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Monthly Archives: May 2018

The Izu Peninsula came about by the collision of two tectonic plates. It is an area of great beauty with volcanic activity, both old and relatively recent, evident on the coastline. The peninsula is prone to earthquake swarms and tsunami activity, neither of which we wish to experience.

It’s raining today and we’re having a low key afternoon after visiting the Jogasaki coastline. We watched the sea swell from the Kadowaki Suspension Bridge.

Two Australians walk into a bar after 8.00 pm on a Tuesday. Everything else within proximity of their hotel seems to be closed, but this one has a flashing OPEN sign and seems to indicate it’s a dining and drinking establishment.

The four customers at the bar, enjoying cigarettes and their own bottles of sake which the bar retains for them, turn their heads simultaneously. This is not a usual occurrence in this side street of Izukogen.

Still, the barman calls his wife who emerges from the kitchen with the Japanese word for welcome. The two are seated at one of the two tables. It is explained to them by one of the bar patrons that this is mainly a bar, and only a set meal is served. “That’s okay”, the visitors say as they order one set each and a beer for the non-driver.

It is busy in the kitchen if the emergent sounds are anything to go by.  The drinks arrive and soon, an egg salad appears. The food keeps coming. Yakitori next, followed by more beef than these two have seen for the past 4 weeks in Japan. Fried rice accompanies the feast.

In between courses, the host runs through some cities in Australia she knows. When they zero in on Brisbane, she mentions jacaranda trees and the time of year they flower.

Someone is diving into her Japanese notes to keep the conversation flowing. A dessert of watermelon and orange pieces finishes the meal, followed by a “presento” of non-alcoholic beer for the driver.

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The couple is us, and we were made to feel most welcome. This was no set meal that our host prepared. This was Japanese hospitality. We left with bows and hugs and a photograph of another memorable night in this country.

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Dining Bar, Mitsuko. Izukogen, Japan.

This is what last night’s dinner looked like. The luxury hotel we stayed in was booked months ago at a very economical price. The cost for two to dine in their restaurant was more than we paid for the room. The Gyoza Center is well patronised in the area by travellers keen to get some good gyoza from a family-run take-away business. A drop-in to a convenience store on the way home and we were set to smuggle dessert and a bottle of wine to our room.

 

The same went for breakfast this morning. We started the day in the cafe of the Hakone Open Air Museum, thus rendering us fit to walk around the extensive and impressive gardens and halls of this sculpture park.

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The Picasso Pavilion contains some of the artist’s less familiar works. It is the first time I have ever seen any of his gemmail pieces where layers of coloured glass are overlaid with a clear glue to produce a mottled stained glass effect.

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One of the most impressive works in the Museum is Symphonic Structure. A  staircase allows you to climb up the inside to get a closer view of the sculptured glass work.

 

img_4220There are many notable names represented in the collection, including Alexander Calder and Henry Moore. Here’s a small selection not by Calder or Moore.

 

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A journey down the east coast of the Izu Peninsula afforded big sea views and a change from the winding roads around Mt Hakone. We stopped off in Ito, right near the railway station in search of lunch.

Some of our best meal experiences have been random. If the price is right and the plastic models or menus look promising, we’re in.

In the company of two others seated with us at the counter, we watched while the chef prepared and assembled nine sushi plates from scratch for the customers who had already ordered. His parents were preparing other dishes, serving up miso and waiting on customers.

After our meals arrived, another customer entered and sat beside us. Once her glass was filled with sake, she started to chat, our broken Japanese and English helping to make a connection. The next thing we knew, the man at the counter was offering us one of his raw fish dishes to eat. It felt like a Netflix episode of Midnight Diner (Tokyo stories) except for the fact it was lunch time.

By the time we left, it was bows and handshakes all around. The elderly woman escorted us out of her very small restaurant and called out as we stepped up the road. “Nice day have!” We did have, and she helped to make it so.

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We are in Izukogen for the next two nights overlooking the ocean and pulling back a tad on the pace of travel. On Thursday, it’s back to Tokyo until we leave for the Mongolia leg of this amazing trip.

The Fuji Shibazakura (moss phlox) Festival runs for around six weeks each year and has about a week to run. Perhaps that’s why we had free entry to the site as many of the plantings had died off or were beyond their best.

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Still, the views up to Fuji were enhanced by the pink carpets still blooming and there were beds of Japanese primrose, tulips and dahlias still in flower.

The road to Hakone skirted around the mountain with new aspects around each bend.

We took the Ropeway up to Owakudani, where active sulphur vents release steam and that oh so familiar smell, and the best-selling product is black eggs, hard boiled in the hot springs. We passed on the eggs, but did enjoy a sample taste of peanut snacks coated in bamboo charcoal.

An afternoon wander around Moto-Hakone around Lake Ashino resulted in the inevitable cafe drop in to take in the views.

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Today, we drove from Matsumoto in the top left corner of this map to a place called Kawaguchiko which is a little north of that mountain in the centre bottom of this map. Yes, that mountain.

 

This place is stunningly beautiful. We are staying beside one of the Fuji Five Lakes and my travel agent (also known as Himself) has exceeded all expectations in finding this place, across from which Mount Fuji soars. EVERY room has a view of the mountain.

We were extremely fortunate to arrive on an afternoon of full sun and a clear sky. There is a walkway around the lake where you can take in Fuji San, watch boaters and recreational fishers and birds looking for a feed.

I will let the landscape tell its own story via these photographs. Meanwhile, we are here for dinner and breakfast, and settling in for the night.

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What a view to wake up to on a Sunday morning in Matsumoto. And what a thrill to discover another Yayoi Kusama exhibition on our travels.  This one was especially good as it showcased her work from the age of ten, back in 1939, to now. Photography was limited to a few specific pieces and areas, so I can’t show you some of the impressive mirror works or the beautiful pencil sketches she produced as a teenager. Matsumoto is the artist’s home town, so the gallery has gone all out with this exhibition, All About my Love.

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A little way out of the city centre is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, dedicated to the work of famous wood block print artists. It is a relatively small museum with originals and reproductions of famous prints.

 

We watched a video of the wood block carving and printing process which served to demonstrate how intricate and difficult it is to produce these masterpieces. We had our own chance to make a couple of prints via the use of stamps overlaid on each other.

 

Then it was on the road again to see the majestic mountain portrayed in these mini-prints.

 

We left Nagano early this morning to drive to Ogizawa, the starting point of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.

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By various means, we went through, across, up and over to Murodo, the highest point on the route. The weather was variable to say the least, from sporadic sunshine with great views to minimal visibility from the Daikanbo observation point.

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After lunch we drove on to Matsumoto and its castle, bathed in sunshine late in the afternoon.

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Jigokudani Monkey Park is one of the most popular places to see Japanese macaques “in the wild”. The pools are man-made, having been constructed back in 1964 for the local snow monkeys to enjoy bathing in an onsen. They are fed daily by the park staff with a diet of raw barley and soy beans and can come and go as they please. This feeding regime is contributing to their survival as, otherwise, these ‘agricultural pests’ would seek their food from nearby farms with unfortunate consequences.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has the monkeys listed on their Red List. These are some of their notes.

There are no major threats at the species level. There are two localities where hybridization with the introduced Macaca spp. is known to occur: Taiwanese Macaque (Macaca cyclopsis) in Wakayama Prefecture; and Rhesus Macaque (M. mulatta) in Chiba Prefecture (Abe et al. 2005). However, in the former case, most individuals have been removed (Watanabe pers. comm.). Each year, over 10,000 individuals are killed to prevent agricultural damage (Abe et al. 2005), and this situation may require more careful population management.

We were here on a very warm late spring day, and unlikely to see any swimming in the onsen. Mostly the monkeys were foraging around for food, or sleeping or having the occasional spat. There were new babies to see. After a while, the adolescents decided that a hot swim on a hot day was a good idea after all.

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Our little blue car was released from the car elevator this morning for the ride to Nagano via the coast road.

Kanazawa’s morning was wet and windy. By the time we pulled into a roadside lunch spot, the rain had stopped and there were signs of sun. Buying ramen by ticket can tend to be a guessing game, but you can’t go too wrong.

We stopped at a lookout to see the cliffs of Oyashirazu where story boards related the tales of this most dangerous part of the old Hokuriku (aka Koshiji) Road. The name Oyashirazu means “parents don’t know”. Travellers had to navigate their way through the waves to continue on the road.

A 12th century clan leader was defeated in battle and escaped. His wife followed him and penned this poem after their child was lost in the crossing.

The parents not knowing

on the waves of this shore, a child

vanishes in the foam along the Koshiji Road.

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The clouds were low today and the rice fields were a mirror for the sky.

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We arrived in Nagano and high-tailed it up to Zenkoji before it closed. The structure of the Hondo or Main Hall dates from 1707. Our ticket entry included going through a pitch black tunnel underneath the sanctuary with only our right hand to guide us along the tunnel wall until we reached the Key to the Pure Land, emerging to see ourselves reborn in a mirror. One touch of the key ensures eternal salvation, so we’re good to go.

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We’ll head out to dinner soon in this Winter Olympics City (1998). Tomorrow will include a trip to see the Snow Monkeys.

Armed with a 500 yen day bus pass, we started off in Kenroku-en Garden, one of the most famous gardens in Japan.

Kenrokuen means “Garden of the Six Sublimities”, a term taken from ancient Chinese literature to describe the six essential features of a perfect garden. To create a sublime garden, the gardener must incorporate spaciousness and seclusion; artifice and antiquity; and waterways and broad views.

Some of the features include:

Gangkou bashi, The Flying Geese Bridge. 

The word gangkou means “flying in the formation of geese”. Eleven Tomuro stones (local red andesite) are placed across the water just so, as stepping stones.

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The care of trees

There is evidence everywhere of the care that Japanese arborist take to protect the longevity of trees.

 

In winter, the technique called Yuki Tsurugi uses bamboo poles and ropes to protect trees and shrubs from heavy snowfalls.

The Kotojitoro Lantern

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Midoritaki Waterfall

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We participated in a communal tea ceremony at Shiguretei Tea House inside a tatami alcove before a last view of the irises and Kasumigaike Pond.

 

 

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Kawazama Castle and its neighbouring Gyokusen inmaru Garden are just across the road from Kenroku-en Garden.

 

 

After lunch it was time for a little reflection at a museum dedicated to the Buddhist philosopher, D T Suzuki.

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Much of the afternoon was spent in the Higachi Chaya district the home of historic tea houses and entertainment venues and geisha.

 

 

Kanazawa is a sleek and modern city, with an impressive new railway station, built to accommodate the arrival of a Shinkansen service.

 

We ended the day nearby the station in a sushi station complete with tablet ordering and bullet train delivery, where the pile of plates were scanned to produce the bill at the end of the meal.

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Today we visited three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Shirakawa-go and Gokayama districts in the mountains between Takayama and Kanazawa.

Due to seasonal road closures we had a little ‘go back you are going the wrong way moment’ on the way to Ogimachi, passing a group of road maintenance workers on their morning break. They did not bat an eyelid as we drove past them and around the hairpin turn to the gate across the road. Neither did they blink as we passed them going in the opposite direction to find a road, any road, that was open.

The thatched-roof farmhouses in a few villages in this mountain region are in a style known as Gassho-zukuri. The name reflects the shape of the roof: gassho – to join one’s hands in prayer, and zukuri – a type of architecture.

The houses are designed to cope with winter snow and their large roofs accommodate a number of floors. Traditionally silkworms were raised in the attic and salt was made under the floor. Smoke from the open hearth fumigated the thatched roof to protect it from insect damage. Here’s a taste of the each of the villages.

Ogimachi

Suganuma

Ainokura

This was the most serene and picturesque of all the villages. We were fortunate to see a re-roofing project in progress. Traditionally, these tasks are collaborative and a labour exchange system called yui ensures that if you receive assistance, you must assist other villagers who helped you. This system also perpetuates the traditional methods of Gassho-zukuri roofing. Nearby, spent thatch was being used to mulch a rice field.

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