Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seishun 18 Kippu Pt. 1: Adventure! 青春18切符

I renamed this post "Seishun 18 Kippu Pt. 1: Adventure! 青春18切符" to match the real topic. The second post in this series is here.

08.07 ShibushiEkiMae2
1. Shibushi Station
Two observations:
1- Adventure is fun.
2- Japan is a great place for adventures.

For me adventure involves traveling. Be it exploring the hills around my childhood home, driving through northern Nevada at 4AM in a snow storm, or, as my current geographical location provides, an extremely long train journey. Keeping a somewhat childish sense of adventure keeps me sane. It's that adventure that I use to keep me going through the sometimes trying job of being an adult.

Japan is a great place for adventures for a few reasons. First off its foreign. No matter how long I live here and how at home I feel, there's always something or someplace to explore even in my own neighborhood. Of course, I can do this in the USA, but being in a foreign land adds a bit more excitement. An added layer of challenge and complication thanks to culture and language. I'm saying this even though I feel that my understanding of both the Japanese culture and language is advanced to a degree. You cannot just by living here claim "Japan Expert" status. It has to be gained by the through study and the recommendations of your peers.

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2. Nihonheso Koen
The compactness of Japan also lends it's self adventure. One can cover a great amount of territory in a small period of time. It is quite easy to get a glimpse of a neighborhood or city and decide what areas are worth exploring and which ones aren't. There are lots of things to find too. Odd shopping streets, seemingly unused, yet modestly maintained, temples and shrines dot the landscape hidden in miniature forest, old neighborhoods surrounded by new highrise apartment buildings, the neon glow of the quasi-legal gambling parlors and the quasi-legal brothels, the noisy bar and restaurant streets, small pedestrian only paths swaying between houses and rice fields.

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3. Nima Sand Museum
The greatest benefactor to the adventurer is Japan's immense public transportation systems. From pedestrian walkways to trains and buses It's easy to get from one place to another.  One of my favorite things to do is choose two stations route a walk between them through unknown territory. Another is searching for local sentos which I have developed an entire website around. The greatest assistance can be found in special discount tickets such as the Kansai Thru Pass and the Seishun 18 Kippu.

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4. Amarube
The Kansai Thru Pass is good for a majority the private, non-JR, railways in the Kansai area including some buses. It's sold year round to tourists on temporary visitor visas and a few times a year to the general public. The Seishun 18 Kippu is much more advantageous however. It gives you free passage on any normal JR train that doesn't need a second express or seat fare for any 5 days during a predetermined month and a half period in the winter, spring and summer.

The other great benefit of this ticket is that you can get on and off anytime you want with no worry about cost. See a station you like, get off. Just be sure you know when the next train is coming cause it might not be for a few hours. But that's part of the fun isn't it.

Miki Dentesu Trip
5. Miki Railway
The basic details for the ticket can be found on many sites in English and Japanese. Japan Guide has one of the best. Wikipedia is good also. If you can read Japanese or get by with Rikaichan this site is also very informative.

What I want to do while is give you some of my hints about using the ticket while walking through my overnight circle trip to ride the Oito line from the Japan Sea coast in Niigata to Matsumoto, Nagano. And I'll begin that in Part 2.

Photo notes
1. A globe monument found in front of Shibushi station in Kagoshima pref.
2. A trip to Nihonheso Koen, or Japan's Bellybutton Park in Nishiwaki, Hyogo to find the geographic center of Japan on my GPS.
3. The world's largest sandglass is in a museum a short walk through a very rural neighborhood. Found in Nima, Shimane.
4. I stumbled on the beautiful Amarube bridge almost by mistake on a Seishun 18 Kippu trip to Tottori. Less than a year after taking this photo the bridge was demolished.
6. Sinclair Station - Kanab, Utah
5. Like the Amarube bridge, the Miki Railway is no longer with us. Traveling by train has a sense of shared experience for young and old that is part of the adventure.
6. Before coming to Japan my adventuring companion, and means was my 4x4 Dodge Dakota pickup outfitted with a futon in the rear, camping supplies, water and extra gasoline.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

01.04 Toyama City Street

01.04toyamacitystreet-1 by sleepytako
01.04toyamacitystreet-1, a photo by sleepytako on Flickr.
Toyama city street near the near the Toyama Light Rail Higashiiwase station.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nariai-ji 成相寺 #28

Amanohashidate from Kasamatsukoen
Nariai-ji is a secluded temple up the slope a mountain overlooking Amanohashidate 天橋立 in northern Kyoto prefecture on the Sea of Japan. The temple is part of the Kasamatukoen 傘松公園 area on the far side of Amanohashidate.

I guess I should begin by explaining what Amanohashidate is. It's a spit of sandy land that makes a small land bridge closing off a bay. One of Japan's most unusual geographical features and one of Japan's three most beautiful landscapes. I went there 6 years ago before I was married or had a job, and when I took too many photos. Here's 118 photos I uploaded to flickr from the experience. It was my first trip as an exchange student. Who would have thought that I would be coming back to the exact same place but going to a temple. I had gone there just to check out what this place was and look at Amanohashidate between my legs as the the custom says. I wasn't that interested in temples back then.
A family on the new viewing platform
Walking up to the cable car
It was Yuko's first time here in 20 years or more. On the way there she told a story of here father taking the family there on a day trip and deciding the spend the night instead despite having no change of clothes or any overnight goods. They got the last room available in the city at the minshuku run by the attendant of the parking lot they used. Sounds fun.

Yuko was a little worred about the snow and getting there, but we had no problem. The freeways get you right there and the roads in the city were all plowed. It was actually a great time to go as there really weren't that many people there. Only a few families out and about as it was Dec 30th and everyone was heading to their homes for the New Year's celebrations.

Cable car station
We parked our car and walked up to the cable car station. There we learned that there was a hitch in our plan. The cable car was running to the viewing area up the hill, but the bus that runs from there to the temple was out of service because of heavy snow. We still wanted to look down on Amanohashidate so we got the ticket up and went to the top. There we learned that the walk would take 30 to 45 minutes. Given the time and if we didn't linger too long at the temple we could make it. So hiking up the mountain we went.

Yuko hiking up the mountain
It was a little tough and I ended up getting pretty sweaty under my heavy jacket plus a sleepy Mia on my back, but we got up there in 20 or 25 minutes. Not too bad. Getting down was the difficult part as it was harder to get a good grip on the icy road.

The pagoda and a ton of snow
The temple itself has a gate down near the entrance then a few hundred yards up there's a pagoda and parking lot for those who want to drive up to the temple. The final stairs up the the main temple were rather steep and only a single track was shoveled out allowing the few people there to get up to the temple.

The temple entrance
The temple, surrounded by snow in the afternoon sun, was georgous. A wonderful goal after a short, but hard hike. We walked in and waited to get out scroll signed. The monk who signed the scroll told us a story about the founding of the Saikoku pilgrimage. Well he told Yuko mostly as the Japanese was well above my understanding although it was little tough for Yuko also. After the story ended and he signed our scroll we received a special sange, a paper seal in a leaf shape with a image from the temple, that was printed about 20 years ago. The sange was part of a series commemorating the 1,000 year anniversary of the pilgrimage route. He gave us the sange as a special gift for visiting the temple. Maybe because he could tell we hiked up, or because I was a foreigner or just because he liked us, but we were really honored to hear the story from him and get the sange.
The sange

As part of a JR West promotion the Saikoku temples have been giving out smaller sange for the last two years or so. We've been collecting those also, but the special sange we got at Nariai-ji is something special that we'll always treasure.

After exploring the inside of the temple we headed back into the snow. In front of the temple was a large tub with ladles for purification. The tub was originally the bath for the monks in the temple although they would never actually climb in it, but only ladle water from tub.

The tub
We made our way back down well before the last cable car of the day, took a few photos at the viewpoint before getting off the mountain. We were so excited and happy about how well everything went and our experience at the temple. It was much better hiking to the temple from the viewpoint. Putting some effort into getting to each temple makes arriving there so much more fulfilling. You can get an idea of how the faithful before cars and trains had to struggle and suffer to complete this pilgrimage which is a pleasant day out for us in the modern world.

Drying the ink

On the way home we had dinner in the local shopping center and stopped in Fukuchiyama, Kyoto to check out the super-sento there, Fukuchiyama Onsen. I'll post a review on I Love Yu soon.

The single track of stairs

Some family shots from the viewing area. Mia slept most of the hike up and at the temple, but she woke up and started crying on the way down. We're both doing are boo-boo faces. She's also too small to look at Amanohashidate through her own legs so I let her use mine!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Chome-ji 長命寺 #31

Looking down from the bell tower
Chome-ji was originally built in 619 and the name of the temple means "long life." Located on a hill over looking a inlet of the large Biwa-ko lake, it offers a beautiful view and a peaceful retreat from city.

The final stairs
Number 31 of the Western Japan Kannon pilgramage route Chome-ji is a few kilo from Omihachiman station in rural Shiga prefecture. The temple is located on a hill side and is traditionally accessed by walking the 808 stairs from shore of the lake. Nowadays, you can drive up most of the way, but that's too easy. The hike isn't too tough, but remember that they are old stone steps that are uneven and irregularly spaced. Good shoes and careful hiking is recommended, especially when heading down.

The bell
The stairs climb through a bamboo, then pine forest as you get to the temple. The wind blows through the bamboo knocking it around and making a beautiful chanting-like soundtrack for your walk. The main temple and pagoda is surrounded by pines and some very unique exposed boulders. A garden with a pond runs behind the main temple and under one of the adjacent buildings. To the left there is a bell tower that anyone can ring and the right is a pagoda. The bell makes a most wonderful tone and must be experienced. The pagoda was burnt and rebuilt 3 times. It was restored and repainted in the 1960's (if I remember correctly) so it retains some of it's red color. My baby daughter Mia really got excited looking at the pagoda for some reason. She was gasping in awe and laughing at it as Yuko and I were reading the sign.

Two workers cleaning and tending to the garden.
There is a nice open space with some benches where you can sit and look out on the lake and watch the sky. We arrived in the afternoon as the sun was lowering in front of us casting long shadows across the ground. A family was having a day out running up and down the stairs for fun and / or exercise. A few other visitors were about quietly taking in the temple and relaxing, peaceful atmosphere.

The sun shining into the temple
The main image of a thousand armed Kannon is not viewable to the general public and is held behind a wall in the main building. For as big as the main building looks not much of it is accessible to visitors. It's one of the shallowest temples that I've been to and not much to see to be truthful. The real attraction here is the location.

The main building
Make sure you bring water with you on your hike. We didn't bring anything and were thirsty the entire time. There is a public toilet in the upper parking lot with non-potable water. At the entrance to the stairs at the bottom of the hill there is a small omiyage shop with drinks and walking sticks. Parking at the omiyage shop is also free. We also took the wrong path initially up the hill walking up the street. The stairs actually begin to the right of the small jinja behind the shop. Ohmi buses run to the little park in front of the shop from Omihachiman station.

More information:
Sacred Japan
Biwako Visitors Bureau

Friday, January 06, 2012

New Year's Letter... Looking back on 2011

I wrote a end of the year letter to my uncle in the USA and thought it would be good to share it with you all on my blog also. 

Dear friends and family,

2011 was a very hard year for us in Japan with the earthquake and tsunami. I was teaching a class on March 11th when it hit. The shear power of the quake was frightful. It felt unlike any quake I’ve been in. It felt evil. I’m 480 miles south of Fukushima. It would be the same if you felt an earthquake centered Los Angeles all the way in Tucson.

Mia at the start 2011.
Down here near Osaka the earthquake did not affect us so much, but I feel like I should try to do more to help the victims. Some prices when up. There was a shortage of batteries for a while. Life soon returned to normal, almost too soon. I think one of the most amazing traits of the Japanese people built up after thousands of years living in a disaster prone area is the ability to stoically get up and keep on going after a disaster. At my work the next day everyone was right there getting things done with little to no talk about the quake. I’m sure at home and among friends things were different, but work was work. There might have been an element of trying to keep a strong face for our students also.

The quake was the most defining moment of the year for us, but there were many good things also.

During the spring break at the end of the school year here we spent the night in Ako at the western border of Hyogo, prefecture. There we ate the most amazing Italian food and spent the night at a ryokan (a Japanese style inn that serves dinner and breakfast) with a hot spring that had outdoor baths overlooking the Seto Inland Sea.

In May we went up to Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture to visit Yuko’s friend there. We stayed one night at a great little ryokan that had a perfect opaque white sulfur hot spring. I got to ride the local train and explore the town and its many mineral water springs set up for drinking. The weather was just perfect up in the mountains and it reminded me of eastern California and the Sierras.

In the last few weeks over winter break we were able to spend the night at a ryokan in Wakayama. The hotel is on it’s own island and you have to take a boat there. We went with my former coworker who’s wife is also Japanese and they have a son who’s a year or so older than Mia. I guess I’m officially middle-aged now that I’m doing family stuff with other families.

During summer break we got a quick trip to Tucson in. It was great seeing Mia swim in the pool. I miss the dry heat in the desert. Japan is so humid and wet in the summer. The trip was fun but we didn’t many activities or go many places. I got to drive all of my sister’s stuff in a giant U-Haul truck from Los Angeles to Tucson. Driving in Japan is fun, but I miss American roads too. Especially going through the Mojave and crossing the Colorado.

Mia's first birthday.
We really didn’t do much on the trip because on our first night in Tucson Yuko woke me up at 4 am complaining of massive stomach pains. So after getting Mom to watch Mia, I drove her down to the local hospital where she was admitted to the ER. It was scary to see my wife in such pain in the hospital. She was a bit scared too and worried about her English—although the staff complemented her on how well she spoke. While painful, it was just a kidney stone. After a CAT scan and some other tests she was released later that morning with some painkillers. The staff was very caring with her despite having to deal with the strange, loud, crazy and somewhat scary people who were in the ER with us. It was a learning experience for us both. I have to say that the quasi-public health care system in Japan is 1,000 times better than what we have in the states. Frankly, one of my biggest worries about returning to the US is health care and health insurance. This short trip to the ER cost $6,000! Thankfully we had travel insurance that covered all the costs.

So for the remainder of our trip we basically spent around my mom’s house, as Yuko was in bed in pain a lot of the time. Despite that we all had fun and we’re looking forward to going back again in 2012.

In America I bought a hiking backpack to put Mia in. It’s turned out to be so incredibly useful and fun. We didn’t get to use it much in Tucson, but in Japan I use it instead of a stroller. There are so many stairs and uneven roads that strollers are just so inconvenient. It’s also a lot of fun because people in Japan just don’t use them so everywhere we go Mia gets a lot of attention. I break it down this way: 75% because she’s so cute, 20% because of her saddle (the backpack), 5% because of her horse (me). And that’s a generous 5% I’m giving myself!

Before winter got started I’d take Mia out in the backpack 2~3 times a week. We’d walk town the river by our house to the bay or take a train out someplace and walk between two not so distant stations and take a different train back home.  She gets such a kick out of it and always perks up when I get the backpack out.

Mia in the backpack hiking up to a temple.
We’re also using the backpack when we go to temples. We’ve been to quite a few this year. It’s always fun to strap her in and climb up the ubiquitous long flight of stairs up the side of a mountain to the temple The temples are all always so peaceful with nature and fresh air all around them. The break from the crowded and dirty cities is always refreshing. The monks, temple workers and other visitors all just adore Mia and her happy personality too.

Mia has grown so much it’s quite amazing. She only just began to walk in August and she’s basically all about walking now. Her comprehension is quite high in Japanese and English. She can say many understandable things like mom (mama), dad (da), train (dencha – the Japnese word), food (mamata – that’s her own word), please (peeez), thank you (atto – after Japanese “arigato”), Blues Clues (Buooo – children’s TV program), Peek a boo (Nai nai ba – Japanese version), Nao (Naooo – Our neighbor’s son’s name), see you, bye-bye and so on. She’ll also just carry on for minutes at a time in her own special language. I’m so proud and just blown away by how smart she is. She’s also such a happy baby. She’s not scared of other children or other people. I like to say that she’s great at aisatsu, or greetings, a very important part of Japanese culture.

Mia at the end of 2011.
I’ve been busy working 6-day weeks (5 at school and 1 at the bar) and not having enough time at home. Last term I had many special assignments that really killed me as I did most of the work myself. Thankfully, they all finished without any huge disasters and I got a ton of praise from my coworkers, vice principal, and the principal himself. I’ve decided I need to do less time at the bar for my health and to free up some time so I could start attending classes online. My hot spring review and information website ( also needs so much more work that I just can’t get myself to do. On the other hand, I’ve taken some amazing photos this year and made some incredible worksheets, classes and videos at work including the website for the bar I work at ( Because of Mia I don’t get to take long train trips anymore, but I still was able to get a few short local trips in. Going on a little adventure now and then is so much fun and I never want to stop doing it. Back in America I’d drive across the desert and small highways, here I take local trains and walk around sleepy villages. Soon enough Mia and I will be going on these adventures.

Thank you for reading my little blog. I don't do as much with it as I want but I hope to have some extra content about taking trains and more restaurant tips up in 2012. We hope you’re all in good health for 2012 and that it turns out to be a great one for you.

Yours truly,
David, Yuko and Mia

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Nara Park Photowalk

Nara Park is the general name given to the temples and parkland on the slope of Mt. Wakakusa east of the two Nara stations. The park includes many UNESCO World Heritage sites including Kofuku-ji and Todai-ji, the world's largest wooden building. It's also inhabited by many somewhat tame deer.

I went on a photo walk with two of my coworkers last month. This summer we'll be hosting a group of exchange students from New Zealand and we'll be taking them to the park on a day trip.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the walk.

This is one of the ponds throughout the park. It's probably the most seen an photographed because of its prominent location. The pagoda in the background is part of Kofuku-ji.
Deer hanging out in front of a biscuit stand like teenagers in front of a Circle K trying to get an adult to buy them some beer.
The wall around Todai-ji.
Nara park is very popular with school trips. On our walk we saw students from Aomori all the way in the north of Japan. There were also student tour groups from Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia in the park.
Alcohol, in this case sake, is a popular offering to deities or relatives. Cans, empty and full, are often scattered around temples and shrines often near statues.
The temple shop in Nigetsudo.
A lone man comes to pray at the temple. On cold winter days one can find some solitude in these temples, but when the summer comes around they will be much more crowded.
The rest of the photos I took on that day can be found in my Nara Park Photowalk set on flickr.

Happy New Year: 2012!

Another year has passed. It has been a difficult year for many people in Japan and around the world. We hope that you are all happy, healthy and safe and that we all enjoy a fresh start in 2012.


Mia is now 1 1/2 years old! She is 2 feet 7 inches tall, 22 pounds, walking and talking. Her favorite toy is a can of noodle sauce that she carries around the house. She loves going on walks in her backpack. Tomatoes are her favorite food.
With Love,
David, Yuko and Mia