Posted by: pdot78 | July 13, 2009

Week 52: Fin

DSCF2143

Hey guys,

Yes this is me karate kicking over one of my coworkers at the beach. We were there last weekend and I thought it would be fun.  This will be my last post from Japan. I am sitting in my hotel room now waiting for my girlfriend to wake up and reflecting on how amazing this experience has been for me. It seems like just yesterday that I was leaving the airport in Osaka to begin this adventure. Time flies when you are having fun and that is certainly a gross understatement of my life over this past year.

I am somewhat nervous for the return home as I am sure things will not be as I remember them. I think that this is an appropriate reaction though given that I felt a little nervous a few days before I left the first time. I also still have yet to go through any culture shock so I think it’s safe to say that it won’t happen. I think that people and the organization of their societies/cultures are interesting to analyze from a geographical and sociological perspective but in the end we are all human and that makes us the same. I had a great time learning about this particular country and how humans live here.

I have seen and participated in so many wonderful things that I will most likely still be talking about this trip when I am old and gray. The connections and friendships I have made over this past year are going to be with me forever. I am not quite sure what I should write now. I think that about covers it.

I would like to sincerely thank anyone and everyone who has taken the time to read this blog and check up on me this past year. It really meant a lot to me to know that people were supporting me in this little adventure. Even if you don’t even know me and read it, thank you very much, I hope you enjoyed my blog.

See you in Canada!

Paul

Posted by: pdot78 | June 29, 2009

Week 50: Mount Azuma

Hello Canada,

I finally got to go to Fukushima and see Mt. Azuma this weekend. I have been looking forward to this since November and it was well worth the wait. Miki, Mika, Yoshie, Jeff and I made the drive over via the Bandai Azuma Skyline and that was beautiful enough on its own. The road itself brought us a mere 15 minute walk up to the summit of this massive natural beauty.

Mt. Azuma is actually a collection of volcanoes bordering the Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures in the Bandai-Asahi National Park. We ended up climbing two of them: Mt. Azuma Kofuji and Mt. Issaikyo-yama. The first was given the name “Kofuji” because it resembles a small Mount Fuji. It stands at 1705m tall and has a conical-shaped, 500m wide crater making it an absolutely stunning sight. It was an easy climb and had a great view of Mt. Issaikyo-yama across the street. Every spring, as the snow melts, a white rabbit appears along the side of Mt. Azuma Kofuji. This acts as a symbol that the farming season has begun.

Mt. Issaikyo-yama itself stands at 1949m and hosted the magnificent Goshikinuma lake. We originally had the idea that this lake was accessible by car and would be as easily accessible as Kofuji but we were in for a surprising hiking treat! This cobalt blue lake is on the top of the mountain and can only be accessed through a 4 hour hike through a marsh and up the side of Mt. Issaikyo-yama. The hike also brought us past a sulphur vent which was neat. Nobody expected to be seriously hiking today so I think the group was a little hesitant to make the climb but I was so excited I literally bounced all the way up and down! Everyone did a really awesome job though and I’m proud of them for making it the whole way through. I don’t have any facts or interesting historical information on this one other then it’s last eruption was in 1977. I think my Uncle Brad would have loved hiking this place. Absolutely stunning.

Here are the rest of the pictures from this epic journey! Also, if anyone could explain what the strange blue line across the sky was that would be extremely helpful.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157620695848962/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | June 18, 2009

Week 49: Shirone Kite Festival

Hello everyone,

Work has been really busy this week as well. Randy (my co NET and partner in crime for this past year) is leaving so we have both been training his replacement Jeff. It is making me think about training my replacement and giving me mixed feelings about when I will be leaving for Canada in exactly one month. Anyways, back to fun things I have been doing. Two weeks ago Yoshie, Randy, Stacy and I went to the Shirone Kite Festival. It was a blast. I will tell you about the actual festival in a minute. It is quite old and has a great back story so I will start with that.

The Nakanokuchi River is where the festival is held and it is also where our back-story begins. This man made river dug sometime in the sixteenth century literally tormented the local towns by flooding frequently. The mayors of the villages worked quite hard to keep peace and improve the levees. East Shirone (Shibata Clan) and West Shirone (Murakami Clan) however, were constantly in conflict with one another over flood control.

In May, 1737, Kamiyama Chubei (the head of East Shirone) had been invited to Shibata Castle to celebrate the birth of a boy in the Mizoguchi Clan. While there, Chubei was presented with a giant kite consisting of 30 pieces of Japanese paper. After returning to Shirone, Chubei , with the help of some youth, flied his kite from one of the newly completed levees. This kite of however, crashed and damaged the roof of a local farmer (Matemon) on the opposite bank. The two clans, having already built deep rooted grudges due to constant conflict over flood control took action. Mataemon immediately built a large kite and slammed it onto the roof of Chubei’s house, which brought on a kite war, which has now translated into the Shibata Kite Festival!

This is their ritualistic method of carrying the kite to the launch site. Almost like a casket, they come rushing along with their kite all rolled up.

I originally thought it was going to be uneventful but I was completely wrong. This surprisingly exciting event consisted of great food and kites crashing into people left and right! I even would have gotten smashed in the head once had I not blocked it with my forearm. They crashed every single kite into either the crowd or the river because it was not windy enough and yet continued to bring out kite after kite.   I should also note that for a while we were right in the middle of one of the ‘crash zones’ which made for some ducking and dodging.

I also even got to join in! I memorized how to appropriately ask in Japanese and they were so surprised that I asked they said yes. It was a lot of fun. Anyways, that’s about it for me this week. I am hopefully going to Mt. Azuma next weekend with Yoshie.  Here are the pictures.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157619377646077/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | June 8, 2009

Week 48: Himeji

Hey guys,

This is the final castle post I swear! I went to an awesome kite festival this weekend and I will tell you all about it next week. Himeji or Shirasagijō (White Heron Castle) is Japan’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and the most visited Castle in the country. It is absolutely massive! I had so much fun here. I had no idea it was as big as it actually was. Great Castle.

It has all the typical castle defense features like stone-dropping holes, gun placements, tall stone foundations and whitewashed walls. One of the most impressive elements of Himeji is its complex series of paths leading up to the main keep. The general idea was to force your enemy into travelling in a spiral direction around the perimeter of the castle, delaying them in dead ends while firing at them from the keep. Himeji itself though was never plagued by war so it remains perfectly intact.

Since there were no great wars or fire to destroy the castle, its history is relatively uneventful. Built in 1346 by Akamatsu Sadanori, the Akamatsu family held it a very long time after the Ōnin War. The castle was badly damaged in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and restored to its current state shortly after by Ikeda Terumasa. The epic restoration took nine years and left only the east gate of one section of the second bailey from the original.

The castle also acted as one of the last holdouts of the Tozama daimyo during the Edo period. Years later once the Han system was abolished (around 1871), the castle was sold via auction for 23 yen. It was also bombed during World War II twice in 1945 but somehow survived unscathed. Best Castle!

I also ran into a Giant Asian Hornet while I was there. At the time I just thought it was a really big bee (approximately the size of my palm) but then when I read about it at home it turned out to be much, much more. The Asian Giant Hornet, Giant Sparrow Bee, or Yak Killer Bee is what I understand to be the worlds largest hornet. It was named the sparrow bee because they can grow as big as them! It’s prey include praying mantises and entire colonies of bees! Apparently two or three of these guys can kill an entire 30,000 hive in a few hours. They have venom that will dissolve your skin if you get stung and roughly 40 people are killed each year from them. Awesome! I am very lucky as I had no idea at the time.

Here are the pictures.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157619100987216/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | June 4, 2009

Week 47:Osaka

Hey guys,
Work is really busy right now so I only have time to give you a quick talk on Osaka. A few weekends ago I went with Randy to see Osaka Castle.

It is one of the most famous castles in all of Japan and is absolutely beautiful to boot. It played a major role in the unification of Japan during the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The castle occupies approximately one kilometer and is surrounded by two platforms of landfill sustained by giant walls of cut rock, each with their own moat.

It was built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the site of the Honganji Temple which had been destroyed by Oda Nobunaga thirteen years earlier. His intention was for the castle to become the center of a new, unified Japan under Toyotomi rule. I should also mention that it was the biggest castle in the country at this point in time. In 1615 (only a few years after Hideyoshi’s death) the castle was attacked and destroyed by Tokugawa troops. It was rebuilt again in the 1620’s but its main tower was struck by lightning in 1665 and it burnt down. Is anyone else seeing a pattern of castles being burnt down? Anyways the current one was built sometime in the early 1930s and is still going strong.

We also went to the Umeda Sky building. The architecture was cool but I like old historical buildings better.

Umeda Sky Building

In a few days I will write on Himeji, the greatest Japanese castle in existence. I am also going to a giant kite battle on Sunday. Niigata is famous for its kites so it should be awesome. Here are the pictures.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157619090834858/show/with/3584457571/

Posted by: pdot78 | May 25, 2009

Week 46: Matsumoto

Hello everyone,

The last thing I did with my family was visit Matsumoto Castle in Nagano. It was really busy in the afternoon when we were there so I went back at night and again super early in the morning. If you don’t want to read the details on it here is the short. It is roughly 500 years old and really well preserved. It was also called “Crows Castle” because it was black, unlike most of the others. If you remember the castle I visited in July it was also black, and called Crows Castle. If you don’t, here is a reminder.

Okayama Castle


Anyways, after thinking this would be the last Japanese castle I ever saw I ended up back in Aizu last weekend looking at Tsurugajo Castle once more.

Tsurugajo Castle

This of course sparked a castle kick and this past weekend I travelled to Osaka with Randy to check out two more castles there. They were both awesome and I will tell you about the trip next week.

Matsumoto Castle.


Welcome to Matsumoto castle! It was built between 1504 and 1508 by Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan. This was during the Sengoku or “warring states’ period and not surprisingly, the castle was taken in 1550 by the Takeda clan and and again sometime later by Tokugawa leyasu. This is more or less the state of the castle that remained until today. Here is some information I managed to find on it.
Matsumoto Castle, originally called Fukashi Castle, is unusual among Japanese fortresses in that it is built on flat land beside a swamp, rather than being on a mountain or between rivers. The lack of natural defenses meant that this castle had to be extremely well-constructed in order to protect the people living inside. (If you wait until the next two castle posts you will see more of this.)


Because of this weakness, the castle was surrounded by a triple moat and extraordinarily high, strong stone walls. The fortress included three different rings of fortifications; an outer earthen wall almost 2 miles around that was designed to deaden cannon fire, an inner ring of residences for the samurai, and then the main castle itself.


Interestingly enough, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 almost destroyed Matsumoto Castle. Why? Well I will tell you. The new imperial government was desperately short of cash, so it decided to tear down the former daimyos’ castles and sell off the lumber and fittings. Fortunately, a local preservationist called Ichikawa Ryozo saved the castle from the wreckers, and the local community purchased Matsumoto in 1878.

Sadly, the region did not have enough money to properly maintain the building. The main donjon began to tilt dangerously in the early twentieth century, so a local school master, Kobayashi Unari, raised funds to restore it. This would have been very awesome to see. It also looks really awesome at night.

I would say that the last interesting thing I found out about this castle was that it didn’t get burnt down, blown up or struck by lightning like all the rest. This is in spite of the fact that the castle was used as an aircraft factory by the Mitsubishi Corporation during World War II. Matsumoto was declared a national treasure in 1952.

Alright, here are the pictures. Enjoy!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157618032635462/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | May 19, 2009

Week 45: Magome

Hello everyone,

I went to Iwaki this weekend to visit with friends, it was great. We went to a water park, made tacos and sang karaoke. Randy and I even stopped at the Aizu castle again on our way back home. Since I still have more to talk about from my vacation with the parents, I shall continue describing my epic golden week.

This post will be about our stop in Magome-juku. This is a well restored Edo post town in the Southern Japanese Alps. Magome was forty-third of sixty-nine stations of the Nakasendō, an ancient road that connected Kyoto and Edo during the Edo period. Prior to the Nakasendō, this trail was the last of eleven stations along the Kisoji which ran through Kiso Valley. Magome was a fairly successful post town until the completion of the Chūō Main Line railway, which did not pass through it. Now it is famous for its rows of reconstructed homes from around the 1700s, most of which were built as shops and inns for travelers along the Nakasendō. Here are some of them.

My parents and I actually walked the only remaining strip of the Nakasendō which took about 3 hours and brought us to neighboring town Tsumago-juku. This was also a well restored post town and had many of the same styled shops and buildings. The hike was quite peaceful and had many natural things to appreciate.

Magome also had an amazing view of Mount Ena, rising at about 2190 m.

Another fun thing from Magome was our Minshuku. A minshuku is a family run inn that is authentically japanese. We slept on tatami mats on the floors and ate elegantly prepared Japanese food for breakfast and dinner. Each minshuku we stayed at also had a small onsen for bathing which was fun. An onsen is like a communal bath. They usually consist of one or many large hot tubs for sitting/soaking and many small bathing areas. The owner of the Minshuku we had been staying at in Magome invited everyone to come out dancing on our last night. He taught us a traditional local dance in the main area and then had us try it again on wooden slippers outside. The slippers only covered the first half of my foot and were steeply angled so keeping my balance was half the fun. Here was our Minshuku in Magome from the outside.

If you ask my parents about the trip they will probably omit this next story but that’s the fun of still being in Japan! On our way here we travelled to the train station just over an hour early to make sure we caught our train to Gifu. We however, missed our train because we were talking to this man from the states that had come to visit his son. We then had to wait another hour and pay an additional 2000 yen. At this point in our trip I was the only one who saw the humor in it, shrugged it off and continued to talk to the man while my father brooded for a good half an hour before rejoining the conversation. We all had a good laugh about it once we were settled in Magome. That is mostly it for this town, next week is Matsumoto, one of the oldest castles in Japan.

Here are the rest of the pictures.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157617901673157/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | May 13, 2009

Week 44: Takayama

Hey Canada,

This week I am going to talk about Shirakawa-go and Takayama.

After Kanazawa, my parents and I travelled to Hida Takayama. We made a quick stop in Shirakawa-go on the way there. We were originally under the impression that we would have no time to look around the village but we were lucky. Thinking that we would never really get to see the village, I had planned on jumping off the bus and taking as many pictures as I could before the bus driver decided it was time to leave. This quickly changed when I was informed that we had 40 minutes before the connecting bus would be departing.

My new plan was to reach an observation deck halfway up a small mountain on the other end of the village. Now my mother being the sensible one informed me that it was a completely ridiculous idea and I would never make it. I disagreed and took as many pictures as I could while running through the village. I made it to the top in about 15 minutes and took this picture. I should also let it be known that my legs were quite sore for the next couple of days but it was worth it.

Shirakawa-go


Shirakawa-go, “White River Old-District” is another one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It lies in the Shogawa river valley connecting the Gifu and Toyama prefectures. These villages are famous for their uniquely constructed homes. The architectural style known as Gassho-zukuri, “prayer hands construction” consists of very steeply pitched thatched roofs that resemble two hands praying. These houses are the only examples of their kind left in Japan. They are also extremely strong and withstand a heavy snowfall each winter. The residents survived on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the production of silkworms. The UNESCO website boasts the three remaining villages of Shirawakawa-go to be outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances. I would have to agree.

Takayama was a nice town. The main thing we visited was the Hida Folk village. It is essentially an open air museum aimed at preserving the lifestyle of the Japanese who lived in the gassho-zukuris. All of the thatched huts were relocated here from the Shogawa valley to preserve them.

Hida Folk Village


The rest of the town consisted of three castle ruins, old private homes, a market and temples. We did a walk through the Higashiyama temple area, took a tour of the Takayama Jinya, an old government building.

Old Private Homes

Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine

Takayama Jinya

Our Minshuku (Japanese bed and breakfast, I will talk about it next week) was directly across the street from the Hida-Kokubunji Temple. This temple had a large 3 story pagoda and is the oldest structure in Takayama. It also had a 1200 year old ginkgo tree.

Hida-Kokubunji


On our third day in Takayama we took the 3200m Shin-Hotaka ropeway which produced a great view of the Japanese Alps.

Shin Hotaka

Here are the rest of the pictures. Next week is Magome.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157617987344236/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | May 6, 2009

Week 43: Kanazawa

Hello Everyone,
This is the last night of a spring holiday in Japan called Golden Week. In light of having a week off to celebrate it, my parents came to visit me from Canada. We travelled all around central Japan and they got to fully experiance the country. I think they had a great time and did really well with the cultural differences I have already had almost a year to adapt to. My broken Japanese also seemed to have worked quite well whenever the need presented itself. We did a lot of things so much like my winter adventure with Amie I will need to break this up into three posts. This will be all about Kanazawa.

After a few days in Niigata visiting with some of my coworkers, seeing the area, and going to some nice restaurants we took a local train over to our hotel in Kanazawa. I think we were all pretty happy to be leaving Niigata at this point because the weather was absolutely miserable the entire time they were here. Our hotel in Kanazawa was very nice and directly beside the train station so it was very convenient.

Our adventures here brought us to four main attractions: Kenrokuen garden, Kanazawa castle, the Shima geisha house and the Myoruiji (ninja) temple.

Kenrokuen Garden is one of Japans three great gardens, one of which I already visited in Okayama(Korakuen). Kenrokuen literally means “the garden of six sublimities” or, “a garden combining the 6 aspects of a perfect garden”. This is a borrowed tradition from the Chinese, believing that the ideal garden requires spaciousness, seclusion, water-courses, panoramas, artifice and antiquity. The reason this is one of the big three is that it combines these in a way that most gardens failed to achieve. It used to be the bordering garden to Kanazawa Castle, which has been burnt down and rebuilt a number of times since then. Nevertheless it has been a strong cultural point for the area since its creation in the 1600s.

The original garden was founded by Tsunonori Maeda, the 5th Maeda lord at the time and was originally called Renchi tei. This was completely burnt down in 1759 but restored shortly after and has since been called Kenrokuen.

The castle has much the same history as the garden, only with more fire. The Maeda clan originally built it in 1583 when they moved to Kanazawa but it was burnt down in 1592, 1620, 1603 and 1759. It survived some minor fires throughout the end of the 1700s but was shattered by an earthquake in the early 1800s before finally being completely destroyed by fire again in 1881. The main castle is currently being reconstructed but the Ishikawa-mon Gate (rebuilt in 1788) somehow survived. I think it will remain a Castle Park until the construction on the main tower is finished.


The next day we took a stroll through the Nagamachi district. This area surrounds the base of Kanazawa Castle and was where the samurai and their families lived. The historical atmosphere remains untouched with many samurai residences, earthen walls, water canals, narrow streets and secret gates. One of the most interesting buildings we saw here was the Myoryuji temple. Although not technically a ninja temple, it received this name because it has something in the area of 27 staircases, most of which are hidden in a labyrinth type manner. It was a really fascinating tour. The house itself was even designed to appear to only have 2 floors when in reality it had 4, with 7 layers. Crazy.

We also checked out the Shima Geisha house, which was located in the Higashi Chaya district. This was much along the same lines of cultural preservation as the samurai district. This area has many well preserved chayas. A chaya is a very exclusive style of restaurant in which guests are entertained by geisha, who usually perform song and dance. Chayas were almost always found in entertainment districts during the Edo period, which were conveniently just outside the city limits.

I took far too many pictures on this trip. Here are the ones from Kanazawa. There are quite a few so I would sit down if I were you. Next week I will tell you about Takayama.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157617770371900/show/

Posted by: pdot78 | April 20, 2009

Week 41: Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)

Hello Everyone,

This weekend was spent moving so it was largely uneventful. I had been bringing things to my new apartment with my bike all week so when moving day came there was nothing left to bring but the big things. It made the move much easier. My new apartment is really nice. It is a traditional Japanese styled place with tatami mats and rice paper sliding windows. My favourite part is the fact that it’s directly on top of my school and easily twice the size of my old place. Anyways onto the blossoms…

So as I mentioned last weekend I went out and photographed the cherry blossoms in Niigata. The two main locations I went to were Hakusan Park and Toyano Lagoon as they are the best.  Flower viewing was actually a Chinese custom the Japanese adopted during the Heian Era(794-1191). Aristocrats, imperial households, poets and songwriters were said to gather underneath the trees to celebrate the blossoms. These trees are planted all over the country and bloom as early as January (in the southern parts such as Okinawa) and as late as April or May (for the northernmost island, Hokkaido). Many families travel around the country to view the blossoms and have Hanami parties. Hanami parties are a chance for people to get together with friends and family to drink, picnic, and relax while viewing the trees. Here is a Hanami party at Hakusan park.

Culturally, the Sakura are said to symbolize the ephemeral nature of life because they only stay in bloom for about a week each year. The extreme beauty and quick death are linked to mortality through the Buddhist ideal of ‘mono no aware‘ and transcend into Japanese art, anime, music, and film. In addition to this, the Sakura symbolizes love, affection, good fortune, and spring.  They are also said to resemble clouds because they bloom in such large quantities.

Interestingly enough the Sakura was also used to symbolize nationalism and dominance. During World War II, the Sakura trees were used to motivate and manipulate the Japanese people stroking nationalism in a support for the military. Suicide bombers(Kamikaze) would paint Sakuras on the sides of their planes or even bring branches with them to symbolozine the intensity of life. Falling cherry blossoms were also meant to symbolize the sacrifice of youth to suicide missions in honour of the emperor. The government also attempted to encourage the population by claiming that the souls of these fallen soldiers were reincarnated in the blossoms.

The other usage of the cherry tree is to symbolize Japanese dominance over a specific territory. This is now different from Korea, who  cut down their cherry trees surrounding Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace during their 50th anniversary of independence from Japanese colonial rule.

Here are the pictures. Hope everyone is doing well!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/29590018@N06/sets/72157616738730839/show/

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