Climbing Mt. Fuji

I made it to the top! Alive!!!!  It was probably the roughest thing I’ve done in quite some time, but now that I can look back on it, I’m glad I did it.

Yesterday, I was supposed to leave Shinjuku at 4:50 PM and arrive at the 5th station at around 7:50 PM.  However, I had to check out of my hotel by 10 AM and I had no idea what to do wandering around Tokyo for almost seven hours.  So I just walked to the bus station to see if I could get an earlier bus ride.  This turned out to be one of the smartest decisions I’ve made the entire trip.  I left at noon and ended up getting to the fifth station at around 3:30 PM.  Since I had changed at the bus stop, I was all ready to start climbing.  I was bundled in my snowboarding jacket, pants, hat and some hiking boots.  It was a great thing that I had warm, waterproof clothing because the weather was awful.

The rain was pouring down in sheets and the wind felt similar to the typhoon that hit earlier in June.  I had a “hotel” reservation at the Fujisan Hotel at the eighth station so I needed to make it at any cost to the eighth station that night.  I decided to just tough out the rain and wind and start hiking.  My gear kept me pretty well insulated from the storm so I started walking knowing I had an extensive hike ahead of me.  The trail up the mountain was a continuous series of switch backs all the way to the summit.  In the beginning, it was easy and I set off at a blistering pace.  However, shortly after I got to the sixth station, each switchback became a challenge to climb.  I climbed one by one, resting at the edge for a brief time before climbing the next.  Even though I was winded, I knew that if the trail continued like this for the rest of the trip, I would be fine.  It didn’t.  Right before the seventh station, the trail became a series of jagged rocks.  These were more difficult to climb and took much more focus as each step upwards required a solid foothold and a good grip on the rock to lift myself up.  I reached the first hut of the seventh station around 5:30 PM and wanted to take a rest from the unrelenting rain.  I soon found out that each hut along the route would not let people inside unless they were staying the night or wanted to buy food inside.  This concerned me as I was soaking wet now and very cold.  In addition, I knew that the longest trail was between the seventh and eighth stations so I still had a bit of climbing to go.

There were a lot of huts along the seventh station as it was one of the most popular places for people to stay the night.  So for the next twenty minutes or so I walked by hut after hut after hut.  Each one with signs that said no resting inside.  I reached the final hut of the seventh station and then it was on to more rocks.  At this point, you weren’t able to distinguish where the trail ended and the rest of the mountain started if it weren’t for a white rope that clearly marked the path to the top.  The trail was literally just rock.  In order to avoid falling, I used the rope to pull myself up a lot of the way.

Another hour later, I finally reached the eighth station.  I learned that the Fujisan hotel was right around the 8.5 station and I knew I was close.  But around this time, the fog had really settled around the mountain.  I looked around the corner at the trail and could barely see ten feet in front of me.  Just one more thing to make this journey even more miserable.

Exhausted, I pushed forward and made it to the Fujisan Hotel just before 7 PM.  Had I stuck to the original plan of leaving Shinjuku at 4:50 PM, I would not even have been at the fifth station by then, leaving me to walk through the late hours of the night up the mountain.  The relief that spread over me when I was able to step inside the hut out of the wind was enormous.  I changed out of my wet clothes and hung them up to dry.  I was served katsu curry, which had quickly become one of my favorite dishes in Japan, and then worked on getting my clothes dry by the heater.  The sleeping arrangements were not five star by any means, but I didn’t expect much from a small lodge at almost 10,000 ft. up the mountain.

After briefly talking with some of the other guests, they informed me that the “beds” here were some of the better ones on the mountain.  Most of the other huts just provide pillows and guests are forced to sleep in the open room, wherever they can find space.  I tried to fall asleep, but the combination of the uncomfortable sleeping bag and the altitude made it hard to rest.  I only ended up sleeping about two hours and the rest of the time I spent rolling around trying to get comfortable.

To get to the summit by sunrise, I needed to wake up at 2:30 AM.  Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, I got out of bed at 2:00 AM and walked down to the kitchen.  There were about eight or so people who used the other strategy of just hiking through the night resting and eating in the dining room.  I was not that hungry, but I forced down the rice they gave me.  Slowly, I dragged my mind out of a sleepy fog and changed back into my still wet hiking gear.  I reached into my bad to find my head lamp which I discovered was out of batteries.  I guess at some point it turned on in my bag and burnt out the batteries.  Money well spent.  I threw it back in my bag and set out into the dark  cold night.  I was extremely worried about the weather being bad and ruining any chance of a good picture from the summit.  However, at some point during the last six hours, the weather had completely broke and the mountain was clear.  There were more people climbing the mountain now at 3:00 in the morning than I had seen all of yesterday.  I was able to use their headlamps to light the trail.  If they were going to slow I just passed them and got behind the next person with a head lamp.

I passed the ninth station which was little more than a shed and knew that I was only about a half hour away from the summit.  However, with all the people climbing the mountain, the traffic started to build.  The rest of the way was very slow, and I waited behind countless people until finally, I reached the final switch back through the last torii marking the summit.

It was around 4:00 AM and sunrise was predicted to be around 4:30 AM.  I had to endure the strong winds from the summit for the next half hour.  At least it wasn’t raining.  The wait seemed long, but the view was breathtaking.  I was extremely glad that the weather had cooperated and made the extraordinary amount of effort worth it.  The clouds were high and the sun glowed behind them until it finally broke over them and the first warm morning rays hit the mountain.

I stayed up at the summit for as long as I could until I became too cold to stand around any longer.  I descended back down to the eighth station and the Fujisan Hotel.  There, I rested and ate some of the food I had brought in my backpack with me.  At 6:00 AM, I forced myself to get up and start climbing back down to the fifth station.   As I was checking out, the hotel manager told the people in front of me that it would take about three hours to make it back down.  This displeased me greatly as I really just wanted to get back to Tokyo and go to bed.  I started walking, enjoying the fact that at least the weather was nice.  There were a lot of things that I wasn’t able to see the night before which I was happy to be able to see now.

But, if I had thought the climb up was bad, the climb down seemed much worse.  It could have been just because I was so tired, but the rocky sections took ages for me to navigate.  Even after I cleared the rocks and made it down to the tree line, I still rolled my ankles several times on loose rocks in the middle of the trail.  When I made it back to the fifth station, I checked my watch and was surprised to see that I had made it down in a little less than two hours.  I walked straight to the bus stop and slept like a homeless person until my bus arrived.  Then I slept the entire way back to Tokyo and for the rest of the night.

My trip has ended.  The six weeks which when looking forward had seemed like an eternity, had ever so quickly come to a close.  My next post will be my last, a final closing statement on my time and experiences in Japan, the Land of the Gods.

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Hiraizumi and Nikko

The past two days I have gone to two different UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  The first was Hiraizumi.  I left my hotel in Kakunodate and took the Shinkansen to Morioka and then a local train to Hiraizumi.  Hiraizumi once was the ruling capital of the domain of the daimyo Fujiwara no Kiyohira.  He built a great city which rivaled that of Kyoto for about 100 years from 1100 AD until 1200 AD.  Afterwards, the city quickly fell into obscurity.  This brief reign of power inspired the well-known Japanese poet Matsuo Basho (whose poem stones I have seen all over Japan) to write a haiku about the ruin of the city.

Kiyohira built a huge temple in Hiraizumi known as Chusonji.  The temple is made up of several buildings.  The first one I went to was Hondo, the main hall.  Here all the Buddhist rituals are practiced.  In addition, visitors are allowed to copy the sutras and practice Zen meditation here.

The next place I went to was the Sankozo.  This is a museum which houses over 3000 treasures from the time of the Fujiwaras.  I couldn’t take pictures in here, even though I desperately wanted to.  The museum had some of the most beautiful artifacts I have seen in Japan on display.  In order to show what I’m talking about, I will try to find pictures on the internet and post them in below.  The first hall room had three giant seated buddhas which were burial accessories for the Fujiwara lords of Hiraizumi.

In the next hall were display cases filled with paintings, swords, and many other artifacts.  What I found to be the most interesting, and the most beautiful, were the scrolls of Buddhist sutras.  The scolls were a deep blue color and the writing was in a gold leaf paint.  In addition, several pages had elaborate illustrations, also in the gold leaf.  The current scroll on display was the Lotus sutra, which is said to be the most important in Buddhism.  The Fujiwaras lords dedicated their lives to the transcription of these sutras from Chinese.

After I left the museum, the last noteworthy building in the complex was the Konjikido, or Golden Hall.  Here a large golden pavilion was built to house the remains of the Fujiwara lords.  Several different materials were used to inlay the pavilion such as iridescent shells and African ivory.  The use of these materials reveals the importance of Hiraizumi and the expansive trade network to which it developed during its peak.

Since I had to catch my next train on the way to Nikko at 3:00 PM, by the time I had eaten lunch and toured all of these buildings, it was time to race back to the station and board the train.  The next train took me right through Fukushima Station.  I was looking for damage from last year’s earthquake and tsunami from the train, but I really couldn’t see any.  It seemed amazing to me that there were only three or four buildings that I saw that still showed apparent damage.

I finally reached Nikko rather late at night.  I had planned on running down and touring some of the World Heritage area when I arrived, but it was raining and I was hungry, so I just ate and went to bed.  I decided that I would tour that all the next day.

This morning, I woke up had breakfast and started walking towards the World Heritage area.  On the way there, I saw a tourist information building and decided to go in and find some English pamphlets.  The woman working behind the desk showed me where to buy a ticket that gets me access to pretty much everything within the site.  She also showed me some interesting things in Nikko outside the World Heritage area that a lot of tourists do not go to.  She then asked me about my trip and she told me that she had spent some time teaching Japanese to young children at an Air Force base in South Carolina.  She said that her English teacher while she was there was from Michigan.

With all this information, I was off, very excited to see the shrines and temples of Nikko.  The entrance to the World Heritage area is marked by the Shinkyo Sacred Bridge.  Its bright red paint is a sharp contrast with the blue water flowing beneath it.

Inside, the first place that the combination ticket gives you access to is the Japanese garden Shoyoen.   This was one of the finer gardens I had seen in Japan.  The moss along with the colorful flowers and large pond was stunning.

Next was Rinnoji.  This is considered the most important of the Nikko Shrines.  It was founded by the monk Shodo Shonin who brought Buddhism to Nikko in the eighth century.  Currently, however, the temple is undergoing major renovation which is expected to last until March of 2021, so it is completely covered in gray scaffolding.  In addition, inside there were workers crawling in between some of the most sacred artifacts.  This took away from some of the sanctity of the temple as I walked through.

Next, was Toshogu.  This is probably the most visited place in Nikko.  It is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu who is, as you can tell from my previous posts, one of the most important people in Japanese history.  When I entered the temple gate, I expected to see a lot of people, but there were a lot more than I had expected.  There were at least five school groups and at least five hundred other tourists.  The courtyard is lined with elaborately painted buildings and ancient lanterns.

I walked through the courtyard and up through the next gate.  This gate is a favorite amongst picture takers because of its intricately carved exterior.  I took a few pictures and moved on to the Ieyasu’s burial grounds.

Ieyasu’s grave was accessed by a path leading up behind the temple.  The tall pines on either side seemed to give the effect that you were leaving Earth behind and going up towards heaven.

Ieyasu’s grave was simple a large urn which held his remains.

The next temple was Taiyuin which was the burial site of the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu.  Taiyuin was very similar to Toshogu with similar colors and similar architecture, but not nearly as many tourists.

After leaving Taiyuin, I headed off in the direction of Narabijizo which is the place the woman at the tourist information building had suggested.  Narabijizo is a place where there are a long line of jizo statues lined up along a river bank.  I don’t know if I’ve talked about jizo before, so I will do it now.  Jizo are Buddhist statues which are the protectors of lost children.  You can find statues of jizo all over Japan.  I’ve seen them in almost every place I’ve been, I just haven’t posted any pictures of them yet.  It is traditional for those parents who have lost a child to give prayers to a jizo and even take care of it as if it is their own child.  Because of this, you will see many jizo wearing red bibs which people have placed around their necks.

They walk there was quiet.  I had moved away from the largest tourist area.  In fact, on the way there, I don’t think I saw a single tourist.  After getting briefly lost, I stopped on a bridge to take a few pictures of the river below.  A Japanese man came up to me and asked me in Japanese where I was from.  I told him America and he said that his wife was studying English and asked if it would be okay if I could talk to her for a little bit.  I said sure and I walked over and talked for about ten minutes.  She talked in English and I responded in Japanese.  She told me a few of the places that I absolutely had to go in Nikko, but I told her that my train to Tokyo was leaving in a few hours and I wouldn’t have time.  After that I explained to her about the all the places that I had been so far in Japan.  She and her husband were very impressed and talked a little bit about when their parents had gone to Ise.  After a little, bit they told me that they would let me go to Narabijizo because I was very busy and wished me luck on the rest of my trip.  I thanked them for their time and told them I enjoyed our talk.

It was just about 200 more meters to Narabijizo and the river running through the path made the trip worth it.  On the left were a line of about thirty or forty jizo statues and on the left was the roaring river.  Again I couldn’t get over how pure and blue the water looked and I took a lot of pictures.

After a while, I decided it would be a good idea to head back to the Nikko station so I wouldn’t miss my train.  On the way back, at the bridge, the woman I talked to was waiting for me.  She came up to me and said “If you have a girlfriend, please give her this,” and she handed me a small gift.  I thanked her greatly and I was rather touched.  Americans sometimes make fun of the Japanese because their culture is so different from ours.  Through my time in Japan, I’ve found that the Japanese are a little more closed off especially towards foreigners.  But, they have a very rich history of which they are rightfully very proud, and if they see that you are genuinely interested in it or have taken some time to try to learn their language, they are the nicest and friendliest people I have ever met.  There have been a few other occasions that almost complete strangers have given me gifts just because I have talked to them in Japanese for a few minutes.  I’ve never heard of anyone in America doing anything like that.

Twenty minutes later I was back at the station.  I filled up my water bottle at one of the many pure water springs around town, boarded my train, and made the long ride to Tokyo where I will spend the night.

Tomorrow, I have the morning free to wander around Tokyo and then I head to Mt. Fuji to climb it to the summit!  Should be interesting as I have not worked out in almost six weeks now.  The goal will be to get to the summit before sunrise and watch the sun come up.  Hopefully when I post again in two days, I should have some great pictures.  See you soon!

Kakunodate and Lake Tazawa

Yesterday, I didn’t post anything because there wasn’t much to talk about.  Early in the morning in Hakkodate, I walked through the Hakkodate morning market.  Hakkodate is known for it seafood and it is home to some of the freshest in the country.  Most of the market was dedicated to the sale of crab and squid.  The market was cool, but nothing different or superior to the Tsukiji Fish Market which I toured in Tokyo at the beginning of my trip.  After that, I checked out of my hotel and went to the train station.  I had three trains to catch through out the day and each train ride was at least an hour.  The first was the only notable one which took me from Hokkaido to Honshu underneath the ocean.  That was kind of cool.  Finally, at around 5 PM, I arrived in Kakunodate which is one of the smallest towns I have been in yet.  It was very quiet and I did not see many people walking around outside.  I went to my room and fell asleep.

This morning it was suggested I tour the Kakunodate samurai houses.  The streets on which the samurai houses were built is lined with hundreds of cherry blossom trees.  This street is one of the best places to come to see the cherry blossoms in April.  Because of this, Kakunodate has the name of ”little Kyoto of Tohoku”.  It was too bad I couldn’t come to Japan during the cherry blossom season.  The samurai district once housed around 80 lower to upper class samurai families.  Now, only six are open to the public, but really only two were really noteworthy. 

The first of these I went to was the Ishiguro House.  Here, I was met by a guy who gave me a tour of the house.  During the tour, he revealed to me that the original family still lives in the house.  He was the thirteenth generation of the Ishiguro who originally owned the house.  He said that his great-great-…-great grandfather was one of the more wealthy samurai in the district and therefore he had a few rooms built strictly for entertaining important guests.  After the tour, the house had its own exhibit with articles which had been passed down in the family for thirteen generations.  That was pretty neat to see the family’s own armor and clothing.

Next was the Aoyagi House.  This house was a complex of several buildings, each a museum with a different theme.  First was the actual Aoyagi family house which led into an exhibition on samurai life in the feudal era.  Next was said to be the largest collection of Western artifacts in Japan which included record players, clocks, and military clothing.  Finally there was a tea room.  After perusing through these various items, I made my way back to my hotel.  It was still early in the morning so I found a map of Akita prefecture in the lobby.  The map had stunning pictures of some of the best sites in the prefecture.  I found the picture and description of Lake Tazawa to be the most appealing, so I explained to the man at the desk that I wanted to go to there.  He gave me a description of all the bus and train routes and their schedules so I could go and come back in a day.  I was very thankful and within the next ten minutes, I was on a bus to the lake.

When I first got there, I didn’t think the lake was anything too special.  The brochure said the lake is the deepest in Japan, 423 meters at its deepest.  It also said that the lake glows a mysterious red in the morning light.  This was the main thing that drew me to the lake, but alas, I got there around 11:30.  The map of the lake indicated that there was a shrine about a quarter of the way around from the bus station.  With nothing else to do, I started walking.  During my time in Japan, I’ve found that I like finding shrines or temples in rather obscure or remote places.  They are always the milestone that I seem to set when I set off exploring.  Usually these shrines or temples end up being a sort of hidden treasure for me to find.  Anyway, I started walking the six kilometer hike towards the shrine. 

I was immediately glad to have come to the lake.  The water was perhaps the bluest I’ve ever seen.  It almost looked like the artifically dyed water at miniture golf courses it was so blue.  In addition, the lush green trees and plants all around the shore of the lake made for a really sharp contrast and a beautiful view.  Needless to say, my walk went pretty quick with plenty of stuff to look at.

I stopped along the way for lunch at an inn named ‘That Sounds Good!’  The owner had collected a lot of American paraphenalia like old records and stuff and hung them all over the wall.  She even had Big Band music playing.  I felt like I was in an Applebee’s rather than in a more remote part of Japan half way around the world.  It was quite an interesting restaurant.

After lunch I made it to Gozanoishi Shrine.  Gozanoishi comes from the Chinese characters which mean ‘Honorable Sitting Rock’.  The shrine got its name because it is said that in 1650, the daimyo of Satake came and rested on the rock where the bright red torii sits now.  The view from the shrine was surreal.  The view of the blue lake with the red torii and the green trees was a great view.

I went to the rock’s edge and sat, dangling my feet in the water below.  In the pure water beneath me, I could see fish swimming around.  Behind me, someone in shrine was playing the traditional Japanese gagaku music.   Looking out across the lake were mountains covered with tall green trees.  I sat there thinking about my trip and all the amazing things I’ve seen over the past five weeks.  It sank in that I leave in less than a week, and I was overcome with a little bit of sadness as I don’t think I could find a single place in America that comes close to matching the serenity and beauty of Japan.

After a long time, I got up and started the long walk back to the bus station.  I got there just as another bus was pulling up.  The bus took me to the city of Tazawako and from there I took the train back to Kakunodate.  Tomorrow, I have another long day.  But on the bright side, I will see two different UNESCO World Heritage Sites tomorrow.  First, I go to Haraizumi which used to be a huge city rivaling Kyoto during the feudal era.  From there, its on to Nikko whose temples display some of the finest architecture in all of Japan.  Nikko is where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried and has been something I’ve been looking forward to this entire trip.  See you next time!

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Noboribetsu National Park, Lake Toya, and Hakodate

The last two days have been quite chaotic for me. Yesterday, I got up early to catch my train from Sapporo station to Toya, with a few stops along the way. However, when I got to the station, I realized that the travel company had not given me the appropriate tickets. By the time I realized this, my train was leaving in about ten minutes, so getting everything together with the ticket counter was a hectic encounter. I ended up buying the wrong tickets and I went to Noboribetsu about three hours earlier than I was supposed to. I was supposed to go to Shiroi and see an Ainu Historical Museum. However, with my train ticket I was stuck in Noboribetsu. Not wanting to sit in the station for three hours, I grabbed a map of Noboribetsu and was on my way. I found out that Noboribetsu has a national park. It is famous for its jigoku, or thermal hot springs. These are similar to Beppu. However, unlike Beppu, the jigoku are out in the wilderness and are very scenic. I caught a bus out to the small tourist trap town that surrounds ”Hell Valley”. The town plays up the ”hell” part of the name and there are statues of oni, or Japanese demons everywhere.

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When I made it up to the national park entrance, I could just make out the barren mountain side ahead which marks the entrance to the valley. When you look down into the valley, you can see why the area got its name. Also, because of all the jigoku, the area reeked of sulfur, but the surrounding area was amazingly beautiful.

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I walked around and took the hiking trail to the jigoku lake. This is a thermal lake which flows down from the volcano. It has a surface temperature of about 50 degrees Celcius. My mathematical skills tell me that this is about 120 F. The hike there was awesome. The trail is completely surrounded by the woods around the park, and since it was another very nice day in Hokkaido, the birds and the bugs were very loud. It felt like an almost jungly atmosphere, except I was surrounded by maple trees.

By the time I reached the lake, it was time to get back to the Noboribetsu train station. I didn’t have any time to wait for the bus back, but I got an incredibly expensive taxi back to the station just in the nick of time to catch my train to Toya.

Toya is home to another national park. Lake Toya was formed by a large volcanic eruption quite a long time ago. Now the caldera in which the lake sits is one of the most visited national parks in Hokkaido. The scenery is amazing. When I stepped outside my hotel and looked out at the lake, it was one of the most calming places I have ever been. The weather was a cool 70 degrees and a light breeze. The lake was incredibly still and left a hushed sound floating in the air as the small waves hit the boardwalk embankment.

Over the lake that night, they shot off fireworks which reflected radiant reds, yellows, and oranges against the water which I could watch from my hotel balcony. It was quite a sight.

This morning, I had another kanseki style breakfast at the hotel and then ran over to the bus terminal to catch a bus to the Mt. Usu ropeway. The ropeway takes you up Mt. Usu which is one of the most active volcanos in Japan with its most recent eruption coming in 2000. At the summit, there is an observatory for lake Toya and trails which take you on a scenic route around Mt. Usu so you can see the caldera. The view of Lake Toya was just as amazing from Mt. Usu.

With the bus schedule set the way it was, I knew I only had about two hours to be back at the ropeway, or I would miss my bus back to the Toya train station. I started hiking as fast as I could to get as far as I could around the volcano. Going away from the ropeway station was easy as most of it was down the steps. It was very easy to forget that I would have to climb these back up on the way back. After about an hour, I made it to a spot on the exact opposite side of the volcano from the ropeway station. Again, today the weather was beautiful and I had a great view of the caldera and the ocean on the other side.

With the breeze from the ocean and the sun shining brightly, I took a short breather here and decided to head back to catch the ropeway down. Hokkaido has to be one of the most scenic places on the planet. It has absolutely every type of landscape you could possibly want to look at. In addition, there is literally a national park every 20 miles or so. For outdoorsy people who enjoy hiking, this is paradise. I started back towards the ropeway station as fast as I could, knowing that the climb back up would be difficult. When I got to the steps, I forced myself to go as fast as I could. When I reached the top, I was utterly exhausted.

I got to the cable car and made it down to the bus stop to go back to the Toya bus terminal. From the Toya bus terminal, I would have 15 minutes to run back to my hotel, retrieve my luggage, and run back to the station to catch the bus to the Toya train station to get on the train to Hakkodate. I barely made it in time, but I did and I caught my train to Hakkodate.

Hakkodate is known as one of the first ports to open its gates to foreign countries after the Meiji Restoration. So, like Nagasaki, it also has an ecclectic mix of foreign influence. However, I was so tired when I made it to the city, I just took a nap. I will explore that part of the city tomorrow. I woke up in time however to go up the Hakkodate ropeway and view the city at night. This is one of the most popular things to do in Hakkodate as the city lights reflect beautifully on the ocean on either side.

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Tomorrow, I leave Hokkaido (which I’m rather sad about) to go to the Tohoku area of Honshu. This is the place that was hit the hardest by the tsunami, but I believe much of the damage has been rebuilt. The next few days I will be the closest to Fukushima and the nuclear power plant disaster than I have been or will be this entire trip. Keep reading and see you soon!

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Sapporo

Yesterday I flew from Nagasaki to the city of Sapporo up north in Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan’s last frontier.  I first flew to Tokyo and then caught a connection on to Sapporo New Chitose Airport.  I was dreading the day of flying, but the Japanese move things along very quickly and the day wasn’t as much of a hassle as I was expecting.  They called to board the plane fifteen minutes before the flight, and I was away from the gate within ten minutes after that.  Very efficient.  When I landed in Sapporo, I took the train to Sapporo Station and walked to my ryokan.  The first thing I noticed about Sapporo is how nice the climate was.  It was around ten degrees cooler than Honshu and Kyushu and there was no humidity.  The buildings are all very modern and the city is unbelievably clean.  Also the trees around the city are very similar to those you would find in any US city.  Immediately, I was very attracted to how pleasant the city was.  My ryokan was sandwiched by the Hokkaido Prefectural Government building and the Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens, making it a little hard to fin.  But after some wandering, I found it all right.  Once I got to the hotel, I had a quick dinner and then went to bed.

This morning at breakfast, I tried natto for the first time.  Natto is a Japanese delicacy which suits only a very specialized pallete.  Natto is fermented soybeans, aka its soybeans put in a mixture of stuff and left to rot for a while.  The smell of natto is awful and I found the taste to be just as bad.  But many Japanese love it.  Near the end of breakfast, an American walked in who was wearing a Carnegie Mellon hat.  Since I was wearing my Case class shirt, we talked for a while.  He was a computer engineer who had family in Hokkaido and was here visiting for the first time in a while.

When breakfast was done, I met my guide.  He was an older man in his sixties.  Our first stop were the Botanical Gardens and the Prefectural Government building which were just blocks from the hotel.  When we stepped outside, the weather was gorgeous unlike some previous days in Kyushu.  I was extremely happy because Sapporo was beautiful.

You might notice that the gardens look like something you might find in America and very unlike typical Japanese gardens found in the rest of the country.  This is because when Hokkaido was being settled by the Japanese at the very beginning of the Meiji Period, the government brought several American agricultural experts to Hokkaido to develop the island for comfortable living for the Japanese.  Previously, only the Ainu people lived in Hokkaido and the climate was not particularly appealing for those living on Honshu.   The Americans who came over, brought many different species of plants and trees which which were suited for the cooler climate.  Because of this, the flora in Hokkaido is very similar to that of America.

The next stop was the old Hokkaido Prefectural Government building.  This building also looks very Western.  Its red brick and green steeples stand out against the backdrop of the modern city of Sapporo.  The building is no longer used for governmental purposes but is now a museum of the history of Hokkaido.  Hokkaido, as a Japanese prefecture, is only about 150 years old, but the Ainu people who inhabited it before have a long and interesting history which some of the rooms display.

Next, we went to Hokkaido Shrine.  The gardens surrounding the shrine were very calm and very reminiscent of home.  The tall pine and maple trees reminded me a lot of Dearborn.  This shrine, like most things on Hokkaido, is relatively modern.  It is the most important shrine for those living in Sapporo and the surrounding areas.  This shrine is a popular visiting place on New Years for those wishing for good luck for the ensuing year.  When we were there, there was an actual wedding in the process. I had seen other traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies at shrines in their early stages, but never one that was actually going on.

Hokkaido Jingu is dedicated to the kami of the frontier and there is a large sculpture dedicated to him at the shrine’s entrance.

With that, my tour of the city was over and I went back to my hotel.  Since the tour was only a half day and it was only around 12:30 when I got back, I scoured my guide book looking for something to do.  Hokkaido is host to many of the most scenic places in Japan, but because the prefecture is the largest (Japan’s Alaska), it takes a lot of time to get to those places.  I found that as much as I would have loved to go on an adventure in the wilderness outside of the city, I was pretty much confined to Sapporo and its immediate environs.  Both guide books said that the Sapporo Brewing Company was a must see in Sapporo, not only for the beer, but also because the campus and the gardens around it are nice to walk through.

The brewery was about a half hour walk from my hotel.  When I made it there, the gardens did jump out at me.  The park was filled with people just sitting taking in the view.  On the campus, there is both a Sapporo Brewery Museum and a beer garden.  I took the free tour of the beer museum, which was actually somewhat interesting.  In the company’s early beginnings, it was government sponsored as part of the development of the Hokkaido Prefecture.  It was apparently an important part of the development, as Emperor Meiji made a trip to the brewery from Tokyo to see the beer making process.  The chair he sat on during his visit is preserved as a treasure of the museum.

Soon after, it was privatized into the company it is today.  After the explanation of the history, the bottom floor is all about tasting the beer.  I got a few samples before heading off.

Tomorrow I go to Toya a little further south in Hokkaido.  See you soon!

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Nagasaki

Today I had an eight hour tour scheduled of Nagasaki.  The weather forecast was determined to make the tour and unpleasent one and predicted rain all day.  However, there was nothing I could do about the weather, so I took my sturdy umbrella and set off into the hard rain with my guide.  Our first stop was Glover Garden.  As I mentioned yesterday, Nagasaki is well known as the only port city open to foreigners for a long period of Japanese history.  Because of this, there are several foreign settlements around the city.  Glover Garden was built for Thomas Blake Glover who was a Scottish businessman that greatly advanced Japanese industry in the middle 1800’s.

Glover had his hand in just about everything.  He helped found shipbuilding and coal mining facilities in Japan.   Even though Glover supported the Imperial revolution, he sold fire arms to both the Shogunate and Imperial forces.  He met with many revolutionary samurai in secret here in the garden.  In additon, Glover even was one of the original founders of the Japanese Brewing Co.  This is the company that would go on to produce the ever so popular Kirin beer.  Glover was enormously successful and settled down with a Japanese wife in his own house in the garden.  Glover’s house, like all the rest in the Garden, have a mix of European and Japanese achitecture.  The house is built in a Western style, but covered with typical Japanese roof tiles.

Interestingly enough, many people say that Glover’s wife was the model for Chocho-san in the play Madama Butterfly.  The play is enormously popular around Nagasaki since the events are said to have actually occurred in the city during the late 19th century.  The Japanese singer, Tamaki Miura won international fame for her performances of Chocho-san and has statues constructed in her honor all around Glover Garden.

When we left Glover Garden, the rain defied the weather report and actually stopped.  I was very glad for this because eight hours in the rain was not going to be fun.  The next stop was Dejima.

Dejima which literally means ”exit island” was an island which house a Dutch merchant house and several Dutch citizens.  As time went on and Nagasaki expanded, the water around the island was filled in until Dejima was no longer an island.  However, now there is work to restore the original boundaries and embankments which separated Dejima from the main city.  Once the US Navy forced open the doors to the West in 1854, the Tokugawa Shogunate rallied to strengthen relations with Dejima in order to learn as much as it could about the outside world.  Dejima became extremely important in the final years of the Shogunate as the site of the Nagasaki Naval Training Center.  This was a center sponsored by the Shogunate and taught by Dutch sailors in order to produce Japanese pilots who knew as much about the seas as Westerners.  While the center was only open for a few years before the Meiji Revolution, it produced several prominant Japanese Admirals.

From Dejima, it was only a short walk to the Confucious Shrine.  The shrine is the only Confucious Shrine built by the Chinese outside of China.  The original shrine was built in 1893 as a place of worship and learning.  The shrine was destroyed in the atomic bombing and not rebuilt until 1967.  Now the shrine houses a Chinese history museum.  Since the land that the shrine occupies is technically owned by the Chinese and run by the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, the museum has several very interesting pieces of history on loan from the prestigous Beijing Palace Museum. 

As I’ve mentioned before, Kyushu was the center of the spread of Christianity in Japan through missionaries like St. Francis Xavier.  The seeds of Christianity were very tough to spread in Japan.  Rulers like Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa signed and enforced the Christain Expulsion Edicts fearing foreign invasions through missionaries.  In 1597, twenty six Christians (six Western Franciscan missionaries and twenty Japanese converts) were captured around Kyoto and Osaka and were marched to Nagasaki where they were crucified.  These twenty six have since all been cannonized as Saints by Pope Pius IX.  There is a memorial and museum near Nagasaki Station to commemorate their martyrdom.

From what my guide told me, the museum is actually very well known.  The last curator worked very hard to research each one of the martyrs.  Through his work, several previously undiscovered relics were found and now stored in the museum.  He helped to bring to light some of the stories behind these brave men.  One thing in the museum that I found interesting was a fumie.  This was a small image of Jesus during the crucifixtion which Christians were ordered to trample on.  In this way, the Shogunate Inquisitors could determine who was Christian and who wasn’t.  The fumie is an important part of a Japanese novel that I really enjoyed called Silence by Endo Shusaku.

In the distance was a good view of Fukusaiji Temple.  Originally, this was an exemplary Japanese style Buddhist Temple.  However, like many other buildings in Nagasaki, it was destroyed in the bombings.  The temple was reconstructed as a giant turtle with an aluminum Kannon, or Buddhist diety, on its back.  Inside the temple are the remains of 16,500 Japanese who were killed in WWII.

Next, the guide took me to the Nakashima River which is host to dozens of stone bridges.  The most famous is Meganebashi, or ”Spectacles Bridge”.  This is said to be the oldest stone bridge in Nagasaki and got its name from the fact that it looks like a giant pair of glasses from the side.  This bridge was built in 1634 and survived the atomic bombing.  It can be seen in its origninal form.

From the Nakashima River, we walked to Sofukuji Temple which was built by a Chinese Monk from Fuijan Province in 1629.  The temple is easily identified as Chinese through its use of vibrant colors.  The main gate and inner temple have been designated as national treasures and both still exist in their original form.

Once we left Sofukuji, it was around 3 PM.  Since we had seen everything really touristy around where we were, my guide suggested that we go to the Nagasaki Peace Park.  We skipped the museum as I had seen the museum in Hiroshima and was not ready to be that depressed again, but my guide and I took a walk through the park.

From the park, the was a good view of Urakami Cathedral.  This cathedral was built right after the ban on Christianity was finally lifted in the Meiji Period.  During WWII, the atomic bomb was detonated only 500 meters from the church and it was completely destroyed.  There was debate on whether or not to rebuild the church or to save the foundations as a memorial, somewhat like the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima.  However, many Christians demanded it be rebuilt in its original location and it was.  Today, the church stands as a reminder of the Christian persecution and suffering during the feudal era.

After that, I felt very satisfied that I had seen most of Nagasaki so my guide showed me the way back to the hotel.  Tomorrow, I fly all the way up north to Sapporo in Hokkaido.  Hokkaido will be a change of pace from the touring I have been doing in the other three main islands as Hokkaido was not part of Japan for most of the feudal era.  Instead, I will get a taste for the indigenous Ainu people’s way of life.  See you soon!

 

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Suizenji Gardens

Not much to talk about today.  I woke up early which turned out to be a horrible decision and then went down to the lobby for breakfast.  Since I was in a Dormy Inn, the breakfast was fantastic.  I’m also in a Dormy Inn in Nagasaki as well and I’m thrilled.  Right after breakfast, I took the train to Suizenji Gardens.  The garden was built as a tea retreat and built near a spring fed pond becasue the water was excellent for making tea.  The gardens are centered around a grass hill which is modeled after Mt. Fuji.

The gardens also host the Izumi shrine which is dedicated to the Hosokawa family who built the gardens.

With that done, I fetched my bags from the hotel and left for the Shinkansen station.  I rode the Shinkansen to Shin-Tosu and then transferred for an hour and a half local train ride to Nagasaki.  On the train to Nagasaki, I sat next to a girl from Denmark who had been traveling since early April.  She had traveled for six weeks all over China and then went to Vietnam and Korea for another four.  She had some interesting stories and I told her some places in Japan she should definitely go.  After I reached Nagasaki and checked into my new Dormy Inn, I immediately ventured out into the city to find something to eat since I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch.  For around 200 years or so, Nagasaki was the only city allowed to do trade with foreign countries.  Since Chinese silks were highly in demand to create Japanese kimonos, Nagasaki was a flourishing city and very important to Japan.  As country’s gate to the outside world, there are a few foreign settlements in the city.  One of these is Nagasaki’s Chinatown which is right next to my hotel.  I walked through the streets for a few minutes before I stumbled upon a restaurant which looked good and I had one of my favorites, sweet and sour pork.  Tomorrow I go to the Western settlement in Nagasaki, Glover Garden.

I’m looking forward to wandering around the city tomorrow.  I have a guide to take me to the coolest places.  In addition, my guidebook says that the local mountain is a great place to watch the sunset at night and see the city come to life at night.  If the weather breaks by the evening, I may just relax up there until the last cable car.

Mt. Aso and Kumamoto

Today was a long day.  It started with an early breakfast and then I needed to get to the bus station by 9 AM to catch my bus to Kumamoto.  I was very happy to see that when I stepped outside today the weather was beautiful.  It seems Japan has swings in weather just as bad as Cleveland.  Yesterday was about 55 degrees and rainy.  Today was a very nice 80 and bright and sunny.  When I first got on the bus, I was the only one.  The bus driver wanted to talk to me, but there were only a few things I could understand.  After a few stops, we picked up three old women and then a little later another couple.  The bus driver was apparently cracking jokes the entire way because he had the three older women rolling in their seats.  This was my first experience as being part of a Japanese tour group.  As we passed a lot fo the scenerey on the way to Kumamoto, many of the Japanese tourists filled the bus with oooo’s and aaaaahhh’s and I quietly took it all in.  The bus ride itself was pretty chaotic.  First of all, the bus was huge with two seats on either side of a pretty wide aisle.  This would be great if we were traveling down normal roads, but today we went through mountain ranges and took roads that cut back once every five minutes as well as taking two-way roads that were barely big enough for one car.  We were delayed several times by cars that had to go in reverse to the nearest emergency pull-off so the bus could pass.  Around 1 PM, we reached the Mt. Aso observatory.  Mt. Aso is not only Japan’s largest active volcano but also one of the largest in the world.  In addition it also has one of the world’s largest craters in circumference. 

The scenery inside Aso Kuju National Park is amazing.  It reminded me quite a bit of the Ecuadorian Andes when I went last summer.  Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by mountains and it made for great pictures in every direction.

When we got to the observatory, I was disappointed to find out that the cable car up to the rim of the volcano was out out service for the day.  Usually, you are allowed to go right up to the rim to take pictures down into the crater.  After having lunch I wandered around the park by myself for a little bit until the bus was ready to take off again.  I slept the entire way from Mt. Aso to Kumamoto, so I woke up in the bus depot pleasently refreshed.  I checked into my hotel and ran over to Kumamoto Castle before it closed.

Kumamoto Castle was pretty similar to the other castles I had been to.  It was attacked during the Shimabara Rebellion and burned to the ground.   The Shimabara rebellion was a rebellion of peasants against their daimyo which caused the Christain expulsion edicts to be enforced.  Many Christians were tortured and martyred in Kyushu and Kyoto soon after.  I will talk more about the Christian persecution when I get to Nagasaki.  Since the castle needed to be restored, again it just has a fuedal musum inside the main tower.  Pretty standard.  However, what I found to be extremely cool was the Honmaru Goten Palace.  This was a hall designated specifically for formal meetings and for tea ceremonies.  This was also destroyed in the rebellion, but was restored through the use of the original blueprints used to build the castle.  The elaborate murals on the sliding doors and ceilings have been reproduced using old drawings from inside the original hall.  In all the other castles and temples that I have been that had these paintings, they were originals and photography was forbidden.  However, since these paintings were just restorations, non-flash photography is permitted.  So, I was able to take some pictures of how exquisite a feudal castle actually was during the Edo Period.

After I had toured the Honmaru Goten Palace, the castle grounds were about to close for the day and I walked back to my hotel.  Tomorrow, I finally reach Nagasaki.  Aside from Nikko, Nagasaki will pretty much be my last stop in feudal Japan, as Hokkaido was not part of Japan during that time.  Nagasaki was the only port open to foreigners during the Edo Period and it played a very important role in Japanese history.  I’m very excited to visit it as it has been the center of several of the novels I have read on historic Japan.  See you soon!

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Beppu Hells

Today, the weather was miserable.  I waited in my room until around 11 AM for any sign of relief in the rain, but none came.  I decided to just set out and deal with it.  I got a map from the front desk of my hotel.  This map turned out to be incredibly misleading in terms of distances and I ended up walking about four miles from the train station in the pouring rain to get to the jigoku, or the hells.  The jigoku are geothermic hot springs which are only for viewing.  Some of them are extremely beautiful, others less so and have been turned into small zoos.  From down the road, the hells give off an incredible amount of steam which was my marker for where I needed to get to.  There are about six clustered together in the span of about a city block and then three more a few miles away.  Since admission to each jigoku was about $5, I only went to four.

The first hell I went to was Shiraike.  It is a designated place of scenic beauty and had a small Japanese garden surrounding it.  In addition, it had a small aquarium containing a fish that lives in the geothermic pools which is very closely related to certain creatures from the Jurassic Era.  Next, I went to Oniyama (Demon Mountain) which isn’t much to talk about except it had a zoo of about thirty crocodile.  The description said that the crocodile like the hot steam water and breed easily there.

Next, I walked over to the Yama Jigoku which had a zoo with plenty of different animals including a hippo, which I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one in person.

Finally, I went to Oniishibozu (Shaven Head) Jigoku.  This one got its name because the bubbles coming up from it are said to look like the heads of Buddhist monks.

I would have liked to go to one more hell in the Shibaseki district where the sulfur actually turned the water red.  This is considered to be one of the most scenic hells.  However, the rain was pretty much unbearable at this point after enduring it for about four hours, so I got in a taxi and went home.

Tomorrow, I go to Kumamoto for one night and then it’s on to Nagasaki, considered one of the most beautiful cities in Japan.  See you soon!

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Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

Today was a rather somber day of touring Hiroshima.  I took a taxi over to the Peace Memorial Park which was built overlooking the last standing building from before the dropping of the atomic bomb.   I went in the museum first.  I spent quite a bit of time in there and there’s not really much I want to say about it here.  It had two sections, the strategic planning by the US and Britain and then after effects.  It’s horrific to read about the specific planning that went into choosing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as targets, and then to see what the bomb did to the city and most importantly to its people.  It took quite a toll on me.  I would suggest that anyone who is ever in Hiroshima go tour the museum.  The US is still the largest offenders in the possession of nuclear arms, even though we significantly reduced our arsenal through a treaty last year.  If you are really interested, last year a one million signature petition was presented to the UN from cities all over the world.  The petition is still ongoing and you can read about it here.

Outside the museum, I walked to the memorial for the victims of the bombing.  The memorial is comprised of a long pool with a small monument at one end, with a flame in the middle which was lit from the eternal flame from Miyajima which I mentioned in my last post.

Finally, I walked to the end of the strip to see the A-bomb dome.  Once Hiroshima started to rebuild, there was a large cry for the dome to be destroyed as it invoked some rather unpleasant memories.  However, as the few other surviving buildings were destroyed for more modern buildings, the public decided to preserve the structure to and build the peace memorial in its current location.  Soon after that, there were restorative efforts to make the dome look exactly like it did right after the dropping of the bomb and make sure it will always look like that.  The Dome and the Peace Memorial have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites.

From there I walked back to my hotel.  With the typhoon gone, it was nice to see the sun again since it’s been a good week of storms.  I retrieved my luggage and went over to the train station to go to Beppu.  During the ride, I crossed from Honshu to Kyushu, the western most main island of Japan.  Tomorrow I tour Beppu which is famous for its hot springs and natural sand baths, and then I move on to Nagasaki.  Be sure to keep reading!

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