Colored grasses in Oku Nikko

When you visit Japan in autumn, you might expect leaves colored in yellow or red such as maples. And you could end up with becoming very tired of too crowed places. But what becomes colored in autumn in Japan is not only leaves. In Oku Nikko, Tochigi prefecture, Japan, in early October you can enjoy another color of Japan.

Nikko is one of the most famous sightseeing places in Eastern Japan. The highlight of Nikko is a magnificent Nikko Toshogu shrine dedicated to Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first shogun of Tokugawa shogunate.

The day trip in Nikko may finish after visiting several temples and shrines around Toshogu shrine, or Kegon waterfall at most. However, if you keep going further, you will arrive the area called Oku (deep in Japanese) Nikko which has another attraction less familiar to the visitors.

The highest season of colored leaves in Nikko is Mid to Late October. However, in Senjogahara Marshland in Oku Nikko it starts coloring a little earlier.

Senjogahara means a battlefield in Japanese. But it’s not related to a bloody real battle but stems from a mystical battle of mountain gods. Now in the 21st century it’s covered with grasses such as cotton grasses and Japanese pampas grasses. So that visitors can enjoy their colors wooden trails are well equipped all over the marshland.

South to Seojogahara Marshland there is another marshland, Odashirogahara. In this place where you can go only by walk or by a special bus, grasses are more vividly colored.

After you enjoy colored grasses in Oku Nikko, you can also enjoy hot springs in hotels located around Yunoko lake. The water in the hot springs in the area contains much sulfur and colored in green. This component flew into Yuknoko lake and colors the lake green as well.

In Japan there are many places where you can enjoy colored leaves in autumn. But I want to recommend Oku Nikko as a place less crowed in early October and as a rare place where you can enjoy colored grasses.

 

 

 

Ogi, Sado island, living by the sea

What do you think they are doing when you see a photo below?

You maybe think that it’s a just attraction for visitors for sightseeing. However, in fact it’s for visitors to experience “Tarai-Bune”, an existing traditional way of fishing in Ogi coast located at the east side of Sado island. Let’s see the life of people living by the sea there.

Sado island is the second biggest island in Japan (except Japanese main islands) located west to Niigata city in northern Japan. Along the coast line of the island there are many villages which have different ways to deal with the sea in front of them.

In case of Ogi, it flourished as a fishing port as well as a port of Japanese freight vessel named “Kitamae-Bune” in Edo era of Japan (from the 17th to the middle of the 19th century). But the big earthquake seriously damaged the village at the beginning of the 19th century. It not only collapsed the buildings but greatly changed the landscape of the coast. The sea bed of the coast was lifted up by 2 meters and it became difficult for the fishermen to fish in such shallow sea with their normal boats.

But they never gave up. They cut their tubs by half, floated them on the sea and rode on them. The shape of half tub was ideal to look for fishes and shells in such shallow water. They named their special boat as “Han-Giri” which means “half cut” in Japanese.

Tarai-Bune is not an only example of people in Sado island living by the sea. West to Ogi port there is a smaller village called “Shukunegi”. In Edo era, it was the village of shipwrights for the freight vessels shipping between northern and western Japan. Since the land of Shukunegi was so small, the shipwrights lived in tiny buildings closely packed with each other.

But they didn’t live small. The local merchant and shipwrights built their own freight vessel and sailed to the sea. They indeed transported a lot of cargo from one port to another port along the coasts of Japanese islands. And another surprise. In the 21st century their descendants rebuilt such a vessel using the drawing at that time.

Sado island is the small island compared to Japanese main islands. But I cannot help admiring people living by the sea there who have been creating new ways based on the local environment.

Yoshinogari, how to preserve the ancient site

Compared to old capitals in Japan such as Kyoto and Nara where there are many beautiful historical buildings, the ancient sites in Japan earlier than the 4th century are not well known by foreign visitors, even the Japanese themselves as well.

Yoshinogari site in Saga prefecture in Kyushu Island was one of such sites. It is a huge site of moated settlements in Yayoi era from the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.C. found in 1986. But when the local government in Saga decided to arrange the archaeological site as a historical park, it was nothing but a flat land in the middle of peaceful rice fields.

However they tried to bring back the life of the people who lived there in the 3rd century. Late Yayoi Era was the age in the ancient Japanese history when the people who had lived in small villages gathered together and made some “countries” especially in Western Japan. And Yoshinogari is considered as a main part of one of such countries.

Therefore the settlements have double moats surrounding them and watchtowers to protect them from the attacks by other countries. The park developers reproduced these big watchtowers.

It has not been completely investigated that which country in Chinese history books Yoshinogari belonged to. But it’s sure that there was the big community with the head and high class people who governed other ordinary people. They reproduced such a community in Japan in the 21st century.

But it’s another point which distinguishes Yoshinogari from other ancient sites. In order to show visitors not only the life at that time but also how to investigate the ancient time for archaeologists, they also preserved a dig site as it was being dug. The site was a tomb of a high class person and many earthenware and burial accessories were buried with him. They fixed all the items and kept the site well air conditioned.

When I stood in the preserved tomb, I felt like I were one member of the archaeologist group who is digging the site.

I believe that the value of the archaeological site should be evaluated by not only its historical value but how the people around there try to preserve it for visitors and future people.

A unique experience to climb Mt. Fuji

If someone asks me to recommend some mountains in Japan for climbing, I might recommend some mountains in Japanese Northern Alps or South Alps where you can enjoy beautiful and various geographical features from peaceful streams with flowers to steep rocky peaks.

However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend to climb Mt. Fuji. It’s different from climbing other mountains in Japan, it’s a unique experience to climb Mt. Fuji.

First of all, time to climb is different. Most climbers of Mt. Fuji start their climbing from 5th stations of either of 4 climbing trails. The altitudes of the 5th stations are different in each trail from the highest of 2,400 meters of Fujinomiya trail to the lowest of 1,450 meters of Gotemba trail. This time we chose Fujinomiya trail. (The photo below is the 5th station of Fujinomiya trail covered with fog.)

When I was a member of the alpine club of my high school, I learned that an important rule of climbing is to start early and rest early in order to avoid bad weather change. However, in case of Mt. Fuji we arrive at the trail head in the afternoon. And after taking short sleep in a mountain hut on the way, we restart climbing in the midnight !

A main reason to climb at night is to see sunrise from the summit of the mountain. The sunrise seen from Mt. Fuji is called “Goraikou” in Japanese and has special (often spiritual) meanings for climbers.

However, the weather at the summit of Mt. Fuji is very unstable. From my experience I feel like that the possibility to see the sunrise would be 50:50. For example, this time, when we restarted climbing around 0 A.M., the sky was very clear and we could enjoy numerous stars. But after we passed the 8th station around 2 A.M, heavy rain and strong wind started hitting us. And even though we could arrive at the summit before sunrise, we could not see anything and just realized the sunrise when it became bright.

Nevertheless, I believe for most climbers it would be a special unique experience to climb Mt. Fuji even in case of bad weather. Unlike other mountains there are no ups and downs in Mt. Fuji. Once they start the climbing they just keep climbing up to the summit. Even if they realize that they cannot expect the good sunrise due to bad weather, the most of them don’t give up climbing up. They just keep climbing up resisting harsh rain and wind. Such experience would give some confidence on their lives after climbing.

Furthermore, as I wrote, the weather at Mt. Fuji is unstable. While we couldn’t see the sunrise, she showed us a wonderful view of Lake Yamanaka reflecting the morning sunshine which finally showed up from thick crowds.

Okinoshima, value of worship from afar

As of today July 8th 2017, World Heritage Committee of UNESCO is discussing in Krakow Poland to register new World Heritage sites of 2017. And from Japan, the Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region is recommended as a new site.

You might think the description of the site is too long and we should simply call it as Okinoshima island. But it’s not right. The full description of the site has an important meaning for local people. We also realized it when we visited there in May this year. (Below is a photo of a shrine which is included in the Associated Sites.)

Okinoshima is an island located in Genkai-Nada sea close to Munakata in Fukuoka prefecture in the southern Japan.

In the geographical point of view the island is located on the sea route from Japan to Korea and China and thus; it has been very important for cultural exchange in East Asia in more than a thousand year. It’s said that the ancient Yamato dynasty of Japan started a ceremony to worship in the goddesses in the 4th century. And as treasures on the ceremony made in the 4th to 9th century many masterpieces from all over the ancient Asia were found.

ICOMOS, a global network of cultural experts which recommends candidates of new World Heritage sites to the UNESCO committee, recommended Okinoshima earlier this year, evaluating it as an untouched archaeological site which shows change of ancient ceremonies. On the other hand, they excluded other associated sites which Japan had applied with Okinoshima.

Local people strongly disagree to such a decision.  A goddess has been worshiped in the shrine of Okinoshima, and also her two sister goddesses has been worshiped as well in the shrines in Munakata city and in Oshima, another island closer to  Munakata. (Below is a photo of the shrine in Munakata city.)

For local people, the three sister goddess, and the three shrines worshiping them are united inseparably. And more importantly it’s prohibited to land on Okinoshima island even now except local male priests. (Women are prohibited to land on completely.) So for normal people in order to worship Okinoshima island it has been a only way to “warship from afar”.

In Oshima island there is a special sacred place to worship the Okinoshima island from afar.

Even from there Okinoshima island is located in a long distance. So even in a sunny day we can merely see the island.

However, for local people it has been having a special meaning in a long time to see the island with their own eyes and worship from afar. And that’s why Japan applied these sites together.

Japan is a country with some main islands and numerous small islands. And in some areas old people refrained from landing on some tiny islands thinking the whole islands as sacred places where gods and goddess lived. I believe such a sense of taboo related to islands has been shared in a long time of Japanese culture.

Therefore I hope Okinoshima be registered as a new World Heritage site as a package with associated sites.

Yui, old post town loved by the Ukiyo-e painter

I believe you have seen Mt. Fuji, painted on Ukiyo-e, kind of art made in Japan in Edo era (from 17th to 19th centuries) as woodblock prints. Especially Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi, series of Ukiyo-e made by Hiroshige Utagawa, one of masters of Ukiyo-e, featuring travel scenes on Tokaido road, old main road of central Japan from Tokyo to Kyoto included several beautiful paintings of Mt. Fuji seen from different places.

Now in the 21st century, the most of the places painted on Ukiyo-e had been modernized and lost such scenery loved by the painter. However, in Shizuoka prefecture, there is an old post town, Yui, which still keeps the scenery of the era when Ukiyo-e flourished.

Once you arrived at Yui station, you can see old houses which had been used as hotels in Edo era.

Near Yui town there is the place called Satta Pass, a traffic difficult point on Tokaido road. Therefore in Edo era travelers between Tokyo and Kyoto stayed here to rest before or after passing such a difficult point and Yui thrived as a post town.

However, the steep terrain also provided the travelers with a fantastic viewpoint of Mt. Fuji with Suruga bay. Hiroshige Utagawa loved this scenery and included it in his series of Ukiyo-e about Tokaido road.

Even though we see modern highways, with Mt. Fuji and Suruga bay unchanged this point is known as only a few points which still preserves the scenery of Ukiyo-e.

Nowadays there are not many hotels in Yui town,  but this town attracts visitors as a town of Sakura shrimp, kind of small shrimp fished in Suruga bay around Yui town.

At restaurants in Yui town you can eat a variety of dishes of Sakura shrimp, such as tempura of Sakura shrimp. The shrimps are crisp and tasty.

On the way from Tokyo to Kyoto how about dropping in such an old post town to see the scenery loved by the Ukiyo-e painter?

Hawaii in Fukushima

Unfortunately Fukushima, a prefecture in the northeast of Japan, became world famous due to the accident of nuclear power plants after the big earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

However, Fukushima has not only nuclear power plants but also many attracting places. One of them is Spa Resort Hawaiians, a theme park featuring Hawaii inside of the northern province of Japan. The story of this park is a story of hope.

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In early 1960s, Iwaki city in Fukushima suffered from the decline of coal industry, which was the main industry for the city until that time. In order to create jobs for the workers in the coal mines and their families, Joban Colliery, an operator of the mines, made a very creative and challenging decision.

For coal mining, hot water springing out from the underground of the mines was not more than the nuisance. But the company’s idea was to heat up a dome with the heat of hot water and create a theme park featuring “Hawaii” inside the dome. At first many people including some employees of the company thought it was too unrealistic. But Mr. Yutaka Nakamura, one executive of the company led the company very strongly and made it decide to go ahead.

At that time Hawaii was the most popular foreign place for Japanese and the symbol of the oversea, while foreign trips were too expensive for ordinary Japanese. But they made a Hawaii in only 2 hour drive from Tokyo. Joban Hawaiian Center opened in 1966 attracted many ordinary Japanese dreaming a paradise and it became popular soon.

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In order to make the visitors feel like as if they were in Hawaii, the company recruited several girls in the city none of which had been overseas and gave them lessons in hula dance and other Polynesian dances so that they performed the dancing show in the park like the dancers in real Hawaii. After hard lessons they became the symbol of the park called “Hula Girls”. Their story became a movie in 2006 and made a big hit in Japan.

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Even after foreign trips became much less expensive for ordinary Japanese, the park had been surviving with some new ideas such as making the biggest hot spring in Japan and changing its name to Spa Resort Hawaiians.

Then, the big earthquake happened in the northeast region of Japan in March 2011. And the dome was seriously damaged and they were obliged to close the park in the long time.

However, the employees of the park didn’t forget how they overcame the serious decline of coal mining industry 50 years ago. Hula Girls visited all over Japan and performed their show believing that they could open the park again. One year after the big earthquake they reopened the park and had as much visitors as they had had before the earthquake.

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Again, when I heard a name of Fukushima in foreign countries, in many cases they mention the name related to the earthquake and the nuclear accident. I really hope Fukushima got more attention about the people who have strong mind to overcome many hard times.

Below is the website of Spa Resort Hawaiians (sorry only in Japanese).

http://www.hawaiians.co.jp/

How farms in Hokkaido attract visitors

In Japan most of the farmers struggles to continue farming when cheaper vegetables are imported to Japan and also they have difficulty to find their successors. However, in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, there is an area where the farms themselves attract many visitors.

Furano, a basin located in the central Hokkaido, surrounded by high mountains and along with Sorachi river, has fertile soil and there are many farms of potatoes, fruits and flowers.

A photo below is Mt. Tokachi, active volcano east to Furano.

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In Japan this area became famous in early 1980’s when the TV drama series Kita no Kuni kara (From the northern country in Japanese), a drama about a family which moved from Tokyo to Furano and lives in the nature, had been filmed in Furano and became a big hit. The drama series continued in 20 years till 2002. For many Japanese including me Furano is a typical image of the country side of Japan.

And in the drama the symbol of Furano was lavender and in Furano there are many farms which grow lavenders. And the biggest one is Farm Tomita. They open their flower farms to visitors for free and many visitors including foreigners come to the farm and can enjoy some flowers all the year round.

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In late August lavenders were at the end of its season. But we can still enjoy their beauty.

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Website of Farm Tomita (english available)

The farms which attract visitors are not only flower ones. Recently in Furano due to climate change some farmers started growing grapes for wine. And from a window of the cafe, Campana Rokkatei, you can see a fantastic view of vineyards on the hill with Mt. Tokachi on the back.

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Website of Rokkatei Campara (english available)

Of course it’s not only seeing vineyards. In Furano there are several winery as well and in the hotels and B&Bs in Furano, you can enjoy wines made in Furano with nice food in peaceful atmosphere. The chef of the hotel we stayed used vegetables grown in Furano as much as possible and they match with the taste of wine nicely.

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Lastly it’s reported on the news that some part of Furano area was seriously damaged by the typhoon a few days after we visited. We sincerely hope they recover from the damage soon and many people can enjoy the beauty of Furano.

Ainu, the indigenous people in Hokkaido Japan

In Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, there is a people called “Ainu”. Before the Japanese expanded to the north and started living in the island late in the 19th century, they had lived there and had kept their traditional lifestyle based on hunting, fishing and gathering.

Now in 2016, somehow changed, but the Ainu people is still trying to preserve their culture. In Hokkaido there are some of their communities, called Kotan in the Ainu language. And Poroto Kotan located in Shiraoi-town in central Hokkaido is one of such communities.

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In fact most of the Ainu people doesn’t keep the same lifestyle of hunting and gathering as they had in 100 years ago. They have Japanese nationality. And in daily life they live like the other Japanese people live. Nevertheless with the identity as “Ainu” they try to preserve their traditional culture.

For example they have their own language, music and dance. This Poroto Kotan is not only their community but also their museum. And they show their music and dance to the visitors with their traditional clothing.

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Their culture is deeply related to their religion. In their religion all the stuff in nature is considered as gods. For example salmon, one of their main food is called “kamuy cup” in the Ainu language, meaning fish of god. Since it is a god, they treat salmon so respectfully and eat all the parts of its body. In the picture below they hang salmon from the ceiling of their house to smoke and make it to the preserved food for harsh winter.

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Among the animals as gods, bear is the most holy animal for them. In the community they raise 4 bears in the cage. It’s my first time to see bears raised in the place in Japan other than zoo or safari park.

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For the Ainu people the ceremony called “Iomante” was the most important for their culture. In one winter they bring a baby bear to their community and grow the bear with great care as if it’s their own child. But when the bear has grown up in a couple of years, they have Iomante celemony and “send back” the bear to the world of gods with a lot of food and drink. They think a god of bear come down to the world of human with the shape of the baby bear, and thus they treat it very respectfully.

It’s my fist time to meet with the Ainu people while I have learned and heard about them many times. It was so impressive! I believe it’s a key for Japan to be a multicultural society if they can keep their identity and preserve their own culture in the 21st century.

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Below is the website of Ainu museum in Poroto Kotan (English availalble).

http://www.ainu-museum.or.jp/en/

Sado, golden island in Japan

Long long time ago, Japan was known by the West as a legendary golden island. And many sailors who looked for gold such as Christopher Columbus headed to Asia. But it was true that Japan was a golden island in the sense that Japan produced a relatively big amount of gold at that time and Sado, an island northwest of Niigata city, had one of the biggest gold mountains in Japan.

We can go to Sado island only by ship. If we use a car ferry on which we can bring our own cars, it takes 2.5 hours from Niigata port to Ryotu port, main port in Sado island. But if we use a smaller jetfoil ferry, it takes only 1 hour.

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Sado Kisen (Ferry Service to Sado Island)

Apart from Japanese main 4 islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu), Sado is the 2nd biggest island in Japan next to Okinawa’s main island. And it has approx. 56,000 population. The people in the island are proud of the beauty of its sea and its peaceful atmosphere. The sea is so clean that we can get a lot of abalones in the shallow sea.

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However, in the 17th century, when Sado golden mountain produced its biggest amount of gold and there was a “Gold Rush” in the island, there were more population and Sado was one of the most active cities in Japan at that time.

Sado golden mountain is located in the western part of the island. In the 17th century at first they used a method of open pit mining to find gold. And finally the top of the mountain had been cracked as a “V” shape.

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Then they drove a lot of tunnels throughout the mountain. Soon the tunnel reached under the sea level so they needed to drain water in order to continue digging. Now in the old tunnel there are a lot of dolls which shows us how to dig gold at that time. IMG_0559

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Sado golden mountain had been producing gold almost 400 years and had been an important fiscal source for Tokugawa shogunate. Now the people in the island try to register it on World Heritage of UNESCO and maintain old tunnels and equipment as a museum.

When you visit the mountain, you might be interested to get some gold with you. But are you afraid of expensive prices of golden jewelry? Don’t worry ! Here you can eat a lot of food with gold dust such as gold ramen noodle and gold ice cream.

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Please visit Sado, golden island in Japan and clarify with your own eyes if the legend of golden island was true.

Sado Kinzan (Sado golden mountain)