Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Nagiso to Nojiri 10 March, 2012

Filed under: countryside,places — johnraff @ 2:32 am
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It’s fairly easy to get out of Nagoya and into some nice countryside, especially if you head North towards Gifu and Nagano prefectures. A Sunday last November (yes, I know I could have posted this a bit earlier) we took advantage of a cheap weekend railway ticket to get on the Chuo line out to Nagiso in the Kiso region. The Nakasendo, along with the Tokaido, is one of the two roads that used to link Edo with Kyoto. While the more famous Tokaido ran along the Pacific coast, the Nakasendo went through the mountains, and sections of it still exist in this area, sometimes with the original stone paving. It’s usually easy walking, and a good way to get some nice scenery and a bit of history…

Nagiso station is full of middle-aged ladies with rucksacks, checking out the tourist pamphlets and souvenir stands, but most of them get on the bus that goes to the more famous Tsumago down the road. The walk from Tsumago to Magome is a very popular section of the Nakasendo, and an enjoyable three hours or so, but today we head North towards Nojiri. The main path follows the Kiso river, more or less with the current Route 19, but there’s an alternative called the Yokawado which goes through the hills instead. Apparently this was used when the Kiso flooded, and for a hike it’s a more attractive option. Nagano prefecture have been quite good about putting up signs, and it’s not long before we’re above the town looking out over the Autumn hills.

Quiet. There’s hardly anyone around, we pass through a couple of almost empty villages – surrounded by electric fences to keep out the deer and wild boar – and the only people we run into are a foreigner+Japanese couple walking in the opposite direction. There are no drinks machines of course, so if you try this you’d better take a bottle of something and a couple of sandwiches or rice balls.

The weather wasn’t perfect, but the countryside was beautiful and when we picked up our train home from Nojiri in the late afternoon the Yokawado seemed just about right for a day’s outing. A few pics…

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Eiheiji and Ichirino hot spring 11 February, 2012

Filed under: countryside,places — johnraff @ 3:12 pm
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This was a weekend trip at the end of last October – up to Fukui prefecture on the Sea of Japan side of the country. We had bad luck with the weather, it’s usually beautiful at that time of year, and indeed was just before and after, but on our two days we had cloud and drizzle… ah well, it didn’t really spoil things that much.

First, to Eiheiji. This is a huge Zen temple in the hills, and a major tourist attraction which even used to have its own railway station. The souvenir shops sell Zen T-shirts. I suppose Lourdes might be like this, maybe even more so. Even so, this is still a functioning temple and all over the sprawling complex of buildings there are young monks, polishing the floor, weeding the gardens or cooking in the refectory. Is tending an immaculate little garden inside a temple in the mountains where only monks and visitors will see it a waste of time? OK so what exactly isn’t a waste of time? Spending an hour or so walking around – didn’t take any photos – on the way out we passed through a hall hung with some inspiring messages from the founder, in English as well as Japanese. Buy a T-shirt on the way back to the car. Here are some nice photos, and two other peoples’ descriptions of the place.

On to Ichirino hot spring resort. Not a historic spot really, but a collection of buildings at the foot of a ski slope. There’s no snow yet, and anyway the ski boom is over, so the place is empty. When I first came to Japan, “minshukus” were houses, usually in the country, where people lived but had been adapted to take guests – something like Bed and Breakfast (though usually dinner is included too). These days they tend more often to be purpose-built, with a bit less atmosphere and “at home” friendliness than in the Good Old Days. Our place, chosen almost at random after a web search, turned out to be good (Yukiguni-so if you’re in the area). A bit scruffy but clean and run by friendly people.

The obasan who runs the place with her husband and daughter was really friendly, and an incredible hard worker. She’s up to all kinds of stuff: in the woods behind the place she picks “nameko” mushrooms, walnuts, “tochi” nuts and “warabi” fern shoots. They also grow “zenmai” ferns, “shimeji” mushrooms, beans… The food is good, but sadly the cafe at the front is empty.

The next day we’re given some walnuts and set off to take in Mount Hakusan on our way back to familiar Gifu prefecture. In spite of the gloomy weather the scenery is stunning. The autumn colours are just right and waterfalls in the narrow valley the road takes up the mountain are beautiful. Crossing through all this scenery, when we come down on the other side, somehow it all has a more familiar look. Fukui was a foreign country compared with our usual Gifu. What was it? The plants? The shape of the hills? And of course the houses are different too, once you get down to human inhabited zones.

Our own house is still intact, and we drop in to pick some more chillies on our way back to Nagoya.


Now, where was that station…? 24 December, 2011

Filed under: news,places — johnraff @ 1:48 pm
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Talking on the radio yesterday about how the Tohoku region is slowly pulling out of the earthquake and tsunami destruction. It’s a very long slow job and many people are still in dire trouble, but this time it was about the railway system. Apparently many lines were repaired and back running in a month. Others, like lines that ran along the coast, were more severely damaged and will take longer. There are also cases where the towns that the line ran through were completely wiped out, and there is some doubt as to whether people will return there to rebuild, or move somewhere a bit further from the sea. There wouldn’t be much point in rebuilding a station in a deserted mudflat. (It’s not surprising that the prospect of a house just by the beach is not as appealing as it might once have been…)

Yet other places exist where it’s no longer possible to tell where the station used to be.


Body chemistry or something 20 April, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,places — johnraff @ 1:54 am
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I’ve just got back from three weeks in the UK. It’s the place where I was born and grew up and I love it; the buildings that were intended – in contrast with earthquake-prone Japan – to last for years and years, the green green grass everywhere even in winter, the TV, the humour, the relaxed mixture of cultures you now enjoy, the warm beer, and, yes, even the food.

All that said, I’ve now been living in Japan for 35 years – more than half my life – and my body must have adapted in some way. Maybe it’s the air, maybe the water: I don’t know but this morning my breakfast – the same fruit + yogurt + muesli + pot of tea I was having while in Britain – just tasted so good.


Enkoji 30 December, 2010

Filed under: countryside,places — johnraff @ 3:00 pm
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It’s already a good month ago, but towards the end of November we had to stay in Nagoya one weekend, so that Sunday made a little local excursion. The late Autumn weather was perfect – an almost cloudless sky and no wind to detract from the warm sunshine. The Japanese railway company, JR, promote a series of “refreshing walks” where they meet you at a station, put up signs on the way, provide maps and generally look after you. We didn’t really feel like doing any of that, and sharing our walk with a whole party of other middle-aged hikers, but checked out the information they put out and chose one of their recommended routes on a different week from the organised outing, so had it to ourselves – in Gifu prefecture about an hour from Nagoya, just past Ogaki.

Beware of bears!

There was a bit too much asphalt for our tastes, but it was a nice day out anyway, and the Enkoji temple about half-way along was perfect for the Autumn red maple and yellow gingko leaves. Beautiful.

A classic empty Autumn sky.


Sakushima 19 February, 2010

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 2:50 pm
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Industrial wasteland right to the coast…

Leaving Tokyo on my first shinkansen ride – some time ago – I was stuck to the window eager to see some of the Japanese countryside.

It didn’t happen. 20 or 30 minutes out the buildings still hadn’t stopped, although by then we were going through Yokohama I suppose.The urban sprawl continued all the way to Nagoya by way of Shizuoka, Hamamatsu… Each city merged into the next in a depressing grey continuum, with no green in between at all. In fact a good part of Japan’s population is concentrated into that strip between Tokyo and Nagoya – the Tokai plain which is flat and fertile, while most of the country is mountainous and almost empty, as I found later. In fact it’s possible to be out in beautiful hilly countryside a short 30 minute train ride north from Nagoya.

Isshiki Port

It was however in the opposite direction that we took the car last weekend: to the south, past Nagoya port, one of the biggest in Asia, past the Chita peninsula, past endless factories, warehouses, drab apartment buildings, tatty shopping centres, all of which we had a great view of from our overhead flyover on a perfect clear sunny day, finally arriving at the fishing port of Isshiki in the Mikawa Bay.

Isshiki market

From there it’s a 30 minute boat to the island of Sakushima. The first thing you notice is that the water is crystal clear – you can see right down to the bottom of the harbour! This comes in contrast to the popular beaches on the Chita peninsula like Utsumi, where you might feel as if you’re swimming in chicken soup.

Coming into Sakushima harbour

In fact the water, along with a certain “island feeling”, reminded me of our trip to Okinawa a few years ago. Okinawa’s a bit livelier though; here a good half of the houses are empty, several lodges and restaurants have closed down and even on a sunny Sunday afternoon you can hardly hear a soul.

One of the 88

This was fine for us though, and on a January afternoon we managed to work up a sweat walking around in the sunshine of the warmest day so far this year. We’re surrounded by the sea here so it must never get as cold as Nagoya, still less the mountains of Gifu, and flowers are coming out everywhere in a foretaste of Spring.The largest island in the Mikawa bay, it’s still possible to walk from one end of Sakushima to the other in half an hour or so, but there are a number of temples and shrines to see, not to mention 88 tiny Buddha statues built all over the island about 80 years ago in an imitation of the famous temple cicuit of Shikoku, mostly with offerings of fresh flowers, so obviously someone is visiting them. A beautiful sunset, then back to our minshuku for dinner. Out of the half-dozen or so places open in off-season January ours must have been a popular one as there had been a couple of lively parties in at lunchtime; soon we got an idea why. These waters are full of fish, but a few seagulls must have gone hungry that day as we had about half the contents of the bay on our table. Crab, sashimi, fried fish, oysters in miso, sea-slug… it was all really good and by 8 o’clock we couldn’t move, so had an early night. 8000 yen (say, $90) for bed, dinner and breakfast with more fish and oysters seemed a pretty good deal.

The west end of the island, away from the biggest beach with all the hotels, minshuku, restaurants and coffee shops, is much quieter, and the people seem a bit less used to tourists, though everyone is very friendly. The village is a maze of streets about wide enough for two bicycles, creosoted buildings (to keep out the salt spray) and little vegetable plots, tended by old ladies, who could be someone’s great grandmother. Half the houses seem to be falling down; one has been converted into a restaurant by some young people, maybe from the city over the water, but you can’t help wondering what will happen to the place ten or twenty years down the road…

A short walk back to the minshuku through wooded hills, past more little buddhas, wind rustling the bamboo, kites calling overhead; ducks have taken over the west end of the beach; our minshuku owner says he couldn’t see Nagoya as a place for human beings to live and here it’s hard to believe we’re in the same country, let alone the same prefecture.

EDIT: I’ve added a lot more photos here.


Kyoto 4 November, 2009

Filed under: music,places,Uncategorized — johnraff @ 2:57 pm
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Last week there was no farm report because the band went to Kyoto for a gig. We left early but didn’t hit the traffic jams expected on a 1000yen highway Sunday and arrived with several hours in hand, so walked around a bit. I don’t need to tell you about all Kyoto’s fantastically beautiful temples and shrines, but most of the town itself is somewhat unremarkable; the central shopping streets could be anywhere in Japan – not a patch on Paris, for example. The joke runs that while the Americans refrained from obliterating Kyoto in the war, the Japanese did the job for them afterwards.

Even so it’s not an unpleasant town; the North, where our lodging house was, has some fairly quiet tree-lined streets – and lots of bicycles. Every corner seemed to have a bicycle shop of some kind. They must be the best way to get around – Kyoto’s narrow streets, like Tokyo’s, make for some grim traffic jams. Here in Nagoya they made a fresh start after the war with a new grid layout of /wide/ streets, appropriate for an economy heavily dependent on Toyota Motors…

The “live house” where we played, Taku Taku, is a really nice place in a big old wooden building with beautiful warm accoustics. (They do have noise problems though, being right in the middle of a residential area, so it all has to stop at 9:00 on the dot.) Our previous gig there was nearly 30 (yes thirty) years ago! It took them that long to get over it, but finally we were allowed to play again, and this time it went OK I think. During the intervening period they seem to have had some quite famous people playing, so I really wondered what we were doing there, but the audience were great. Sometimes it seems as if Daihachi Ryodan might be more suited to Kansai than Nagoya!


A Blast from the Past 16 January, 2009

Filed under: news,places — johnraff @ 2:19 am
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Yesterday in Okinawa, there was an explosion at a construction site. The driver of a mechanical digger was seriously injured, and windows were broken at an old peoples’ home 50 metres away. It wasn’t a terrorist attack but a (hitherto) unexploded bomb, left over from the second world war. A lot of them fell on Okinawa, and even 60-odd years later they can still go off, apparently.

They said on the TV news last night that there was still an estimated 3000 tons of bombs left in the ground …


Showa 12 December, 2008

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 3:03 pm
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Japan still uses the “era” system for counting years, based on the current emperor, so this is year 20 of the “Heisei” era. The previous emperor’s reign was known as “Showa” and started in 1925. Amazingly, when I got here in 1976 it was still Showa and the emperor was the same warlord who had presided over the Japanese military regime in World War 2! Now there’s a “Showa village” theme park not far away (maybe I could get a bit of side work there as a “Showa foreigner”?) and Showa is becoming history.

Beautiful old buildings like this are disappearing fast.

Beautiful old buildings like this are disappearing fast.

If you live in Nagoya, two events that might be of interest:

  • If you’re reading this today (2008/12/12) a bunch of “Showa foreigners” are getting together at a bar just up the road from here called Country Joe. It’s on the Raffles’ Map (at the bottom of the page).
  • A long-term resident, Jim Goater has been making beautiful drawings of local buildings for some years. Having just returned from crossing Australia by bicycle (!) he’s got an exhibition at a Nagoya Gallery called Daikokuya from the 17th to 23rd of this month. Well worth checking out.
This one's being held up by the posters on the walls.

This one's being held up by the posters on the walls.

Jim’s drawings capture beautifully the Japan that I remember when I first got here. Of course they already had the Bullet Train and enough high-rise buildings for anyone, but away from the main streets that’s how it was. Now everyone seems to live in plastic prefabricated boxes that look like Legoland, and anything not immediately needed is knocked down and replaced with a car park. The system of land tax seems deliberately set up to force people to make money from their property in order to pay the tax. Even Kyoto hasn’t escaped.

Now the bottom’s fallen out of the economy the pace of destruction might let up a bit, but there’s not that much Showa left these days.


Nagasaki 6 December, 2008

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 2:23 pm
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The seasons seem to change really suddenly here. Only just over a month ago we were in Nagasaki (first visit) baking under a scorching hot sun in a clear blue sky. West Kyushu felt like a different country from the Tokai strip from Tokyo to Osaka where most Japanese (and foreigners) live. Tonight they’re due to get some snow, apparently.

For many people outside Japan Nagasaki, along with Hiroshima, is mainly associated with the atomic bombing that came at the end of World War Two, but it’s a beautiful historic city and if you’re planning a trip to Japan well worth adding to Kyoto and Tokyo if you can manage the time. The bomb fell in the north of the city and because of the mountainous geography most of the devastation was confined to that area, where some 40,000 people died that day and about as many subsequently. There is now a Peace Park and museum near the epicentre, but we didn’t visit them. I’ve already been to Hiroshima, seen several TV documentaries on the horrible effects of nuclear weapons and consider myself already thoroughly committed to the cause of peace.

More selfishly, we only had a couple of days, and there were other places we wanted to visit. The centre, round the harbour, seems to have been pretty much untouched by the bomb and there are beautiful old temples, churches and houses. Nagasaki used to be a very important port and has a long history of contact with foreigners: Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British… all of whom have left traces. Add lots of hills with views, nice old trams they’ve bought from other places too short-sighted to keep them, a fantastic view from a nearby mountain of the city and harbour, good food and a different culture from Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka and you can see why it’s a popular tourist destination. (We must have been off-season because there were huge almost-empty carparks everywhere.)

A church in Sotome, near Nagasaki.

Goa? Brazil? No, Japan.

Winter starts quite late here and we were lucky to catch three blazing hot days – Summer’s sayonara party. There’s some beautiful countryside around and the blue sky, blue sea and lush sub-tropical greenery almost reminded me of Okinawa. The plants that grow around there are not the same as what we have here – there seemed to be many that I’d never seen. I don’t claim to be a Christian or anything (hard-line fundamentalist agnostic maybe?) but have to say that there are some really beautiful churches in the area. There have been Christian communities there for hundreds of years and some fishing villages have a local church instead of the usual shrine or temple. Even for a Westerner the effect is quite exotic.

Out of the handful of places we had time for I would recommend So Fuku Ji. This is an old temple, built by Chinese so it looks quite different from the usual Japanese temple, but not gaudy at all. That garish tinselly style I’ve assocated with Chinese temples up to now seems to have been subdued a bit and the result is peaceful and beautiful. Running out of time, we took a taxi back. Hearing that we had just visited a Chinese temple and hadn’t been to the peace park he remarked that the peace park should have come first. I could have pointed out that I was British and not responsible for dropping that devilish weapon, that I had taken part in a (tiny) anti-war demonstration, that I already knew plenty about what happened, that more people had died in Tokyo and Okinawa and many millions in Europe, but anything I said would have sounded as if I was belittling the dreadful suffering of all the innocent people who had that thing dropped on them, so I kept silent.

Sou-fuku-ji in Nagasaki

Sou-fuku-ji in Nagasaki

Maybe we should have visited the Peace Park.


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