asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

The Goto Islands 15 March, 2013

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 3:13 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

At new year we took a 6-day trip to the Goto Islands, just off Kyushu. These are a bit off the regular tourist routes, but quite interesting historically, having been on the way in to Japan from the Asian continent, and also for the Christian population who fled there escaping persecution in the Edo era. As a result there are many churches, some of them quite beautiful, though not so old. The scenery is also stunning in places, especially the north. Anyway I’ll leave you to Google “Goto Islands” if you want to learn more, and just add a few notes from our own visit, and some photos.The ferry leaves quite early.

It’s a three-hour ferry ride from Nagasaki to the island of Fukue in the south. (The hydrofoil’s faster but more expensive.) It leaves in the morning so we fly to Nagasaki the evening before and stop at a business hotel.

It’s cold (January, remember) – don’t expect balmy sub-tropical Okinawa. We’re fairly north here and Korea’s not far away, though the Kuroshio current does warm the sea a bit. On the first of January it snowed in Fukue and there was still some on the ground in patches when we arrived on the 2nd. On the 3rd we had a bitter cold wind. Generally it was cloudy  with occasional sun which did warm things up if you were out of the wind. They get a lot of wind here. Occasional gaps in the clouds which let through dramatic rays of sun also seem a feature which fits in nicely with the Spiritual imagery. (Most visitors come in summer.)

typical dramatic lightPublic money has been spent here: there are many bridges and tunnels, and the ferry terminals are warm, spacious, shiny and super-clean. (Use the toilet there while you have the chance.) The northern Kami-Goto area has its own smart airport which now looks out of use. Still, off the nice new main roads you have these narrow twisty lanes with many hairpin bends that lead to tiny fishing villages with even narrower streets. There are buses, but you’ll probably need a car to get around so make sure you rent a little one, especially away from Fukue island. The islands are bigger than you might think. You’d need a couple of weeks to cycle around so a car is pretty much essential – rent is around ¥4500 a day.

Many shops, museums etc. are closed till 4th January – be careful travelling at new year. Fukue has seen better days. Arakawa hot spring (where we stayed two nights) obviously used to jump – there are many bars and ryokan now closed, leaving just two ryokan and two minshuku, all pretty run-down looking. It was the whaling apparently, and the fact that Arakawa was a refuge for fishing boats when the weather was bad, so the sailors would drop some of their (relatively good) pay there. This all ended some 30 years ago. Our ryokan is in an 80-year-old wooden building which is full of character but in need of repair in many places. The dinner is pretty good though, with an abundance of locally caught fish.

Many Group Homes for the elderly – there seems to be another one on every corner. At first we thought it was good service by the local government, but later heard they’re all privately run. The aging population must mean there’s a good market.clouds, sea, islands...

Moving north to Kami-Goto for three more nights – these islands are very mountainous and incredibly complicated with oddly shaped inlets and peninsulas (check Google Maps). You get amazing scenic views at every corner. It must be gorgeous – verging on breathtaking – in summer. The water is crystal clear, so you can see right down to the bottom, just like Okinawa. Somehow I like the atmosphere here in the North more than Fukue –  it seems a bit livelier.

Our minshuku here “Katayama” is in a little fishing village like dozens of others we pass on our first day, though maybe a bit scruffier than some. Old fishing nets used as fences. Katayama is at the end of a decrepid wharf but the house itself is a typical Japanese wooden farmhouse, ie rather nice, and the lady who runs the place (Mrs. Katayama?) keeps it very clean and pleasant, decorated with flowers and her own patchwork. A very friendly, positive, person who clearly takes a personal interest in her guests. Katayama's ownerShe cooks good food too, mostly based on vegetables she grows herself and fish from the port down the road. For example, dinner on Saturday night was buri teriyaki, tofu, oden with delicious daikon, carrot and home-made konnyaku, four kinds of sashimi followed by freshly made tempura then rice, pickles and soup with sea bream head. I may have forgotten something. Everything was good.

There are camelias everywhere, especially on the northern Nakadori island. The oil used to be an important local product but now apart from tourist souvenirs it seems to be mostly used in the rather special local noodles “Goto udon”. They are slimmer than standard Japanese udon noodles with a pleasant smooth texture and come in a broth made from dried flying fish, called “ago dashi”. Quite good actually.

The crime rate is obviously low. Our rented car is waiting at the ferry terminal in Nakadori, unlocked, with the key in the ignition! “Come to the office to pay any time you like” they said.The camelia flower is a recurring theme.

There really are a lot of churches here, especially in the North, often standing above a tiny village at the end of one of those twisty back roads. I think the current overall Christian population of the Goto islands is around 20%, but in some of the outlying villages it’s more like 95%, which is certainly unusual for Japan. None of the churches are much more than 100 years old, because Christianity was strictly forbidden, and very cruelly repressed, during the Edo period. Some are quite modern, but most are very simple in design, often plain white, with equally simple interiors that feel more Protestant than Catholic. Much more than when visiting temples or shrines, I feel as if I might be intruding in someone’s private space.

When we switch on the car ignition a little panel on the dashboard reads “Hello Happy” and when we open the door to get out it says “See you, good-by.”

We drive up to the top of Nakadori Island, via numerous churches, up a narrow neck of land that’s more like a submerged mountain chain, to the lookout point at Tsuwazaki, where you can look out over a stretch of sea studded with dozens more islands. I can see smoke coming from behind a hill on one of them. That evening the TV news mentioned a fire in the area…

The next day, to Hinojima, over a couple of big bridges, way over to the west. There’s a little village there, now half-deserted, with a beautiful 100-year-old school building that’s now used, if at all, for summer camps or something. With a couple of broken windows, it definitely needs some care and attention, which it won’t necessarily be getting… Just behind are a rather nice temple and shrine. The temple, Genju-in (源寿院) has a Buddha image, several hundred years old, which is only displayed every 33 years. It was originally pulled from the sea in a fishing net!! Could it have drifted over from Korea?

Dejima wharfBack in Nagasaki with a couple of hours before we have to head to the airport, we sip a glass of wine on Dejima wharf and enjoy the lights of the harbour as the day draws to an end. While it’s not exactly warm, it is (just) feasible to sit outside, which is not at all the case in Nagoya at the moment. What I like about eating in Japan – even in touristy spots like this there’s no service charge, no added tax, and no tipping. Four drinks at 500 yen each, one pizza at 1050 yen, total 3050 yen. That’s it. (Nagasaki‘s a very nice place, and well worth a visit in itself in warmer seasons.)

I took a lot of photos. You’ll soon get the somewhat grey atmosphere, but even in winter weather it was a good trip.

Advertisements
 

Radiobeef and the missing 143 16 August, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news,politics — johnraff @ 2:42 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This isn’t good. It was about a month ago that the first radioactive beef started showing up in the consumer food chain; at first it was from cattle in the Fukushima area that had been fed rice straw contaminated by the reactor explosion. That was bad enough for the local farmers who had been struggling to get their lives restarted after the earthquake, but it now seems that straw from the danger zone – a major rice-producing area – had been sent to all kinds of places and traces of radioactive caesium have been found in beef from quite different places. This is bound to have an effect on sales of (delicious) Japanese beef, both here and, maybe more importantly, in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan where all kinds of Japanese food has been selling to the newly rich. ($100 apples, anyone?)

More: it now turns out that the Tokyo power company responsible for the Fukushima reactor is unable to trace 143 people who worked on the clear up operation, in order to monitor their radiation exposure. A lot of part-time workers were taken on in a shambling chain of sub-contractors to sub-sub-contractors and the bottom end included homeless people and alcoholics hanging out on the bad side of the railway station waiting for a bit of work from the gangster brokers who came round. They were offered 2 or 3 times the going rate for dangerous work, but nobody seemed to care too much about where they went afterwards. Of course this is just an extreme example of the return to Victorian-era exploitation that capitalists have been organizing on a world-wide level, but this time even token attempts to be concerned for workers’ welfare have broken down.

The Japanese population as a whole are, as you can imagine, less than enthused about repairing nuclear reactors, still less building new ones. Nobody believes the government or power companies when they try to reassure us that everything will be OK. Coming on top of the annual August commemoration of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the mood here is very much anti-nuclear. Of course public opinion is fickle, people forget quickly and the nuclear power consortium of electricity companies, big engineering, corrupt public servants, politicians and the media will do their best to fight back. Nuclear energy looks cheaper than renewable alternatives, untill you include all the hidden costs, and there’s lots of palm-greasing cash available. Still, can we allow ourselves some limited optimism that the much-fabled Japanese Consensus is about to be reached, and a major policy switch is coming up?

Fingers crossed (again).

 

65 years 13 October, 2010

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 3:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I was born not long after the war and its after-effects reverberated through my childhood. Boys’ comics were full of brave British soldiers battling nasty Germans shouting “donner und blitzen!” (although I preferred spacy stuff like Dan Dare), my parents got nervous at the sound of the siren from a nearby airfield, friends would mutter in the corner of the playground about fiendish “torture” practiced by evil Germans or Japanese and distant mushroom clouds were a regular item in my dreams for some years. But some 580,000 Japanese civilians, and more than 2 million soldiers died in that war – far more than for the UK or USA, if not coming up to Russia or Germany ( Wikipedia ) and most Japanese of that generation have terrible memories of the war.

The last couple of years, NHK, the national TV network, have made a project of interviewing eyewitnesses to build an archive of war experiences while they still can. Many Japanese soldiers died in the most horrific circumstances, with little support from central command beyond exhortations to rely on their “samurai spirit”. Most older Japanese have strong anti-war opinions, and I think it would be fair to regard the civilian population as co-victims, along with many fellow-Asians, of the militarism that gripped the country in the early 20th century – a time when people were tortured to death for mentioning in a letter that they hoped the war would end soon… So maybe NHK are hoping to maintain this pacifism into the next generation, who grew up in the postwar era of prosperity. Good luck to them!

The anniversaries of the monstrous flashbulbs that went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki come early in August, just before the end of the war itself. Now, more people actually died in the firebombing of Tokyo, but that doesn’t alter the suffering of children who were fried on their way to school. Tragedy, like peace, is indivisible – it’s not really a question of numbers – and I was glad to see the American ambassador at Hiroshima this year, to pay his respects. Just a natural human response, you’d think, so why was this the first time since the end of the war 65 years ago? Even more, why did so many Americans get angry about it, complaining that there was nothing to apologise for? Leaving the issue of whether the atomic bombing was justified or not – there are arguments on both sides – surely there’s nothing wrong with recognising the suffering of innocent people?

Now, maybe it’s time for Japanese to face up to the Nanking Massacre?

 

Summer 22 September, 2010

Filed under: customs,seasons — johnraff @ 2:14 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Finally it’s over – sort of. That sultry sticky sweltering sweaty squishy soggy humidity has dropped way down as the dry Autumn air from the continent takes over. Although we’re going over 30°C today and you wouldn’t call it cool exactly, the mornings and evenings are really pleasant and there’s a nice breeze even now, at 2 in the afternoon. It’s been a record-breaking long hot Summer this year – more than 500 people are reported to have died from heatstroke and the electricity companies are expecting to make record profits from all the carbon they burnt to keep our air conditioners running. (How are we going to escape this situation where the only way to make life tolerable is to contribute to making it worse? I’m reminded of the old, old Kevin Ayers song “Why are we sleeping?“) A lot of my friends teach at universities, get long Summer vacations and head right out of here for the month of August. Conversely, for old friends in Europe, August is the obvious holiday season and that is when they want to come over here to visit. I try to talk them out of it, explaining that they’ll likely find the heat intolerable, but they don’t really get it …till they arrive.

Even so, Summer in Japan is a special time. For a month or two we share the same air mass as Southeast Asia (apparently Hong Kong has Japan beaten for humidity) and it’s as if the whole country has taken off southwards. You don’t need more clothes than a T-shirt and pair of shorts, and even when working there’s a sort of holiday atmosphere. (I guess the suit-wearing salarymen might see it a bit differently…) The kids are all off school and along with the cicadas the heavy air carries the sounds of High School Baseball from a thousand open windows. And the evenings can be magical. The warmth just envelops you so that there’s no distinction between indoors and outdoors. Just take a walk around your neighbourhood, follow the smoke pouring out of a local yakitoriya for an ice-cold beer and some grilled chicken, or maybe even head to a beer garden… These are a different story really – while eating outside, maybe on the roof of a tall building, has an appeal, you’re usually obliged to go along with some kind of “all you can eat and drink” sort of deal, usually with a time limit. The foods not that great, there are hundreds of people and the effect is a bit like feeding time at the zoo.

Much better are the Summer festivals, especially out in the countryside. There’s dancing, more of that indispensible ice-cold beer and young people come back from the cities to revisit relatives. The young girls look really cute in their Summer kimonos and there are quite often fireworks too. Japanese fireworks are some of the best in the world, and the big displays draw millions of people. All this is really based on the “Obon” festival, when the spirits of dead ancestors return to their families and have to be entertained with Bon odori – traditional dancing. Fires are lit to help them find their way home, and later to send them off again. ( Could that be where the fireworks come from? )

This is also the time for ghost stories – some say it’s because they give you a delicious chill, but maybe it’s just that Obon connection again. There are some real ghosts too. Among the spirits who return for consolation are the nearly three million who died in World War 2. The anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Pacific war come in quick succession at the beginning of August, and the ringing of temple bells joins the cicadas and baseball.

So it’s not all festivals and fun, and the Autumn just coming can be really beautiful, as can Spring, but I’d still say Summer is my favourite season.

 

Nagasaki 6 December, 2008

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 2:23 pm
Tags: , , ,

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.

 

Peace 15 August, 2008

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:16 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Today, August the 15th, is the day the Pacific war ended in 1945, and the event is marked with ceremonies all over Japan including a speech on TV by the Prime Minister. Coming in the middle of the “Obon” holiday, when returning spirits of departed relatives are entertained for a few days, the timing is perfect. While I remember the boys’ comics when I was a kid were full of war stories with heroic Brits and evil Germans, commemoration of the war seemed to be mainly about giving thanks for the sacrifices of troops who died. Japan has its own Yasukuni Shrine for that, but it is unfortunately tangled up in right-wing nationalism and attempted revision of Japan’s historical record, which is nowhere as well known to most people here as, for example, that of Hitler in Germany.

The main message here is “never again”. While atrocities committed in Asia cannot be denied, the Japanese people themselves suffered terribly during and after the war – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was really horrible – and seem to have lost any faith in war as an instrument of foreign policy they may have had in the 1930’s. I think the same might be said of most Europeans. Both have fully tasted the bitter fruit of extreme nationalism. Others might take note.

Here in 2008 the world doesn’t seem such a peaceful place: wars, invasions, massacres of innocent civilians continue, spurred on by greedy, short-sighted governments’ cynical distortion of peoples’ natural love of their place of birth into fanatical nationalism. Well, if we don’t move on from that soon and get together to deal with the real issues that face all humanity, then there won’t be too much more history.

(…all we are saying…)

 

 
%d bloggers like this: