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japan 2018

Rakin’ it in….

There are many festivals in Japan, with the summer being prime festival season. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to see at other times of the year. Wilf, itinerary crafter extraordinaire, found us an interesting one to visit while in Tokyo.

Tori-no-ichi is a Fall festival that occurs post harvest and as a lead up to the New Year. It occurs during November, the month of the rooster.

You may be familiar with the maneki neku, the waving cat seen in so many Japanese and Chinese businesses. There is another good luck item for businesses, and that item is the centre of activity during Tori-no-ich.  The kumade is a decorative rake, symbolic of raking in good fortune. It is decorated with auspicious symbols – lucky carp, maneki neko, Hello Kitty, bells – there is something for everyone. The rake is displayed in businesses – we have seen them before on our travels, but now we know a lot more about them.

We went to the Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku without knowing what we would see and Wow! Everything starts at midnight and runs for 24 hours. We arrived late afternoon to find the shrine thronged with people.

(That is only part of the line of people waiting to ring the bell and make a prayer.)

In one area people were walking up to a small enclosure and pitching big rakes onto a pile, which confused us mightily. Until we learned that those were last year’s rakes. You start small and every year you upgrade, getting a bigger rake each year.

In the shrine area there were many dozens of shrines packed with rakes of all sizes. I assume that people have relationships over the years with their favorite vendors – I’m not sure how you would choose from one booth packed with bright shiny objects over another.

The vendors offer little cups of sake to their customers, and once the rake has been selected there is a little ceremony to seal the deal and transfer the luck to the new owner. This involved a chant and the clapping of wooden sticks. The new owner then processes out of the shrine carrying their new rake. (That was one way we knew we were in the right place – we saw people walking down the street with them)

Sometimes the kumade has a proper long handle, other times it looks more like a basket. Once the kumade has been sold it is decorated with a sprig of rice from this year’s harvest.

The other thing about the event is the food. Wow! Booth after booth of all manner of food. We had come from a pretty significant lunch and couldn’t wedge in another crumb, so we didn’t partake. But they were sure ready for a lot of people to come and buy. There were very few tourists at this shrine (the really big show is apparently in Asakusa, where the tourists are already thick on the ground) So – on the one had we had a challenge finding out information about what we were looking at. But on the other hand – this was the real deal, an event that is part of people’s lives and not aimed at tourists.

Next year will be the Year of the Boar (Pig) in the Chinese Zodiac. People were buying their rakes in anticipation of the new year, so many are decorated with boars (with shiny golden tusks). In fact we saw a lot of imagery for the year of the boar – including this poster from a sushi restaurant. Love the sushis riding the boars!

And yes, we brought little takes home with us – this one will keep me company at my desk:

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japan 2018

Not THAT fish market

Perhaps you’ve been following the news about the main fish market in Tokyo. There has been discussion for years about the market not being big enough or modern enough. The tourists love it, but they get in the way. After years of discussion and planning the wholesale market was moved to a new location at Toyosu, where there is a viewing gallery to keep the tourists off the floor. So – you can still see what is going on but not be down in it all.

However – there is another fish market in Tokyo, the Adachi market. It is only open to the public six times a year – on the second Saturday of odd numbered months. Guess what last Saturday was.

When we arrived the tuna was already being prepared – the big cuts were made and they were working on breaking things down for sale. It is quite a process to see them with the big knives cutting through the fish in one cut, them taking the smaller knives for the finer work. The lineups were huge. Unlike the wholesale market people could buy here and they were. We saw folks going off with fish in their backpacks, or small rolling coolers.

Not quite the variety of the big commercial market, but it was sure fun to be able to get in and get a good look at what was on offer and what people were buying.

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japan 2018

Okay sometimes it does rain…

After our rain free visit to Asakusa it was a soggy day in Electric town. The morning started well – we went to the Origami museum. Our online reading said that the master might be there – he dropped in when he felt like it, but either way it was worth a visit. It sure was! And the master was there, holding court at his work table on the third floor. He was a telling jokes and stories and making things – without even looking at his hands or the paper. Chat chat, fold, fold and there be a maple leaf, or a boar. 2019 will be the Year of the Boar and boars with golden tusks are showing up everywhere.

Bill and I took a little workshop and learned some basic techniques

Now just have to practice for many years and we can produce magical things without looking!

We swam our way through the rain to a ramen shop – you can always count on ramen on a wet day!

I was gong to say cold wet day, but it is not cold. Quite the contrary. We’re finding it quite warm – low twenties, high teens for the most part. The transit is crowded – and hot and even the shops seem overheated to us. And then we’ll be walking along and see some westerners in down puffer jackets and we look at each other and say ‘Australians!’ And it always is!

Akihabara, or Electric Town, is an area with a warren of little shops under and around the train tracks that specializes in all the components to make things electrical. Need to fix an old telephone – there’s a shop for that. Transistors – check. Cathode ray tube – yep. Robot parts – got ’em. Over time the anime people moved in, so there are areas devoted to various animated characters. There are also a lot of maid cafes – and on this day that meant a lot of rather bedraggled young women dressed as maids handing out fliers.

I’m rather light on photos for that day – too busy managing my umbrella in the crowds!

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japan 2018

Hello Tokyo!

It is always a pleasure to be in Tokyo. Everything about it is amazing and So Much! Adding to fun this time around is the fact that my brother Bill has joined us for the Tokyo portion of our trip.

I like to start a trip to Tokyo with a visit to Senso-ji Temple. The ancient city of Edo, the predecessor to Tokyo, was founded here on the river bank long long ago. On our previous trips it has always rained – hard – on our visits to the Asakusa district – but not this time!

We started on the roof of the Asakusa Information Centre for the long view. The entrance gate is at the lower left, with a long row of shops leading up to the temple itself.

Kids of all ages!

We pulled our fortunes – if you get a good one you keep it, if not you tie it to a rail to leave the bad fortune behind.

It was a beautiful day in the neighbourhood!

Because the weather was so nice there were quite a few people in traditional Japanese clothing – just because!

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japan 2018

The second time around

Sometimes travel days are pretty intense. We made the transfer from Okinawa Island to Hakone and it went something like this:

Walk to the Naha Monorail – fly Naha to Tokyo Haneda – hand off luggage to delivery service – monorail to train station – train to Shinjuku train station – another train to Hakone/Yumoto Station – bus to Hakone Village at Lake Ashi. Arriving before 3:00 pm check in time!

We visited Hakone on our first trip to Japan in 2009 and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. But there was one thing we didn’t have time to do – take a boat ride on Lake Ashi. But this time we were ready. It is just over an hour from Shinjuku to Hakone – Yumoto on the direct train. It is called the Romancecar. It’s not like it was painted pink or decorated with hearts…. But we did get a pretty nifty bento box:

Yes, I know that it is the kiddy bento. Still good!

Hakone is in a national park that contains, among other things, a volcano. From Hakone-Yumoto there is a trip on a scenic railway, a funicular railway and then a gondola to get to the top. And, if you have time, a gondola ride down the other side to the lake. This time around we took the bus around to the lake and perched for the night. And in the morning:

Is that a pirate ship? Oh yes it is!

That is the Victory. Her sister ship arrived in the morning with a full load of scurvy mates:

The ‘Captain’ dropped by for a photo shoot:

And then we went up on deck to check things out:

Once we had made it safely to shore (no gun battles between ships today) we headed back up and over.

The thing to do at the top is hop off to observe the works and have volcano eggs.

Of course Hello Kitty is there, getting her egg on. Crates of eggs are lowered in wire baskets into the hot water emerging from the volcano where they are boiled up – and their shells turn black!

The egg theme is big up there! As you can see it was raining quite briskly – time to catch the next gondola and continue on our way.

Funicular (or cable car). Followed by another train ride on a very old electric train. And then the Romancecar back to Tokyo.

I mentioned earlier that we used the luggage delivery service. It is quite common for people to use the service to move their luggage about, especially when travelling by train. We left our luggage at the airport and took our knapsacks with overnight items. Our original plan had been to go to Lake Ashi, take the round trip lake excursion and then take the bus back for the train. Once we got there we realized it made more sense- and more fun – to go the route we did. Which we couldn’t have done with our larger suitcases. And when we got to our hotel in Tokyo our bags were waiting for us in storage. Worked like a charm!

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japan 2018

Can you stand one more aquarium

There is a huge aquarium on Okinawa Island – at one point it was the world’s largest – since superseded by Atlanta and then China. But still very worthy. It is at the other end of Okinawa Island, which turns out to be quite a way from Naha. And I’m not sure it would be a good idea to tackle a right hand drive car and be unable to read the signs. So – we took a tour. Got a chance to see just how many fancy beach resorts there on the west side of the island (answer – a lot!)

First stop – pineapple farm.

Next stop – butterfly farm

And finally – the aquarium. It is part of a huge complex with several exhibits, but we were all about water. Like the Osaka aquarium there is a huge central tank with a walk that spirals around it. The main attraction is the central tank, but around the outside are smaller displays and exhibits. It was all really well done. I like it when an institution keeps to its location. Rather than trying to show us everything about all the oceans they kept it to their area, for the most part.

But this is what we came to see:

Huge whale sharks, schools of mantas. The diver in this picture is not on the other side of the tank – she is directly below the shark which is really that big.

We were there for feeding time, which was so interesting:

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japan 2018

Okinawa Island

After several days of adventures in and around Ishigaki we flew to Okinawa Island and settled for a brief stay in the city of Naha. I had said that Ishigaki was sort of like Hawaii – if so then Naha is sort of like Waikiki. The main shopping street is packed with tourist shops – even for Japan it was heavy in souvenirs.

Note the stack of purple potato confectionaries lower right corner. There was even a Coach store to keep that Waikiki feeling.

We visited Shuri Castle, the ancient seat of power for the islands. The castle, and most of the island’s structures, were destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa. The castle has been rebuilt and in fact the rebuilt outside was being re-lacquered while we were there.

And then, as a contrast to the ancient city, there were these guys:

Yes, that is a go cart. And yes the driver is dressed in a costume. This is a thing here – flocks of go-carts, people dressed as Super Mario, Minions, Nemo, you name it. Travelling at speed with the traffic…. We’ve seen them hurtling through the traffic in Osaka, Naha and Tokyo. Given how safety conscious the Japanese are this seems beyond crazy to us, but it is obviously very popular.

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japan 2018

A Tale of Three Islands

One of the excursions to take from Ishigaki Island is a trip to Iriomote Island, the second largest of the Okinawan Islands. We arranged our tour with Ishigaki Dream Tours, and they took very good care of us. Of the total group of about fifty people we were the only English speakers. We were issued an audio guide to tell us about points of interest along the way, and the tour managers kept a pretty close eye on us – moving us to the front of things where they could make sure we didn’t wander off on them.

Part one of the trip was a forty minute boat ride to Iriomote Island. The reefs around the islands are very close to the surface – I was grateful for the skill of the captain as we zoomed between the small islands and atolls on the way.

The ‘Super Dream’ was a very comfortable ride. Once we arrived we transferred to smaller boats for a ride up the river. Iriomote Island is very mountainous, so though large it is lightly populated. Yesterday we kayaked amongst the mangroves, today it was power boat and a much bigger river. We made a stop to see a living natural treasure – a 400 year old tree in the forest.

The Looking Glass Mangrove has these huge buttresses at ground level – small trees grow out of them once they are a distance from the main tree.

After the river tour we headed up the coast for what was advertised as a cart ride to Yoba Island. Turns out that the island is across a shallow stretch of about 400 metres and we would ride in carts pulled by water buffalo. Like so:

This fine gentleman was our driver.

Part way over he pulled out a sanshin, the local guitar, to sing a song that most people on board knew – or at least knew the chorus to.

Yoba island is very small and p;retry much taken up with a botanical garden. We had tine to wander and admire the flowers, and visit a butterfly house. And eat lunch:

All delicious, even though parts were mysterious. The meal included the famous Okinawan purple potato (which is hiding behind the tempura in this picture and really, I should have taken a picture before I ate it because it is a shade of purple that is hard to believe. But it tastes just like a potato)

We caught the afternoon water buffalo back to the main island and returned to the ‘Super Dream’ to carry on to island number three – Taketomi Island. Which is very tiny and not much above sea level. Here we transferred to bikes to ride to explore the island.

Those sandy roads and even a slight hill made for a bit of a challenge. And then there I was, riding along, watching for cars and what do we come across but:

More water buffalo! They have the right of way!

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japan 2018

The not so urban part of our trip

As I’ve mentioned Ishigaki is a small island. Things are pretty quiet in the day time but things really pick up at night. I think this is because during the day everyone is out enjoying the island. There certainly is infrastructure in place for lots of tourists, though it is quietish at this point in the season. Seems plenty hot to us. And windy! There is a typhoon heading for the Philippines and we’re getting the windy edge of it.

We knew we wouldn’t be putting in the miles walking around Ishigaki – not like in Osaka and Tokyo. Wilf had done some checking before we left and booked us one tour. Tried to book a kayaking tour, but got a message back to his inquiry that said ‘We only speak Japanese’. Okay, then.

On our first full day we wandered over to the tourist office at the port and asked if there were any kayaking tours we could take. First issue was – they call kayaking canoeing. But we got that sorted. And the answer is yes – they can pick you up in 15 minutes. Well, why not, said we.

And that is how we found ourselves kayaking up a river to see the mangroves with a tour company that only speaks Japanese. Good thing we know how to kayak. There were several young couples and a group of four ladies of a certain age (I’m going to have to stop saying that as I’m getting dangerously close to that age, whatever it is). None of whom had kayaked before and spent some time going around in circles.

It was about a two hour excursion – enough to be entertaining but not so much that we hurt ourselves.

Rafted up under the trees to have something pointed out to us. The leader spoke a bit of English so he could give us a bit of an idea what we were looking at. It was very interesting to be in under the trees, to see the birds.

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japan 2018

Sometimes this happens

After the big city of Osaka we flew down to the Okinawan Islands. We try to visit a new area of Japan on reach trip and decided to try the sub-tropical part this time around. We began in Ishigaki, on the third largest of the islands. About 50,000 people live here. We stayed near the port and the town has a sort of windswept, sun bleached beach sort of vibe. I don’t know if Ishigaki reminds me of Hawaii or vice versa. Minus the big development and the Americans, of course.

Anyhoo.

On the way in from the airport we noticed fields with large black cows and steers in them. It quickly became apparent that this was the local thing. Having come from Osaka, land of the octopus, this is quite a switch. Ishigaki beef is the complete opposite of North American beef. We breed for lean. Not so much here.

First order of business upon arrival was lunch. We were thinking – curry beef – and stopped at the first place with a picture of curry beef. Turned out that was just a lunch thing. The real thing was beef grilled over charcoal. That explained the nozzles hanging over each table:

Until the waiter brought over the brazier we really didn’t know what it was about. And since we don’t know what is going on around us a lot we just shrugged. But! Charcoal brazier arrived (with real hardwood charcoal) and the exhaust system switched on and whoosh – no smoke. You can see that Wilf’s lunch set came with soup, rice and a salad. In front of him is a plate of slices of meat – a variety of cuts, including the really good (read: really fatty OMG nom nom stuff). It very good! I had the curry beef and it was yummy, too.

Our next eating adventure involved finding a little building that was reputed to be a warren of little restaurants. It was, but most only open for dinner. But there was a lunch place – a wide spot in a hallway, basically, with a tiny room with four tables. The waitress swept us in there and at first we were a bit – wah, all by ourselves everyone else is out in the hall. But in a few minutes two guys with suitcases fresh from the airport arrived. And oh, they wanted to talk to us. But so little English for them and so little Japanese for us! But – the waitress could help and there are translation apps, so by the time the guy from Australia arrived things were rolling along. Beer and whiskey highballs at 15:00 probably had very little to do with this!