Miyajima Now Redux

30 03 2009

View from Miyajima 1, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

For our KCJS class trip, I and about forty other students made the journey by Shinkansen to Hiroshima and then once again (for me, at least) to Miyajima. Initially, I was worried that a return trip to Miyajima would be pleasant if slightly underwhelming in light of my previous visit there, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had missed a major part of the island: the path leading to the absolute highest peak. The views from above were spectacular. I hate to resort to hyperbole again so soon after the last Miyajima post, but the view from the top of Miyajima is probably the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Also, Spring has arrived in Japan, and the sakura (cherry blossoms) are blooming across the country. The streets and thoroughfares of Miyajima and Hiroshima were dotted with vivid splashes of pink and white.

Warning: lots of nature pictures to follow.

Warning: lots of nature pictures to follow.

Sakura 2, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Sakura 3, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Sakura 4, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Sakura 5, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Sakura 6, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Sakura 7, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Sakura 8, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Due to peer pressure I elected this time to take the ropeway, but I didn’t regret it. The ride is disappointingly short for 900 yen, but the scenery is nothing to scoff at, though this is one area where I think New Mexico and the Sandia Tramway could give Japan a run for its money (and in terms of total length, the tramway trumps all trams in totality).

The ride was less fun for the more heights-averse people in the car.

The ride was less fun for the more heights-averse people in the car.

Tram 2, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Unfortunately, before I saw all of this beautiful scenery, I ran into… a bit of trouble. Our Shinkansen was scheduled to leave at 9:52 a.m. (and if you know Japanese train schedules, you know that’s 9:52 sharp) and I made a number of mistakes, from underestimating the time to get there to going to the wrong Imadegawa station (apparently, there’s a JR one and a Keihan one). After frantically trying to find track 14 and exchanging some barely understandable Japanese with a station attendant, I emerged onto the platform right as… the clock struck 9:54, and I saw the train receding into the distance. Thankfully, I was able to grab the train immediately after and then take a train to Miyajimaguchi the same way I did during my Spring break. It was slightly embarrassing being the only student dumb enough to miss the train, but everyone seemed impressed when I told them I got there by myself. The Japanese train system seems pretty intuitive to me, though.

Another surprise was waiting for me at the peak besides the amazing view- monkeys. Monkeys, with temperates common to the deer that pepper the island, surrounded the tram station, hooting, running back and forth, and picking bugs out of the fur of each other and annoyed deers.

Though the monkey population far exceeded my expectations, the first hint at their presence was an English voice on the tram warning passengers to stow their valuable away from the curious eyes of the sticky-handed monkeys.

Though the monkey population far exceeded my expectations, the first hint at their presence was an English voice on the tram warning passengers to stow their valuable away from the curious eyes of the sticky-handed simians.

Monkeys, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Monkeys 3, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Monkeys 4, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Monkeys 5, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Monkeys 6, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Now, as for the view…

View 1, Miyajima, 3/27/2009View 2, Miyajima, 3/27/2009View 3, Miyajima, 3/27/2009View 4, Miyajima, 3/27/2009View 5, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

A temple near the top hosted the “Eternal Flame”, a fire that has supposedly been continuously burning for over 1200 years and was used to light the peace fire at Hiroshima. It… left something to be desired.

It wasn't so much "the eternal fire" as it was "the eternal lightly glowing cinder pile".

It wasn't so much "the eternal fire" as it was "the eternal lightly glowing cinder pile".

Apparently the deer near the top are friendly (or desperately hungry) as one wandered up to me as I was sitting down.

Deer 1, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Deer 2, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Near the top was a tiny shrine based in a niche in the mountain.

This tiny, tiny shrine was used for tiny, tiny worshp by the tiny, tiny citizens of the island.

This tiny, tiny shrine was used for tiny, tiny worshp by the tiny, tiny citizens of the island.

At last, after an hour of hiking form the top of the ropeway and a short trip up an observation tower, I reached the highest point on Miyajima and surveyed my surroundings.

View 3, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

I sure hope no one's viewing this on dial-up. But if you are, what's wrong with you?

I sure hope no one is viewing this on dial-up. But if you are, what's wrong with you?

View 8, Miyajima, 3/27/2009View 9, Miyajima, 3/27/2009View 10, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

The ropeway station.

The ropeway station.

View 12, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Hell, even the view from our ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) wasn’t bad.

Ryokan View 1, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Ryokan View 2, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

For whatever reason, taking pictures of the actual ryokan completely slipped my mind. It was a fun experience- we were put into groups of four to six in traditional Japanese rooms, complete with tatami mats and just futons for sleeping, and provided with yukata, a sort of light cotton kimono, to wear. We had a traditional Japanese dinner with a wide variety of dishes, from prepared fish to a sort of tofu soup to a plate of delicious strawberries for desert, all with tasty if weak beer on the side. Sadly, sitting Japanese style in the seiza position (with your legs bent under you) is beyond my abilities as a gaijin, so I sat cross-legged and tried desperately to avoid exposing myself. After dinner we went out and view the famous torii (as seen in my last Miyajima post) in the dark, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough light for me to get a picture that didn’t look like it was taken from inside a trunk.

We departed in the early morning for Hiroshima, and I took several pictures of the blooming foliage surrounding the temples and shrines.

Island view 1, Miyajima, 3/27/2009Island view 2, Miyajima, 3/27/2009

Ze ever-hungry sea.

Ze ever-hungry sea.


One more shot of the torii, for old times sake.

One more shot of the torii, for old times sake.

We then took a bus to Hiroshima, which was also a bit of a photographic non-event. Our first stop was the Atomic Bomb Memorial, which has an atmosphere not terribly conducive to photography. The memorial is much like any memorial, such as for the Holocaust or Vietnam: an experience that is equal parts moving and horrifying. It’s hard to walk away from a museum that includes graphic pictures of still-living female high school students burned so badly they’re hardly recognizable as human beings, or recounts the story of a young girl inflicted with radiation-induced leukemia years after the bombing and her subsequent desperate attempt to fold a thousand paper cranes so that her wish would be granted and she could live, and feel that it was in any way a “pleasant” experience. Nevertheless, Hiroshima should be a necessary trip for anyone going to Japan, and anyone whose ever seriously considered just “nuking them all”. A little bit of contemplation on horrific suffering has a way of putting things in perspective. I did take a picture of the Atomic Bomb Dome, a building nearly at the hypocenter of the explosion that somehow structurally survived the explosion that utterly demolished all buildings around it for thousands of feet, thought it was gutted by fire. On the left are some picnickers, enjoying the weather and the view of the river outside the memorial.

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, 3/28/2009

Music I’m Listening to Now: Lotus Plaza, “The Floodlight Collective”.

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Not For The Season

19 03 2009

Sakura, Kyoto, 3/17/2009

Spring has finally begun in Kyoto, and unlike the weekend of warm weather that served as an all-to-short break from the constant rain and chill of the last few months, it seems here to stay. I’ve honestly been a little bored at night, so I’ve been doing a lot of translation and taking late night bike rides. Late night bicycle rides are a pleasure in Kyoto, as in contrast to my native land, my chances of being run over or stabbed actually go down, instead of skyrocketing. One thing I noticed is that there’s cats everywhere. The alley I use to get out from my apartment complex is apparently full of them, as I discovered when I looked up and noticed there were at least three or four in a small niche formed between a wall and a overhanging roof. I opted not to photograph them- I wouldn’t be entirely enthusiastic about having a flash in my face that late at night either.

While Kyoto and Japan in general has as much crime in a year as the average American Denny’s does in a month, the city is not entirely law-abiding. I had the rare opportunity to see the results of some actual political activism on the side of a building located near our special gaijin class/leper colony located on the Kyoto University campus.

Kyodai graffiti, Kyoto, 3/12/09The graffiti is demanding an end to "5-year firing". I'm not particularly well versed in Kyoto University's personnel practices, so I'm not entirely sure what this means.

The graffiti is demanding an end to “5-year firing”. I’m not particularly well versed in Kyoto University’s personnel practices, so I’m not entirely sure what this means.

We’ve hardly gotten back to class from Spring Break and we’re already going on a number of excursions. Next week is our class trip to Hiroshima (and once again [for me, at least] to Miyajima) and this week we went to a Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. It’s mascot: apparently a giant, angry stone face.

Stone Face, Osaka, 3/16/09

This is about half my Japanese class.

This is about half my Japanese class.

I think this sign speaks for itself.

I think this sign speaks for itself.

The museum was slightly disappointing, primarily because it seemed our main objective in going there was to have a box recite a story to us in several Japanese dialects that only further reinforced that I have a long way to go before I understand even standard Japanese. Dialects in Japan are unlike American dialects in that it’s possible for two people to be speaking “Japanese” and still not understand each other. The dialects associated with different regions, such as Kansai and Hokkaido, resemble foreign languages more than, say, an American Southern accent. The museum did have some nice displays, however.

Ethnology Museum Display 1, Osaka, 3/16/2009Ethnology Museum, Osaka, 3/16/2009

On our way back we saw a now closed amusement park whose name, Expo Land, rather clearly highlights it’s place on the timeline.

Expo Land, Osaka, 3/16/2009

I’ll post next week on my class trip to Hiroshima, and possibly Miyajima again. Everybody loves seeing the same pictures of someones vacation, right?

Music I’m Listening to Now: Grizzly Bear, “Cheerleader”.





Stuck Between Stations

13 03 2009

Tracks, Iwakuni(?), 3/5/2009

And thus we reach the last part of my travel post trilogy, which much like most trilogies had little indication of the fact in its genesis and will also likely be a disappointment. For my final major stop, I went to Tsuwano, a relatively isolated hamlet in the mountains at one of the further ends of the Western Honshu archipelago. Tsuwano touts itself as a sort of ‘Lil Kyoto, a even more traditional and rustic alternative to the culturally rich vein the larger Kyoto possesses. To which I say, eh, kind of.

Tsuwano view 1, Tsuwano, 3/5/2009

Perhaps it was the weather (distinctly overcast) or the hype (my guidebook made Tsuwano seem like the second coming of Christ), but I have to admit I found Tsuwano slightly disappointing. It had some nice areas, which I tried to photograph as much as possible with my rapidly dying camera, but overall if felt distinctly average and more than a little boring- a bit of a come down after Miyajima. Still way better than Albuquerque, though.

Gate, Tsuwano, 3/5/2009

Miyajima featured one prominent shrine that I saw situated on towards the top of a large mountain. The many torii leading from the back portion of the temple was a definite highlight.

Shrine 1, Tsuwano, 3/5/2009Shrine 2, Tsuwano, 3/5/2009Shrine 3, Tsuwano, 3/5/2009

There's hundreds of these small gates lining the path all the way down the mountain.

There's hundreds of these small gates lining the path all the way down the mountain.

Huh. Doesn't look particularly overcast here.

Huh. Doesn't look particularly overcast here.

Sadly, my vacation  ended on a bit of a down note. I had planned to get back to Kyoto late Thursday night, but as I mentioned in a previous I was informed when I reached Tottori that I had missed the last train. The only reason it wasn’t completely miserable was that the air temperature was relatively warm, but the incredibly strong winds (I heard some rather large things being blown over) took care of the rest. Crouching in a underground walkway, desperately huddling against my laptop for warmth was admittedly not the funnest experience in my life, but I did meet a really nice guy when I took shelter at the post office. I had a pretty long conversation with him, and he actually stopped by later and bought me a drink. The human brain is a wonderful and terrible thing in that my vacation, warts and all, is quickly being reduced to similar highlights. Freezing a little bit is a fair trade-off between gorgeous scenery and friendly conversation, right? Right?

Music I’m Listening to Now: The Hold Steady (obviously), “Ask Her For Adderall”.





Myriad Harbour

10 03 2009

Miyajima tori, tide out, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009

If Himeji and it’s white castle were a case of a monument’s inherent beauty overcoming poor weather, Miyajima was an example of both nature and locale combining to form a perfect tableau. Miyajima is in my admittedly mostly uninformed opinion up with Nara in the upper echelons of beauty in Japan. Both the day and the island were in perfect condition, and my expectations were both met and exceeded. The addition of a number of surprises helped push Miyajima over the edge to make it the highlight my vacation. If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend going.

Boat View 1, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009

Miyajima is reached from the mainland by taking a short ferry ride from a dock conveniently close to the station. My experience with the town (called Miyajimaguchi) in the evening when I finally left the island leads me to believe it’s essentially an elaborate decoration for the island proper; there wasn’t a whole lot going on.

Both JR (Japan Railways) and a private company run ferries; there's no meaningful difference between the two, as far as I know, but those with Japan rail passes can ride the JR one for free.

Both JR (Japan Railways) and a private company run ferries; there's no meaningful difference between the two, as far as I know, but those with Japan rail passes can ride the JR one for free.

My first big surprise upon arriving: deer. I had honestly assumed that Nara was the place to go for deer in Japan and had no idea that there were deer on Miyajima. There were deer, alright.

Deer 1, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009Deer 2, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009Deer 3, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009

A young deer.

A young deer.

It feels a little weird to say this, but Miyajima’s deer seemed to lack… a certain something. Nara’s deer were already straining the use of the word “dignified”, and their more tropical kin had gone a bit further to seed. It’s hard to feel the holy aura ascribed to deer by the Japanese when they’re constantly doing this:

Unlike flying or camouflage, this is one of those animal skills that has never even occurred to me to be worth being envious about.

Unlike flying or camouflage, this is one of those animal skills that has never even occurred to me to be worth being envious about.

Also, much like the deer in Nara, being sacred beings doesn’t prevent them from, goat-like, consuming much of what they can physically ingest.

Deer 6, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009

It's all fun and games until you realize they're eating your passport.

It's all fun and games until you realize they're eating your passport.

Of course, there was more to Miyajima than practically domesticated, de-antlered (though, uh, steadily more antlered the further inland you go) freeloaders.

Statue, Miyajimaguchi, 3/4/2009

One of Miyajima’s best known landmarks is the giant red torii, or gate, built on the coastal plane of the island’s landward side. The view, as you can see in this entry’s first picture, can change dynamically depending on the time of day and the corresponding tide.

Torii 1, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

I have no idea how they build stuff like this in water; water bridges similarly confuse me. In the gate's case, I guess you just had to do it fast, before the tide came back in.

I have no idea how they build stuff like this in water; water bridges similarly confuse me. In the gate's case, I guess you just had to do it fast, before the tide came back in.

Looking out on the gate was a shrine that I was unwilling to pay the entrance fee to get into (I think the ferry fee should be enough, damn it) so here are some pictures at a distance.

Torii Shrine, Miyajima, 3/3/2009

The shrine was built with a number of interesting architectural features to avoid damge from storms, including sections of the flooring that can float freely in case of an especially high tide.

The shrine was built with a number of interesting architectural features to avoid damge from storms, including sections of the flooring that can float freely in case of an especially high tide (or so I read on the outside).

Here's the shrine with the tide out.

Here's the shrine with the tide out.

Similarly impressive landmarks dotted Miyajima.

Pagoda 1, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

Too big to be contained in one photo.

Too big to be contained in one photo.

A big 'ol chunk of wood.

A big 'ol chunk of wood.

Random Temple 1, Miyajima, 3/4/2009Random Temple 2, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

After some walking uphill, I discovered an impressive temple that was luckily free of charge.

Their logo is some sort of medieval rattle.

Their logo is some sort of medieval rattle.

Temple 2, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

The return of the Tanuki, this time as a Buddhist monk. Notice the absence of the exaggerated testicles.

The return of the Tanuki, this time as a Buddhist monk. Notice the absence of the exaggerated testicles.

Temple 3, Miyajima, 3/4/2009Temple 4, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

I really like the way the wood is designed underneath the roof.

I really like the way the wood is designed underneath the roof.

Eventually, I got an idea into my head that I could walk around the island to see the landmarks on the backside. After proceeding through several tunnels…

Tunnel, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

long, deserted roads…

Road, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

and several miles of surprisingly clear ocean…

Water, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

I realized I had perhaps underestimated the distance. I decided to rest on a quite beach for a bit before turning around.

This section of the island was amazingly quiet, and at this point I hadn't seen another human for about an hour.

This section of the island was amazingly quiet, and at this point I hadn't seen another human for about an hour.

Looking down, I realizd the white dotting the beach was thousands of sea shells.

Looking down, I realizd the white dotting the beach was thousands of sea shells.

Returning to the more inhabited regions of the island, I decided to go up this time. Miyajima is the site of one of the World Heritage Sites, in this case a stretch of forest that has gone essentially undisturbed since antiquity.

There was a tram that could take you over the forest that seemed like it would be nice, but the ticket was 2000 yen. Half that for one way, but you had to jump out yourself.

There was a tram that could take you over the forest that seemed like it would be nice, but the ticket was 2000 yen. Half that for one way, but you had to jump out yourself.

I also did a little bit of off-the-path hiking.

I also did a little bit of off-the-path hiking.

Proceeding up some narrow paths, I reached the most scenic views available on the island. Though I once again was humiliated by a woman in at least her seventies who somehow managed to pass me going the opposite direction while I was going up, and then pass me again as I went down on the other side. Christ.

Path, Miyajima, 3/4/2009View, Miyajima, 3/4/2009

I think this is my favorite picture that I've ever taken.

I think this is my favorite picture that I've ever taken.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Flight of the Conchords, “We’re Both In Love With a Sexy Lady”.





Way Out West

7 03 2009

Himeji Castle 1, 3/3/2009

For my Spring Break I decided to ride the rails and tour the coasts of Western Honshu, a slightly more traditional area of Japan distinguished by some fantastic cultural landmarks. I have to admit that for a vacation was surprisingly exhausting- by my rough calculations, I traveled close to seven hundred or so miles in about four days. I also was stranded in Tottori overnight (the last train is pretty damn early there, apparently) and had to pull an all-nighter, desperately wandering around the city in search of heat and shelter from the violent winds. But arriving safely home and sleeping for twelve hours has a way of smoothing some of the rough edges of an experience, and now I’m entirely glad I went. I took a lot of pictures, so I’m going to split it all into a couple of posts. First up: Himeji and Kurashiki.

Himeji city view, Himeji, 3/3/2009

Himeji is by far most famous for its eponymous castle, a spectacular white building well preserved from the destruction that has beset many other Japanese landmarks. It was a little overcast, but the castle was still surprisingly brilliant, even in the relative gloom of the day.

Like most Japanese castles, the layout of the grounds are designed to impede invaders, so it's often a considerable walk to this level of proximity.

Like most Japanese castles, the layout of the grounds are designed to impede invaders, so it's often a considerable walk to this level of proximity.

Himeji castle featured a number of at the time state of the art defensive implements, such an intricately plotted layout, numerous venues to drop rocks or fire weapons from, and a number of windows intended to supplement an archer’s view while simultaneously impeding an attacker’s.

Himeji archer window, Himeji, 3/3/2009

I was also pleasantly surprised that unlike Nijo Castle photography was permitted throughout the interior of the castle.

Himeji Castle Interior 1, Himeji, 3/3/2009Himeji Castle Interior 2, Himeji, 3/3/2009

Himeji Castle Interior 3, Himeji, 3/3/2009Himeji was without a doubt a martial installation, and evidence to that fact was on display throughout.

Guns, Himeji, 3/3/2009Armor, Himeji, 3/3/2009

As I neared the top of the castle, my height granted me a number of impressive views of the city. Little cold, though.

Himeji Castle view, Himeji, 3/3/2009Himeji Castle View 2, Himeji, 3/3/2009

A view from the very top. Despite the cold there was lots of people in the field below having picnics and playing soccer.

A view from the very top. Despite the cold there was lots of people in the field below having picnics and playing soccer.

Himeji lodged a number of powerful Japanese families, including the son of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. Each clan that inhabited the castle had their own personal seal, record of which was collected in the exhibit below.

Uhh... don't worry about the stuff on the left.

Uhh... don't worry about the stuff on the left.

Himeji seals, Himeji, 3/3/2009

There were also a few interesting exhibits inside as well.

An old city view of Himeji. The castle grounds dominate the city.

An old city view of Himeji. The castle grounds dominate the city.

A scale replica of Himeji Castle, created by the builders to check for structural flaws (though I imagine this isn't the original).

A scale replica of Himeji Castle, created by the builders to check for structural flaws (though I imagine this isn't the original).

And what would an old castle be without a few ghost stories? Himeji had a rather morbidly distinguished area intended to serve as a site for suicides. The suicide grounds themselves were unspectacular (enough so that I apparently didn’t take any pictures) but realizing that scores of people had killed themselves in the spot was a little unsettling. It’s got nothing on Aokigahara, however. I also saw what I can only imagine was a possible source of inspiration for Sadako, the vengeful ghost in the Ring movies.

The story.

The story.

The well itself.

The well itself.

A few hours more on the train brought me to Kurashiki, a slightly smaller and more rustic city than Himeji.

Kurashiki after dark, Kurashiki, 3/3/2009

Sorry for how dark this is; it looked pretty nice when I took the picture, at least.

Sorry for how dark this is; it looked pretty nice when I took the picture, at least.

I stayed in a youth hostel that night, and despite my failed exchange with the owners (I was disturbed to find that I had become so cold I couldn’t speak properly for a few minutes) I actually carried a conversation with a Japanese high school student named Jun and a talkative college student named Takeshi who were also staying in the room that night. I had many of my usual struggles, and I didn’t understand everything, but actually having a functioning conversation was a pretty nice feeling. Next post, Miyajimaguchi- perhaps my new favorite place in Japan. Also, the merciless sea, tanuki monks, and deers rubbing their faces on their own asses. Get pumped.

A sneak preview of the next post.

A sneak preview of the next post.

Music I’m Listening to Now: Crooked Fingers, “Your Control”.