Travel in Japan:

Japan Overview:

Travel Reports:
Hakusan and the Noto Peninsula

Japan Overview:

Japan is a big country.  It is about the size of California or Germany, but it is long and thin like Chile and there are lots of mountains to drive around (if you are driving and paying the enormous tolls).  On the other hand, there are lots of connections if you are taking the train, and it's not cheap either.  The subways map of major cities are like plates of spaghetti.  If you can't read Chinese kanji characters and don't have a friend to help you or a personal guide, you might be discouraged (when shopping for guide books, you must pick one that lists place names in kanji).  If this happens, address someone politely and ask them in your native language. If your native language is English you are in luck - lots of Japanese people pay lots of money to learn the language but never have an opportunity to use it.  Most people won't address you on their own, but after a few tries you might find the most helpful person in Japan and a true friend for life.  You might even find someone who knows more about some aspect of your hometown (woodcarving, soap box racing, an obscure sixties Jazz singer) than you do yourself.  Don't be taken aback, act cool, and get the directions you need.

Each area of Japan has its specialties.  People outside Japan know that there is Mt. Fuji and that there is skiing in Japan - Japan is generally mountainous, but there is a lot more to it than that.  It has a long coastline, so there is seafood practically everywhere except for the deep mountains.  No place in Japan is more than 200 km. from the sea or ocean.  Hot springs are everywhere.  Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya and a few other places offer seas of concrete that never seem to end (Tokyo in particular, with its lack of surrounding mountains and the proximity of places like Kawasaki and Yokohama, is like an endlessly unreal urban sprawl) but there is a lot more to the country than those three cities and in fact most of the country can be described as rural.  Everybody in the country has several friends or relative who is living in either Osaka or Tokyo, but this doesn't mean anything - most small towns have a fun pub or two and tons of colorful characters and a lot more to learn about than the big cities.

Japan has four big islands, and a million tiny ones.

The northern island of Hokkaido is the new frontier, known for farmland and home of the Ainu people which are believed to predate the Japanese people in Japan.  A few small islands just off of the coast of Hokkaido are in dispute with Russia, which has had official control of them since the end of World War Two.  Mount Izu, Japan's most recent active volcano, is in Hokkaido.

The big island is called Honshu.  It is a big and green bean-shaped, the north-eastern tip gets near Russia, and the south-western tip gets near Korea.  It is a diverse area and has the brunt of the cultural and historical sites in Japan (concentrated in Kamakura, Kyoto, and Nara, all ancient capitols of medieval Japan), as well as the two largest cities (Osaka and Tokyo), the seat of government, the ancient capitols, tombs, architectural digs, and the most recent earthquake disaster (Kobe, 17th of January, 1995).  Honshu breaks up into regions: moving from north-east to south-west they are Tohoku (snow country), Kanto (Tokyo, Yokohama, Mt. Fuji), Chubu (Nagano and the Japanese Alps),  Kinki (also known as Kansai, it includes Osaka and Kyoto and Nara), and the Chugoku region (Hiroshima).

Just south of the Chugoku area is the smallest of the four islands called Shikoku.  Between these two areas is the Inland Sea, sometimes called the Seto Inland Sea, which is stuffed full of fish and islands and spanned by three large bridges.  Shikoku is known for its remote locations, since dense mountains make it difficult to get around, it is also a bit of a surfers paradise.  Read my travel report of Kochi prefecture.

Kyushu is the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.  It is known for it's relatively sunny climes, proximity to Korea, a serpentine coastline, and geothermal activity - hot springs and volcanoes.  Officially, the Okinawa island chain that drifts from the southern tip of Kyushu southeast along the coast of China all the way to Taiwan is a part of geo-political Kyushu.  Okinawa is Japan's Hawaii, with great beaches and tropical climes.  It is also G.I. hell as the most American forces in Japan are active in Okinawa.  Okinawan culture is quite distinct from regular Japanese culture, and Okinawan music is very compelling and has made some impact internationally.

Travel reports:

Akame (Kansai): Akame (literally "red eye") is in the deep wilderness of Nara prefecture, bordering on Mie prefecture.  It can be reached as a day trip from Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, or Nagoya by taking the Kintetsu line way way way out.  For people living in the city, one of the delights of visiting a place like Akame is seeing the concrete structures of the city melt away and entering a world overtaken by green - it is easy to forget that this is how it is like for most of the people who live on this earth, and luckily green vegetation still covers most of our dry land.  Akame is serviced by its own station, Kintetsu Akameguchi station.  If you left home early in the morning, you will possibly arrive here around lunch time.  There are places to eat in "town", and it is fun to linger and stroll around the "quaint" rural buildings.  Buses or taxis should be taken to the beginning of the waterfall trail, although you could try hoofing it for 5 kilometers along the road if you aren't too worried about burning out for the 8 kilometer wilderness trek that lays before you.

Once you get to Akame park, you will have to pay admission.  This includes entrance to the salamander museum, and if you are lucky you might actually see one of the prehistoric beasts.  The hike is fine and walking upstream alongside a steady stream of tourists is really quite fun on a sunny day.  We went on a damp, intermittently rainy day and it was still beautiful, the tall cedars guarding us from the worst of the falling water.  Wow.  Thick cliffs and the occasional shrine kept us happy, and some of the waterfalls were utterly spectacular - some high, some broad, some stepped.  The boulders that were strewn about in the stream like mutant potatoes had fun names attached to them, and the burble of trickling water can make you forget that you're actually exerting yourself.  A lot of people walk up until they are tired, and then walk down, but we thought it would be nicer to keep walking overland because out maps told us that if we kept walking further and further, the hill would crest, and we could walk downhill much later on and get to a road that had a bus running along it.  Luckily, our information turned out to be true.  After 3 hours following our maps steadily uphill, then steadily downhill (the crowds faded after an hour), we got to our road.  The sun broke through the clouds, our bus came, and we had another spectacular view of rural Japan from our comfortable seats on the bus - big cliffs, a huge reservoir, and some more spectacular waterfalls, all illuminated by the gorgeous setting sun slinting in under the gray clouds that had chased us all day.  Lovely!

Ako: Ako?  Who is Ako?  In this case it’s not WHO, but WHAT.  Practically anyone who has heard of this small town on the far western edge of the Kansai usually associates it with the events of the Edo-shattering revenge mission of the 47 loyal retainers of Ako, dramatized in last year’s NHK Sunday drama.  Because of this, day-trippers really only plan to make a trip there on December 14th for the Ako Gishisai festival in honor of the 47 ronin.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that it is much nicer to go there in the summer and enjoy the serenity and natural beauty that Ako has to offer – December weather is just too cold for that type of enjoyment because, unofficially, Ako is also the best and closest seaside getaway for people living west of Osaka.

Once you’ve arrived safely in Ako, go straight to the tourist office (in the JR “Banshu Ako” station) and get plenty of English-language maps and brochures.  The tourist office can also recommend accommodation for anyone who wants to spend the night or find a hot spring to soak in.  Seaside camping is also available.  Ask the workers to point out the bicycle rental shop, temporarily located across from the post office on the street running perpendicular to the station while the station is being renovated.  Yes, Ako is blessed with a bicycle rental outfit, perfect for leisurely explorations of this flat, historic, not-too-big-and-not-too-small town ringed by hills and full of fun sights, great sounds, and fresh smells.  Bicycle rentals cost 100 yen, and are available from 9 AM to 5 PM.

Ako is a city of historical sites (Oishi shrine - shrine museum admission 400 yen and open 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., phone 07914-2-2054; and Kagakuji Temple which contains the graves of the 47 loyal samurai, museum admission 300 yen, open 8:30 A.M. to 5 P.M., phone 07914-3-4267), and museums (City History Museum, admission 200 yen, open 9:30 A.M. to 4:30 P.M., closed Tuesdays, phone 07914-3-4192; Folk Culture Museum, admission 100 yen, open 9:30 A.M. to 5 P.M., closed Tuesdays, 07914-2-1361; and the Marine Science museum, admission 200 yen, open 9:30 A.M. to 4 P.M., closed Tuesdays, 07914-3-4192).  Among the temples, Oishi shrine is of particular interest – it can be found in the Ako Castle ruins (with a moat and strong walls that are fun to climb along) and a series of paintings nailed to the wall around the shrine (read them from the front of the shrine going clockwise) tell the tale of the 47 loyal retainers of the lord of Ako.  The museum is also quite interesting, with wood carvings of the retainers, as well as a gorgeous garden.  Among the city museums, I have found that the Folk Culture Museum is one of the most interesting such museums I have seen in Japan.  Located in a huge Western-style house, it is full of antiques (plates, yellowing comic books and magazines, household items, clothing, hats, sandals, farming tools, posters) that can all be touched, perused, read, and fondled.  Several other museums and galleries can also be found around town.

Having said that, visitors should be warned to not spend too much time in the temples and museums, because one of the real treats of a trip to Ako is going down to the sea and exploring the coastline.  Near Ako’s harbor is Ako’s massive Seaside Park (Ako Kaihin Koen in Japanese, just head towards the Ferris wheel).  A free park with tons of interesting places for kids to play (a huge pirate ship, among others) as well as open spaces for picnicking and tossing Frisbees, it is almost worth the trip to Ako alone (tel. 07914-5-0800, parking 500 yen).  Besides all that, it is also home to the interesting Marine Science Museum (see above for information).

When passing through the Osaki region of Ako, located at the foot of the hill just east of the Chikusa river, be sure and venture off the beaten path and check out the little alleys, a maze-like slice of suburban Japan (and home to a staggering number of barber shops and okonomi-yaki shops).  On the hill behind Hachiman Jingu you’ll find the Fumon temple, home to a thousand-year-old thousand-arm Kannon reputedly commissioned by Shotoku Taishi.  Ask the monks or nuns of the temple to see it (free of charge).

There are plenty of good cycling options in Ako, and one of them is to follow the river up-stream, since there are fine cycling paths to be found next to the Chikusa River.  Another is a trip along the gorgeous hilly and twisting coastline from Ako to Aioi.  This will take you through the village of Sakoshi, which is known for its well-preserved traditional housing.  If you are passing through there on the second Sunday of August you might come upon the village’s Octopus Festival, where huge taco-yaki (basketball-sized) are created .  One such creation takes 15 minutes to make and can be served to 50 to 100 people, and only 3 or 4 are made a day.  On the second Sunday in October, Sakoshi is also home to the Ozake Shrine festival, when a palanquin is carried to an uninhabited sacred island just off the shore and back again.

Good food and drink can be had in Ako.  “Sakura Gumi” (0791-42-3545) is a pizza-pasta place 100 meters down the street that runs perpendicular to the front entrance of Osaka castle.  Pizzas tend to be small, but are oven-baked, simple, and mighty tasty.  Other simple fare is also good and not over-priced, their patio is a nice place to be on sunny afternoons.  “Hyotan” (0791-42-1337) is a very nice, very small izakaya located just next to the “iki tsugi ido” well, a historical landmark.  Master Ma-chan is a Japanese rastaman who serves good grub and tells great stories.  A popular hangout for local hipsters (local and foreign), it can also be reserved for all-you-can-eat-and-drink parties at a reasonable price.  .

Ako also has festivals of its own.  Besides the well-known festival in December, there is the Citizens Festival, which will be held this year on August 5th on the banks of the river.  Expect all of the usual fixin’s: food, fun, music, and fireworks in the evening.  There are also regular palanquin-displaying shrine festivals held throughout October, just as there are all over the Harima region.

Anyone with a bit more time might want to venture over the mountains west of Ako and along the coast to the quaint, picturesque town of Hinase, even smaller and closer to the hills and the sea than Ako.  It is the home of a fine port and great seafood, as well as a jumping-off point for boat trips to the small outlying islands of the Inland Sea.

Getting there: Getting to Ako using public transportation means taking JR.  Ako is called “Banshu Ako” on the JR map and is on its own line, “the Ako line.”  Taking it usually means transferring in Aioi.  Getting to Ako takes about 45 minutes from Himeji.  Write to the Ako tourist information office "Kanko Annaisho" at Hyogo-ken, Ako-shi, Kaliya 131-3, 678-0239 for an English brochure that includes a list of accomodation with prices, or phone (07914)-2-2602.

This article was originally published in the Kansai Time Out magazine in August, 2000.

Asuka (Kansai): Asuka is one of the longest civilized areas in Japan, and the place to see the burial mounds which proliferated as part of the Cumulus culture of Japan that thrived between the 4th and 7th centuries.  The town's pleasures are many - besides the glorious natural surroundings and quiet atmosphere, there are ancient temples that hold national treasures, rock carvings, imperial graves, and towers... not to mention plenty of tumuli.

In six hours on a sunny summer's day, we managed to hit twelve of these incredible sites without exerting ourselves too tremendously.  There are many Asuka sites that can be seen at no charge - in fact most of them can.  Neither of the two imperial graves on the map charge admission, for example, nor does the Princess Kibi grave with the stone monkey guardians, nor do a handful of carved stones and tumuli.

The best part of a day in Asuka is the lack of a transportation problem due to the existence of a bicycle rental program.  Bicycles can be rented at four convenient locations (two in front of Kintetsu Asuka and Kashihara Jingu-mae stations) for 1,200 yen a day.  They can also be rented at one location and returned to any of the other three (with a surcharge of 200 yen), saving a tiring return trip at the end of a sunny day.  Useful maps and other information are included in the price of rental.

One of the big attractions in Asuka, besides the other-worldliness of the rice-field plateau ringed by mountains, is the Ishi Butai, a medium-sized pile of boulders that marks the grave of an emperor of the Asuka Period (A.D.593 to 710).  One account of its creation is told by manga master Tezuka Osama in his brilliant Hinotori (Firebird) series.  This story, though a great read, should best be considered conjecture as there is actually very little known about the real history of the grave marker.  This site does charge admission and you will have to pay 300 yen to see it up close and touch it, although if you want to save the money for something else you can get a nice view of it from up the road.

Several carved rocks, thousands of years old, can be located along the roadside if a person knows where to look (or knows how to read a map).  Among these are the aptly named Turtle Rock, and Sake Boat Rock, with its mysterious trough-and-bowl carvings that are thought to have been used to r brewing up alcoholic potions.  In the same general area, there are the Devil's Toilet and the Devil's Cutting Board rocks, sinister/comical names for what appear to have been two parts of an abandoned stone sarcophagus in preparation - coffin and lid respectively.

A more concretely historical marker indicates the birthplace of Shotoku Taishi.  This Asuka era prince, whose portrait appeared on every denomination of paper currency used in Japan until 1965, is famous for his intelligence and for drafting the first constitution of Japan.

There are several other sites in Asuka that are worth seeing, but require parting with some coin.  Among them is the Asuka Temple (500 yen for adults).  Said to be the oldest temple in Japan and the core of the Asuka area, the original temple was built in 588 to house the Asuka daibutsu, a large black Buddha, which can be seen in the temple.  Only the image's face and hands are original, but the sight of this big, black Buddha is splendid.  The modern temple is a modest affair, much smaller than its most splendid historical incarnation, and is unusual in that it seems to have a wooden torii in front (something that is usually seen in front of Shinto shrines and not Buddhist temples).

The Takamatsuzuka Tomb (210 yen for adults) was built between the 7th and 8th century A.D. and is remarkably well-preserved.  While the tomb itself has been sealed, a museum with a full replica of the tomb and detailed descriptions (in Japanese) give a full picture of this fascinating place.  The costumes of the people depicted and the icnonography of the mythological beasts portrayed as guardians look nothing like those of the Japan most of us know, and indeed look more Chinese or Korean than anything else.

Finally, near Kashihara Jingu-mae station, ardent travelers can go for a look at Kashihara Jingu itself.  This large complex is an important Shinto site, having been built in 1889 in dedication to the Emperor Jimmu, the first of the present imperial line who is said to have begun his reign in 660 B.C.  The buildings are built of wood in the style of Ise Jingu, Japan's holiest shrine in Ise, and the complex is large and relaxing, shouldered by an idyllic lake on one side and a mysterious forest on the other, all overlooked by a strange-shaped hill.  Next door is Kumedera Temple, which is quite subtle, marked with a mini-pagoda and a large gilded statue of the Dainichi Buddha, which shines brilliantly in the sun.

Asuka is also close to several other noteworthy stops such as the 38 waterfalls of Akame and Nabari, as well as Sakurai.

Note: A different form of this report was printed in the January 2000 issue of the Kansai Time Out magazine.

Kochi (Shikoku): Mitchan and An-chan's wedding.  We had a nice weekend - on Friday my wife's cousin Yuki came by the house (she is in Japan for 2 weeks for vacation and for the wedding) and we went together to the ferry harbor in Osaka where we met three other friends, all of us good friends from the time when we all met while living in Taiwan.  All of us took the night ferry.  It was fun.  The general class has open accommodation.  In this you get access to blankets and pillows and a clean, carpeted area where you can spread your things out and sleep.  It was like picnicking.  We drank whiskey all night until it ran out, then switched to beer from the vending machines.  At the vending machines we met these short, crusty old Shikoku types.  They had this funny way of talking, where they called you a stupid idiot if they disagreed with you.  You don't encounter that type of confrontationism often in Japan.  We slept in the boat, and arrived at 6 A.M.  The harbor was beautiful and just went on like a big fjord.  The last time we visited Mitchan it was overland by car - across the big bridges that join Honshu with Shikoku, this time it was a bit different.  We got picked up by a special bus for wedding guests and drove through Kochi city, nursing our hangovers.  Kochi city is a nice small town that has streetcars.  We spotted a bridge that had been made famous in a song.  We drove through the hills and deep into the mountains until we drove through the village that is near Mitchan's house, then continued to the river valley where we finally got to her house.  Mitchan was there at the house, her groom An-chan and his brother from Malaysia were also there.  They were glad to see us Mandarin-speakers, they were a bit lonely since they don't speak a word of Japanese.  Their town is so rural, we walked around and saw nice persimmons hanging on the trees.  I took a lot of great pictures.  The weather was perfect.  Mitchan's family runs a church (from the Tenri religion) in the deep countryside, so they had lots of room to accommodate us, and the wedding and following reception were held in the church itself.  We skipped the actual wedding, advised by Mitchan that it would not be very interesting and we'd have to remain kneeling for about an hour, so we watched a little from outside the bid doors, then went for a walk through the area - a cluster of houses and a shop or two, with a gorgeous river flowing along down the hill from us.  The river valley forms a tight V-shape with tall mountains everywhere, I wonder why anybody thought to live there.

After a short walk, we joined the reception.  The food was really great - lots of raw fish, lobster, sushi, sashimi, shrimp, egg dishes, lots of great things.  There was a lot of skipjack tuna sashimi marinade, the local specialty, it was so delicious because they use a great sauce.  I just kept eating and eating and didn't stop for four hours.  We also drank a lot of sake.  There were so many nice people there and we had such a good time talking to them.  We even played bingo and I won a year 2000 planner, Miki won a little picture frame.  We had a great, peaceful, deep sleep, our weary bodies full of good food, great sake, and lots of clean mountain air.

The next day we slept until 8:30 and left around 10:30 to go to the airport.  It was a tough day, with lots of driving in the van.  We were dropped off in the nice clean new Kochi airport, where we had a lite lunch, then hopped on the plane to get back to Osaka.  Sure was different than taking the night-ferry as some of our friends had done, and a nice indulgence.  The flight was fine, it was nice weather and we got a great view of downtown Osaka city, saw the castle and also an ancient grave - a massive key-shaped island surrounded by a moat.  We want to go there some time for a real visit.  So many first experiences this weekend.

Kurakuen (Kansai): Kurakuen, also known as the Beverly Hills of Kansai, is one of the best places there to see cherry blossoms in early April, but this is not the only thing to enjoy in this gorgeous area or April the only time to go.  Nestled in the foothills of Rokko mountain, and located conveniently between Kobe and Osaka, i.e. 20 minutes by train to either megalopolis, the name Kurakuen is written with the Chinese characters for "bitter," "happy", and "park," which evokes images of a land of bittersweet life among verdant gardens.  There's not much undeveloped land any more in the area, with daring builders defying the possible by placing houses right up up up the slope, but there is still the feeling of space.  Historically, Kurakuen and the surrounding area was a retreat and playground for the rich of the Kansai region and many had villas there.  It was an area of rugged wilderness with mountain streams and waterfalls, hot springs, and brothels.

Kurakuen's closest station is the Kurakuen-guchi stop on the Hankyu line, but if you come on a sunny afternoon it would be a good idea instead to get off at the Hankyu Shukugawa station and walk along the river upstream through Shukugawa park.  Don't forget to look up and admire the unusual rubber pines that people the park with their strange twisted shapes, many of them sloping down at odd, twisted angles.  Several can be walked up like a ramp.  There are lots of places for kids to play, and many people bring ground mats and lawn furniture to picnic all afternoon and into the night.  Sometimes musical groups pick the area to practice and there's no lack of university students strumming on guitars, or seniors playing gateball.  Sooner or later as you walk along the river, the dome-shaped Kabuto-yama, an extinct volcano, will come into view and you will find Kurakuen itself.

Hiking enthusiasts may choose to hike along the river past Kurakuen and up into the hills.  After thirty minutes of clamboring up the concrete steps and following a busy road, Kitayama Botanical Gardens (0978-72-9387) can be reached.  Admission is free.  An afternoon can be spent here exploring the trails, the greenhouses, the ponds, the boulders perched on the cliffs, the Chinese arch from sister city Xiaoxing in China, and the higher trails that lead to Kitayama Dam and the reservoir with a fine view of Kabuto-yama itself.  Further hiking to the foot of Kabuto-yama will reveal more wonders - the impressive Kanno-ji temple with its 88 Buddhas walking trail, as well as a large park that offers great views of Osaka.

One of the most interesting sites in Kurakuen is Koshiki-iwa shrine.  Located in the hills about 15 minutes uphill from Hankyu rail's Kurakuen-guichi station, the shrine and its large forested grounds are often host to festivals and community events that feature varied performances from flamenco dance to Okinawan singing.  Every Sunday afternoon a small group of Japanese and foreign sumo enthusiasts, none weighing more than 80 kilos, gather at the sumo ring in front of the shrine to throw each other around.  All are welcome.  (Check the my sumo page for more details, or go directly to the English Koshiki-iwa sumo club page)  The shrine takes its name from a large holy rock located behind the shrine that looks like a big rice-making barrel, or koshiki.

Kurakuen's restaurants and night spots offer a great deal - if the scene seems subdued, it certainly makes up for it in variety.  Most of the shops line the main street that heads uphill from Kurakuen-guchi station.  The streets may seem quiet, but some of the shops are packed and on warm summer nights the action spills out into the streets. Yellowjackets (72-3444), the shop with the most kids hanging out in front, is a live house.  Who's Who Bar (70-5698) is a sunaku (martini bar), although the seats at the bar don't require a cover, and since 500 yen drinks can be had this amounts to a cheap way to feel like James Bond. Rude Bar (74-3530) is a cheap and friendly night spot with a warm, wood interior.  Sit up at the comfortable bar and watch the young crowd interact, or better yet - jump into the fray. Wheelers (70-5611) is a friendly new gaijin-run bar that is popular with local university students.  Built inside a renovated streetcar with a big sun deck in front, it offers barbecued food and is often the site of interesting activities like musical performances and the odd "freak show."  There are five good sushi shops around, and in ascending order of price and quality they are Amimoto Sushi (still quite good), Kame-zushi (73-1110), Otowa Sushi (71-2446), Daiten Sushi (71-2116), and Fuka sushi. Coyote Cafe (71-7440) is a bit of a hike, but if you want hot dogs and Americana more American than John Wayne and apple pie, you should check out this lively spot.  A very popular place for young people, it attracts squads of students late into the night, presumably for their burgers and "chili beer."  Beware of neon, motorcycle magazines, and loud rock 'n' roll.  Finally, and saving the best for last, is Kurakuen's best kept secret, the underground jellyfish bar called Moon Jelly (75-2900).  It's such a good secret I don't want to tell anyone how to get to its secret location (local residents often pass by and don't know what it is), but if you're curious give them a call.

Note: A different form of this report was printed in the October 1999 issue of the Kansai Time Out magazine.

Minoh (Kansai): Minoh or Minoo or Mino-o, as in "rhymes with sew."  Minnow?  The train station sigh says Mino-o.  Mino-o is a northern suburb of Osaka city and the home of another waterfall trek, as well as some monkeys.  You can get there by taking the Hankyu train line north of Osaka - it is a bit of a trek, since it involves a transfer, but it is well worth it.  The Mino-o mountains are the closest bit of nature to Osaka city proper and a lot of fun to explore.  From the Hankyu Mino-o station, a trail begins that leads 3 kilometers through the forested hills past majestic cedars and strange-shaped rocks, quaint Japanese inns, and august temples, all the way to the huge pool and waterfall where you might run into the said mischievous monkeys - don't let them see what you are eating.  Going to Mino-o at different times of the year pays off, as it is known for just about any type of color there is in Japan - cherry blossoms and maple leaves being the most famous.  One of the specialties of Mino-o is the "maple leaf tempura."  Pickled in brine for over a year to get the taste just right, you don't have to worry if they are in season or not, just eat them fresh-fried and forget that they are oily as hell.  The hills are full of trails for real mountain wanders, and one of those trails leads to Katsuo-ji, a temple in the hills that is a lot of fun to explore.

Mino-o city has other sites to offer, including shrines, temples, and museums.  The samurai house is also there for history buffs who like to see that some of the past has been preserved.  Walk around the interesting hillside alleys near the train station for some more history, not a lot of people in urban Japan still live like that.

Yumura - Going up to the northern coast, the Sea of Japan, with John and Mika, where we were once before in a past fall with John and his family.  This time going in early January on a snowy day - that is, clear on the coast of the Inland Sea where we were, but with reports of snow in the hills.  Should we buy chains at the many automotive stores on the way up?  Getting into Ako to rendezvous with John and Mika, cold and hungry because it is early, grumpy that John has spaced out and not been there at the station, going up by mini-van into the hills and eating at a cool little roadside cafe, happy to have eggs and toast in us.  Getting into the snowy parts, crossing wide forests, mountain passes, icy bridges and going to Gorilla Liquors on the northern plains, going along the shore, stopping to look at snowy beaches and huge breaking waves that have created a foamy raging plain of the Sea of Japan on the way to Korea and Siberia and beyond.  Running along the beach, feeling snow and sand kick up over us, something I've never experienced before despite the presence of snowy beaches in my hometown every winter for the 20 years I lived there.  Going to a seafood shop, looking at live crabs, chipping in on some bargain-basement boiled crab, getting into the hotel and cracking open the beers and eating the crab - uh... that crab actually wasn't very good, though.

"Yumura" means "hot water town."  Another name for the same place is "Onsen-cho," which means "hot spring town."  Either way, it's a great name.  Going into town, we passed by "hot spring high school," I wish I could have had a picture of that - must be a nice place to study.  We had been through the town once before with John, stopping to boil eggs with his parents, it was nice to be there and stay overnight.  The hotel was great.  We got our hot spring stuff in a bag and went outside, in the snow, our first snow of the season since we don't see much snow around Osaka.  Next to the hotel practically was "Refresh Park," a hot spring park for families, i.e. men and women aren't segregated and everyone is required to bathe in swimming gear.  Good, fun for the whole family, and no nudity!  Soaking in 5 tubs, one in a cave and one in a waterfall and one in a barrel and one...  Meeting a new friend in the waterfall, then going off to the pool to swim a few laps, then going into the men's showers to have a proper scrubbing and another soak, then back to the hotel for dinner.

It's now nearly September - that was January - I don't really remember what we ate, but I'm sure it was great!  After the dinner and some conferring and drinking beer, we decide to go out for a stroll.  We find the egg place where we were together years before, then head into the Spring Summer pub for some entertainment at the hands of the bizarre transvestite bartender (new half master) pulling tricks and singing karaoke songs.  The proof of the pudding that the place was supposed to be good was the rumor that we had heard that the place was actually frequented by locals, a point proven when the woman who had served us dinner at the hotel showed up after work!  Someone asked me to sing "Who Has Seen The Rain" by CCR, the theme song for a popular car commercial at the moment.  The drunken master came up to us and bared a tit, a fake plastic ovary but shocking nonethesame.  Without missing a beat, I took the chopsticks and tweaked that hard plastic nipple - what else could I have done?  Maybe the master timed it that way so that we could get laughs and I wouldn't lose face, who knows.  Still, we drank a whole bottle of shochu, and then headed home through the snowy night streets, me thinking I was back in Salzburg and still a teenager (flashbacks to high school, sorry).

Next day was a day to check out of the hotel and wander around town.  Went down to the onsen, snowflakes drifting down, went up to see a shrine.  Japan is so pretty under a layer of snow, we really see too little of it where we are.  The rest of the ride was a gloomy trail back to the concrete, but it was a fun little ride.

Tokyo - Having lived in Japan for over three years and never really having explored the capitol, I was starting to get anxius.  My opportunity finally came when I was asked if I wanted to go to a sumo tournament in Tokyo.  It seemed like a long way to go to suffer through probably defeat, paying my own way of course, but actually it was just the excuse I needed - I hadn't travelled anywhere all year and I needed to see something beyond my own circle of activity.  For weeks before I went I picked the brains of my students, all of whom had at least been to Tokyo Disneyland and some of whom went to Tokyo weekly on business trips.  Luckily, a friend had recently moved there from my area, and I had an enthusiastic host.  James was expecting me Friday night.  I had the day off that Friday, so I got up early (but not to early), had a long breakfast with my wife, then headed off to Kobe.  I chose to take the bullet train from Kobe, so that it would pass through the town I live in (between Kobe and Osaka) as it headed east to Tokyo.  Immediately after Kobe station, the bullet train heads through a 20 km. long tunnel that spits out in my town.  Much north of where I live, there wasn't anything recognizable to see, but I was glad to be seeing my town from the bullet train.  The rest of the ride to Tokyo was fun, me half reading my book and half looking at the scenery.  I was most struck by the scenery near Tokyo that was really rural - look at those tiny houses in the folding hills tucked way off from the main roads, yet in spying view from anonymous passengers like me on a speeding bullet train!  Similarly, I was also impressed at how rural the Shin-Yokohama station looked from the lines.  Getting into Tokyo was pretty interesting.  The bustling city where everything happens.  Even from the outskirts, concrete highrises and billboards everywhere - yet also surprising open fallow spaces right in the downtown.  How can a chunk of land worth billions of dollars just lie undevelopped like that?

Getting into Tokyo station, I looked for a map, then proceeded to walk to the Imperial Palace complex.  Thinking it would be fun to just walk all the way around it, I kept crusing along.  Spying the Japanese parliament buildings (who hasn't seen them a million times on TV; who has actually gone up to visit them) I did a little detour and checked them out.  Funny, I had been looking on information on visiting the seat of government in Japan in the Lonely Planet book, nothing in the text or the maps.  Maybe I need to get the LP Tokyo book.  Thanks LP, thanks for nothing.  I found the Japanese prime minister's house, surrounded with barbed wire, reporters getting waved in, Japanese secret service guys looking pretty conspicuous - former judo champs bulging in suits with the telltale earphone thing.  I'll stay out of your way, sir, thank you very much.  Continued walking around the castle, it was a glorious day, saw lots of joggers running around the same as me, except I was walking.  Cool tunes on the walkman - Atari Teenage Riot!!  Went for a stroll around the Ginza area, but couldn't find anything that seemed fun or interesting or even slightly remarkable about it.  My second time there, yet the same conclusion.  Some day somebody who knows the Ginza has to point the real sights out to me.

Went to Nezu, home of my friend where I was staying.  Funny, Nezu was even mentioned in the book I was reading on the way up - Vita Sexualis, by Mori Ogai.  Nice alleys, little shops and old houses.  Got to James' house, saw the big sign - "Welcome Peter!"  Below it the words "Key under mat" were crossed out, "Door unlocked, come on in" were written under.  Wild, James left the door open and went off to work.  Seemingly  unconcerned that thieves will steal his hockey sticks and computer, I later found out he was confident that the shopkeeper across the street would keep a watch out over the house.  Had a few of the beers in James' fridge, snacked, rested.  James came back and we went out for food in the Ueno area, as well as to a bar for Guiness in the famous America Yoko-matchi area, where during the day knockoff goods are hawked from ramshackle shops.  And this area was mentioned in the book I was to read next, Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld.

Next day after breakfast, walked around Nezu and visited Nezu Shrine.  A cool place with lots of red torii and an unusual "shrine to the virgin fox spirit," the shrine itself is covered with various swastika motifs from the rain cisterns to the awnings to the roof tiles.  I asked a shrine worker about this, since swastikas are usually only seen marking Buddhist temples, and he told me it came from the days when Buddhism and Shinto were unified in Japan, a process which happened gradually since the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the 7th century, and officiall ended with the establishment of the Meiji period.  The only shrine I've seen like that, but then again most shrines and temples have something that makes them very unique.  Walked along the side alleys to get to Ueno Park where I spent the next 5 hours wandering around.  Huge pond full of lotuses and lilies, nice tower, great old trees, huge square, Japanese hardcore band Depth on the walkman!  Went into Tokyo National Are Gallery and looked around.  Six big buildings housing permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, two buildings recently built.  So much incredible art to take in.  The big new gallery with the various art from around Asia had a very interesting design, as did the building housing the Horyu-ji treasures.  The reason why the Horyu-ji, which is in Nara, stores its treasures in Tokyo is a mystery to me, but I was glad I had a chance to see it.  Only later, after I left the place and studied the maps a bit closer, did I realize that I had missed an entire building!  But it was a hot day and I was getting tired.  Walked back to James' apartment, past the art colleges and Ueno high school, down the tight streets, seeing interesting sights, finally getting back to chat with James, diddle around on the computer, and drink lots of beer and cool down.  Went out on the motorcycle through Ueno temple district, checking out the cool temples, then on a wild motorycle tour that took us to Asakusa for dinner, then through Roppongi, to Shinjuku and Shibuya.  Driving through the town and along rivers, seeing commuters at the train platforms, all looks pretty wild at night from the back of a motorcycle - what a rush.  There are so few towns I've taken a tour around on a motorcycle, so I value this as a very rare opportunity, plus it was world class Tokyo on a hot summer night.  Very cool.  Roppongi and Shinjuku looked pretty cool, but I was pretty grossed out by Shibuya, the hangout for drunk, sex-crazed, drugged-up poser teens and young adults, the scene seemed pretty gross and sleazy to me.

Next morning had to get up early to get out to the sumo place.  Took the confusing trains to Tokyo station all right, then looked for the line that went out towards Tokyo Disneyland.  Walked nearly twenty minutes within Tokyo station to get to the right platform, but got on the train all right.  Got off the train one stop away from Tokyo Disneyland, just before the border with Chiba prefecture, at Rinko Park, with the big ferris wheel.  Some sort of amusement park of its own for Tokyo-dwellers.  The sumo event was in a park, under a roof, on a sumo surface.  It wasn't a big event at all, nearly everyone present was either wrestling or had organized the event.  People had come from all over Kansai, like I had, and maybe from some universities in Tokyo.  Most of the kids were university students, so there was plenty of silly comraderie, some annoying heckling.  Unfortunately I lost all of my four bouts, boo hoo.  Two other foreigners there with me - a dreadlocked tattooed guy (South Pacific Islander?  French?  British?  American?).  I should have talked to him.  And a Mongolian who won a few times and did a Mongolian sumo-style victory dance after he won.  Got dressed, went back to Tokyo station, took an hour buying souvenirs, and headed back by bullet train the way I had come.  And that was Tokyo.

Hakusan and the Noto Peninsula -

With Naoko quite large in the belly, maybe our last chance to travel somewhere - we took a bus tour up to the north-east of where we are, 500 kilometers along and along into the mountains of Gifu and Ishikawa prefectures to see all that we could take in over a two day excursion.  This was an organized bus tour, our first, but the preferred choice of many Japanese travellers.  Knowing that there would be good and bad points (not to mention lame travellers and annoying tour guides) about the trip, we were looking forward mostly to seeing places that would be hard to get to normally, and expecially having somebody else do the driving!

Driving through the suburbs of the whole Keihanshin (from Kobe, over Osaka, over to Kyoto) sprawl that seems to never end, it finally actually did end and we plunged into the green of rural Japan.  Getting more and more pissed off that the tour guide just spoke endlessly about nothing interesting at all, with stupid loud volume, taking our first break and asking her to turn the damn volume down!  What if someone wants to sleep, read, or even listen to the walkman, nothing to block the sound out.  Our tour guide continued to talk non-stop for over 8 hours that day, but at a more considerate volume.

First stop in Shirakawa-go to wander among the gasshozukuri (thatched roof) houses, hundreds of houses that would look like 19th century Swiss chalets except for the fact that they are also traditional Japanese homes, the whole village has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Bright, clear, sunny, ringed with mountains, cut through by a clear river banked in parts with high cliffs, what a beautiful place.  The houses are nice and firm and furry, interspersed with perfect emerald green rice fields full of mature rice waving in the wind, hot day, going up the hill where there's nobody around, finding dozens of great views, no time to go into the big museum house unfortunately, no time to go up to the lookout point, just enough time to do a once around the village and get an ice cream cone.  Back in the bus and along the "Super Lindo," a mountain road that goes through scenic territory, down valleys, past dozens of waterfalls, none of them spectacular due to the fact that it had been so hot the previous weeks and hadn't rained in weeks.  Ironically, we were racing ahead of a typhoon which caused the sky to cloud over the following day when we were re-entering the Keihanshin area.  Probably was lots of water racing down those waterfalls just a few days later.  Two more toilet stops and we were at the Noto peninsula where we checked into our "romantic" hotel, ate a crap dinner of frozen crab and raw shrimp and fried food, took a bath in the hot spring, watched Jurassic Park on TV, and went to sleep.

Japan is an island nation has peninsulae the way any island would, but Japan in particular seems to have been particularly blessed with a high number of them.  Noto peninsula seems to be a famous one for natural beauty, vying with the Kii peninsula and the Tsugaru peninsula for fame.  Noto is a perfect, emerald green, peaceful under blue skies, lots of beaches-type peninsula.  Our first stop was the town of Wajima and its laquerware factory where we were shown laquerware workers behind glass like zoo animals working on new products, with time left over to linger in the shop and hopefully buy something expensive.  Naoko thought of buying a bowl, but I pointed out that they had nice chopsticks - and we actually needed new chopsticks at home - so we bought two pair.  As we left we were given a "free gift," another four pair of chopsticks.  Yes!  Give those to guests to use!!  Drive one minute, get out in downtown Wajima for the morning market.  The area was full of really nice old wooden houses, many of them painted in varnish, something I don't see a lot in Japan.  "Reminded" me of what salty fishing towns must be like back home, something like Popeye's fictional town of Sweethaven.  Get in the bus - next stop the Seki-no-hana rock, a haunted outcropping of soft volcanic rock that is supposed to be the site of when legendary Kamakura prince Minamoto Yoshitsune disappeared after his battle with the warrior monk Benke (as documented in the not-very-good film Jojoe Reisenki.  Lots of fun to spring around the rocks and listen to the sound of waves.  After that off to Ganmon where we had lunch.  Nice place - lots of rocks to jump around, nice coastal point with tons of trees, the main attraction is the cave that goes through a rocky outcropping.  Nice rock cliffs, great sunshine, but the simple lunch we ate wasn't really too good.  Next stop was "Naki suna no hama," the beach of the crying sands, a gorgeous little beach next to a cliff, forming a bit of a cove.  Apparently in the past, if you walked on the sand it squeaked and "cried," but no more apparently.  Oh well.  There was a cave there full of stuff that had been found washed up on the beach, a lot of it from Korea and China.  Also a piano and some scary dolls.  What a beautiful beach, want to get back there some day.  Got back in the bus after our twenty minutes to wander around, Naoko pissed off at me that we were the last people on the bus.  We weren't late, one minute early in fact, but still the last on the bus.  Next time, please try to be earlier!  Now passing by the area that we had stayed in, we spotted the telltale wind generators - massive, biggest I've ever seen - that had apparently cost $100,000 to build and supplied our hotel with free clean wind-generated electricity.  Hope the wind keeps up.  Drove along a packed-sand beach that was lined with cars, people swimming, fishing, or enjoying a beer and yaki-soba at one of the many beach houses that lined the beach - how I wish I could have gotten out and spent an hour chilling out in one of those.  Would have been a nice place to have had lunch instead, darn it!!!  Last stop before Osaka was a precious stones shop, designed to look like a huge dragon boat, that had a museum full of kitschy objects made of Jade and other precious stones, big crystals, and other cool objects.  But also a pretty freaky place.

Drove back to Osaka, took about 6 hours.  Slept, read, watched bits of "Shall We Dance."  I wanted to tell the bus guide that I had already seen the movie, see if she has another film, but I didn't want to be a dick.

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all writing copyright Peter Hoflich, 2000