Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kanazawa

June 2, 2014

After our short stay in Matsumoto, we were on our way to Kanazawa, close to the Sea of Japan and well know for sushi and sashimi. The train along the eastern edge of the Northern Japanese Alps was a beautiful ride. At one point, we were on a small one car train going through the countryside and into tunnels of foliage. 



Once we arrived in Kanazawa, it was hot and humid. Quite the change from the lovely mountain air we were in mere days before. It was a quick walk to the hostel where we dropped our things, got some tips from the hostel owner, and were on our way for some food and sights. The first stop was the Omichi market, a well known fish market. The market was in a covered shopping area, as many shopping areas are in Japan, with stalls of just about every piece of seafood you can imagine. Cuts of colorful fish, live shrimp, dead shrimp, large sea snails, eel, clams, and more. There were other vendors with veggies, other meats, pickles (a staple of japanese diet), and noodles. It was pretty chaotic and smelly, but a new experience far from the comfort of an American grocery store. This place was the epitome of fresh catch, so I made sure to get some fresh nigiri sushi.

Sushi with a view. I could get used to this quality of fish!

Next stop was the Kenrokuen Gardens next to the Kanazawa castle. These gardens are know to be the third most beautiful gardens in Japan. What are the first two? I don't know, but I can say that the Kenrokuen gardens were the most beautiful I've seen in Japan! Kenrokuen means "having six factors" incicating the six factors that make an ideal garden: spaciousness, tranquility, artiface, antiquity, water, and a nice view. We wandered the paths as the sun was on the descent, making the light ideal for nice photos.




The iris flowers were in bloom during our visit, lining the waterways.


After shutting down the garden, we were looking for a nice place to eat. Lonely planet recommended an izakaya that we decided to head towards. Upon being somewhat lost, we wandered down a street lined with paper lanterns with the izakaya symbol. We went into the one that had the most noise coming out of it when the door was opened. We had a delicious set of small bites and drinks. More and more people poured into the izakaya and the staff were busy getting everyone's ordered. The temperature was quite high and we were ready to leave. It took awhile to flag down our server, but once we did and paid, we were out in the cool(er) night air. 

Some of the local delicacies staring at us from a countertop fridge.



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Typhoon Neoguri approaches

I am still catching up on my tourist-ing blogging,  but I'd like to take a break from that to discuss the impending typhoon Neoguri. I have received questions from friends and family asking about my status which leads me to believe that this typhoon is getting good press back in the states. I guess the term "super typhoon" is pretty catchy.

Predicted path of Neoguri and my location in Hiroshima. As you can see we will have somewhere between a category 1 typhoon or a severe tropical storm.

So far, Neoguri has hit the southern Japanese Islands and is forecasted to make landfall on the southernmost "main island" of Kyushu later tonight. We are in the predicted path of the storm, and are likely going to receive heavy rainfall and some strong winds. I will be monitoring the Hiroshima Prefecture's weather advisory website to see how the rain and winds impact the area. 



From the Japan Meteorological Survey's storm tracker webpage. Neoguri is predicted to start heading east and deviate along its current trajectory.

When I looked at the storm location forecast, I was curious about the deviation to the east. Luckily, I had my friend Leah (PhD student in Atmospheric Sciences at University of Utah) on gchat and asked her why the storm takes a sharp turn. Here is a brief, simplified explanation: 

She explained that the shape of the polar jet stream creates a "trough" of colder air, which then acts as a sort of barrier to the hurricane's northward progress, pushing it eastward. This model shows some analysis and forecast of the behavior of the jet stream at the current and modeled conditions. The view looks down on the north pole and you can see Japan in the top left corner. The blue represent areas where  the atmosphere is thinner (i.e. colder), and the reds represent areas where the atmosphere is thicker (i.e. warmer). At the intersection of the blues and the reds is the jet stream which tends to run around the northern hemisphere in kind of a sine wave pattern.

Additionally, this model shows how Neoguri could interact with the jet stream as it heads north. Neoguri is the little black dot that moves north from more equatorial latitudes up to Japan, then turns sharply east, once encountering the trough. 

Model courtesy of University of Utah department of Atmospheric Sciences. Please note that these models from UU may only be available for the next month. 

What are the conditions right now in Higashihiroshima (07/09/2014, 1500 local)? Hot  (82F/28C) and humid (80%, miserable in any unit)! We quite a bit of rain on monday and a decent thunderstorm on monday night. Otherwise, things have been tame.

My neighbor buggin out from the rain on Monday.

I have plenty of food and water, some books and a headlamp for the worst case. The storm appears to be slowing so it may not hit until Thursday. 

Here are some nice informative links regarding Neoguri:

Thank you to Leah for an excellent explanation and graphics for this post! 


Monday, June 30, 2014

Matsumoto

After a full day at Kamocochi, we headed down the alps to the east and the Matsumoto Basin. Through a series of busses and an incredibly small train, we found ourselves in Matsumoto wandering the streets in search of our "backpacker" hostel. The first impressions of Matsumoto is it was a younger city. The walk to the hostel included seeing some nice looking restaurants, a few dance studios, bike shops and plenty of buzz. We even witnessed a scooter/motorcycle gang passing full on neon lights and music.

Nice seating at the first night's restaurant, "Booze and Foods."

Surly fatty!

Coming out of the mountains, we had a growing to do list so the next day in Matsumoto was spent doing laundry,  sending e-mails, planning more of the trip and writing post cards. In the evening, after walking around the Matsumoto castle gardens, we found an izakaya (Japanese bar) which would likely have the local speciality, sanzo kuyakee (salt fried chicken). It certainly did, as well as several curious locals wondering about the two tourists that came in on a Sunday night. We ended up having okonomiyaki for the first time as well as sanzo kuyakee. After a few drinks, the locals at the mostly empty Isakaya started talking with us. We were able to tell them that we were just in the Japan Alps and I showed the two elderly women I was sitting next to my photos on my camera. All were amused and the locals seemed pleased that we had visited such a beautiful place.

Matsumoto Castle in the day.

Matsumoto Castle at night.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Kamikochi and the Japan Alps

Kamicochi is a place that Kaitlin and I had been talking about for months. We are both big fans of mountains so being in the heart of the Japanese alps was high on the list. No better place to do this than Kamikochi in the Chubu Sangaku National Park. We took two scenic bus routes into the Japanese Alps passing the mountainous countryside and small ski resorts (sans snow). There were also an abundance of cyclists on this road, which was nice to see.

Road up to the Japan Alps

Upon arrival, we figured out where to drop our bags and visited the visitor center (a common hub for good hiking advice, this was no exception). We decided to hike towards Dakesawa, heading up Mt. Mae-Hodaka. This is the beginning to a nice trail with several huts where hikers and climbers can stay along a mostly peak dominated route. Kaitlin and I had spoken about trying to do this before the trip, as we are both backpackers and mountain enthusiasts. Alas, our travel time (late May) would have required technical gear that neither of us had or had the skills to comfortable operate in a foreign country. Seeing the hikers going up and returning with ice axes and crampons solidified this as a good decision.

The hike crossed a famous bridge we had seen in the guidebooks called Kapabashi. This was swollen with tourists taking the pictures seen in the guidebooks of the suspension bridge with impressive mountain backdrop. A few people were even painting the bridge. We continued to hike up the path, with almost everyone reciting "konichiwa" to the foreign tourists. I found this interesting, because more than any other time, this is the scenario where I have been repeatedly greeted us with "Konichiwa." Mountains have a way of making everyone friendly!
Kapabashi bridge.
View close to the bridge.

The hike started along a marshy area, with raised, two way platforms. Think raised platform with two one way options. Because of everyone stopping to take pictures, and the staggered starting times of various parties, this resulted in hopping from board to board. I try and be very aware of how people are walking in Japan, as they drive on the opposite side of the road from the USA. I just can't seem to get this right. 
Hiking through the swamp.

swampy area with many Iwana fish.

Once we were off the raised platforms, we were climbing through some of the most beautiful forest I've been in. Japanese maple, small sword ferns, madrone, and cute peeping birds. We hiked and chatted, remarking on the similarity of forests of the world we had visited, and ran into relatively few other hikers. After awhile, we started to hike up a lateral moraine, and the vegetation became more scarce. This allowed for a wonderful view down the Asuza river valley and a look at Mount Yake. Mount Yake is the most active volcano in the Hida mountains. In 1915, there was a major eruption that created a lava dam and subsequent lake that remains today, Lake Taisho.

Up we go!

Mountains! Hiking along a lateral moraine up towards Mt. Hotaka.

We sat and enjoyed lunch from snacks picked up at the supermarket the day before. Anticipation had been mounting for some cheese filled dumplings we bought. Alas, these were disappointing. Imagine kraft single in liquid, jack cheese form, in a bland dough ball. Maybe they would have been better warm, but the peppering of trail appetite "seasoning" failed on this food. Regardless, the scenery was primo and we enjoyed lunch with a nice view.

We had originally intended to make it to the first hut, but time did not allow and we headed down after lunch. While soaking our feet in the river, a Japanese man asked if he could speak english with us. We told him where we were from and it quickly became apparent he was a docent or tour guide tasked with speaking with people about the Kamikochi area. He was very fun to talk to. He told us about how the local fish , the "iwana," was mostly a hybrid of the native iwana and an American Brown Trout. Native iwana still like in a few parts on the river due to local efforts.

Brown trout were brought over from the US after the Japan Alps were "discovered" and publicized by English missionary Walter Weston in his book "Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps". When teaching us about this history, our new friend said something along the lines of "when the American and Japanese fish met, what language did they speak? English or Japanese?" It was a fun interaction and we all laughed heartily. We had a chance to ask him about a symbol we were seeing everywhere which looked like a duck/man with a bad haircut. He explained that it is the Kappa monster that lives in the local pond and was quite the poltergeist (his word). Before the bridge was built, people would strip and carry their clothes across the river. The local folklore said the Kappa monster would come out of the water and steal socks and articles of clothing, while the unsuspecting river travelers were drying off. We were glad to have some insight on the local folklore and environmental issues and urged our friend to come visit California in the future and see our beautiful Sierra Nevada.

A stream where Iwana run.

After parting ways, we headed back to the bus station, picked up our luggage, had a snack and sampled the first "microbrew" that I had encountered. From Kamikochi station, we took a series on buses and a train down to Matsumoto. The drive was absolutely gorgeous, winding down fiver valleys (gorges, if you will) and some impressive reservoirs and dams.

First experience with a microbrew style beer. Survey says: Tasty!

After some wandering (all who wander are not lost), we found our "guesthouse" which was more of a person's house than a hostel. The hosts were very nice, but the facilities lacked some things that westerners would think as necessary. For example, the door had no lock. This brought up a red flag for us as travelers, but the Japanese culture does not experience quite as much theft. There is no second thought given to leaving baggage unattended in a hotel lobby, in the train station or in public. This is something we are still getting used to.

Panorama of the Azuza River Valley.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Tokyo to Takayama

We started the day off with a stop by our favorite combini, Family Mart. I have enjoyed the "Mt. Rainier Cafe Late" for breakfast. We participated in the Tokyo morning commuter train rush hour, sardine style with full packs on. I felt bad being such a tourist, but I am fast learning that there really isn't any other way I can be perceived in Japan. Maybe once I am in Hiroshima, I will be able to better integrate myself into the Japanese public.

We bought bento boxes (lunch boxes) for the bullet trains (shinkansen) and awaited anxiously at the platform to board. Japan is well known for the shinkansen and for a train enthusiast, this was an exciting experience. On the shinkansen, we ate bento and I had my first view of Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san) looming in the distance. After transferring to a local train in Nagoya, we started to head north into the countryside and up into the mountains. The train ride was absolutely beautiful, winding along a river valley with several dams and narrow reservoirs. Looking out the window, I could have sworn I was back in Oregon with steel hillsides covered with ferns and pistol-butted trees (indicating soil creep). However, the japanese cedar, rice paddies and prevalent family shrines built into the hillsides were pretty obvious give-aways.

Shinkansen! 


Bento is where it's at for travel. This was mostly fish based with picked veggies and some potato salad.

Train up to Takayama from Nagoya. 

Once in Takayama, we checked into our accommodations and began to explore the town. Takayama is a quiet down at the base of the Japanese alps. We spent some time wandering around, admiring the local traditional style homes and enjoyed sitting by the Miya-gawa (river). Dinner was at a tempura house and both the chef and cuisine were delightful. Conversations were vibrant and consisted of a fair amount of phrasebook reading, arm-waving and pointing. I'm quickly learning that props are essential for communicating in Japan, so I always carry a moleskin notebook and pen. I think this will end up being one of my favorite souvenirs. Many train stations have stamps for children (or child-minded adults) to collect in booklets. I have been adding these to my notebook.

Soba restaurant. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat. The old style water mill is used to grind buckwheat into flour.

Mexican food!? We didn't try it because we'd rather eat tempura than spend 900yen ($9) on guacamole!

Delicious tempura carnage. Was too hungry for the before picture.

Bridge in Takayama.

View of Takayama.

The Ryokan where we stayed was my first encounter with traditional style Japanese bedding. This consists of a mat about 2-3in thick, a small pillow filled with beads and a fluffy blanket. The hotel owner set warm water out for tea, and I enjoyed a very small cup before bed in the robe provided by the hotel. Waking up in the morning was lovely due to the light being filtered by the japanese screens. I enjoyed some tea, packed up my things and joined Kaitlin to head into the Alps!
Rhyokan bedding. As someone who likes a firm mattress, I had no issue with sleep.

Green tea time!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Asakusa and Uneo-Koen, Tokyo

May 29, 2014

The jet lag did not really set in as I was up and ready to go at 7am. We bought breakfast at Family Mart (keifer, green tea waffles and Mt. Rainier Coffee). The first stop was Asakusa, which is the old part of Tokyo and one metro stop away from our hostel. This neighborhood is the only to have Rickshaw runners bounding up and down the streets in Tokyo. Asakusa is also a popular tourist destination for Japanese and we saw several school groups visiting the Senso-ji temple. The temple is accessed by walking through the Kaminarimon gate (thunder gate), which has two wooden statues of Fujin (wind god) and Raijin (thunder god) for protection. Walking towards the main temple, we peered down the narrow streets which would be considered an alleyway in the US. The roads are marks of another time, when people moved through neighborhoods on foot.

Machine making "omiyage" or souvenirs. I think these are an animal shape filled with red bean paste.  Stalls selling omiyage are almost as prevalent as vending machines in tourist areas and temples.

Kaminarimon gate with a group of school children. Sensoji is the oldest temple in Tokyo!

Said narrow streets.

5 story pagoda. 



My favorite tree, ginko! 

In front of the temple, we noticed locals grabbing a metal tube, shaking it then pouring out a stick, and picking a pamphlet from a set of numerous drawers. This turned out to be a fortune telling station! We followed the english directions were you would (1) concentrate on your wish while shaking the cylinder, (2) pouring out a chopstick length stick with characters on it, (3) matching to drawer, and (4) reading your fortune. After thinking warm fuzzy thoughts of exciting things in my life, I received the following fortune,

No. 28 BAD FORTUNE: Although you are in a hurry, there will be no boat to cross the river. If you dare to sail, the boat will be swallowed by high waves. You can't go ahead and should go back to your homeland. When you get home, you will not meet any crisis and your mind will be at peace.

hmm. This is the first day of my 2.5 month stay in Japan. oh well!


Getting a omikuji (written fortune)

We enjoyed the rest of the temple grounds, looking into smaller gardens honoring warriors, humanitarians and poets as well as shrines to good fortune. From here, we were going to the Uneo area. Our path ended up taking several hours and several wonderful bits of exploration. It's the journey, not the destination, right? First, we took a stroll along the Sumida-gawa (river) before finding our way to the top of the Asahi brewery's HQ building's Skybar. We enjoyed a scenic view, some beer, discussed the wonderful day we were already having and it was only 11:30am (Hey, it was night-time in CA). We figured out that we could walk to the Uneo area and find some lunch along the way. This walk was full of pointing out different, interesting things, trying to stay out of the way of bicyclists on "granny bikes," and finding things one can only see off the beaten path. 

Asahi headquarters. Easy to spot on the skyline due to artful golden glob.

Excellent find. 

Shops are arranged according to goods. We walked along a block where a family could purchase their own shrine they could adorn for their own fortunes. My favorite was the kitchen goods block. Kaitlin and I day-dreamed about stocking our kitchens with the smartly designed and aesthetically pleasing kitchen goods and dish ware. My favorite find on this stop were shops selling the wax models seen in glass cases in front of restaurants! We saw wax models of spaghetti, grouper fish, sushi/sashimi, desserts, noodles, tempura and frosty beer cans. Prices were high ($20 for a simple sashimi!) and we noted the possibility for establishing a black market for wax models if cash became too tight.
Kaitlin and wax food.

Teapot fun.

We made it to Ueno and found our way into the Ueno-koen. Our wanderings took us around a lake with swan shaped paddle boats, around the zoo (white pelicans!), up worn stairs, by the biggest gingko tree I had ever seen, a baseball game, and a flower show. The main attraction was the Tokyo National Museum which was full of important Japanese art and artifacts. I particularly enjoyed the archaeology portion of the museum which had artifacts from the Paelolithic to Edo periods. I did not realize, but was not surprised to learn that Japan has the oldest pottery in the world (10,000BC during the Jomon period). The exhibit did a great job of walking visitors through the different artifacts and pointing out the advances in each period of different articles from every day life including pottery, decorative pieces and armor.

Uneo Koen

Prize winning bonsai.

After the museum, we did a walking tour of the Yakana neighborhood detailed in the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook. Once we were on the route, we were wandering narrow alleyways between houses, admiring family shrines and listening to the quieting streets as the time rolled past the working hours. Most of the shrines were closed, but it was interesting to see the families heading home on bikes, and elderly Japanese men taking their evening walks. This walking tour ended close to the hostel so after some rest and showers, we ventured out for a meal.

When I had come into the train station, I noted a yakitori stand and suggested we head there. Yakitori is a street food of meat grilled on sticks over coals and coated with teriyaki sauce. Needless to say, the perfect food to end our busy day in Tokyo. My favorite was pork with grilled green onions.
Start to the Yakana walking tour.

Beautiful Himalayan cedar tree

Family shrines.

The wooden sticks are prayers written by a monk on behalf of the family and ancestors.

Walking back to the hostel, Tokyo Sky Tree in the Distance. Well organized streets.