Monday, December 28, 2009

Okayama - Tsuyama - Himeji Pt. 2

A Okaden car advertising the 100 year anniversary coming up in 2010.

On my whirlwind trip through Okayama - Tsuyama - Himeji I took a break from the JR lines for lunch and to ride the tram in Okayama. This great two line streetcar cuts through downtown Okayama. To be truthful, I'm not too sure where it goes or what you can see along it's route. I just went there to ride it. Offically the name is Okayama Electric Tramway [岡山電気軌道] but it's shortened to Okaden [岡電] in casual speech.

Higashiyama Station 東山駅

The Okaden is the primary shareholder in the Wakayama Electric Railway which they saved from closure is known for their funky cars and Station Manager Tama--a cat. You can see how both rail lines mix a sense of retro and historical preservation with a new progressive look towards running their railways. Okaden has a diverse rolling stock bookended by their "Momo" train which is new and streamlined, and their restored "Kuro" train which was built in 1969. The Kuro train is the oldest train in daily service in Japan. It runs five times a day and you can find the timetable here. I rode on there common rolling stock like the two trains shown above.

Tracks leading into the service area at Higashiyama Station 東山駅

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Okayama - Tsuyama - Himeji Pt. 1


Way back in August I took a round trip to Okayama, going up to Tsuyama, and coming back down to Himeji and back home. It was an entire day full of trains. I've posted some of pictures from the trip already here and here, but we'll get into the real meat of the trip now. First of some scenes from the fringe of the urban center of Okayama at the end of their great streetcar line, to be talked about later. I loved this shoe shop in the photo above. It looked lost in time. Below are some smokestacks from a small factory also near the shop. The sidewalk out here had crumbling concrete and broken tiles. Old shopping streets that looked unchanged since the day they were first built. A great old neighborhood that I wish I spent more time walking around in.


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yamashita Station on the Nose Railway

Yamashita station's great green and beige paneling in Nose at the northern edge of Osaka Pref.

Suminoe Station - 住之江駅


Ticket machines at Suminoe Station in southern Osaka.

This station is next to a kyotei pool and is big enough to handle the crowds, but the night I went by to check out the local supersento there were no races--no people. The station looked as if it was in some sort of dystopian future.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Pokemon Shinkansen in Kyushu


The shinkansen, or Bullet Train, is a major part of Japan's transportation infrastructure to say the least. While the Shinkansen has been developed throughout Honshu, the central of Japan's 4 major islands, it has only just reached into Kyushu. Beginning development way back in 1991, the Kyushu Shinkansen starts at Kokura station in the north and will then travel south to Kagoshima and Nagasaki. While it has yet to connect all the way to Kokura, the route from Kagoshima to Shin-Yatsushiro, south of Kumamoto, is open.


The route between Kagoshima and Kokura is called the Relay Tsubame and involves changing to a normal express train for the middle portion. Tsubame, by the way, is sparrow in Japanese and is the name for the Kyushu Shinkansen trains. The tunnel filled route between Kagoshima and Shin-Yatsushiro takes 35 minutes at the least. Compare that to the 90 minutes it use to take using a normal express train.


I only took the Shinkansen part of the route and continued from Shin-Yatsushiro to Kokura on local trains to save money, but I was quite lucky. I was on a special Pokemon branded train. The kids who boarded with me were more than excited to ride this special train. I was also pretty excited, as were some of the adults.


The interior was free of any Pokemon stuff, but very well designed. The window shades were made of real wood slats and the seats were comfortable and very big. The branding also coincided with a stamp rally where the all of the major train stations in Kyushu had Pokemon stamps in the station. After collecting some stamps you could send in a form and receive special cards or a pen case. Information on the stamp rally, and when the Pokemon train is running is available on this site [in Japanese]. Sadly the rally ended in August.


It won't be till 2011 till the line opens all the way till Kokura, but until then if you find yourself down in Kagoshima try riding the Tsubame. It's great!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jigenji Park 慈眼寺公園

I'm still posting things from my trip to Kyushu in August. This might be the last! Finally!

08.10 Jigenji Park - Kagoshima 2

On my last day in Kagoshima I decided to try to find an archeological museum that was written up in the tourist pamphlets. I've studied a bit of Japanese archeology and I thought it would be worth checking out. The museum was a 20 minute walk from Jigenji Station, south of downtown Kagoshima. A bit long, but not too bad I thought. Leaving the station I asked the attendant the direction to the museum. He gave me the directions, but also added something I didn't quite understand. I thanked him and got on my way.

10 minutes later I was swimming in sweat and slowly making my way up a steep slope. I saw the tallest and steepest stairway I ever had rounding a bend in the road. I hoped that my route didn't include climbing it. Deciding that cars also had to get to this museum, I continued up the road and soon came to the parking lot for the museum.

It was empty. Oh shit. No. Is that what the station attendant said to me? Was the museum closed on Mondays?


I was covered with sweat. Tired from the hike up the hill and wanting to get something out of all that work, I hoped for the best and walked across the grass field that led up to the museum.

No lights on the inside. Doors locked. ARRRGH!

Built in a tight natural amphitheater the area around the museum was quite beautiful. Stairways, much like the one I saw before, ascended up into the deep green forest that loomed above the museum. One of them paralleled a semi-natural waterfall/fountain. It was beautiful enough to make me ignore my sweat soaked shirt and aching legs to climb it. I guessed that there much be the namesake Jigenji temple somewhere up there, and at least I'd go see that. I had come this far.

At the top I saw a father and his two children playing and walking around. There was also the sound of a trumpet somewhere. I followed a trail that ended up on a road. Taking the road higher up the hill I came across a public toilet and a shrine. A shrine! There are two major religions in Japan which co-exist together, but have separate places of worship: Buddhist temples (寺) and Shinto shrines (神社). I came looking for a temple but I found a shrine. I tried to read the name and the historical marker out front but was stymied by too many kanji I didn't know.

I took a walk around the shrine grounds which were free of other people or priests. I prayed and signed the guest book. I didn't find any other signatures from Hyogo prefecture and only a few from outside of Kyushu. Pretty cool.

Leaving the shrine grounds I began to look for the temple again. Doubling back the way I came I saw the father and his children. We began to chat and I asked him if he knew where the temple was. He also wasn't sure, but he said he'd ask the trumpet player for me.

I had heard, but not seen who was playing the trumpet in the park earlier. He turned out to be a local who came here often. There had not been a temple here for hundreds of years. The temple was torn down sometime for some reason, and the shrine I had just visited was built on top of it. Even though this happened well before trains or train stations or anything else around here, the old name stuck. So if you're going to Jigenji station to see a temple there isn't one. (The last ji in Ji-gen-ji 慈眼寺 means temple.) I thanked both of them, said goodbye to the children, and walked back to the temple.

Two failures in about one hour. Great. First the museum and now the lack of a temple. Typically I wouldn't be that bummed out, but the shrine wasn't that cool. I figured I came all the way up here, I needed to see something great.

08.10 Jigenji Park - Kagoshima 5

Back at the temple entrance I found that I was at the top of that super long staircase I saw on my way up to the museum. I figured going down wouldn't be that bad. The view was great but it was a bit steep. Signs posted along the way warned me of falling and that the handrail was there for a reason. Making my way down I could see how one slip on these stairs could lead to a long fall and a few broken bones at least.

08.10 Jigenji Park - Kagoshima 4

At the bottom of the staircase I had two choices, return the way I came, or venture into the forest on a trail that lead down the mountain. I chose the latter wishing to get out of the sun. The forest turned out to be Jigenji Park. This Kagoshima city park is a sylvan playground. The kind of place Totoro would live. Everything was covered in moss or lichen or some sort. The air was wet with fresh oxygen and everything had that great green smell. The air was wet, but not sticky and humid. It was refreshing.

08.10 Jigenji Park - Kagoshima 6

At the bottom of the stone and dirt path there was a river and a nagashi somen restaurant. Nagashi somen is a unique way to eat these white soba-like noodles as they rush through running water. You take your chopsticks try to catch the noodles as they go by. Getting some you then douse them in a bowl of broth and eat away. (This site has a great write up about how to do your own nagashi somen at home, although you should wait till next summer!) I wasn't hungry, but I did get a great bottle--yes real glass bottle--of Coke from a vending machine. It was so great.

08.10 Jigenji Park - Kagoshima 3

The park I found turned out to be the something great I wanted to see in order to make this side-trip worthwhile. It was immensely beautiful. The park also had great signage with well written English descriptions of the various places. There were many Jizo statues scattered about, one from and symbolizing each of the 88 temples on the famous 88 temple pilgrimage route in Shikoku. Praying at each of these statues is equivalent to actually going to each of the temples. I saw one older lady doing this.

08.10 Jigenji Park - Kagoshima 1

The park was also filled with little bridges, shrines, and other hidden wonders. I wish I had more time to investigate, but my aching legs, sweaty shirt and pants said it was time to go. Getting back to the station and then downtown Kagoshima, I bought a new T-shirt and boarded the Kyushu shinkansen to begin my trip home.

This site (Japanese only) has a bunch of photos and information about the park.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ojiyama Park, Sasayama

Last Sunday I drove my Mother-in-law up to Sasayama so she could meet and have lunch with some of her friends. Sasayama is the first big town outside of the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto metropolitan area on the JR Fukuchiyama line. As my Mother-in-law had lunch at Sasayama-so, a combination hotel, onsen and restaurant, I took a quick bath (of course) and then took some photos. Here are some photos of the Ojiyama park which Sasayama-so is located in.

11.08 Ojiyama Park - Sasayama1
A picnic table.

11.08 Ojiyama Park - Sasayama2
The trees are starting to change.

11.08 Ojiyama Park - Sasayama3
Be careful with fire says the chipmunk.

11.08 Ojiyama Park - Sasayama4
Torii leading up to a jinja.

11.08 Ojiyama Park - Sasayama5
Another view of the torii.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Ibuski, Kagoshima

Some photos of Ibusuki, Kagoshima the home of the sand bath.

08.09 Ibusuki-1
The seashore in Ibusuki.

08.09 Ibusuki-2
Happy Furniture Zone!

08.09 Ibusuki-3
Lanterns around the free foot bath in front of Ibuski station.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

New Banner!

Just want to say a public thank you to my sister Molly who drew me this new banner for the blog. She is the best sister ever.

Thanks Molly!

The Rusty Buildings of Makurazaki

08.09 Makurazaki-city-3

Makurazaki is a city of 24,000 on the southern edge of Kyushu. It's the terminus of the Ibuski-Makurazaki line of JR Kyushu, the most southern JR line in Japan. The station, pictured earlier, is tucked behind drug store and some cafes with only the smallest of signs giving direction. Only 6 trains leave from this station daily. I came to this city only because it's the end of the line. My goal was to ride that line from end to end. Besides that, I had no clue what else this city had to offer when I set off on a 2 hour walk around the downtown and harbor area.

08.09 Makurazaki-city-1

Although I'm posting photos of rusty buildings, that doesn't mean I didn't like this town. In fact, I found this sleepy little fishing village to be a very clean and pleasant place with many new roads and nice houses. My eye is just attracted to old buildings and rust. I wouldn't mind living here even though it's super humid and sweaty in the summer and the many typhoons that hit the city. The city's major industry is the fishing and fish processing of katsuo, called bonito or skipjack tuna in English. Katsuo is used mostly in making dashi, soup stock, and katsuobushi, dried fish flakes that are used as a condiment. I stopped by a city run shop that sold locally produced goods and bought some great tea there and found the locals to be very sweet.

08.09 Makurazaki-city-2

Monday, October 26, 2009

HAMBURGERS! - Japan Blog Matsuri Oct '09

This month the Japan Blog Matsuri takes on the pressing (HA! get it!) topic of HAMBURGERS!

It might not seem a truly Japanese topic, but the Japanese do create a great hamburger. In a way it's the oppisite of sushi. In Japan most American style sushi with cheese and avocado seems gross or strange, but, as many of us know, it's great! Well same thing for hamburgers. While they came from America the Japanese have put their own unique twist on the hamburger.

I hope you enjoy these stories documenting the hamburger is part of the Japanese landscape, and one that plays an important role in many a gaijin's life. So with out any more blathering here are the posts!
  • [freshnessveggieburger.jpg] Andera at Japan Please tells us about her unfulfilled quest for vegetarian friendly avocado goodness at Freshness Burger.
    *David says: I've had the same problems trying to order this thing.*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Lee at loneleeplanet gets yummy, political, or both showing of a fried whale burger served up in Hokkaido.
    *David says: If it's anything like the fried whale meat we get in our school lunch--I'm getting one of these.*
    (photo from Wikimedia)

  • Dave at In Praise of Izakaya reviews GIGGLE a beer and burger place up in Kanto.
    *David says: Looking at that monster burger I'd say "BURP" would be a better name for this place!*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Harvey at Japan Newbie shows us a Chinese "burger" served up fresh in Kobe's Chinatown
    *David says: Had this one many times. Quite yummy!*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Joe at <3yen just discovered the glory of the Japanese burger and wrote up a special "To-Eat List."
    *David says: Trust me Joe. I'm here for the sushi, nabe, udon... and all that too!*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Elizabeth at Chibaraki Life reviews a cafe in Kashiwa, Chiba that looks like B-52's would eat there.
    *David says: Ohhh... waffle fries!*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Darg at The Durgacile finds a great burger at The Great Burger!
    *David says: Ha! "meaty solace" indeed!*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • James at James' Blog praises Freshness Burger not only for it's great burgers, but also nice flooring and furniture.
    *David says: Look me up when you come down to Kansai!*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • GoddessCarlie of her blog eponymous blog doesn't come up with a burger so much, but does notice some western food failure at KIX.
    *David says: Thankfully the airport itself isn't pungent.*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Dr. Senbei of Tokyo Scum Brigade combines some Halloween fright + burgers + 2chan and tells a tale of... well let's just leave it at that.
    *David says: The only burger on this list I wouldn't/couldn't eat. I'm married.*
    (photo by the post's author)

  • Lastly, I posted on my blog sleepytako a bit about adopted home city of Nishinomiya and it's great hamburgers.
    *David says: Hmmm, hamburgers...*
    (photo by the post's author)
Thanks to all of you for submitting stories and thanks to Nick and JapanSoc for running the Matsuri. I hope you all keep your ears open for the next Maturi announcement which will take place over at Instant Ramen.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stations along the Ibusuki-Makurazaki Line

Some pictures of train stations I passed through riding the Ibuski-Makurazaki Line in southern Kagoshima Pref..

08.09 指宿枕崎線の駅-1
Some benches along an unknown station.

08.09 指宿枕崎線の駅-2
The monument to the most southern JR train station in Japan. Nishioyama station.

A comment came in about this picture asking if there are trains in Okinawa. The most southern station in Japan is Akamine station on the Okinawa Monorail in Naha opened in 2003.

Nishioyama is the most southern of the JR stations. Further up the line is Yamakawa station which is the most southern manned station. Nishioyama is an unmanned station and all fares are collected by the engineer.

According to the Wikipeda on Nishioyama station (accessed 10/26/2009 09:00 JST):


Currently the pillar reads "The most southern station of JR," but the pillar was rewitten from "Most southern station on the mainland." The Okinawans said, "We're not the mainland?" and it was changed in 2004.

08.09 指宿枕崎線の駅-3
The end of the line: Makurazaki station.

08.09 指宿枕崎線の駅-4
Makurazaki station is hidden behind a row of cafes and a drug store. This alley is the only entrance.

08.09 指宿枕崎線の駅-5
Some of the stations are built right up against the hillside. Eiokawa station.

08.09 指宿枕崎線の駅-6
Underneath the staircase at Ibuski station.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nishinomiya, a city of hamburgers

The following is my post for the Octobter, 2009 Japan Blog Matsuri.

I've been lucky to have been placed here in Nishinoimya when I first came to Japan. I didn't choose it, my exchange program paired me with a nice lady that lived in the hills that overlook the city. Nishinomiya has given me my wonderful wife, many friends, a job, introduced me to sento, and has many great hamburger shops. My two favorite hamburgers are both here in this wonderful city.

Awajishima burger / 淡路島バーガー
〒662−0019 兵庫県西宮市池田町4−1
Hours 11:00-20:00
Closed Wednesday

10.10 AwajishimaBurger-2

You wouldn't know Awajishima burger existed unless someone told you about it. This little shack is about the size of a normal city bus is located in an area of warehouses that sell fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and other food products to the restaurants of Nishinomiya. There are 5 seats on the inside, a CD player, a couple of coolers, a small counter, a grill and a fryer. The menu is just as bare. Hamburgers: large or regular. Toppings: cheese, onion ring, bacon, egg. Side orders: Onion rings or french fries. It's basic. It's raw.

10.10 AwajishimaBurger-3

The ingredients that make up Awajishima burger are, when possible, sourced from the island of the same name that sits between Hyogo and Shikoku. Awajishima (Awaji Island) is famous for its sweet onions and is a close to home tourist spot for many in the Hanshin area. The meat is thick and peppered. It is a little crumbly. The bun has a thin golden brown crust on the outside and is sponge soft under that, the flavor is a bit sweet like Hawaiian bread. The cheese is real and has a strong cheddar flavor, something rare in Japan.

10.10 AwajishimaBurger-4

You have to be careful when you eat this thing. First you don't unwrap it. That foil is protection for your shirt. Guard it well. The offical instructions on how to eat the burger, included with every order, states that you have to first squish the burger then carefully peel away the tin foil as you eat it. Typically you'll end up with a pool of sauce at the bottom of the foil. ProTip: Ask for less sauce - they normally put too much sauce on those burgers.

10.10 AwajishimaBurger-1

I typically end up spending 1,000 yen here getting a large burger with bacon and cheese toppings and a side.

Esquerre / イスケール
〒651−1421 兵庫県西宮市山口町上山口4−1−18
Hours 11:00-19:00
Closed Monday and Every 3rd Tuesday

10.11 Esquerre-4

A more refined taste when compared with raw flavor of the Awajishima Burger, Esquerre has a more hipster/retro feel to their restaurant. While Awajishima is a Hawaiian shack playing Jack Johnson, Esquerre has 1960's era advertisements on the wall and they play Feist. At Esquerre you'll get table service, a much less messy burger and a more diverse menu, but you'll be paying more. Oh yea, they have root beer!

10.11 Esquerre-1

I love the bun on the Dynamite Burger, as they call it. It's hard and crusty. Toasted just perfectly. The sesame seeds tie it all together. The meat is also firm. It's been formed perfectly and doesn't crumble. This burger comes with a napkin to put it in, and recommended, you an eat it without and not get too messy. The burger always comes with 3 potato wedges although you can order more. While the Dynamite Burger is the main dish at Esquerre, they also have a few sandwiches, rice dishes and their great chili fries. Be sure to check out the great take-away bakery underneath the restaurant.

10.11 Esquerre-2

I typically end up spending about ¥2,000 for my meal here. A large bacon cheese burger is ¥1,350 add on the avocado (+¥150), a can of root beer, and the chili fries things can get a bit expensive. You get what you pay for however and it's well worth it.

10.11 Esquerre-3

Another thing to know is getting to Esquerre without a car can be an ordeal. I guess you could take a bus from Nishinoimya Najio, or Sanda Station. Or the new Sakurayamanami Bus that goes up the hill from the major train stations in downtown Nishinomiya.

~Runners up~

Flowers in Kurakuenguchi has a great Gorgonzola burger. A must for any stinky cheese fan.
〒662-0075 兵庫県西宮市南越木岩町6-12 リーストラクチャービル3F
Hours 11:30-22:00
Closed Monday

The Wexford Tavern, also in Kurakuenguchi, serves up a mighty hamburger. Both my wife and I work here so you can chat with a fellow blogger, drink some Guinness or the locally brewed Rokko I.P.A. and have a great hamburger all at the same time. The Wex also has a blue cheese burger along with a menu of great pub food.
〒662-0075 西宮市南越木岩町8-13 苦楽園口第一ビル2階
Hours 18:00-25:00

~Nishinomiya Hamburger Map~

View HAMBURGER! in a larger map