Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Japan Trip - Taenoyu Onsen

No trip to Japan is complete without an excursion to an onsen. These natural hot springs are great for relaxing and loosening tired muscles. And they give a lot of insight into the Japanese mind.

I chose Taenoyu Onsen, part of the Nyuto complex because it allows internet reservations and it has a private bath. You arrange for your hour long private bath time when you arrive, along with your meal times.

The onsen also provides a complementary bath package including a small towel, toothbrush, brush, razor, shower cap and q-tips. The shower units in the onsen have shampoo, conditioner and body wash and with the large towels provided in the rooms and yukata for wear around the building guests don't have to bring anything!

There are 7 baths, 4 with 'gold' water, 3 with 'silver'. There are two male baths, two female (one indoor, one outdoor in each category and they change gender at 8 pm so you can try them all), 2 outdoor mixed baths and the private bath. (Pictured below are the two womens baths, the two outdoor baths, with their view of the waterfall, and the private bath.) We ended up trying all 7.

Meals were exquisite. Dinner consisted of more courses than I could count. Here was the table as the meal started. The tall pot was for kiritampo nabe, the smaller one for grilling bamboo stalks. To this were added a mushroom soup, white fish (complete with head, skin, etc.), rice and more.

Our beds were made up when we got back to the room after dinner. We put them away before heading down for breakfast the next morning. I'm used to onsen breakfasts to be rice, whole fish and an raw egg. So I wasn't expecting the feast that awaited us. Like dinner, more was brought to the table as we finished other dishes. The grill has bacon in it, which we cooked an egg on as well. The rolled bamboo holders in the metal basket held natto (fermented soy beans) - not my favourite, though I did manage two bites without throwing up. :P

This was by far the best onsen I've ever visited. The quality of the food and service were top notch. It was also the most expensive onsen I've been to, but I'd say it was worth every yen.

Japan Trip - Lake Tazawa

Half an hour by train from Morioka is Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan. It's ringed by mountains, making it great for photography.

We walked along a small segment of the lake, looking at fuji flowers (wisteria) and birds before having the local specialty, kiritampo nabe (grilled pounded rice in a vegetable hotpot), for lunch. We also tried misotampo (pounded rice, grilled over an open flame and smeared with miso paste).

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Japan Trip - Morioka

When I taught English in Japan, -- years ago, this is where I lived. As such, it has a special place in my heart. Things have definitely changed and it didn't feel so much like home, making my return a little bittersweet.

The train ride in had us pass through a lot of rice paddies. Outside of Tokyo, Japan is surprisingly open. It's also very mountainous and has lots of lakes and rivers, but it's a beautiful place to live and travel.

I knew it was the Chagu Chagu Umako Festival date, but didn't realize the festival went all over the city (including the train station when we arrived), making the city significantly busier than usual. I'm not sure my husband believed me when I said the city is normally very quiet. The festival is named after the sound the bells make when clanking against the horses. Here's a clip from the parade as it passed Plaza Odette.

It also happened to be significantly hotter and more humid than expected for June (and the AC in our ryokan didn't work well). :(

I took us through Hotline Sakanacho, a local shopping arcade, and to Iwate Park. The park is built on the former castle foundations, and includes, among other things, a rose garden.

The next day we did some shopping and relaxed at Takamatsu Pond. We took a jaunt on one of the swan boats, walked around the pond and read for a while. It's a popular place for cherry blossom viewing in April, but there wasn't much in bloom when we were there.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Japan Trip - Matsushima

As it's the one thing not associated with the bay, we decided to walk through the paths to Zuiganji Temple first. There are two paths, one lined with cedar trees,

the other with trees on one side and caves that used to be used by the monks for meditation on the other. As you can see, this area had lots of green moss.

We skipped the Temple and headed to Godaido, an island with a shrine on it. It's the island closest to the mainland, and didn't have much of a view owing to all the trees around it.

The second accessible island, Fukuurajima, had a great view. It's got the longest bridge, and is a symbol for the area.

It's a very popular place for tour boats. My first trip here, many years ago, I entered the bay via tour boat (and subsequently didn't get a map of the area or know where the train station was). I don't remember my boat being followed by a swarm of birds either.

After Fukuurajima, we walked back through Matsushima, stopping for lunch before going to Oshima island. It's the last of the islands you can reach via red bridges. Like the path to Zuiganji, it has caves where monks used to meditate, and different views of the bay.

Matsushima is the epitome of Zen Buddhism, you can't see all of the islands from one vantage point, and if you move, your view of the islands change - so what was visible before is now obstructed. I can see why so many monks chose this area for their worship, beyond the fact that it's a beautiful area.

The woman at the tourist information office, who gave us our map of the area, mentioned a look out point at a park above the bay. We decided to try for it - and got lost. The map's not that accurate, and while we found two look out points I don't think we actually found the park... Still, the view from there was exquisite, so it was worth the walk. It's not hard to understand why Matsushima is one of the Three Views of Japan.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Japan Trip - Himeji Castle

Wednesday June 9th, we decided to try Himeji and see how the castle looked, restoration and all. Discovering that the castle would be off limits during our trip was a major disappointment and I debated finding another castle to go to instead (and found one. But Himeji, the White Heron Castle, makes anything else settling for less).

One of my readers, Anrake, send me this link in a comment, which helped influence the decision to try Himeji after all. I'd tried to find up to date photos of the castle to see how far along the renovations had gotten and didn't have much luck.

We started with an outside tour of the castle grounds, including the moat. This meant we stumbled across the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History. Not only is the mirrored view of Himeji Castle near the entrance beautiful, the museum has some great - and free - exhibits. Finishing our tour, we saw a heron in the outer moat!

So, to anyone thinking of heading to Himeji in the near future, it's still an amazing site. Yes, construction is going on and one building is covered in scaffolding and several cranes are around the main keep, and yes, some views are impossible to get clear shots of, but with some creative photography you can still get great pictures.

In addition to the heron we saw in the outer moat, we saw one fishing the inner moat.

I was led to believe that the castle grounds were closed. They weren't. We were able to walk right up to the keep, entering the West Bailey and Long Corridor and seeing the Koshi-kruwa storehouse and all other features.

Yes, it's a shame you can't enter the main keep, but the rest of the castle makes up for that. And since the keep isn't covered with scaffolding yet, I highly recommend going.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Japan Trip - Fushimi Inari Shrine

We headed the next day for, what I thought, would only be an hour or two excursion: the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It turned into a full day of walking up and down steep steps surrounded by red torii gates.

First off, if you ever go there, get a map! I picked one up back where we started, several hours after it would have been useful, at one of the tourist shops for free. The map notes the shrine names in Japanese and shops along the way in English and Japanese. It also shows where the trails diverge and leave the shrine complex (which would have prevented us from taking an hour + detour).

We started on Omote Sando street and walked to the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.

Then we headed along one side trail to the Senbon Torii (thousand torii).

Walking between hundreds of tightly packed torii is pretty awesome. There's enough room for the sun to peek through every foot, but it's still a bit surreal. This segment is what I thought the shrine was, so I was very surprised to reached another large shrine and discover the torii continue. And boy do they continue.

We ended up climbing past numerous side shrines, a viewing platform (where the trail splits and it's VERY easy to take the wrong path - as we did and another couple was about to) and the hilltop Shin Pond.

The front of the torii all have the same two symbols on the cross bars. The backs however, have the name of the donor and date on each. And if you're wondering how much it costs to have a wooden memorial, here's the pricing chart. (The rule of thumb I followed for yen when I lived in Japan is to remove the last two 0's and consider that the US price. It's not as accurate now, but will give you a general idea of how expensive these are.)

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Japan Trip - Kiyomizu Dera

The second major temple I felt Brad couldn't leave Japan without seeing, was Kiyomizudera. In addition to being a beautiful temple, it's in a gorgeous area as well. From the front you can see the mountains ringing the city, from the back you have a tree filled vista.

The temple was crawling with junior high school students, two groups of which stopped us to answer questions for their school project :) . (In total we we stopped by 4 groups the first two days, none after that.)

Looking down from the two viewing platforms, you can see the Kiyomizu (clear water) fountain the temple is named for. You can even stand in line and taste the fresh spring water.

Just outside the temple is a huge hilltop cemetery. We spent some time wandering around it before heading on.

After walking down the ninenzaka and sannenzaka (2nd and 3rd steps) we saw a maiko (apprentice geisha) on her way to a job. A bit further along the road we came to Marounuchi Park, where we stopped to read for a while.. The park was riddled with crows and beautiful views. Like the one below.