Water Sports Centre to try my hand at windsurfing for the day! We spent a whole day there, chatting to some kids who were doing kayaking on the same day, having lunch and then windsurfing!


As there is no firm evidence to the contrary I'm just going to say I was awesome and a complete natural at windsurfing who never fell off his board once - and anything anybody else says is a lie!


Since then I've been on another trip organized by these lovely people and I'm now working to try and get a strong link between them and the Takashima JETs so we get first dibs on any other interesting things they have going on :-)

If you're interested you can find the o.Biwako main site here or their facebook page here.

As you can probably tell by now, my summer as pretty hectic and some tough choices had to be made. One of those was whether I was going to go to Nagoya for the world Cosplay Championships again, that would mean two days of costumed fantasies floating around but it would mean missing a potential weekend out with Haru. In the end we made a compromise by going to Osaka together for a smaller Cosplay event there, so here are some costume pictures taken around the Asian Trade Centre in Osaka at 'Cosjoy 2011'.



I just love the way that girls in Cosplay costumes pretty much all seem to be ready and willing to pose in any way you tell them to. Try walking up to any other group of cute girls and asking them to kneel down and gaze up adoringly at you while you snap pictures. They would (rightly so) tell you exactly where to go, and what to do to yourself when you get there. Cosplay girls, however, usually say - 'Ok!'


Another advantage of going to Osaka instead of Nagoya was that there was also a beetle exhibition on at the Trade Centre on the same day - so Cosplay and big bugs with my wife :-) I was a very happy man!


So that's hiking, exploring, gliders, windsurfing, cosplay and bugs out of the way - phew! Just the fireworks left to go! August is firework season in Japan, with almost everywhere having a firework festival of some size. The biggest and best in Shiga is the Otsu firework show which takes place over the southern most part of the lake.

I caught the in my first year just after I arrived in Japan, but missed them last year for some reason. This year I was down on the lake shore in a prime spot as the sun began to set over the water.


Once it was dark the sky exploded in a spectacular light show that no pictures can do justice to - it really is a great show.


Unfortunately, Haru wasn't free to join me in Otsu, but we were determined to actually see some fireworks together this year. So a few days later we headed down to Uji to see the fireworks there. We arrived late and barely got outside the train station before the show started. I have to say, the Otsu show is far more impressive (and comfortable), but I was really happy to finally go to a firework festival with Haru - in a yukata (summer kimono)!


I actually bought a second hand yukata just for the fireworks this year, complete with geta (traditional Japanese wooden sandals), Haru was in a nice blue yukata too. The last time she wore one it was a rental one and she got changed in the rental shop. This time though it was her own yukata, so finally I'd get a chance to find out the answer to one of Japan's greatest mysteries - what do Japanese women wear under their yukatas?

If you want to know take a peek below.


Not very sexy is it - lol

Posted by DKJM74 00:17 Comments (0)

A Trip to Ishikawa Ken

I'm standing in a highway rest stop shop, and if there was any doubt left in my mind that I'm back in Japan... well, then this selection of delicious snacks soon erases that.


Crunchy baby crab anyone?? Some how this feels like it belongs in a Monty Python chocolate selection, though Haru assures me it's actually very nice... I think I'll just take her word for it.

We're heading north, out of Shiga, through Fukui and into Ishikawa prefecture. This is our second twixt-birthdays-trip, Haru's birthday is July 16th and mine is August 2nd. Making her the older one (by two weeks), whether she likes it or not! Last year we decided to split the difference and take a trip around the end of July, and that's exactly what we're doing again this year again this year.

The main things were traveling to see are the gardens in the prefecture capital, Kanazawa, which are considered one of the top three gardens in Japan, and the nearby prefectural art museum.

We only have a loose plan for this trip, but this is one of the places we wanted to see.


The gardens in Kanazawa, considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan. Again seeing something so traditional and Japanese after being away for a few weeks was really refreshing. Our favourite part was a pond in the shadow of a small hill with a nice tea shop on it's banks.


Our next stop was the near by prefectural art museum, where we spent the rest of the day.


The complex is divided up into a mix of paid and public spaces, comprised of external features and rooms inside. Highlights included a disco room, painted with a 360 degree disco scene.


(I tried to find a way to add this picture as a 360 panorama, but I failed - which is a shame because it looks great like that).

Also there was a large selection of amateur art which was really varied and interesting, here are a few close ups from some of those.


That about wrapped up our day out in Kanawaza, so Haru drugged me and I blacked out until the next day... probably. At least that would explain why I have no recollection at all of where we stayed that evening, what it more likely means is that we stayed in a cheap but bland and ultimately forgettable business hotel somewhere near Kanazawa - I really don't remember. That's what happens when you get three months behind on your blog.

I know that we did a lot of driving the next day, Haru was letting me combine a general sightseeing drive with checking out some local haikyo spots from my haikyo guide book. There seemed to be a lot of spots in this area and checking a few out while we were in the vicinity seemed like a good idea (with a view to planning proper haikyo trips with Andrew later). In the end this chance to recon a few Ishikawa sites proved invaluable, as it looks like all the places we might have visited were already gone - which saved Andrew and I a long pointless drive all the way from Shiga.

One interesting thing we passed along the way was this chain of restaurants, which Haru pointed out to me.



Might look innocent enough, but apparently they're all closed now following a food poisoning incident in this area recently. Several people actually died after eating bad meat, bought cheaply and served in these restaurants. Scary.

Our next stop as at this car museum, which we only stumbled across as it was near the location of one of the missing haikyo.


Now, I can't drive and I don't know anything about cars, so don't expect any deep insights here, but I can tell you that there were blue ones, red ones and green ones :-)

If you're into cars then these pictures will probably mean a lot more to you that they do to me, and feel free to fill in some details in the comment box.



One thing that did amuse me though was the toilets. The gents basically served as another exhibition - of urinals from around the world! Which I had to photograph as Haru was really curious after I told her about it.


All day we've been slowly heading back south and homeward, and by the afternoon we reach the hotel Haru has booked for the second night. Which is much nicer and more memorable than wherever we stayed the first night.


And there the story pretty much stops, we spent the rest of our visit just relaxing in and around the hotel - enjoying the food, the fireworks over the lake in the evening and just spending time together.


This was a bit of 'us' time, so I'm drawing a discrete veil over the the last leg of the trip. Instead, I'll leave you with this nice collection of origami that we saw during a pit stop on the way back home the following day.


Next time - a full summer spectacular with thrills, spills and full pyrotechnics!!

Posted by DKJM74 05:02 Comments (0)

Back in Japan

Daigo-Ji and Nenbutsu-Ji


Chair socks? CHAIR SOCKS??
This can only mean one thing - I am well and truly back in Japan!

Not that that's a bad thing, after my time away in Europe I'm in the mood to appreciate a bit of classic Japanese culture so I've decided to hit up a couple of the 9 million or so local temples that I still haven't seen.

The first one I've chosen is Daigo Ji, which is a quite large and famous temple on the outskirts of Kyoto - plus it's only a couple of stops away from Haru's flat and I have some time to kill while she finishes her shift at work!

The lower area of the temple is a quite standard classical layout complete with pagodas, bell towers and great halls.


I did really like the large koi pond though, which was so peaceful. I ended up sitting there for quite some time simply enjoying having the place pretty much to myself.


Beyond this area lies the entrance to a mountain path that leads up through the woods to another collection of temple buildings higher up. Although I hadn't planned this I quickly stocked up on snacks and drinks and decided to tackle the trek despite the hot weather.

The lower end of the path took me past some nice pastel coloured flowers and moss encrusted carvings, while higher up there was a thin tumbling waterfall and vistas opened up over the tree tops.



In the end it was a beautiful, but grueling, walk to the top. Though I was amply rewarded with a rich collection of Buddhist figures at one of the halls at the end of the path.



The second spot I wanted to see (a couple of days later) was Nenbutsu-Ji which I'd heard was somewhere behind Arashiyama (west of Kyoto centre). Luckily tracking it down with Haru's sat nav didn't prove too difficult.

Nenbutsu-ji is a quirky little place, where if you look carefully you might just spot one or two little cute carvings peeping out of the grass like this.


Actually, I'm teasing - the name Nenbutsu-ji means something like 1000 Buddhas, and the place is crawling with these statues.


They've been carved by various artists and no two are exactly alike, in fact many have unique quirks - such as bizarre expressions, or possessions (such as one above with a camera taking your picture).

Exploring between the rows and rows of figures was an entertaining way to pass a pleasant afternoon.



Yes, our European adventure was wonderful and romantic, but it's not a bad thing to be back in Japan :-)


Posted by DKJM74 00:41 Comments (0)

Three days in Prague

A mini-honey moon


Time to say goodbye to my family and friends in the Uk and slowly begin to head back to Japan, but on the way we're stopping off in Prague for a few days. Prague is a city I have a bit of a history with, but Haru has never visited it.

We arrive in the early afternoon and get picked up by the hotel taxi at the airport. As we drive I'm surprised how much I can still understand on the radio and from the signs we zip past. My very basic knowledge of Slavic languages is being kicked back into life. Suddenly the driver pulls an intersting manoeuvre and starts reversing, at a reasonable speed, down a narrow road on a steep hill. This is a slavic style short cut, we're now going the wrong way down a one way street, but by reversing the driver can switch to going the 'right' way at any moment and avoid trouble (in theory). I don't think you'd get that in Japan, but he does get us to the hotel in one piece and in good time.

By the time we've checked in and freshened up a bit, it's getting dusky already. Our hotel is located on the old town side of the river though, and it's close to a lot of the really famous sights so we head out for an evening stroll. Charles Bridge is just at the bottom of the hill so I take Haru there to her a first taste of classic Prague.


After a good nights sleep we're up bright and early (well, before lunch anyway) and ready to explore. The hotel is located just a couple of minutes below the castle district, so that's where we're going first.



The castle district is actually a lot more than just a castle, it's the heart of what would once have been the old town and one of the most prominent buildings there is the wonderful gothic cathedral.



Both inside and out it is a really impressive piece of work. It still stands in the centre of the old square surrounded by complimentary architechture, unlike St. Paul's or Westminster in London, so it's easy to imagine how this scene may have looked long ago when this was still a walled medieval town.

One of the most famous spots in the castle district is Golden Lane, a narrow street full of small houses muddled in the space between the square and the defensive outer wall. This area was once home to many craftsman including the goldsmiths from which it gets it's name.


These days the old houses either are either preserved exhibits of how they used to be, or are craft shops in the tradition of the street. For example, the blue house on the top left is now a second hand book shop trading on that fact that famous Czech writer Franz Kafka once lived there.

Deeper in the walls and under the floors there is rather dark trend towards arms, alchemy and torture in the rooms you come across. A stark reminded that a world lit only by fire was capable of casting some dark and twisted shadows.



We really enjoyed exploring around this area and ended our tour of the castle district with a look at the Old Royal Palace. A wonderful building full of immense halls and fantastic vaulted ceilings, I love the sense of space and awe inspired by these kind of designs and really enjoyed this building. I also liked the story of how the citizens of Prague used to deal with politicians who failed to meet their expectations -


- see that window on the on the top right above the wall? Well, they threw three politicians out of that for a start. Amazingly none of them sustained any serious injuries on the way down.

After leaving the Old Royal Palace we slowly made our way down to the river, taking our time to explore some of the small backstreets and winding stairways as we went.


Eventually we came down to the river and had a great view of Charles bridge upstream.


Eventually, all streets in Prague seem to lead back to the main square, with its famous Astrological clock, where almost every conceivable type of tour is on offer to the multitude of tourists. Do you want to see Prague by land train, classic car, segway, hot-air balloon, boat or (the most photogenic) horse and cart.


We're already planning to spend some more time around the square, and really explore this side of the river, tomorrow. So for now we content ourselves with a quick look around before picking up our reserved tickets and going to check out one of Prague's several black light theatres (bottom right below).


The basic principle behind black light theatre is that performers wear costumes that are partly as black as the backdrop, and partly coloured in a way that is picked up by UV lights. In this way they can create some interesting effects and quite surreal scenes. As you might expect of an art form conceived mainly to get tourist bums on seats it's light and entertaining, but overpriced.

By the time we came out of the theatre it was getting dark and rainy. Time to head back to the hotel for the night, luckily Prague is one of those places that for a visitor is actually quite pretty in the rain. Sharing an umbrella, holding hands and crossing Charles bridge in a summer shower is really quite romantic.


Of course it wouldn't stay romantic if it just rained all the time so we we're happy to see that by the morning it had cleared up and was promising to be another lovely day. We had a lot of ground to cover today and our first call was to the senate gardens below the castle. Many of the features here are typical of a nice formal garden, such as the fountains, lawns and statues. Even peacocks are quite common in such places, but never before have I seen an albino peacock like the one we saw here. Such a beautiful creature.

There was also a rather interesting grotesque wall, man made but created to look like quite natural until you notice hidden faces and creatures in it's folds.



Today though we're heading over the river again to take a look around the new town.


The main objective today isn't any famous sight, it's finding a branch of the bank I used in Slovakia when I lived there, and finally closing my bank accounts; they won't let me do it by post. To be honest this was the biggest single reason for stopping in Prague at all, and when we finally find a branch of CSOB bank it's like a kick in the head being told that the Czech and Slovak banks (despite having the same name, logo and parent company) are separate and I still can't touch my accounts. Meaning I still have a few thousand pounds sitting in account in Slovakia, that I cannot access in any way, shape or form. F**k!

Shaking off the disappointment as much as possible, we head back down to the main square for a less rushed look around and some shopping. We're also in good time to see the astrological clock striking the hour today, cogs whirr and mechanisms click into life and as the clock chimes a pararde of wooden saints wheel past small windows and a grinning reaper tolls a bell.



We are already tired. Yesterday most of what we saw was contained in quite compact area, but today we've walked much further. However, there's still time to cross back over Charles bridge and take in some of the streets that follow along the riverside (we even managed to find the Japanese Embassy much to Haru's delight).


We agree that we'll return and explore the riverside more tomorrow (our last day) and head back to the hotel to rest up for a while. Despite having seen a lot of nice things today, we both agree that the castle district yesterday was more impressive. So, having rested we decide it'd be nice to go and see the area by night as it's so close to the hotel. This turns out to be a great idea, not only is it the atmosphere totally different at night, but the crowds are gone as well, giving us almost the whole cathedral square to sit by ourselves and soak up the ambiance.


The next day I leave Haru in the hotel and head out on business again, after the disappointment with the bank I've decided to try going to the Slovak embassy thinking that they could help me get some official proof of identity acceptable by the bank to verify postal instructions... well, I got a paper, but the bank still won't accept it. B****rds!

Anyway, we did a lot of walking yesterday, and I thought this would be a pretty dull walk in a more residential area of the town, but in the end the route took me behind the castle and presented some nice views that I regretted Haru missing.



Hurrying back to the hotel as soon as possible we decide to pick up where we left off yesterday, down by the riverside. On the way I'm snapping pictures of address stones that I was reading about in the guide book last night, markers that served as physical addresses for illiterates. So your address might be, the baker under the three fiddles, or the apothocary under the golden snake. Spotting these old stones, or shops that still bear their names is quite interesting.


We're not following the guide book today, just exploring, and the first thing we find is the John Lennon memorial wall. The Beatles are still popular in this part of the world, and here fans can come and remember and pay their respects to the late, great John Lennon in their own way.


We want to take it a bit easier today, so we decide to hop on one of the many tour boats running up and down the river. Which provides not only another perspective, but also a welcome break from all the footwork of the last two days.


Refreshed, we have just enough time to explore one last riverside park, before returning to the hotel.


That's it, we have to pack and jump back into a taxi for the airport. We have a long flight back to Japan ahead of us.

The honeymoon is over!


Posted by DKJM74 22:30 Comments (0)

Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell: The Wedding Special

A Very 'Travellerspoint' Wedding

This is my 100th entry on this blog.

That means I've averaged damn near one entry a week over the two years I've been writing it, covering pretty much every aspect of my experience leaving Slovakia and travelling to Japan to take a job with JET.

This also means that regular readers will have followed my relationship with Haru pretty much every step of the way - everything has been recorded right here.

The day we first met at Otsu Matsuri.

The day we 'officially' got together.

Our first weekend away, first Christmas, first Valentine's day (spent hanging around with snow monkeys),
even the day I proposed, and she said 'Yes'.

It's all on here, no wonder one reader once commented that reading this blog was like reading a 'romantic comedy'. A comparison I both appreciated and totally agreed with. Yes, this is a travel blog and it is the story of my journey, but that journey wasn't always about travel.

So, for those of you who have been following our lives on this blog I'm very happy to present - the wedding special :-)

This is where it's all going to take place. Masson Farm, on the hills overlooking Matlock Bath in the Peak District. I grew up near here and spent a large part of my youth wandering these hills. See that ruined castle across the valley, I used to have to run around that for PE, cross country running, when I was a secondary school student.

I always thought that if I got married (and for a long time that was a big IF), it would be a small, intimate, ceremony somewhere like this.


Of course, having been out of the UK for about 15 years now, keeping the ceremony small isn't a problem. I don't really know anybody here anymore. So it's just us, close family and three friends I've managed to keep in touch with since I was 16 - Nik, Jules and Chris.

Although it is possible to drive up to the farm, we've decided to take alternative transport, and are arriving by cable car (pure class).


Since I left for Slovakia, about 15 years ago, the four of us have only managed to get together about 3 times and the last time was about a year before I went to Japan. So it was great to have this chance to catch up, and regress to our idiotic 16 year old selves for a bit. After arriving at the top of the cable car we had a long walk through the fields to reach the farm, it was all very reminiscent of the caravanning holidays we took together during our collage days.


While we were still ambling down the hill, enjoying what Chris dubbed 'The shameless cash-in reunion tour', (dogged by paparazzi every step of the way, actually this is probably the first time I've done a blog entry where all the pictures were taken by other people), the other guests were arriving at the farm and getting seated.


We soon joined them, and the nervous hanging around began. Everything is ready now, but we're all still waiting for one very important person.


Haru and the bridesmaids are following us, also coming up by cable car, about 20 mins behind us. I guess that this is usually the most nerve wracking part, waiting for the bride to turn up - but I'm not too worried, I'm still holding her plane ticket back to Japan, so she can't run far :-)


Me and the boys in our suits attracted a fair bit of attention, but a beautiful Japanese woman in full bridal gear wandering through Matlock Bath and riding the cable car turned a lot more heads.


They may have gained more celebrity than us, but the walk down to the farm was a little more problematic for them. Well, we didn't have to do it in high heels, but being smart girls they took a change of shoes for the cross country hike.


If you've wondering how far it is, well this will give you a fair idea. By pure chance, the father of our wedding photographer was out on the other side of the valley with his camera and snapped a couple of shots - look carefully, that white dot on the left hand hillside is Haru heading down to the farm.


Then the wait was over, they had arrived and everybody went to their places. As Haru's father is quite frail, and wasn't up to the long flight to the UK, her brother is giving her away instead. Suddenly I realize that there are some details I want to know that I never asked about - like now, I don't know if I should turn to watch her approach, or if I'm supposed to stay facing the front until she is beside me??? I try to think back to weddings I've seen in movies, and before I know it she's beside me anyway, and I see her in the dress for the first time. Wow!


The actual ceremony is taking place in a building called Swallow Barns after the nesting swallows who use it every summer, and who we terribly inconvenienced by having our wedding there. Here you can see one of them waiting for us to leave so it can get to it's babies.


The registrar has been wonderfully accommodating, and the service was a mix of traditional parts and personal readings selected by Haru and me (I'll add the readings at the bottom). Nik is on best man duties, after years of loyal friendship and shared adventures he was the obvious choice, and I was glad to have him there. The ring won't go on my finger, but I'm ready for this - I heard it's quite common as your fingers to swell with all the heightened emotion of the day - so I just hold it on my fingertip until I can shove it on at a discreet moment later.


We even managed to arrange a fly-by of an old world war two bomber to perfectly cover up the moment Haru fluffed her lines - though I'm not sure it was an accident, as she skipped the bit about having to honour me!


Then we're signing the paper and the official part is all over, time for everybody to move over to the front lawn, and to stop disturbing the poor swallows. We've set up a small marquee in the field, and this is where we're moving now.


In keeping with the countryside farm theme of the wedding, and the small number of guests, we've requested a natural picnic basket style buffet lunch. Everybody can help themselves and eat in the marquee or out on the lawn.


At least that was the theory, one big worry about the day has been the weather. The couple of days prior have been really changeable and we really didn't know if it was going to be rain or shine. So far it's held out, but now the sky is glowering and really threatening to turn nasty.


Luckily it never came to anything more than a few drops of rain, and a chance to get that great dramatic photo, before clearing up again! So taking full advantage of the good weather it was time for our photographer, Sam, to get some more formal group photos.

One really great thing about Masson Farm as a venue is that, in a quite a small space, you have many distinct spaces - the barns, the front lawn looking over the valley, the rose bushes by the main gate (that were in full bloom for us) and a back garden full of wild-flowers including some really nice foxgloves. All this made a great backdrop for some beautiful pictures.


Our time at the farm was fast running out now, and everybody regrouped at the marquee for what turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the day - Nik's best man's speech.


Now Nik is known to all of us for being a generally quite quiet and reserved. So it's not exaggerating to say he went above and beyond with his speech, it not only covered all the formal thank-yous required, but was by turns laugh out loud funny and actually quite touching too. He certainly earned the proud smile he was wearing by the end of it, I was proud of him too!

It's time to start heading down to the main gate and the waiting cars now.


Just time for one last round of photos by the rose bushes and a confetti shower, then we're thanking our host, Denise, for a wonderful day in a picturesque place and getting into the car - but it's not quite over yet, we have one more surprise for the guests still to come. Something I haven't even told Haru about yet!

After a short stop back at the hotel for everybody to rest, as it begins to get dusky we head out to a local park. While we wait for it to get a bit darker we pop some champagne and cut the cake.


Then once it's dark enough my sister, Francesca, produces glow lanterns and marker pens for everybody. The idea is to write some personal message on the lanterns and send them off into the night.


It was another personal touch and a lovely way to end the day, Haru who had no idea why we were hanging around in the park was amazed and delighted. Watching those glowing balls receded into distant points of light somehow seemed like a metaphor for the journey we still had ahead of us - who knows how far we will go and where we will finally come to rest?

So that was our wedding, and, if we get it right, the only one we'll ever have. Sometimes it didn't go as smoothly as planned, but it was never a disaster and most importantly I think everybody had a good time. When I look back I think what I'll remember the most will be how beautiful Haru was, and how much everybody seemed to be smiling.


Thank you everybody who shared the day with us in person and made it so warm and friendly.
Thank you to my sister Francesca for handling most of the UK preparation in my absence.
Thank you Denise for providing a perfect romantic setting.
Thank you Sam (and Dave) for capturing the day for us.
Thank you Muro Sensei for translating the whole ceremony into Japanese for my in-laws.
Thank you Travellers point and everybody who has shared the journey with us through this on blog.

Here's to the future, I can't think of any reason why we shouldn't have a long lasting, and loving, life together ahead of us....


Hey, what did I do to deserve that??


Aahhh, yes! Oh, well, we'll see how it goes :-)


The Registrar's reading we selected

Louis de Bernieres, from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:

Love is a temporary madness; it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.

My reading to Haru

Daily Afflictions, by Andrew Boyd:
Loving the Wrong Person

We’re all seeking that special person who is right for us. But if you’ve been through enough relationships, you begin to suspect there’s no right person, just different flavours of wrong. Why is this? Because you yourself are wrong in some way, and you seek out partners who are wrong in some complementary way. But it takes a lot of living to grow fully into your own wrongness. It isn’t until you finally run up against your deepest demons, your unsolvable problems – the ones that make you truly who you are – that you’re ready to find a life-long mate. Only then do you finally know what you’re looking for. You’re looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: the right wrong person – someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, “This is the problem I want to have.”

Haru's reading to me (read in Japanese)

One with each other by George Elliot

"What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel they are joined for life – to strengthen each other in all labour, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories."

Posted by DKJM74 21:51 Comments (1)

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig!

No prizes for spotting the movie reference! (Except a feeling of self satisfaction)

So here we are. A statue of Robin Hood, my parents red brick house, their stupid puddy-muddle of a cat and my wonderful Dobby-dog (who last appeared on this blog two years ago when I was transporting him from Slovakia to the UK, and who is now living with my sister).


I'm back in Nottingham for a couple of days, a pit-stop more than a homecoming and one I was a little nervous about. This marks the first meeting of our two families, Haru's and mine, but from the moment we all sat down for a meal together in the hotel I knew it was going to be OK. Despite the language barrier, and my poor translation, it all went pretty well. A follow on meal the next day at my parents' house went even better - with several language free games and puzzles really helping people connect without having to talk too much (much to my relief). Our mothers have even become penpals now!

I had a few practical things that I really had to do while I was back. So the next day I dropped everybody off in the centre of Nottingham, armed them with maps where I'd circled a few points of interest, and told them to meet me in a couple of hours and off they went.


Seeing their photos of that morning was quite amusing, as for me none of these buildings really seem that photogenic or worthy of a picture. Even Nottingham Castle is just a boxy house on top of a small hill that looks nothing like a castle, but then again I guess many Japanese people are equally amused by my choices of photography subjects in Japan, which are probably very common place for them as well.

After we met up again it was time for lunch. So, as I'm trying to make sure everybody tries good old fish and chips at least once during their stay, I took them to one of Nottingham's more interesting spots for a pub lunch.


This is one of several pubs in England that claims to be the oldest (though their claim is a pretty strong one, to be fair). 'The trip to Jerusalem' (or simply 'The trip' as it's known locally) is reputed to have been a meeting place for those heading off to off heads in the Crusades, and the sword fixed to the outside of the building is said to be an actual crusaders sword.

Many of the rooms and passages inside are actually hewn directly into the soft sandstone cliffs that the building nestles against. This does give it a rather unique and archaic feel to the place. It also comes with a few myths and legends of it's own, like a chair that is supposed to make anybody who sits on it pregnant. If this works for guys as well I don't know, and I didn't get a chance to try as the chair is now too old and frail to be sat on, so bang goes my only chance at motherhood. A more famous myth associated with the pub is 'The cursed galleon', a model ship that should never be moved, because doing so tends to trigger a bout of supernatural petulance until it's put back in it's rightful place.


Just around the corner from 'The Trip' is a small local history museum called 'Brewhouse Yard', which was actually closed on this day. However, we got to go back a couple of days later, with more of my family in tow, and show Haru and Tomoko around. So, for the sake of keeping all the 'Nottingham stuff' together, I'm going to add that here as well. Right now in fact!


As you can see this isn't exactly ancient history, it covers what I guess you could call 'living memory', going back to not much more than just pre-world war 2. What it does do very nicely is recreate the atmosphere of those times with some quite hands on rooms set out like period kitchens, grocery stores, chemists... which was probably a bit of a busman's holiday for Haru and Tomoko as they are both pharmacists!


In fact, at points, it all felt like a condensed re-run of our first couple of days in London with fine collection of old toys and even a rather nifty little Dalek turning up.


Being built against the same sand stone cliffs as 'The Trip', Brewhouse Yard also has it's own fair share of caves which have served various functions over the years including a brewary, an air raid shelter and most recently a picnic spot for us poor hungry visitors.


I actually have a personal connection with one of the items in this museum though, look at the peg rug under the bed in the last couple of pictures above. That was actually made by my Grandmother when she was a girl. How it came to be donated to the museum I don't know - but it's a fine example of an old technique of 'pegging' rags through a base to make a warm rug. It used to be in a different room, but now it's been put under the bed here to protect it a bit from further wear and tear - though they obviously didn't take crawling nephews into account when they came up with that plan.

It was odd seeing it, her rug, there like that. Every time I went back to the UK I always make a point of dropping in to see my Gran. The last photo I have of us together was taken in 2006 (when I still had long hair), though I took one final photo of her in 2009 when I was back in the UK just before going to Japan to start JET. Every time I visted her I always thought it might be the last time I'd see her, that's why I always took a picture. She passed away a few months ago. So it was nice that, in some small way, I got to visit her again this time. Goodbye Gran.


OK that's enough chronologically inaccurate side stepping and emoting, let's get back to where we left off... in a pub eating fish and chips!

After lunch we had a parting of the fellowship, with different people wanting to do different things. So Nik and I ended up taking Haru and Tomoko for a short drive out to another of Nottingham's nicer spots. Wollaton Hall, a country house/museum with a deer park around it (though we didn't see much of the deer this time).

Interestingly I just read that the hall will be making an appearance in the next Batman film, playing the role of Wayne Manor (Family home of Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne). A few days after we left several scenes were filmed here, including at least one involving gravestones - and, as Bruce going all moody at his parents graveside is an iconic reoccuring image in the comics, it's easy to guess what was going on there.


Again, I've actually been here many, many times before, but it's always a nice stroll around the gardens and the lake, and always nice to take new people there too. It's a shame we didn't have time to go inside though, I'd have liked to introduce Haru to another childhood friend of mine, the stuffed giraffe with knees that have been stroked bare by generations of curious kids who couldn't reach any higher. Next time maybe.


And that's all for today. Next time will be the wedding spectacular special (finally), but for now come on, move along now, there's nothing else to see here.


OK - It was from 'Bladerunner'.... Happy now?

Posted by DKJM74 07:24 Comments (0)

The Path More Travelled

Being a blatent tourist in London

Our last day in London and our numbers have swollen from two (Me and Haru) to six with the arrival of Haru's mother (Junko), brother (Astushi), sister-in-law (Hiromi) and good friend (Tomoko).

We've got to get a train to Nottingham at around 4.30pm, and they want to see as much as possible before then. So we're setting out early and making our way over to the one of London's key tourist hubs. I'm taking them to Westminster to see Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the abbey for starters.


It's not an area I'd go to on my own, I've seen it all before and it's easy to loose sight of just how interesting something is when it's commonplace for you. So, if you've grown jaded to your own country, I suggest acting as a guide to a group of foreigners as a way to help you rediscover things for yourself. For example, trying to explain just who Oliver Cromwell was, or the purpose of a gargoyle, in my lower-intermediate Japanese, was both challenging and fun (and I do love a nice gargoyle or grotesque).


We didn't have time to go inside everywhere, but with the recent royal wedding having been big news in Japan it was the abbey that they really wanted to see - a place I'd never have visited by choice, but really enjoyed under the circumstances. In fact understanding much more of the history around the place and people connected with it I think I was much more absorbed than my guests and in the end it was them hurrying me out. Luckily there were only a few places where photography was allowed, or I'd have taken even longer.



The next thing on their London wish list was Buckingham Palace, which they still wanted to see despite my warnings that there's not much to see from the outside; oh well, I'm just the guide today!


So that's Buckingham Palace and Green Park checked off the list. What's the next request? A market and some shopping. Well, with more time I'd have taken them to Camden, but that's a full day on it's own I think, so we settled for Covent Garden instead. Just be chance we managed to turn up on a significant day for the market, as a new memorial stone for local residents who died in WWII was being unveiled that day. Apparently Covent Garden was the last of the London markets to have been provided with such a memorial, and the mayor was there to unveil it.


Well I've done my best to cram as much toursity-Londonalia as possible into a few hours for my guests, but time's up we've got to catch a train! And after a wonderful bit of British Rail antics, we end up on a trian one hour later than planned, minus the seat reservations I paid for - why has this never happened once during two years in Japan, then happens on the first big train journey back in the UK? Still, despite the 'minor setback' we're on our way, and one step closer to W-day.


Posted by DKJM74 06:36 Comments (0)

Quintessentially British

London, the Tate Modern and Doctor Who

So, I'm heading back to the UK for the first time in two years. This has been the pattern of my life for years now, two or three years spent abroad then a few days back in England to see family and friends, but it's a bit different this time. This time Haru and I are spending a couple of days in London alone, then some of her family will join us and we'll go up to Nottingham to meet the Mitchell clan. Yes, we're going to introduce our families to each other... well, we've got to really, not much time left. We're getting on the flight from Osaka to London, which means it's only 6 days to wedding day, yeah - it's about time our families met I guess!

We've got three days in London. The first day is for Haru and what she wants to do, the second is mine (and that's the two days I'll be covering today, day three I'll talk about later).

After about 12 hours (or four in flight movies and a Helsinki transfer) later we arrive in London find the hotel, grab a take away curry (we really are back in the UK) and go to sleep. Next day we're surprisingly fresh and ready to go.

Today is Haru's day, she likes modern art (in particular pop art), making it a quick and easy choice for her - The Tate Modern. So that's where we're heading, jumping off the tube near St. Paul's and then walking down across the Millennium Bridge.



I've been to the Tate Modern a couple of times before and always enjoy it. I have a very simple approach to modern art these days based on pure instinctive reaction. Some artists, and schools of art I know a little about, and that knowledge can help understand some things, but it's my belief that you shouldn't have to read a thesis or statement of intent to be able to understand a piece of art. So I just let myself react - for example (in the collage below) the red netting steps and overhead screen in one of the installations made me laugh because I was thinking what fun it'd be to climb up and bounce around as if it was a giant trampoline, on the other hand the metallic coils snaking down from the ceiling looked very organic, despite their material, and made me think of Geiger and the Alien movie designs.


Haru and I would just talk about was brought to mind by the whatever we were looking at, silly or serious, and in that way we really enjoyed it. The pieces I don't like are those that simply don't evoke anything for me. Simple as.

There's a wide variety of pieces in the gallery, from large installations and strange structures, to more classic (though still modern) style sculptures and canvases. Here's a small selection, of what we could see.




Oddly, perhaps the best view of St.Paul's and the Millennium Bridge was from inside the gallery as well.


After leaving the gallery and a spot of lunch, Haru just wanted to walk around and explore a bit. So I took her for a familiar stroll along the side of the Thames, down to Tower Bridge, before heading back to the hotel and crashing out.



The next day was mine, and I'd got us tickets for the 'Doctor Who Experience' at Olympia (which meant changing trains at Earl's Court, where I used to live, and where I got my nose broken by a guy on crack - ahhh, the memories!).

If the words 'Doctor Who' mean nothing to you then shame on you! It's officially recognized as the longest running and most successful sci-fi show in the world and was once described as "quintessential to being British".

Anyway, the 'experience' is divided into two parts, the first part is a mini-adventure where the current Doctor (Matt Smith) appears on videos screens and guides you through as series of rooms (an intergalactic museum, inside the TARDIS, a dalek mother ship) where you act like a gang of companions trying to rescue the Doctor. The climax of which is a trip down a 3D vortex with daleks, cybermen and stone angels all trying to kill you - and this isn't subtle depth of field 3D, this is 'Let's make stuff stick as far out of the screen as possible' 3D.

The second part is an exhibition of costumes and creatures from the show. Here's a quick taster of the exhibition part, and if you're interested you can find a more extended write up about the Doctor Who Experience on my other blog here.


The rest of the day was pretty much devoted to museums. At first we headed over to the 'British Museum', which is an impressive collection housed in an equally impressive building.


We looked around a few 'classic' galleries (Egyptian mummies, Greek and Roman sculptures and elegant chronometers).





However, as impressive as it all was, it left me a little cold. It is a great museum, but it was so huge and so full that I just couldn't connect with it somehow. So I suggested switching to the nearby 'Toy Museum' instead, which we did. Located in two old town houses joined together, the toy museum is much smaller, and quite tricky to find. When we did find it though I was happy we did, the loosely themed collections piled up in each room were wonderful, and unlike the packed 'British Museum' we had this place pretty much to ourselves.



(Love these old toy theatres, made me think of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)

(Proof, if proof be needed, that old dolls are just plain scary!)

I think that the toy museum was probably my favorite thing that we saw over these few days in London, mostly because I hadn't seen it before, unlike the Tate Modern or British Museum. I've even been to two earlier Doctor Who exhibitions, though the first time I was so young I don't remember it now. Given more time I'd have loved to explore some other lesser visited sites in London; see the old medical collages, or maybe do a tour of Highgate Cemetery (I'd love to do that). We still had one more day to go, but that evening my (soon-to-be) in-laws would be arriving, and the next morning I'll be playing tour guide to some of the more famous London sites then taking everybody up to Nottingham to meet my folks.

Posted by DKJM74 02:36 Comments (2)

Buds, Bats and Bots

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

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

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


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


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


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




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





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

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


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


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

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


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

Robot dance routine.


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

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

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

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

More robots falling and standing up.

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

A near miss goal attack.


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



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

Posted by DKJM74 16:56 Comments (0)


Shikoku Trip Day 2

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

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


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


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


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


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



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



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



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




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


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


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

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


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


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

Posted by DKJM74 23:29 Comments (2)

Buddhist Hell and Beyond

Shikoku Trip Day 1

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

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

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



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



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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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

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


- the ultimate roadside junkshop.

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






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

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

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


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

Posted by DKJM74 06:32 Comments (0)

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