Samba no hi

I notice that I have failed to write a single post during February. For the most part I’ve been pretty busy, and for the other part I’ve been pretty lazy. The other say was ‘Samba no Hi’ or Samba Day and now I finally have something slightly worthy of a post since I’m not too sure how much you want to hear about how I’ve been avoiding doing the laundry.

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Samba performers accompanying the sanshin

I’m guessing most of you don’t know what a samba is. It’s something you can use to annoy your neighbours, but a more apt description would be that it’s a wooden castanet from Okinawa. It is three small pieces of wood held together by string that are spaced between your fingers and are used to make a clacking sound. The samba is used in Okinawan folk music and dance and makes a great accompaniment to the sanshin (Okinawan banjo).

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My samba, sideways because I can’t flip the damn photo

 Samba no Hi or ‘Samba day’ falls on March 8th. This date was decided by taking the phonetic value of “san”, meaning three and representing the third month of the year, and then adding it to “ba” a possible reading taken from “hachi”meaning eight. Similarly, sanshin day is on March 4th seeing that “shi” means four. Admittedly I did not know about Samba Day before last Tuesday, but it is in its 16th year and is an attempt by the Okinawan Samba Society to spread the appeal of the samba and promote the instrument as indispensable to Okinawan folk music culture. In recent years they have started holding a workshop to teach the basics of the instrument.

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Promotional poster for the event

I found out about this event through my friend who had introduced me to my sanshin dojo late last year. My sanshin teacher Akira Wakugawa and his wife Yoneko would be preforming during the workshop. Yoneko Wakugawa is a famous classical Okinawan singer who sings regularly for the local radio stations. She is spectacular and I especially like her purple hair. On samba day she not only sang on stage but she was out in the crowd of newcomers, helping all of us beginners learn how to play the samba.

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Yoneko Sensei helping teach samba

Samba is one of those things that looks a lot easier than it actually is. I got some serious muscle pump in my left arm by the end. At first I thought samba was like the triangle; the instrument the lazy dude plays so he can tell people that he’s in the orchestra. Though samba may be a little easier to pick up, it still takes a bit of practice. The first step is leaning how to clack the samba with your thumb and little finger, and then you progress to clapping it with the front and back of your hand in a rhythm. When you level up, you can do cool shit like hit it with your forehead or elbow strike it. It also happens that my sanshin dojo mates also practice karate, and my sanshin senpai  brought along a student who has been staying in Okinawa for three months. Can you imagine two karate girls trying to elbow strike the samba? Apparently we were doing it wrong since no sound came out of the samba, but whatever.

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Karate squad does samba

There were musical performances throughout the event which we were all freely allowed to clack along to. They also gave a little speech about how samba can be used to suit any kind of music. The room was undoubtedly louder than a pachino (coin slot casino) as we all acted like unsupervised toddlers with access to a drum. One dude across from us was a serious pro, I was trying to copy him through my peripheral vision for most of the night. At some point a TV station came and filmed us. We were the only gaijin (foreigners) at the event so we eventually made it onto the local news. You can watch the clip here. Don’t mind me acting like a tool.

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Wakugawa Sensei on the sanshin

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Group photo with Yoneko Sensei

 

 

 

Learning the sanshin

I’ve recently started learning the sanshin. Like most important decisions I make, this was decided in a drunk conversation. I had thought about it for a while but had never been pushed to start. However on one drinking occasion, I mentioned my interest in the sanshin to my karate sempai who then immediately told his Uechi-Ryu sensei that they should introduce me to their sanshin teacher. This Uechi-Ryu sensei said he would lend me a sanshin and my sempai was going to organise for me to start on Thursday. Boom, I was now signed up for sanshin lessons. The next time I turned up to karate training, there was a bloody expensive looking sanshin waiting for me. I’m afraid of getting that thing smashed over my head. I guess I’ll have to show up to practice after all.

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Me pretending to look like I know what I’m doing

The next Thursday I headed off for my first lesson and I immediately felt pressure to take this seriously. Not only because I was afraid of pissing off two well known Uechi-Ryu karateka, but I had unknowingly signed up to learn sanshin from Wakugawa Akira sensei, who is actually pretty famous. Such luck! I’ve actually never played any form of instrument before so I felt like a complete gumpy in front of this respected teacher. I’m not only tone deaf, I’m also completely uncoordinated and utterly useless. If that wasn’t difficult enough, Wakugawa doesn’t believe in teaching the written musical notes. His philosophy is that if you learn to play music by reading notes you will always depend upon them. He learnt the sanshin from copying his fathers fingers and thinks that his own students should learn the same. I’m sure I’ll spend the next few months making peoples ears bleed.

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I’m afraid to leave even a scratch on this… don’t want to piss off a karate master

For all his fame, Wakugawa sensei is actually a very gentle and calm guy. I go to practice once a week and the class is very casual. On my first lesson, he said; “pluck whatever stings you like and don’t worry about the sound, just make sure you play with us”. There are currently only six other students in the Thursday class. However, Wakugawa sensei has a larger dojo where he runs the more advanced classes. This is where my sempai and the karate sensei train. Three of my classmates are 5th grade students from the local elementary school. They’re constantly talking through practice or taking out their homework when they get bored of plucking the sanshin strings. Wakugawa sensei doesn’t see this as a bad thing. He says that people should practice the sanshin freely and that the girls are acting exactly how they would be if they were in their own homes- free to pick up the sanshin whenever they please. This is awesome for me since I have the attention span of a fish.

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Tatami floor at the dojo

Earlier in the month I was dragged along by my sempai (the one who had introduced me) to a sanshin event. Four hundred odd members of 10 sanshin dojo gathered to play for three hours to welcome in the new year. I was surprised that to see my classmate from my kobudo class was also there, as well as another kobudo sensei who I see quite often. Okinawa is really small! We all sat down in rows and were given a program of 17 songs. I could complete exactly one chorus of one song. That song was played first so I spent the next couple of hours pretending to play. Fake it till you make it. But hey, there was food!

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Wakugawa sensei is right in the middle

If I wasn’t out of my comfort zone already, the karate sensei who had lent me his sanshin asked my sempai to do an Uechi-Ryu karate kata and for me to come up front and do a nunchaku kata while Wakugawa sensei played. We looked at each other like; “What the fuck?!”. I was wearing my tightest pair of skinny jeans and he was quite hungover. Also, I don’t exactly carry nunchaku in my bag. However when an Uechi-Ryu sensei and your sempai tell you to do something, you fucking do it. Luckily that kobudo sensei had a pair of nunchaku in his car and I was able to borrow a pair and belt something out. Only in Okinawa.

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I wasn’t joking

After the event I went with my sempai to Wakugawa sensei’s honbu dojo for their Shinenkai (New Years party). Wild boar soup and beer easily makes up for the mortification of having to swing nunchaku around in skinny jeans. I also got to meet everyone from the Wednesday class for the first time.

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Tafuku sempai with the wild boar soup

As with most shinenkai parties, everyone makes a speech and since I’m the new face there was no way I was escaping. Suddenly I had to figure out why I had actually shown up to class in the frist place. Luckily the chairman of the sanshin preservation society (or something to that measure) was up first so I had time to come up with something. He said that learning sanshin is a way of preserving Okinawan culture and spreading peace. I know that all sounds like la-di-dah bullshit but I have a short memory and I can’t remember what his exact words were. Just trust that he said it quite eloquently and everyone else nodded in agreement.

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Wakugawa sensei makes a speech at the honbu dojo

When the mike (it was actually a chopstick) was eventually passed to me. I thought about what I wanted to say and found myself agreeing with the chairman. I think sanshin lies at the heart of Okinawan culture. It’s something you hear and you immediately associate it with this tiny little island. I want to be able to sing in Okinawan language. However most importantly, I want to be one of those people who can start a sing-a-long wherever I go drinking. Maybe that makes me sound like a tool but I think that’s how you spread peace and joy. So I’m going to continue to play the sanshin and hopefully at next years event I’ll be able to pluck along as well and not be as useless.

 

 

Nokogiriyama- The Sawtooth Mountain

I’m pretty sure the guys who write online travel guides have never even been to Japan and are just recycling information from each other’s articles. They always suggest really lame stuff. I was looking for a day trip from Tokyo that wasn’t Kamakura, Nikko or Yokohama. Been there. Done that. Turns out I had my work cut out for me as these three places dominated the internet. However my luck turned and I stumbled upon Nokogiriyama, the Sawtooth mountain, which I had never heard of. Actually I was suspicious as to why this place had escaped my radar for so long. I had to read five travel blogs to convince myself that it was real.

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This is what sold it for me.

Completely confused about how this trip was going to work out I made the trip to Yokohama and then to the port to catch a ferry. Before I left my hostel I called the ferry company to ask about departure times. Even though I am fairly confident with my Japanese I had a huge communication problem with the receptionist. She had a little freakout that she was talking to a foreigner and didn’t really listen to what I was saying. This is a common occurrence in Japan. I did however eventually make it onto the ferry. I’m sure the ride was quite scenic but I passed out sleeping after 5 minutes. Before I knew it, it was time to disembark and face the fact that I missed my photo opportunity. However the walk through the sleepy town towards the cable car that would take me up the mountain was pretty enough.

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It’s a sleepy coastal town.

The first attraction after you get off the cable car is the View of Hell. Lovely. Maybe that’s why this place isn’t on a top destinations list. However, this View of Hell is really a vantage point to see the vertical cliffs of the saw-tooth mountain. No devil or molten lava in sight. It’s was actually quite spectacular. If they wanted to improve their tourism game I’m sure they could name it the stairway to heaven and no one would put up an argument. I did however suddenly develop a fear of heights I never had before as I peered down the vertical cliff.

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Looking at these vertical cliffs, I can see where the name Sawtooth comes from.

As you follow the little hiking trail down from the view of hell, there are little statues of arhat to keep you company. What’s an arhat? Wikipedia tells me that an arhat is someone who has attained enlightenment. Nokogiriyama houses 1500 of these guys; all of which are hand carved and feature different facial expressions. They were carved out of rock brought from the Izu peninsular by master artisan Ono Jigoro Eirei and 27 apprentices who took 19 odd years to complete the task. It seems that they were added to the mountain as a part of revival of the the mountains Nihonji Temple in the late 18th century. The temple had called Nokogiriyama it’s home since the 700s but had fallen into ruin. Some of these poor statues had their heads knocked off during an anti-Buddhist movement during the Meiji restoration. However, the rest of them sit in little caves and on ledges like tiny models waiting for their photos to be taken.

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Peek-a-boo.

The hiking trail takes you to the Daibutsu, the Great Buddha.  At 31.5 metres tall, this one is larger than its more famous counterpart in Kamakura. It was carved in the late 18th century but has had some restorative work done in recent years. It was carved by the same artisan and his disciples responsible for the arhat statues, making it a recent addition to the mountain and responsible for putting Nokogiriyama on the map as one of the most sacred mountains in Japan. This particular carving represents the Buddha of Healing and holds a jar of medicine in his hands.

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He ate his vegetables.

After leaving the Daibutsu I headed for the Great Kannon.  This involved a lot of hiking up stairs because I can’t read maps and decided to take the most stupid route around the mountain. You might also know Kannon as Guanyin. Depending on different points in history (and cultures), she’s known as a figure for compassion and mercy. This recent addition to the mountain stands as a symbol for peace and as a monument to the victims of WWII. She stands at 100 ‘shaku’ high, so she’s about the same size as the Buddha at around 30 metres.

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So many shaku tall.

In short, my day trip was a success. Not many places in Japan can offer you both a ferry and cable car ride, a temple, 1500 individually carved statues, a Giant Buddha and Kannon as well as panoramic views of the ocean and a unique looking mountain complete with a hiking trail. Why was I the only foreigner there? Maybe this mountain was supposed to be a secret. Or maybe my suspicions are correct and the guys writing the travel guides have never actually ventured anywhere.

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It’s a nice and easy hike.

Gushikawa Castle Ruins

I have no idea why people go to Okinawa World. An Okinawa themed park in Okinawa is ridiculous. My former classmate visited me late last year so I was tasked with finding some places to go that weren’t a total tourist trap. This can be hard to do without the right knowledge; Okinawa World, Pineapple Park, Murasaki Village and (I dare say it) the aquarium all score highly on Tripadvisor but offer very little insight into the history and culture of Okinawa. In other words, they’re really boring. So I took this challenge as an opportunity to finally visit Cape Kyan and the Gushikawa ruins. I figured that this would be a nice look into Okinawa’s past and that the bicycle ride down there would be fairly scenic. After some initial mumbling, I worked up the motivation to go out on a whole day of cycling around the south of Okinawa.

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Stretches and stretches of tiny farms

I’m pretty creepy. I love looking at peoples houses and imagining what kind of person lives there. We cycled through small farms and residential areas to reach the ruins so my mumbling was replaced with genuine enjoyment as I got to look at all the different shaped houses. The Gushikawa ruins seems to be off the radar of most foreign tourists; as we cycled through the streets a local woman shouted out to us, “you’re in Kyan?!”. At first I mistook what she had said as, “do you have candy?”. We reached the castle late in the day and a few photographers had gathered to take photographs of the sunset.

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Pretty colours

Not much of the castle remains but its  defensive functions are still visible. The walls are characteristically thick and slanted like most castles of Okinawa, and are built to conform to the natural curve of the sea cliff.  The castle was built relatively tall, most likely to provide surveillance for the surrounding area and sea. Although no buildings remain, there are Japanese signposts that explain various features of the castle. You can still see the entrance to a cave which was once connected the castle to the beach below. According to legend, this cave was used to deliver packages back and forth, and served as an escape route in times of emergency.

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The remains of the outer wall and the sea cliffs

I wasn’t able to dig up much information on the history of the castle in English so I’ve had a go at translating some Japanese sources from Wikipedia and from photographs I took of the signs posted about. My head really hurts now. From what I’ve understood, it’s thought that the castle was built in the later half of the 12th century and remained in function until the mid 15th century. According to a document from 1743,  the castle is where King Makanegoe, escaped to after coming under attack from King Manikutaru, the second son of King Ishikinawa. Gushikawa castle was given the same name of the King Makanegoe’s prior fortress, the Gushikawa Castle of Kume Island. The Gushikawa castle of Kume was overtaken by King Shinou and his army in the 16th century. Honestly, I have no idea who I’m talking about but I’m sure it’s all good to know.

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You can still make out the general shape of parts of the castle

Gushikawa castle ruins is a bit off the beaten track but can easily be added on to a trip to the Peace Park and Himeyuri monument. I was able to do all three in one day on my bicycle but I would warn anyone attempting this that the area around the ruins is not well lit at night.

Seifa Utaki

After a while living in Okinawa, I’ve stopped visiting tourist spots. It’s because I’m lazy and unmotivated. I think this is normal for expats. Either because you’ve been there before or because you’ve settled into normal life and now feel you should no longer act like a visitor in your own home. It wasn’t until recently that I rediscovered the pleasure in visiting places I had already seen in Okinawa. I had actually been brought to Seifa Utaki by friends about five years ago and the event was pretty much erased from my memory. So I organised a small road trip with a friend to the south of Okinawa. I would usually take my bike out on an adventure but my friend had never been before and I was unsure of the terrain. I decided a drive would be best. I was glad in the end because the area was quite hilly because as I mentioned before, I’m lazy and unmotivated. It would have been a scenic ride though.

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Triangular shape made by the rocks

Utaki is a sacred spot in the Okinawan language. The people of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands adhered (and still do) to a animistic spiritual belief that relied on the worship of ancestor spirits. It is believed that Seifa Utaki is one of the places in Okinawa that the creator goddess descended down to earth. You can read the functions of the various alcoves on the English signposts dotted about. What I find most interesting is that this particular utaki was once only accessible by women and members of the royal family of Shuri. Women hold high positions in indigenous Ryukyuan spirituality; Members of the royal family would come to Seifa Utaki to get their fortunes told by the priestesses who tended to the site.

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Path leading up to one of the places of ritual dotted throughout the site

I would recommend trying to get down to Seifa Utaki if you are in Okinawa. Thought it may not look like much to some, it is the most sacred place in Okinawa and offers a little insight into Ryukyuan spirituality. If you have a rental car, you will be able to reach other sites like Kakinohana castle ruins, Gyokusendo cave, Tamagusuku castle ruins, the Himeyuri monument and Peace Park relatively easily. Ps. Skip Okinawa World- it sucks.

Nikko

Who the hell needs earmuffs in Okinawa? If you ask me, the winter clothing line sold by Uniqlo in Okinawa is quite ridiculous.  I can only image that the reasons compelling someone to purchase thermal underpants here would be for the same reasons I found myself in the aisles of this discount clothing store. I was preparing for a short visit to Nikko, in mainland Japan, where it could potentially be snowing and was definitely going to be colder to what I was used to living on a tropical island. I don’t do cold. Earmuffs in the shopping cart.

As soon as I landed in Narita I made the long train ride to Asakusa station where I picked up a Tobu Nikko four day pass at the visitors centre. This pass allows for unlimited travel on the local buses of Nikko and Kinugawa, as well as securing a return ticket from Tokyo to Nikko at a discounted price. I watched the lady prepare my documents in true Japanese fashion. She counted the brochures and tickets before lightly tapping them on the table to make sure they were correctly aligned before handing them to me. She doubled checked my change and handed it back bowing. Then she gently opened the train time table and circled the next departing train; “the next train leaves in two minutes and the next one will be in two hours”. Jesus Christ dude! Is this a game to you?!? I flew up the stairs in a mad rush in complete contrast to her poised and calm transaction. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent two minutes trying to take a photo in gloves at the intersection. I dropped my phone twice.

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Asakusa on a gloomy day

The sun set at 4.30 so I arrived in Nikko in the dark. I called my accommodation to ask for directions and the owner of the lodge said he would come pick me up and that he would be wearing sunglasses- a wonderful thing to wear when driving at night. My host arrived a few minutes later. He asked if he should drop me at an onsen or if we should go to the super market and buy ingredients for sukiyaki that he would make. I opted for sukiyaki, because that definitely beat my prior plan of finding the closest Family Mart. A word of warning to those travelling to Nikko in the winter months- nothing stays open late.

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Whatever you like!

The next morning I did what I can only do when I’m travelling. I woke up really early. I took out my map and traced out a walking route. Even though I had an unlimited bus pass, most of Nikko’s attractions are accessible on foot and I can’t think of a better way to see a town than by walking it. Plus I get fidgety waiting at bus stops because I have no patience. Unlike Okinawa, Nikko is not plagued my the garish souvenir shops and their pushy salesmen so I was able to walk through the town peacefully. I reached the iconic Shinkyo bridge early in the morning. This bridge is famous because it was only available for the Imperial court to use. However on my visit, the only person to be seen on the bridge was a lone janitor. Also, for 300yen, you too can also stand on a bridge.

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The red bridge

Some of the sights were undergoing repair so I skipped Rinnoji temple completely and made my way to Toshugu Shrine, the resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, which also was undergoing some maintenance. Admittedly, I was not too disappointed in missing out on some attractions because I’ve seen plenty of shrines in Japan and after a while they get boring (real talk). However as I entered the Toshugu, my heart panged because I realised that this shrine was actually kind of cool. I shouldn’t have doubted the sensationalist travel guides. One part of the shrine was covered in tarp but the rest was quite spectacular.

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Very hard to capture the beauty of this place

I was one of the first visitors to the shrine but as I left I noticed that a crowd had gathered to take photos of the famous “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys. Their enthusiasm was only surpassed by the small crowd of women who had lined up to take a zoomed in shot of the sleeping cat motif carved in the upper east wing of the Shrine. Admittedly I was too impatient to wait for the girls to disperse and try to take a snap of the cat for myself. I see plenty of sleeping cats in Okinawa. I did take a picture of the monkeys because I knew someone back home would ask for proof of my journey.

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One of thousands of photos that exist of these monkeys

As I made my way down from the Toshugu I went in search of lunch to refuel. An anman from the convenience store for breakfast can only get you so far. Nikko’s local delicacy is yuba. You can find it all over the joint. It’s tofu skin so it has a very similar texture and taste to inari. I found a small soba shop to order some yuba udon. While I waited I took out my map to locate my next destination, the neglected Takino shrine, which I had heard about from hiking blogs. I notice that in Japan, places are generally famous for being famous. Although Toshugu is undoubtedly deserving of its reputation, I can’t quite understand why so many other great places are over looked.

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Very hot yuba udon

As I started walking to Takino I noticed something sticking out of the trees in my peripheral vision. The blogs had mentioned little stations to see along the way and I wondered if this was one of them so I jumped off the path and got a little dirty trying stomping around in the leaves to get a closer look. As I jumped up and down (I am very short) trying to find a point of entry to whatever I was looking at, I noticed that a moss covered Buddha was sitting guardian to two pillars in a small opening. Unfortunately my Japanese is not good enough for me to have figured out exactly what it was in front of me, but the sight got me excited for my little walk up the mountain.

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Looking very calm

On the way were more moss covered Shrines and Buddhas. Again I wondered why everyone else was back at Toshogu taking pictures of the cat when they could be walking along the same path as I. However, I didn’t complain because it felt like I was on a private adventure and the complete lack of people made it feel like I was the first one to ever look at this neglected shrines. Time to live out the my tomb raider fantasy. I had time to try and land some stones on the top of Tori gates without being watched and failed miserably each time. I also decided to set myself a task of finding my new laptop background for the year because that is what millennials do when travelling. A particular favourite shot was of the small forms of Buddha standing beneath a cutout in the mountain. If you didn’t explore the Shrine they were hidden behind properly, you would miss them.

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Well suited to their surroundings

When I finally made it to Takino, I again was surprised that no one else was walking about. I took out my map and saw that I had actually walked a significant distance away from the centre of town and that Takino was free of the markings and symbols that designated other Shrines as places of interest. I was even more surprised that it was quite a large Shrine with a few different sections to walk through. After some enthusiastic photo taking seeing as I had the place all to myself, I decided to set of for my final destination of Kanmangafuchi abyss before it got too dark. Tip- the sun sets early in winter so you need to start the day early.

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A hidden gem

I’m not particularly interested in royal family life. However the Tamozawa Imperial Villa was on route to the abyss so I thought I might as well pop in. It was worth the extra time for a curious brain. I remember one of the displays explaining how the different linings of tatami mats would mark the importance of the room and its inhabitant. The gaudy western carpets on the floor looked out of place in contrast to the Japanese woodwork as did the pool table in the entertainment room. I imaged bored members of the royal party sitting on the chairs pretending to be entertained. I also felt a little superior when I discovered that the Emperors room did not have an adjoining toilet so he would have to walk down the stairs to go pee. My apartment might be small but I only have to walk a few metres to go to the bathroom. One of the guards enthusiastically told me that this building has the largest roof in Japan so I stuck my head out the window and confirmed that it was indeed a wide roof.

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I can imagine ninja spies on these quite easily

Finally I set out for Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This was the reason I had chosen to visit Nikko. Lining the abyss is a number of old Jizo statues facing the river. There is something about Jizo that I like. I think its because I like the way he is depicted as a calm smiling man with his eyes closed. It also helps that he is the guardian of travelers and children too. I also like how people stack pile rocks in front of him. This is because of the belief that in purgatory people are forced to stack rocks beside the river of souls. Children who die before their parents are banished to purgatory as punishment for the grief that they inflict upon their parents. So they too are forced to pile stones before Jizo hides them in his cloak and helps them cross the river. People pile stones in front of Jizo to help lighten the burden of children who have not yet escaped purgatory. It is an interesting manifestation of Japanese spirituality.

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Jizo watching over the river

The search for the entrance of the Kanmangafuchi abyss took me through some housing streets and I took some time to soak in how ‘Japanese’ everything looked. This didn’t look like my neighborhood. I live in one of the areas that was heavily raided during World War Two so whatever buildings used to exist in my area were certainly destroyed. The result is an urban sprawl with architecture with very little nod to the past.  I could hear the river as I approached and since I was quite excited I walked faster until the smiling Jizo statues were in sight. Maybe I thought I would miss out if I didn’t hurry. Apparently there used to be 100 Jizo, but the raging river managed to wash some away so there are now about 70 which you are supposed to count them as you walk along and then again as you walk back. The local legend is that a cheeky Jizo will sneak into your count total as you walk back, or that the Jizo statues will rearrange their order as you have your back turned.

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The rapids of the river

As I walked along I tried to fulfill another little tradition and find a Jizo that looked like me. I reasoned that I would never look like a smiling bald man so I just posed next to a random Jizo, which I was later told did in fact resemble me. Maybe I should have closed my eyes.

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Are we twins?

I left the abyss and headed back to the lodge. I went to the outdoor onsen as recommended by my host and as I sat in the water I made a mental note to pick up a Jizo statue before I left Nikko. I think I will start to collect Jizo statues when I find them; he must get to some nice places being the protector of travelers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Tokyo

 

I live in an island paradise and it drives me nuts. Some people escape to the countryside. I escape to the city.

Recently in Okinawa, I’ve been doing ‘Sunday adventures’. I find a place I want to go and I cycle out there or I organise a road trip with a friend. One evening I was sitting at my desk on google images trying to find the next rock pool, castle ruin or cave to visit when I started to get honest with myself. It was time for a change in pace. As beautiful and as laid back as Okinawa is, I’m not in the mood to see another sugar can field. Time to go back to the city. Two days later I was on a plane to Tokyo.

I have been to Tokyo a handful of times so my days in Tokyo were not spent like the average tourist. Maid cafes of Akihabara and the lolitas of Harajuku? Been there. Done that. Rather, I was itching to do relatively normal things that weren’t so readily available to me in Okinawa. I had a short list. I wanted to shop, drink coffee, eat ramen and loiter around aimlessly without bumping into someone or being asked what the hell I was doing. This is my idea of a good time.

Japanese clothing and I have never really gotten along well. I don’t wear anything with bows, lace, pastels, things embroidered with pearls and or anything with a meaningless English phrase. Ain’t got time for that. However this eliminates most of the major high street brands and pretty much everything easily purchased in Okinawa. So I was hoping to strike lucky in the shopping mecca of Tokyo. I was out to find some high quality casual sports wear. My idea was that if I can’t find it in Tokyo, it probably doesn’t exist in Japan. However, I had no luck. Omotesando and the backstreets of Harajuku are crawling with sneaker shops stocking high quality sporty apparel for men but lacked a women’s section. When I did come across a women’s section, the clothes usually conformed to the “shrink it and pink it” mentality of many major sports labels. I think there is a huge polarity between men’s and women’s fashion in Japan. My only achievement was to pick up some jeans at Zara.

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Shopping in Shibuya

Next on the list was coffee. I don’t even know what coffee is supposed to taste like anymore. In Japan you can get warm coffee from the vending machine but I think it’s just sugar mixed with water. I’ve become so far removed from coffee in Okinawa that I took to drinking Starbucks because at the very least I knew I would be paying for something passable as coffee (albiet just crossing the fail/pass line). This is where my excitement to go to Tokyo had begun. I was reading coffee blogs while drinking milk tea from the vending machine at my desk in Okinawa and thought; Fuck this, I. Want. Coffee.

Little Nap was a walk through Yoyogi park so I thought that would be a nice detour away from my shopping failure in the near by Harajuku district. In Okinawa, I am always impressed by the amount of people jogging through the park. In Yoyogi, I was impressed at the amount of people sprinting through the park. Sprinting. Actual sprinting. I get over taken my the elderly on my jogs in Okinawa. Note to self- never ever attempt to exercise in public in Yoyogi for fear of shame.

Little Nap was a cute shop. It had pop art inspired knickknacks about to the place to make it nice and cozy. It looked liked it belong in the lane-ways of Melbourne, and most importantly it tasted like coffee that could of been from Melbourne.

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Cute design on the cup at Little Nap Coffee Stand

Another day on my coffee adventure, I followed my handy phone navigation to Omotesando Coffee. This place was the real winner of my Tokyo trip and I caught it two days before it was to close down for good. This shop is in an old Japanese house with a tiny but quaint courtyard out front, and it’s certainly a popular coffee destination. Like everyone else who had the same idea as me that morning, I lined up for 20-30 minutes for this absolute brew of perfection. However it was not time wasted. I took great pleasure in watching the barista tap the milk jug on the counter to make sure there were no bubbles hiding in wait to ruin the smooth and fluffy texture of the steamed milk. He laced it with Bailey’s and I didn’t care that it was 9.30 in the morning. As I paid I had a brief conversation with the cashier about R2-D2 so I left the shop quite the happy customer.

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Patiently crafting my coffee

Finally on the list was ramen. Many regions in Japan claim superiority when it comes to my favourite dish, and Tokyo seems to think it knows what it’s doing. Again I took to blogs to find the best ramen in Tokyo. The burnt miso ramen at Gogyo was intriguing and thus number one on the list. I like miso. I also like burnt food for some reason. Finding this place was pretty fun. I followed the navigation on my phone because I was starving and not in the mood to mess about. This map decided to have me walk through a graveyard at 10pm at night. I was afraid of bumping into someone (or something) because I’m sure a gaijin walking through a graveyard at night is quite a curiosity. Hey, I was just in the neighbourhood.

You can tell that Gogyo is quite popular. I wasn’t the only foreigner to be sitting down in the restaurant, and there were some seats and a waiting list propped up outside for when they get busier. No matter where I eat, if there is a counter I will sit at the counter. So I sit down at this ramen place in Tokyo and smack bang in front of my nose is a huge bottle of Zampa awamori, the local alcohol from Okinawa. Guess what I ordered.

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Zampa white

I watched them prepare the ramen but I was too slow and lazy to photograph the huge flames coming out of the wok that I assumed was burning the miso. The broth comes out black with some pork, cabbage, naruto and egg thrown in. The soup didn’t really have much of a miso or burnt taste to it. It was thick and oily but not particularly full of flavour. I start to think that this shop is famous for being famous, like many of the other mediocre places people line up for an hour to eat at in Tokyo. However, I like interesting things and pitch black broth is interesting.

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Black like my soul

I’ll be honest. My hobby is loitering. This is why I love cities. Everywhere you look is interesting and people gazing is made easier by your anonymity. If you ever get bored of shrine and temple hopping in Japan, I suggest you try and find out which ones remain open at night. The whole game changes. The guardian statues at the gate become menacing. The paint takes on a new vividness. The temple goers are no longer tourists are are actually people who have come to pray. Some of them are piss drunk. The full moon was out making for a nice photo opportunity to snap Sensoji temple, the blue light-saber illuminated Skytree and that perfect moon all in one shot.

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Those colours tho

My city adventure ended with an experience that I have come to expect almost daily in Okinawa. I was recognised by someone. In a city as big as Tokyo you might think this is impressive, but admittedly I had stayed in the same hostel before and a former staff member remembered me. However, we had met four years ago and hadn’t stayed in contact. She was also just in Tokyo for a day so the timing was quite spectacular and she admitted that she hardly ever remembers guests. She said to me “hey, are you the vegetarian girl who wanted to move to Okinawa?”. Yes! Four years ago that was me!

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A chance meeting- from Tokyo to Okinawa