Monday, March 30, 2009

Genkai Nada beach

On Friday afternoon we biked over to Wajiro on a whim to see what the coastline was like over there. It turns out there is a nice sandy beach that runs for kilometres and has some great views:

The beach is covered with lots of interesting things. We found this starfish:
It started running away- very slowly - when Ena touched it so after we followed it around for a little while we decided to leave it alone.

The beach was also littered with hundreds of these:
If you can't tell what that is, it is the corpse of a blowfish ("fugu" in Japanese). These are well known as delicacies in specialized restaurants, though they have to be prepared by a properly certified chef as the blowfish contains poison that is lethal to humans and an amateur chef might not know what part to take out before serving it.

I don't know why there were hundreds of dead blowfish on the beach, I guess that is just where they go when they die. These ones were porcupine-type blowfish with spikes all over their body that stick out when they inflate their bodies, allowing them to do serious damage to any predator that tried to eat them.

There was also a reasonably attractive stretch of rocky coastline:
Lots of people were out collecting shellfish along this part of the coastline. The island visible in the far distance is Ainoshima, which has a small village, some ancient ruins and some attractive natural scenery on it. There is a ferry that runs out there irregularly, I think this summer we'll hop on and spend a day out there.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cherry blossoms in Fukuoka

On one of the last days of my parent's visit my dad and I went into Ohori/ Maizuru park in Fukuoka to look at the cherry blossoms. The ruins of Fukuoka castle are in the park. There isn't much left of the castle except the stone walls, but its got loads of cherry trees and good views from the top of the city.

The cherry trees spread out over a wide area. The bits of blue you can see under the blossoms are tarps that people having hanami parties are sitting on:
This is a view of Fukuoka Tower and the Momochi area from the site of the former main tower of the castle:

Cherry trees lining the top of one of the castle walls:
We also stopped in a Japanese garden by Ohori Koen which was quite pretty:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mount Aso

During our trip to Kumamoto we also made a side trip to Mount Aso, which is (by some measure) the world's largest volcano. It isn't particularly high (about 1500m) but the caldera is massively wide and has five active peaks, one of which we went to the top of via a cable car.

The water pooled in the peak is boiling on the surface and more than a thousand degrees deeper down, so it is quite dangerous. It also spews out poisonous gas and the peak is routinely closed due to this. We were lucky in that it wasn't too bad ont he day we visited and it was a clear day so we got a pretty good view of the crater. As indicated by my facial expression it was pretty dangerous though:
According to the guide book there have in fact been numerous fatalities among tourists at the top due to mini eruptions, one of which destroyed the previous cable car to the top and killed a dozen people in it. They built these concrete bunkers for everyone to hide in if the thing blows its top during tourist season:
The smell at the top of sulpher was overpowering:
I can add volcanoes to the list of things that Ena looks cute standing in front of:

Kumamoto Castle

We went to Kumamoto with my parents this week. Kumamot is just a couple hours by bus from Fukuoka and has one of Japan's most famous castles. It isn't as good as Himeji castle, but for a post-war reconstruction it is definitely one of Japan's best.

Kumamoto Castle was built in the early 17th century but the main buildings were burned to the ground in 1877 during the Southwest Rebellion - the last stand of the samurai against the modernizing Meiji government (a massively historically incorrect version of the events of that war are loosely represented in the Tom Cruise film "the Last Samurai").

We were fortunate enough to catch the castle during the height of the cherry blossom season, which gave us some good photo opportunities:
This is the main tower, rebuilt in the 1960s:
Ena and I in front of one of the reconstructed gates:
This turret is one of the few bits of the castle that survived the 1877 fire:
We went back at night to see the place lit up:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pro Yakyu - Japanese Baseball

I took my parents to a baseball game the other day to see the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks play a pre-season game against the Chunichi Dragons. Unlike most Canadians who follow hockey my sport has always been baseball, so I've been itching to see a game since I got here.

When I lived in the Kansai area I was a Hanshin Tigers fan, which is an experience in itself. But I've decided to become a Hawks supporter since coming to Fukuoka. I can justify it because the Tigers and Hawks are in different leagues so they aren't competing directly with each other in the regular season.

Attending a Japanese baseball game is an experience way different than attending a MLB game in North America - at least if you sit in the cheap bleacher seats like I always do. I wasn't sure if it would be the same in Fukuoka as it was at Hanshin Tigers games but was pleasantly surprised to find that the fans here are just as crazy as Tigers fans.

If you sit in the outfield, they divide the seats between home team and visiting team supporters. This is necessary because if you sit in the cheap seats you HAVE to participate in the group cheering that is directed by the team's supporters. This is my mom and dad trying to follow some of the cheers:
They were good sports and I'm sure their cheering helped in the Hawk's victory.

Another thing they do is everybody in the stadium blows up a balloon in the 7th inning stretch and lets them go simultaneously, causing it to rain balloons. This is what it looks like:
And me about to let my balloons go:

Mom and Dad visit!

My mom and dad are in town for a visit, they arrived on March 12 and we've been travelling around ever since. This is them with Ena in our place playing cards:
We took them downtown and took in Canal City and the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. This is Ena and Mom at a shrine near the museum:
Unfortunately all 4 of us have been sick so we were not able to get a lot of the fun stuff into the first few days they were here, but after I recovered we headed out to Karatsu, a small city on the coast west of Fukuoka that is known for its castle, its pottery and a festival it holds each October. This is mom and dad in front of the castle:

Dad and I went up to the top of the castle, which had some fantastic views over the sea and Karatsu city:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ritsurin Koen and Takamatsu

After our 3 days in Himeji we went off to Takamatsu. This is Ena with her dad:
While there we spent one morning at Riturin Koen, which is probably the best garden I have ever been to. For reasons that aren't clear to me, Japan has a "top 3" list of just about everything and this includes gardens. For some reason Ritsurin Koen isn't on the top 3 gardens list, though as the Lonely Planet notes it is definitely in the same class as the official top 3. I've only ever been to one of the top 3, Korakuen in Okayama, and can say that Ritsurin is every bit as good.

Anyway, the one thing that I have to inevitably compare Ritsurin to is Butchart Gardens in Victoria - one of B.C.'s top tourist attractions. Its a bit difficult to compare them because they are different creatures - Ritsurin is a traditional Japanese garden whereas Butchart is more of a flower garden (though it also has a little Japanese garden). That said, I have to say that I enjoy Ritsurin far more than Butchart.

This leads me to a little rant.

Butchart is a nice garden, but in terms of the experience you get Ritsurin is much nicer. Butchart takes you about an hour to walk through and most of that time will be spent fighting with the crowds. When you get to a vantage point that has a good view you have about 2 seconds to whip out your camera and snap a picture before the throngs force you to move on. Ritsurin Koen on the other hand is actually more expansive than Butchart (extremely surprising given that Ritsurin is in downtown Takamatsu whereas Butchart is way out in the suburbs of Victoria) and you can easily spend several hours walking the numerous pathways that wander through the gardens with their massive ponds and other water features, like this:

I've been to Ritsurin 3 times in my life and have never had a problem with crowds (though on busy occasions I assume they are also a problem), though in the countless times I've been to Butchart I can't remember ever not having had to deal with crowds.

The other thing that I like about Ritsurin is that it is not a rip-off. Admission is 400 yen (about 4$) and they don't jack that up during the tourist seasons. For that you get free reign to go wherever you like, including the museums in the park. The only thing you'll have to pay extra for is for tea at the teahouse, which only adds about 3 or 4$ to the price. For about 7$ we were able to get coffee served on the lakeside and some fish food to feed some of the thousands of decorative carp that reside there:
Incidentally, this is what a carp feeding frenzy looks like close-up, if we had fallen in we would have been gummed to death in seconds:

Butchart Gardens on the other hand charges about 25$ (about 6 times more) and they jack up the prices whenever they can. All the restaurants in the place are second rate and overpriced. Basically the whole thing is just a big tourist trap.

I can't really think of any reason why Butchart is more expensive. Obviously they have a large staff of gardeners working throughout the year to maintain the gardens which is quite expensive, but the same is equally true of Ritsurin, which has thousands of trees and bushes that are intricately trimmed by teams of professional gardeners.

The only conclusion I can reach is that for whatever reason Butchart is much more expensive to run than Ritsurin and this results in much higher ticket prices for a garden that is - in my humble opinion - less enjoyable.

Anway, that is the end of my rant. Here are some pictures of Ritsurin:

Friday with Akiyo and family in Himeji

On the last day of our trip to Himeji our friend Akiyo took us around for the day and we had a really great time. First she took us to her pottery teacher's place and we made some plates:

I made one big plate and Ena made a bunch of small ones. Unfortunately it takes about a month to color, fire, dry, etc the plates so we'll have to wait to actually get the finished products. It was a lot of fun.

Then Akiyo took us to Ume no Sekai Koen in Tatsuno, which is a mountain park with loads of plum trees that were in blossom:
The views of the inland sea from the park were fantastic, I couldn't believe that we had lived in Himeji for 4 years but never come by this place:

Akiyo also took us to the Himeji History Museum, which is only about a block or two from our old apartment. We had been there a couple of times before but we had a good time there, we met our friend Kato-san who worked there and she explained a lot of the exhibits to me, which was cool. Akiyo and Ena meanwhile spent there time playing with some toys:
I also got to ride on Reki, the stuffed horse. The museum actually has a special section where they dress visitors up in either samurai armour or kimono. We planned to do that but unfortunately we got there a bit too late so I had to settle for a picture of me on Reki:

In the evening Akiyo and her family and a few old friends from Himeji got together for a kind of "welcome back" party, we had a great time:

Monday, March 9, 2009

Akashi and Murphy's

We went to Akashi last Wednesday night to visit some of the old places from my first year in Japan.

On December 15, 1999 right after I arrived in Japan I was whisked directly from Kansai International Airport to this building:
GEOS, the English school I was hired by, had a branch on the 4th floor that I spent that first year working at. I remember being completely disoriented that first evening as Matthew, the trainer who picked me up at the airport, introduced me to the staff who would be my coworkers. It was a bit of a scary experience but I managed.

It was a fairly rocky first year but I still had a lot of good memories from my time there. 4 years ago when Ena and I went to Akashi for a last visit before we moved to Canada I ran into all the people who were working there at the bar Murphy's. I had no idea who they were (everyone who worked there during my time had long since left) but they knew me because there were a lot of pictures of me around the office. Its nice to know you are still remembered at a place.

Fast forward to last week and I had heard some rumors that the place had closed and was kind of sad to find out they were true. There used to be a big bright blue and yellow GEOS sign on the fourth floor of this building but it was gone and the lights in the windows were out even though it was office hours. The end of an era.

Anyway, after that discovery I went on to find that my favorite yakitori restaurant was still in business. This was kind of important because it was where Ena and I had our first date:
Then I went to the one place in all of Japan that I like to go to more than any other: Murphy's bar. I spent 2 or 3 evenings a week in that place during my first year in Japan and learned pretty much everything I need to know about life as a foreigner in Japan there. I was glad to see that it was still open and my friends David and Rodemu were still behind the counter:

Ena gave a try at being a bartender too:
This is what it looks like on the outside:
The place is a lot bigger than it was when I was a regular as David knocked down one wall and expanded the place. Its still got the same atmosphere though, which is great.