Monday, August 28, 2006

Back in Canada, for about 20 minutes... technically speaking.

Another weekend over, another trip to blog about... as Scotto would say: "It's a good life, in'it?" Weekend went by a little too quickly for my liking of course, what with me having to don my suit and head in to work on Sunday, but that was yesterday.

This morning, Yoshiko and I hopped on a train bound for Shibuya, where we would be meeting Matt for lunch. Shibuya is of course shopping heaven for the "yung uns" out in these parts. We dropped in there quickly a few months ago, as you can see in the middle of this post. Our reason for heading there today was that Matt wanted to drop by the Mac store, and Shibuya is just 2 stops from Aoyama 1-chome, where the Canadian Embassy is located. As is typically the case for people planning to meet, we made plans to meet at the Hachiko statue outside Shibuya Station.

Hachiko deserves his own little paragraph here I think. You see, if ever you happen to be in Shibuya Station, you will see signs for "Hachiko Exit", you will see paintings of a dog on the walls, and finally you will see Hachiko himself... a statue of Hachiko to be exact. The story of Hachiko dates back over 80 years to the 1920s. The story goes that Hachiko was a faithful dog who would see his master off at Shibuya station in the morning and meet him upon his return from work at night. Every day, the professor and his dog could be seen together, and so continued the routine until the professor's death. His wife packed up her things and moved away, leaving Hachiko with a friend who lived nearby. However, whenever Hachiko was let out, he would make his way back to the station to wait for his master. The kicker here is that the dog continued his vigil until his own death 11 years later. Strangers, those living around the station and even the station attendants took care of feeding Hachiko and provided him with housing when necessary. Quite a touching story, somewhat sad, and goes to the blind love and loyalty shown by dogs. Anybody able to find such a story about a cat? This is the statue of Hachiko, still waiting outside the gates of the station. The real Hachiko is apparently preserved in a museum in Tokyo.

So we did in fact find Matt there, and I was surprised to find 2 of the nastiest girls I have yet to see in Japan at the same spot. I guess with the 127 million odd people in Japan, there's bound to be a few that are pretty scary, but these seem to have put a lot of work into looking the way they did.

I hate to be making comments on people's styles here, but I will anyway... COME ON! After recovering from the shock to our central nervous system upon encountering 3 dogs where there was only supposed to be 1, we walked around a bit looking for a place to grab lunch. We eventually settled on an Oconomiyaki restaurant, and it ended up being pretty good. If you're unfamiliar with this dish, it's essentially a Japanese pancake\pizza combo thing, with cabbage and veggies and meat... you stir everything up, slap it on the grill and cook it. Here it is immediately after being poured.

And then after it's been flipped, covered in sauce and bonito flakes and is ready to eat. YUM!

After lunch, we decided to head over to the Mac store with Matt since we had time to kill and I though Yoshiko would be a good resource should Japanese be needed. On the way there, we walked by this store, which I just HAD to take a picture of.

For those of you unfamiliar with the variety of uses for the word "beaver", allow me to enlighten you. Not only is the beaver a critter that munches on trees and creates havoc in cottage country, it is also a slang word for a certain part of the female anatomy. In an attempt to keep this blog PG, I will not be any more specific than that. Look it up...

After dropping in to the Mac store with Matt, where a live band was playing, we parted ways with the Mac-daddy and headed back to the station where we hopped onto the Tokyo Metro for our quick jaunt down to Akasaka. We found the Canadian Embassy easily, and I was impressed with the ease with which I was able to process the paperwork. For a mere 5000Yen, I signed an affidavit which was then signed by the Consul General of Canada to Japan stating there was no legal or other reason why I could not be wed. The Japanese woman at the counter was quite friendly, and the whole process took no more than 10 minutes. Being quite happy to be back on Canadian soil, though only when thinking in technicalities, we headed into the basement of the embassy to check out an art gallery before "returning" to Japan and meeting up with Matt again. Here is the parting view from the embassy, the Canadian Flag flying against the Tokyo skyline... with the Tokyo tower off to the right, though partially obstructed. I was quite impressed with the Embassy, nice building, lovely interior, it really does feel like being back in Canada when one steps inside.

After a couple of hops on some different rail lines, we ended up in Shinjuku where I spotted Elmo warning us about the next "Big One" and telling us to be prepared. The caption reads: "It's not a matter of if. When the next big quake hits, be ready to survive it." This is the second time I've seen Sesame Street characters used on posters... the first was back in March. A rather blunt reminder that we are in a quake prone region.

We then followed Matt to his brother's apartment, where he picked up his things and we took in the view from 32 stories up. We got to meet his brother and sister-in-law (who is from Okinawa) and their kids who were of course quite cute. These kids are also unique in that they are fluent in Japanese and English, due to their American dad and Japanese mom. Does that mean our kids will be trilingual? We'll have to wait and see...

We then headed to Shinjuku station for the return trip. We were quite lucky to get 3 seats together after only one station, and were able to relax a bit on our ride back home. Not a bad day, relatively painless and productive. Nothing too too special about the coming week, I hope it goes by as fast as the weekend did. ;-)

Monday, August 21, 2006

A day in the clouds

Good weekend, over too quickly as usual. On Sunday, in the midst of some shopping for a certain someone who is getting married soon, we decided to pop in to the movie theater and take in the new Superman movie.

***Quick side note here. As I typed the sentence above, I flashed to one of our lessons on phrasal verbs due to my use of "pop in" and "take in". I think I've been teaching too long... a year ago, I didn't even know what a phrasal verb was! I yearn for those days!***

We hadn't really planned on seeing it, but the heat outside made a cool movie theater a rather welcoming location to spend a couple of hours. The movie was pretty good, I enjoyed watching this newbie actor do such a good job at the dual characters he has to play. Clark Kent is such a bumbling idiot compared to Superman, it's nice to see he did a good job at it. The storyline is predictable of course, as most of Superman movies are. Start with Lex and an evil plot, add some kryptonite and alien technology and bake for 20 minutes... out comes a Superman movie... Lex is of course played magnificently by Kevin Spacey. After the movie and dinner, headed back home where low and behold the first Superman movie was playing... watched most of that and turned in.

This morning, we headed over to City Hall to pick up the paperwork for the legal segment of our marriage. I understand the process is pretty much walking in with the papers filled out and signed by witnesses, handing them over and receiving a receipt of some kind... just bureaucracy really, but the big show will be done in Canada at some point in the future. Next week, I'll be making a trip out to Tokyo and the Canadian Embassy to pick up some more paperwork.

Following this stop, we headed into the hills once more. Looking back at the last 2 months, we've spent a lot of time in the mountains... whether it be Nikko, Nasu or Nagano... good place to spend a hot day though. Today's destination was lake Chuzenji, where I hadn't been since last Fall. As we climbed the switchbacks of irohazaka, we saw that the clouds were hanging low today, and ended up driving right into them at an altitude of about 1100 meters. Not fog, actual clouds... though the two are indistinguishable when you're driving through them. Half of the lake was covered by one big white puff, couldn't see much at all.


We stopped at a boathouse along the shore of the lake once we saw that half of it was mostly clear. Lovely view of the cloudy mountains with fishing boats zipping in and out of the mist.


The boathouse we stopped at had some kayaks laid out next to it... not sure if they'd just come back from a paddle or if they were getting ready to head on out.


While walking around, we encountered a couple of critters who let us get pretty close. This poor guy had most of his right wing clipped, but didn't seem to let it bother him.


There is an abundance of dragonflies in this area, no doubt the reason why I wasn't bit by one mosquito today... and they aren't shy about where they land either... on my left hand for example.


After stretching our legs for a bit, we drove the rest of the way out to Senjogahara, a wetlands located beyond lake Chuzenji at 1400 meters from sea level. Popular hiking destination, beautiful flowers in the spring and early summer... and a great place for a walk when the heat is on down below.


We ended up doing a quick 6 or so km loop around the marshes on the plateau, most of which on well kept trails or elevated platforms so as to protect the flora. They even have a large section of the area fenced off with turnstile entrances to protect the plants from hungry deer. Part of the area is also off-limits to cars, and is served by a number of gas-electric low-emission buses... nice!

I thought this sign was pretty cool... reminds me of those out in the country back home... though they usually come complete with buckshot holes.


One of the major attractions for folks taking this hike is the view of Nantai-san and Akari-san, two peaks which tower over the area. Unfortunately for us, Nantai was playing hide and seek in the clouds all day, which probably explains why I've only gotten one glimpse of it from home since I moved in last June.


As we were walking along, we came upon this uprooted tree. I found the root system rather intriguing... it doesn't seem to dig down into the ground at all, preferring to spread out horizontally instead... interesting, but obviously not very stable seeing as this big boy was blown over in a storm some time ago.


And then, as we came around a bend, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a deer munching on some leaves and grass a mere few meters from the trail. At first, I thought it'd run off for sure, but then realized it was acclimatized to people. It continued munching away as we stomped and whistled and tried to make it look up.


It did finally give us a nod as a loud walker trundled on behind us.


We ended up seeing about 4 more of these little guys around the fields here, including a fawn, no doubt born this season. Nice to see an area relatively untouched by the gods of concrete and construction. After a quick stop at Yumoto Onsen for the traditional (I think I've done it every time I've gone up to Chuzenji) foot bath, we headed back through torrential rains. Amazing how the weather can change in the mountains, from wet to dry to wet again, in the span of a mere couple of hundred meters.

For dinner, we headed out to Cafe de Blue, which has amazing bread before heading on home. And that's that, another weekend done.

On a camera related note, I am still right in love with the Canon S3 and am enjoying learning more as time goes by. I received a pack of goodies this week, in the form of a tripod, lensmate adaptor and some filters, makes my camera kit a little more complete, now I just need to get a bag that fits the camera with the adaptor on and I'll be all set.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Nagano-ken

At some point around noon today, our Shinkansen left the mountains of Nagano prefecture behind and we returned to the Kanto plain. Shortly thereafter, we had made our way back to Utsunomiya and were pleased to see the familiar sights and sounds of home. While the heat down here is quite oppressing after 5 days spent in the dry\cool\clean mountain air, there's just something about coming back home after a vacation that makes you go "aaaaaaaaaahhhh".

And what a fantastic vacation it was! Having traveled something around 800 kilometers on 8 trains (most of that distance by bullet train) and 5 buses, we got to see some of the most beautiful parts of Japan.

Karuizawa
Our first stop was Karuizawa, summer retreat and cottage country of the Tokyo elite. From what I've read, the current Emperor met his wife in Karuizawa during a tennis match... and John Lennon even dropped by a few times since Yoko Ono's family had a summer home there. It is now a popular summer retreat for those in Tokyo hoping to escape the summer heat. A series of outlets have sprung up around the station, making it a popular day trip for those seeking deals on that perfect Gucci bag. Karuizawa also held events of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

Our hotel was a "pension"-type place, which meant small rooms and shared toilet and bathing facilities. Since we were only staying for one night, this wasn't a problem and made for an up-close and personal stay with the other guests, lol. Since it was conveniently located near the station, we had no reason to complain. As far as shared bathing facilities go, these were pretty nice, complete with a nice, hot, deep bath to soak in after you shower.


After renting a set of bicycles as transportation, we set off for Old-Karuizawa and it's Ginza-esque shopping district. While I'm not one for shopping, it was a nice area to stroll around and do some people watching, and I even got myself a jinbei (Japanese-style casual shorts\shirt combo) and a tie for a good price. Here's a shot of a monk seeking alms from the shoppers walking by.


If there's one thing that's clear about Japan's pet owners, it's that they truly love their pets, and they are probably the most coddled and well taken-care-of animals on the planet. Since Karuizawa is THE place to "be seen", people gladly show off their prized pooches and there were dozens of meticulously groomed dogs and owners walking around the streets. This beautiful golden retriever caught my eye since he was sitting patiently in front of a shop, with no leash waiting for his owner. The guy was just saying hello... smart dog!


After poking around a bit, we grabbed a donair-type thing from a truck\kitchen and had a seat in the shade for lunch where I grabbed this lovely shot of the two of us.


After our walk around the shopping area, we headed into the forested neighborhoods surrounding the center of Karuizawa for a peak at how Japan's upper crust lives. This is one of the first hotels built in Karuizawa in the early 1900s. It was one of the first buildings in Japan to mix both Western and Japanese architecture, and while interesting to look at, probably isn't worth the 400 Yen entrance fee... which we didn't pay.


The cottages and homes out there are simply amazing! And the wooded streets made for some nice cycling.


After touring the wooded areas, we set off to check out a lake... only to discover it was behind a fence and you had to pay 800 Yen to get in. For a while there, I had just about forgotten this was Japan, and that this was one of the more popular tourist resorts... a gated lake with an admission fee? whodathunk? So we biked around a bit more instead, clocking around 24 kilometers in our afternoon bike ride according to our maps.

After stopping in to the hotel to check-in and have a shower, we returned our bikes and headed to the outlet mall to check things out. This mall is, quite simply put, MASSIVE. While most of the shops are geared towards the ladies, I did enjoy some of the outdoorsy outlet stores such as Columbia and LL Bean's, while I didn't make any fashion-related purchases. I was quite pleased to find an Oakley store there which carried a piece which I needed replaced on my glasses I've had for 6 years. A fruitful shopping trip after all! Here's just a small segment of the mall's East wing.


On the way back to our hotel, we were greeted with this fabulous sunset over the surrounding mountains.


Same sunset, seen from the station. This particular set of peaks creates a strange effect whereby a plume of mist of permanently sitting off to the right... it was still there the next morning, almost makes it look like a volcano.


After setting off in search of a restaurant and eventually finding one, we sat down to a well deserved meal, capped with this smiling cappuccino. A good first day.


Nagano city
On the second day of our trip, we made our way up the Shinkansen line to Nagano city, the prefectural capital of Nagano and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Surrounded by mountains and boasting to be one of the best places in Japan for Soba, it was a nice place to stop for a day and relax a bit. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we hopped on the 100Yen tourist bus and made our way to Zenko-ji, a large temple in the middle of Nagano city. From what I understand, this is the largest wooden building in East Japan, and well it's a temple... not sure what else to say. I don't want to say I'm templed out, but I do prefer more natural settings than Zenko-ji. This is however, one of the most visited temples in Japan, with over 4 million visitors annually. The current building was built in the 1700s, but the temple was originally founded over 1400 years ago and houses the first Buddhist statue to be brought to Japan. It is shown to the public only at intervals of 7 years, with the next viewing to be held in 2010.

The street leading up to the temple, after going through a huge gate, is lined with shops which we poked around in a bit.


This is the behemoth of a temple here, on a nice sunny day.


Temple grounds always have statues of some sort, and Zenko-ji is no exception, I do enjoy these reb-bibbed fellers.


While the temple itself is not in a natural setting, the mountains are never far when you're in Nagano. Exiting the temple to the left, this is the gorgeous view that greets you.


The courtyard in front of Zenko-ji also had these Buddha statues, each in a different pose.


After visiting the temple, we headed to a nearby family-run Soba shop and enjoyed cold soba and tempura, a traditional dish for warm weather. Feeling quite refreshed after the soba (and the cold beer) we decided to brave the heat and walk back to the station, checked into our hotel, had a shower and promptly passed out. We were lucky to have good weather for our trip, but with very little shade, it doesn't take long for the sun to sap your strength.

For dinner, we didn't have any luck with my Lonely Planet guide recommendation of restaurants all being full, but ended up at a higher-end french-ish place where I had lovely duck and a decent creme brulee.

Matsumoto
On the 3rd day of our 5 day trip, we hopped on the local train bound for Matsumoto. The train ride itself was beautiful, though somewhat disconcerting due to the rain. Some of the views were spectacular however, such as this one of the sun breaking through the clouds over the fog shrouded mountains. Having lived all my life in a relatively flat area, mountains are an endless source of fascination for me. Throughout this trip, I would do double-takes as I rounded a street corner and was greeted by a towering peak. Nice area to visit.


Matsumoto is on the tourist track for two very good reasons. First and foremost, it is a good base for trips into the Japanese Alps since it sits just East of some pretty major peaks. Second, and our focus on our first day, Matsumoto is home to one of Japan's top castles. We began the day by dropping off our bags at our hotel and heading to lunch in hopes of the rain stopping. After a passable lunch of Indian curry, we made our way up the main street and into the Nakamachi area. This area contains old storehouses which have been converted into a variety of shops, galleries and cafes, nice place for a stroll. Along the river, you can find a series of small shops in old wooden buildings selling everything from plastic toys to buddha carvings and soft ice cream.


Luckily for us, the rain pretty much stopped falling at this point, and those were pretty much the last drops of rain we saw for our whole trip.


We finally made our way to Matsumoto-jo (jo is Japan-speak for castle) and... wow. Amazing place. Matsumoto castled was built over 400 years ago and Matsumoto developed into the typical castle town. The castle, and actually most of the town, were surrounded by a series of moats and walls to offer protection from an invading army. Using a strategy by which one falls back to the next line of defense, the castle could hold out for a maximum amount of time while inflicting a maximum amount of damage to the invaders. This is one of Matsumoto-jo's last lines of defense, the main gate. You'll notice that this gate actually consists of two gates set at different angles to each other. This prevented the attacking force from directing their attack directly at the main gate, forcing them to go into a smaller courtyard where they faced punishing attacks from archers stationed above.


This is the view of the courtyard between the gates from an archer's viewpoint.


As you make your way into the castle grounds, you get this teaser of the castle towering over the trees. Lovely setting with the mountains all around.


Finally, we rounded a bend and there it was, Matsumoto castle, surrounded by its moat.


Due to its distinctive black paint, Matsumoto castle is known as the "crow" castle. This is my favourite shot of it I think, the sky is just the right tone of blue.


Here be the fearless explorer, complete with Tilley hat, by the red bridge leading into the castle.


After visiting the museum, we got one last view of the castle and I shot this picture. Unknown to me at the time, I was getting a shot of the Crow castle with a crow in flight just off to the right of it. Rather fitting wouldn't you say?


After visiting the castle, we headed back to the station area and checked in to our hotel. Yet again, we were located quite close to the station in a nice business hotel. Here was our view, not much as far as cities go, but the station was quite nice and the surrounding mountains add a certain something.


As I mentioned earlier, Matsumoto is a launch point to many hikes and trips into the mountains. Throughout the day, you can see a multitude of people with varying degrees of camping-wear\equipment. While enjoying a shake at MOS Burger, I was surprised to see these bags seemingly left unattended by the side of the walkway. Sure enough, as we walked by a few times during the evening, there was never anyone around and the bags were not touched. This is one of the bonuses of trekking in Japan I guess, no need to worry about your stuff getting stolen!


We were once again treated to a beautiful sunset on Saturday night, as you can see here from the rear exit of Matsumoto station.


Once back in our room, I played around with my camera for a bit and got some nice shots of the moon. Nice detail on this one, you can see individual craters as well as the Sea of Tranquility in the upper right corner.


Kamikochi
Our final full day in Nagano started early with a quick breakfast at the hotel and a bus trip into the mountains. Our destination was the Kamikochi highlands, one of the best known hiking areas in Japan. While this also makes it one of the more crowded hikes in Japan, the scenery here is breathtaking, with clean mountain streams and peaks reaching 3000 meters. You should be warned that this is a heavily touristy and heavily developed area however. Along a 4 kilometer stretch of road, the river was blocked by no less that three separate dams, leaving nothing but a trickle down stream... almost every river I see out here take a little bit of my outdoorsman soul away and buries it in concrete.... Nonetheless, gorgeous area.


One thing I found quite amusing was how seriously some people take their trekking out here in Kamikochi. I saw some people here on day trips from Tokyo, walking on marked trails, surrounded by children and the elderly, equipped with 200$ compasses and walking staffs. Oh and bear bells... yes bear bells... gotta love Japanese outdoorsmen, never do anything halfway.


We started our hike at the Kappa bridge, which spans the river at the center of Kamikochi. The area is mostly flat and the walkways very well maintained to accommodate the throngs of visitors which flock here in the summer. This made for a nice relaxing hike in the woods, and it was nice to recharge my batteries and get away from the concrete for a bit. As we first entered the cool woods, I was reminded of the countless hikes and camping trips of yonder years and yearned for those in the years to come! At the mid point of the loop, we crossed Myojin bridge, which you can see here framed by mountains.


Of note in this area of Kamikochi is Miyoji pond, with clear calm waters, ducks, and a 300 Yen admission fee.


As we were heading down the opposite side of the river back towards Kappabashi, we came across an area teeming with Monkeys! We must have seen a good 20 of them, walking along the shore of the river, in the trees, eating leaves all over the place.


This area must be one of the ones where the visitors are smart and do not feed these critters. This means that while they are used to being around people and are not afraid of them, they are not aggressive and do not attack you in search of food such as in Nikko. This guy was sitting about a meter off the trail, surrounded by 10 people, and just chowing on down without a care in the world.


Near the end of our loop, we came upon another place with a fantastic view of the river and mountains and had our shot taken by a passerby.


When we got back to the central Kappabashi area, it was teeming with people. Hikers were splayed out all over the place, some sleeping in the shade, some eating, some splashing around in the clear and cold water.


Here is the famed Kappa bridge and the view behind... but what you don't see in tourist brochures is the thousands of people who make the trip out here every day. Not to say this was not an enjoyable trip, it was fantastic... but the crowds do get tiring sometimes and with my only vacation being National Holidays, I don't get to avoid them. It will be nice to do my last bit of traveling after my contract ends next Spring without the holiday crowds.


After grabbing a quick bite to eat and resting we made our way back to the central bus terminal where we saw this at the waiting area.


Luckily, we had gotten our ticket that morning upon arrival and were numbers 34 and 35 for the 3:15PM bus to Matsumoto. The rest would have to wait for their numbers to be called... and hopefully make it off the mountain tonight. With no train and the access being open only to buses and taxis, this is a sometimes difficult area to travel during busy times of year. However, let it not be said that the Japanese do not know how to move people... they are experts at it and the transportation systems here are run VERY efficiently. When the bus arrived, we found out that they had booked 2 more to accommodate the crowds and they started calling out numbers. Should you be unlucky enough not to get a bus, or to return late, there is a taxi service for a reasonable rate down to the nearest train station. Regardless, we got on our bus and headed on down the mountains.

With any mountain travel however, you stand the chance of some inconveniences. Ours happened when our bus driver notified us that a car accident further down would delay us significantly. The bus ended up not taking us all the way to Matsumoto, instead dropping us off at the train station a little ways down. We were delayed a total of one hour, which was not so bad. Yoshiko and I even got to help out some stranded and confused tourists who didn't know what was up... unfortunately, the 2 French dudes we helped out turned out to be quite rude... maybe stereotypically French of them?

So that was that, we made our way back, had dinner and turned in for the night. This morning's journey back to Utsunomiya was uneventful. Two more days of my holiday left, just gonna relax and chill out at home... cook dinner for Yoshiko tomorrow night. Incidentally, in 2 months, we will be getting married! How cool is that?

And I am of course loving the camera, though most of the time I don't actually spend the time to set stuff properly and get the perfect shot, I'm still getting some great ones. Here is one parting photo of Kamikochi, stitched together from 4 different pictures. It looks small here but at full size would take up two posters or so to print.

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