Aizu-Wakamatsu

Anyone who’s read this blog before wouldn’t be surprised that I decided to go to a small difficult to access castle town with a ridiculous amount of history. Before getting into the history, it should be noted that I was a bit unsure about going to this town, especially when the possibility (which fell through) to go to a cat island came up. It is however, in Fukushima, which seems to be somewhat poetic in how much the nuclear disaster in Fukushima affected the country and even affected my life. If you wanted to visit a peaceful and nice part of Fukushima, this is probably the best that can be offered.

The mountains in the middle of Fukushima

Yaki Dango, really awesome

So for history; the castle, Tsuruga-jo, is a recreation and is as fake as Osaka, and Hiroshima castles. At times it resembles the slightly more faithful Kumamoto Castle, but like those it’s basically a museum inside, and I have to say the history can be a big enough draw. Firstly, the city has two names because the people of Aizu were once defeated by Date Masamune from Sendai and subsequently given up when Toyotomi Hideyoshi took control of the country. Toyotomi named the city Wakamatsu, and the subequent Tokugawa government changed it back to Aizu. Aizu was monetarily and militaristically one of the strongest parts of the Tokugawa family, and had the most to lose in the Bakumatsu. While the Aizu government actually did relinquish power peacefully, the new government wanted to punish Aizu. The Aizu forces and Shinsengumi held out for about a month of siege from the Meiji government in Tsuruga-jo. There’s a famous story about how the younger forces outside the castle, the Byakkotai saw smoke from the castle and all except one committed suicide. The guy who I met at my guesthouse who knows a lot of history said in Japanese “And then everyone died is a common ending in most Japanese history stories.” So it was quite interesting to see things from the other perspective.

Tsuruga-jo

This is probably the best view of the castle until sakura season

The red tiled roof does add an interesting aspect to the castle, and as they’re quick to remind you, it’s the only castle standing sporting red tiles. While its newness can be off-putting, they do hold a great deal of festivals, likely to counter this. Their sakura matsuri seems amazing, enough to make me consider going back, and they also seem to have a Byakkotai festival as well. There’s also access to the tea room, which you can see and enjoy some matcha from a different tea room, still with the same nice garden.

The best part of going inside the castle.

The view from the top

Aizu is also a bit of an onsen town, the tourist bus makes stops at the castle as well as the “Onsen Station” (which is more or less just an information center) so you can head to a nice onsen after seeing the castle. I went to Harataki Onsen 原滝温泉 which has an awesome outdoor bath as well as indoor. The water was clearer than I’m used to, but was incredibly hot. Even a dude I met at the onsen agreed, I could only stay in for about 30 minutes, which is shameful. Though I’m sure that makes it much better in the winter or on cold days.

Don't be fooled by the beautifully ugly entrance. This is the real deal. Harataki is an entire hotel

Aizu-Wakamatsu Bus Pass: ¥500 (1 ride is ¥210)

Tsuruga-jo: ¥500 (includes free entry to the tea room)

Tea Room Matcha and Manju: ¥500

Harataki Onsen: ¥1,080

The Fox Village

I’m a bit sad I wasn’t able to find this place on my own last time I was here and beat it to the punch of being world famous. Let me say two things about this place because there’s not much to say except FOXES! This is a really difficult place to get to without a car (more on that next time), it is well worth it if you’ve never seen or heard foxes before. A lot of Japanese people have asked me how many foxes there are, and it was difficult because there are definitely too many to count. The area is pretty big but you could probably circle the perimeter in about 15 minutes if that was your goal. We found that 3 hours was the sweet spot.

Some foxes come to greet you like this guy.

Most sleep in a ball of fluff.

I gave some of them names, this one's Miles Prower.

 

Some foxes think they're dogs.

In the front area there are some foxes that you can pet because as I found out, a fox’s instinct is to sniff a little and then quickly chomp on any foreign object, so there are special ones in another area. There are of course ones in the main area that you can pet as well, but the likelihood of being bitten is probably over 90%. Still if you do want to pet a fox in the main area, I promise there will be someone who seems to be immune to biting (and tetanus) who will find the nice fox for you.

You will probably see and hear a lot of fights.

And have a lot of foxes come up to inform you that they're cute.

Like cats, foxes do like high places.

This is King James, very territorial but also very sweet. He was pet-able.

They are quite low on human food, having only a few ramen bowls when I was there, so eating beforehand is probably a good idea. You can of course buy carrots or hot dog slices for the foxes, but the recommend you feeding them via a sort of feeding station in the middle of the main area or at least throwing it to them.

Don't let me fool you, there are a lot of foxes.

Sometimes the foxes mix in too well with the mountain landscape.

Somehow this guy got pudgy.

#foxessleepinginsideofthings

This is the fox version of Xena

Most of what foxes do is sleep, make weird noises, fight each other, run, or just walk up and look at you waiting for you to do something interesting or give it food. I already saw people from all over on the day that I was there, so I’d definitely recommend getting there as soon as possible until it becomes a place where tourists truly flock. There are also some good onsen nearby if you happen to go the easy route and take a car. For those of you who want to do it the hard way, next week I’ll explain how to get there and of course, more foxes!

This is my model, I have over 50 pictures of him.

This fox really thinks it's a dog.

The white foxes look a lot like wolves

If there's any fox I'd abduct, it's this one.

fox in a box

Their wistfulness matches my own.

First Bloom in Tokyo

You may have seen me write this before but spring time is the best time in Japan. I’ve moved back to Japan but am in Yokohama now and noticed that while the sakura spots are all very huge, they’re also way more crowded. Meguro River, one of the most famous and crowded. A full bloom of sakura. I had gone to Ueno Park in 2011 actually but never really made a post about it because there wasn’t all that much I did there. This time I went with a friend to Nakameguro, figuring that since it was a smaller area it would be less crowded. It’s not. Do people still check my rollovers?There's not many funny things to say about nice flowers. Even with that, going to see sakura is one of the best things to do in Japan, overall, in life. The scenery of Nakameguro is also far more beautiful than Ueno or Yoyogi Park. This was almost the only day I got of full sakura. Foxes are next week.

Back in Japan

Since Mid-March my life has been nonstop, now I’m back in Japan, living in Yokohama, and have the first day where I can actually relax. I just had a big trip, so expect a lot of posts, and foxes. First, I want to Go through some things that have changed.

Sakura Buds in Bear Pond

Bear Pond is huge now, not the space, that’s stayed the same, but the acclaim it’s earned from coffee geeks worldwide has made it even harder to get an espresso from. Get there before 11am if that’s your goal, it’s gonna fill up a bit after that.

I wasn't even in time for an Espresso

They fixed the train announcements. Like a cheese grater on my back, the english announcements on the train always rubbed me the wrong way. It’s kinda personal and some people may fall on the opposite side of the fence, but it always felt patronizing to hear “The next station is She-boo-yah” putting intonation on something that has none. It’s like doing an offensive accent and surely you don’t need to mispronounce a proper noun if it’s mispronounced by tourists. Possibly because there’s a chip in my brain they saw the ridiculousness of this and changed the place names back to normal, now to get rid of the Shinkansen woman…

There’s a Blue Bottle, and it’s the most ridiculous place in Tokyo. Most likely New Yorkers have waited a good 20-30 minutes for the Blue Bottle in Williamsburg, it’s just one of those things. Blue Bottle is great, but I won’t be waiting 2 hours or so for it, not when there are other cafes for me to survey.

That line extends up to the second floor.Cafe Kitsune was much more manageableThey use a pour over similar to a Beehouse it seems

I’ll be trying my best to give more; on my latest trip I had a GoPro, Zoom Recorder, dSLR, film SLR, and my trusty toy camera. Looking like some kind of super tourist. All in the hopes that I can make some things entertaining for anyone who’s still around to read this blog (cricket, cricket). The lovely finds of a few good cafes has reinvigorated my desire to search for more good cafes in the metropolitan area. Please check back soon!

Places to go in the fall – Nikko

I may be biased since I lived in Tochigi and Nikko is definitely the best to see in the entire prefecture, but Nikko is kind of a year-round place. I’ve ben there every season, and it’s good in every season. Despite that, the association is probably strongest for the fall. Being at a high elevation, the leaves turn more quickly than in other areas and the landscape lends itself to an autumnal feel.

The Area Near Nikko Station

For simplicity’s sake, let’s categorize the trip into three choices: near the station, up the mountain, and the greater area.

For the past near the station we have Toshogu shrine. Toshogu shrine is one of the largest shrines in Kanto, and is a possible walk from the station if you think you can handle it. I’ve covered I. Pretty extensively in a previous post and there are many good food places nearby and on the road that leads there.

The bridge in front of Toshogu

The lanterns in Toshogu

The real draw of the season would definitely be what lies beyond the shrine. Nikko does generally refer to a cluster of mountains that were mostly created from volcanic explosions well before humanity from where Chuzenji lake now stands. Following the main road would bring up to the lake area where the leaves will change first and there’s much more nature to see. While a hike is entirely possible I’d recommend taking the bus which will likely leave you off at a terminal near Kegon Falls.

Near the bus terminal

I had a boss who said Kegon Falls is nothing compared to Niagara Falls (he was Japanese). This is true comparing size but I’d much prefer the beauty surrounding Kegon, it also gives a feeling of being enclosed in a secret place that I very much enjoy.

Kegon falls

From there, Chuzenji lake is easily walkable and the road has many shops and restaurants to stop by, if it happens to be a bit warm you can always take a paddle boat out onto the lake which is much larger than it looks.

The mountains from Chuzenji lake

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t drive or don’t have the time or will to take another bus, but I would say that missing the further area due to disinterest or laziness would be a huge mistake. If you continue in the direction of the road you would take to get to Chuzenji Lake you can reach Okunikko, the true hot spring area of Nikko.

The lake at Okunikko

On the way to Okunikko there are two other noteworthy spots, which will make a car feel more useful, in order you will come up to Ryuzu no Taki (Ryuzu Rapids) (竜頭の滝) which boasts some beautiful nature and a cafe to enjoy it from.

Ryuzu rapids

Amazake from a cafe at Ryuzu

Past that is Kotoku farm which would be a 20min walk off the main road if you happen to be taking a bus where you can eat some quality food and even has their own onsen (though I haven’t been). You can get Jingisukan which is a term for Japanese style Mongolian BBQ.

Jingisukan (Genghis Khan) at Kotoku Corral

Finally there is Okunikko with many hotels, skiing (if it happens to be that cold), their own lake, and a public onsen. The whole place reeks of sulfur which to me is a general rule for hot springs, it just doesn’t feel right otherwise. Even further beyond there are endless hiking paths with nature that ranges from forest to wasteland. But I think if you were able to make it this far, you can be proud of yourself and say you definitely saw Nikko.

The onsen in Okunikko

After the Quake

It’s been two years now, and it’s only been getting crazier to think about the amount of time since the earthquake as time goes on. I didn’t really write much about the earthquake the month after it happened because after the initial shock I didn’t know how much it would change me or my life. I’ve only just started getting used to buildings rumbling due to large trucks or people in my current apartment building stomping down the halls. This is because the day of the earthquake my boss told me that there should be a large aftershock that usually coincides with a decrease in seismic activity. He expected it to happen after a day, but even now I’m still not sure if it ever happened.

Not exactly a warzone, but it is how the apartment looked after.

You can see my recount on this blog, but before March 11th, all of the earthquakes, including a 7.2 two days before, didn’t feel so intense or violent. In contrast, even the smallest aftershocks after felt violent and left us waiting for it to develop into a larger earthquake. I had foolishly imagined that earthquakes could be predicted hours or even days before happening, even though the time between the horrible earthquake alert cellphone alarms and the actual quake hitting were a few seconds. It became completely natural, only seeming strange when we returned from west Japan or for the few rare jolts (including one I didn’t feel but saw because it only lasted for the second I was stepping off of a train). I also imagined that there could be some kind of localized earthquake and that the effects of earthquakes couldn’t possibly be far-reaching.

That's everything from our bathroom.

Of course, that was wrong. As everyone knows, there was a bit of a fiasco following the earthquake, not due to the tsunami or quake damage, but due to the threat of radiation – a threat that is very real, but was reinterpreted in the worst possible ways. The days following the earthquake were pretty horrible, especially that Monday. I spent almost all of my time educating myself on radiation and how it affects the human body, which elements can and can’t travel far and how long they will last. With all of this information, I figured that I was far enough away (coming about 125-150 miles away), but was freaked out when the US government extended the exclusion zone to 80 miles. That was their estimation for the worst possible circumstances, which I can agree with, but it being the worst possible situation was never mentioned, and we imagined that there would still be people who would think to leave the whole country. In the end, being smart seemed to be enough for many to keep safe, and the media hype died down along with the memory of tourists.

Most of the buildings that had damage were already abandoned.

The government provided people with the information needed, the radiation level readings, from powerful detectors that operated without interference from other sources. However, the attitude was that the information was printed and that was enough. People weren’t educated, so complaints ranged from why the numbers weren’t zero to why ground readings were higher. These are easy explanations: natural radiation, radiation detectors on the ground give a wide range of readings and need a lot of time to actually calculate, and the ground level has buildings with stone that may emit radiation or pollution. It’s a fair argument to say that not enough thought was put in to getting people to figure out for themselves what is safe or not.

As well as just plain old buildings.

My trips to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-Bomb Museums were more emotional than usual, because I was able to experience a small fraction of that fear. I can’t forget the last part of the museum in Nagasaki and its accounts from people who lived near nuclear testing sites from all around the world, including Nevada, recounting how their lives were changed by something so ridiculous as testing atomic bombs. Whether we like it or not, we’ve been living in a world still ripe with man-made radiation. However, that also doesn’t mean Fukushima was a hiccup and doesn’t deserve to live on in infamy and serve as an example of corporate negligence. There are real victims: the people of Fukushima who aren’t able to go back to their homes because of this contamination. Just because many citizens of Tokyo won’t have their lives cut short by this doesn’t mean that no one will. There are real victims, some of whom moved to cities that are still too close for comfort in my mind (like Koriyama) and will probably never be able to live their normal lives again because even after the threat of airborne radiation subsides, the threat of contaminated land and water in that area will continue. This did affect a large part of the country and population, and will continue on.

Most people had to only fix their stone walls and the siding in their houses, or possibly roofs.

The earthquake changed me; the time after the earthquake is when I truly started to live my life in Japan. It is one of the largest changes in my life that came from living in Japan, and yet compared to the people who were truly affected by it, I’m just a casual observer.

I still love Pachinko

Spoiler Alert: No, I don’t.

Before getting to the meat of this post, as I’m sure you could’ve imagined, I don’t have any other sequential events to write about and am for the time being in New York without any vacations out in sight. I was hoping to write more about what I was missing, but… work.

Some of you may recall my hobby of finding incredibly depressing buildings and photographing them, and how this entire idea must have been invented the first time someone saw a closed-down (or even open) Pachinko Parlor. To recap, Pachinko is a game that relies on 5% more skill than slot machines and is used to sate any gambling needs (even though you’re normally not given monetary prizes). I say that it may seem fleeting because there were only two posts, but trust me there was a lot of searching going on. This is what I have to show for that:


This is definitely on the classier or modern side since this was right near Oyama station.

On this semi-depressing street (the izakaya kills that buzz a bit) is one of the most awesomely decorated, thankfully I got a closer shot.

That’s right, it has a large eagle on it, along with the white double staircase. If there were no Japanese I would imagine it would come from a place like Asbury Park.

Are there more desolate places than Oyama? OF COURSE. This is from the “city” of Moka, which has a single car, diesel powered train line to reach it from an already smaller train line.

The fact that it was called Las Vegas was just an added bonus.

Finally, a simply amazing spot that I can’t hope to capture in one single photo. Across from this is a slot-house, down the street is an industrial zone, a bowling alley, an abandoned slot house and behind it is a love hotel (the last three of which I intend to post pictures of soon). Finally, after the earthquake, when there were controlled blackouts all over Japan and power conservation efforts, I knew the controlled blackout time period came to an end (pretty much a year ago) when I saw this sign on at night.

The Seat of Tokyo

The Imperial palace in Tokyo was built on the grounds of Edo Castle, the former seat of the bakufu. The Imperial family was moved to Edo, renaming it Tokyo and Edo Castle’s keep was lost shortly after.

Tokyo’s Imperial palace is one of few actual sights to see in Tokyo but is actually incredibly insubstantial. The tour consists of the exterior of government buildings, many of which seem barely dated and have very little character. This is indeed where the sovereign of Japan reigns and has done so, nominally of course, since the late 1800s yet there is no sense of history. The only worthwhile parts were what was left of Edo Castle along the way, and a beautiful Meiji-era style bridge that we couldn’t walk over.

pictures

All in all the real reason for the LONG wait between posts is that I realized just how insubstantial this really is. This is a sight of Tokyo that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone going there for less than a month because there are far more interesting things to see or places to go. Going to border neighborhoods such as Shibamata and Setagaya have given a way bigger sense of what kind of place Tokyo is and was. However, it is free, so if you’ll be in Japan for a long time, as long as I was, there’s nothing outright bad about the experience. But I would recommend traveling outside of the city for a while instead.

Yakushima – The Spiritual Forest

Before anything, if you’re planning on going here you need to plan to stay over at least 1 night on the island. Secondly, this island is full of serious and ridiculous hiking trails so you really need to be ready. We learned these two things the hard way, by being vastly unprepared. Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was supposed to have been set on the island of Yakushima, and just setting foot on the island makes it no surprise. Yakushima is a huge island that is over 80% forestland from thousands of years ago. In old Japanese beliefs (what we now call Shinto) forests and places of great nature are considered holy where gods or spirits would dwell as opposed to places of worship.

The main attraction of Yakushima is Jomon Sugi, a 7000 year old cedar tree, and to get to this tree the bus that will take you close to its trail leaves at about 4 am. Yet the entire island is full of old nature, even to widely varying degrees, and while most is forest land, the beaches are also regarded as being amazingly beautiful. Because of the time we arrived, we only had the choice of seeing the forestland around Yayoi Sugi, a relatively younger cedar tree.