Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bandai Asahi National Park, Japan - August 2008

Goshikinuma Ponds

While we were in Misawa, Japan we ventured down to Fukushima prefecture over Labor Day Weekend (not celebrated by the Japanese, so no tourist traffic).  After a six hour drive and a restful night at our favorite Japanese lodging, Toyoko Inn, we headed in to Bandai Asahi National Park.

Choshigataki Falls

It was a rainy day, so our plans to hike Mt Bandai were put on the back burner for today.  Instead we took a hike around the Goshikinuma, a series of ponds and lakes with emerald green colors (thanks to the high mineral deposits from the nearby volcanoes).

Amy and Heath at Choshigataki Falls

Later in the day we made a short and slippery hike to Choshigataki Falls.  It's named this because it looks like a 'choshi', which is what sake is poured from.  That night we stumbled upon a very nice bed and breakfast with its own onsen (we voted against camping in the rain).

One of the Many Lakes of Bandai Asahi

The next morning the skies were still overcast, so we decided to venture to the nearby town of Aizu-Wakamatsu to see the reconstructed castle.  The castle was pretty neat, and the clouds started clearing up.

Wakamatsu Castle

Although the structure dates back to 1593, most of it was reconstructed in the 1950's. 

Wakamatsu Castle with Bonzai Tree

The interior now serves as a castle museum with several exhibits on life in the shogun era.  Although we couldn't read any of the exhibits, it was still worth the money.  It also had a neat bonzai garden on one of the terraces.   After lunch at a Japanese imitation of KFC, we headed back to the national park.

Amy and Heath Biking in Bandai Asahi

We spent the rest of the afternoon mountain biking around one of the many lakes found in the park.  These lakes and ponds were formed after Mt Bandai erupted in 1888 and dammed up several rivers and streams.

Mt Bandai Trail Head

On the third and final day of our trip the weather finally cleared enough for us to give 'ol Bandai San a go.  Although it only reaches 1,819 meters (about 6,000 feet), the base is only about 500 feet above sea level.

View from atop Mount Bandai

Along the hike we had magnificent views of the lakes and ponds we had hiked and biked around previously.  And since Bandai San is an active volcano, we witnessed several steam vents and bubbling water puddles on the way up.

Amy and Heath At the Top of Mount Bandai

When we got to the top we were greeted by about a dozen shocked Japanese and a million dragon flies.  As usual, there was a mini shrine erected at the peak of the mountain.  After a nice lunch on top, we descended and began the journey home.

Shrine at Peak of Mount Bandai

Kanto Matsuri (Lantern Festival) - August 2008

In August of '08 while still in Misawa, Japan we completed the trifecta of the area's (and Japan's) best festivals by attending the Kanto Matsuri with Alan. We spent the better part of the day trying to find a camping sight due to the immense popularity of the festival. We finally found one just outside of town at some sort of family park complex that had a water park.

We made our way into town braving the rain to see the lantern parade with 400,000 others (the festival generally gets about 1.3 million visitors a year). Along with the lantern toters there were your typical Japanese festival fare.

Luckily, we were able to scope out a pretty good spot right along the avenue of the parade. The lanterns (which weigh around 115 lbs and are about 36 ft long) are passed from man to man and carried on the hip, forehead, hand and shoulder.

Unlike most of the festivals in Japan, this one actually had an element of danger added to it.  While the lantern carriers were quite skilled at balancing these lighted beauties, sometimes they did drop all 36 feet of them.  Luckily we were standing under a high line that caught the falling projectiles.

Below is a video illustrating the dangerous nature of being a spectator at this festival and how the line saved us.

The morning after spending a rain drenched night at the campsite (in which Alan and I polished off a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos in the Surf as evidenced by orange crumbs all over the car) we set off up the west coast of Japan.

In this region of Japan there is some fable of these crazy dressed people.  We never figured out exactly what they were, but as you can see they were friendly and photogenic.

In true Japanese ingenuity, a couple of construction traffic control robots.

And before we headed home, we stopped off to check out the rice art (as seen in a previous post).

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Kyoto July 16-19, 2008

When we got to Kyoto it was the night before the final parade of the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan's most well known festivals. We didn't really plan on doing this, it just worked out that way.

All of downtown Kyoto was blocked off for pedestrian traffic only. All of the floats were on display along with countless food vendors and girls with kimonos.

One of the interesting things about this festival is that families will put family heirlooms on display for all to see. Kyoto's streets basically become a free museum of antique kimonos and artwork.

Since everyone in Kyoto was wrapped up in the festival, it made shrine hopping virtually tourist free for the most part. Our first stop was a short walk from our business hotel. Probably best known for the hundreds of torii gates, Fushimi Inari shrine was definitely one of our favorites.

Started in 790 this Shinto shrine boasts over 10,000 torii gates (and I think we saw everyone of them).

After getting our share of torii gates we stopped by Ginkakuji Temple (Silver Pavilion built in the late 1400's). Although it's called the silver pavilion, it was never covered in silver.

When we were there the main pavilion was under renovation, but we still got to see the gardens.

Tornado potato anyone?

Our next stop was the Heian Jingu temple. This temple was built in 1895 in celebration of Kyoto's 1100th birthday.

Stacks of sake barrels like above represent donations of patrons at Shinto shrines.

These 'paper prayers' are common at temples and shrines in Japan.

When you come to the fork in the road...

The gardens at Heian Jingu were massive and well manicured. They also had hazardous water case and so on.

Luckily balance prevailed and we continued on our tour.

More gardens at Heian Jingu.

Another one of the temple complexes we visited was the Kiyomizudera temple. Established in 790, the buildings of the complex date back to the 1600's. As you can see, the temple sits on the hillside giving great views of Kyoto.

In the temple complex are three waterfalls called Otawa no taki. You drink from these for health, longevity, and wisdom respectively. However, you're only supposed to drink from two of them. If you drink from all three you're seen as greedy and misfortune will fall upon you...oops, I was thirsty.

Although we'd seen fountains like this at other shrines in Japan, this was the first one we saw people bringing plastic jugs to fill with the water.

Another interesting part of the temple complex is a shrine dedicated the god of love and match making. In this shrine are two rocks that are about 30 ft apart. If you navigate between the two rocks with your eyes closed you'll find your true love. Let's see how Amy did...

The main complex of the temple (above) is made entirely without any type of nail. It's supported by 139 pillars 49 ft tall. During the Edo period if you jumped off and survived your wish would be granted. Of the 234 who attempted the jump, 85.4% survived.

One of the more interesting places in Kyoto was the Gion Shimbashi. This area is the best example of the Edo period tea houses with the bamboo shades covering the house fronts.

At night we got to glimpse three geisha. Since there are only about 1,100 left, we consider ourselves lucky to have seen some. It's easy to see why this area was one of the main locations for shooting Memoirs of a Geisha.

We did get to eat dinner in one of the tea houses. It was pretty much filled with tourists (both Gaijen and Japanese), but the food was good.

The Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) was originally built as a retreat for a shogun in the 1300's. Eventually it was converted to a Buddhist temple. It has been burned to the ground a few times, the most recent incident by a crazy monk in 1955.

The most underwhelming of the 'must see' temples was the Ryoanji Temple. In the land of Buddha, it is supposedly the most zen of locations. Don't get me wrong, it was a cool rock garden. It was built in the 1400's, and it has also been designated a World Heritage Site.

Another UNESCO site, the Toji temple boasts the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan. Originally built in the 8th century, the present pagoda dates back to the 1600's

A good reminder for all of us thinking of scribbling on priceless treasures of Japanese culture.

The Sanjusangendo Temple boasts the longest wooden building in Japan. But the real attraction here are the 1,001 Kannon statues covered in gold leaf. All of them were individually carved from Japanese Cyprus trees around 1264 AD. Photography was prohibited inside the building...oops.

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