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Bus Trip to Shikoku, Day Two: Stepping Back in Time in Tokushima

12 August 2017

After an early Japanese buffet breakfast (think rice, miso soup, and fish, among other things), it was back on the bus for a full day of sightseeing in Tokushima, one of the four prefectures on Shikoku island.

Our first stop was seeing the vine bridges in Iya Valley, over the stunning Iya river. These bridges are famous in the area, but remote and take a while to get to. The journey there was long and twisting, but we passed beautiful stretches of forest, idyllic hidden villages, and various groups of other holiday-makers setting out for kayaking trips on the river.

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Kayakers on the Iya River. Shot on iphone.

There are a few different vine bridges in this valley, but their origins are mysterious. What we do know is that to create the bridges, wisteria vines are grown so that they can span the width of the gorge and be woven into bridges with wooden planking. It’s speculated that the bridges originally date to the 1100s, and are currently maintained by local artisans. Some of them (including the one we crossed) are reinforced by wire and side rails, but that doesn’t make them any less thrilling to cross! The wooden planking is set 7 inches apart, so you can clearly see the river rushing four and a half stories below you. I thought it was pretty neat, but this tourist attraction is definitely not for those with a fear of heights.

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The vine bridge. Shot on iphone.

Our lunch that day was at a famous hotel near the river, and was a simple forest feast with various mushroom salads, grilled and fried root vegetables, and hearty soba noodles. The most delicious culinary surprise was shioyaki, a famous local delicacy. Shioyaki is a small fish that has been threaded on a skewer to look like it is swimming. It is then salted and grilled over charcoal. Squirt a bit of lemon on that bad boy and eat it off the stick like Golem in Lord of the Rings. Eating a whole fish feels a bit odd, and the bones are pretty crunchy, but it was pretty delicious!

 

After more time on the bus, in the afternoon we stopped in Mima for a stroll on Udatsu street, a historic street lined with Edo and Showa era buildings, some dating from the 1700s. It’s a quaint street that truly feels like stepping back in time, with some grand old houses and old-timey shops. I loved photographing the various vintage touches on these shop facades, like old postboxes and signs. It’s a pretty small street, so my friends and I also wandered off the main path to an idyllic stream and fantasized about which of the lofty old houses we would like to live in.

That evening we arrived in Tokushima for another dance festival, Awa Odori, the largest dance festival in Japan. Unlike the festival in Kochi, we had official seats in bleachers lining the street. You could tell this was a really big deal: everywhere we looked there were dance teams gathering, eating snacks and practicing steps, fanning themselves in the sweltering August heat to keep their makeup from running. We hastily bought some festival food and beer and found our seats.

The dancing at Awa Odori was a little different than what we had seen the previous night in Kochi. The Kochi festival felt more like a party, with more freedom given to the dance teams with regards to music and dance steps. In contrast, Awa Odori felt more official and organized, more like a parade, and surprisingly all of the teams did more or less the same steps to the same music. It is thought that this particular dance stems from a famous drunken party held in 1586 at the opening of Tokushima castle, and we know that by the 17th century the 3-day festival had been established. Nowadays, it’s quite a spectacle, attracting well over a million tourists each year with countless dance teams representing everything from theater groups to hospitals to cosmetic companies. It was fascinating to watch, but I admit I enjoyed the raucous atmosphere in Kochi more.

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A great example of some amazing hats and costumes at Awa Odori. Shot on iphone.

That night, we checked into another standard no-frills Japanese business hotel, and my coworkers and I went to a local izakaya together. Izakayas are traditional Japanese pubs, usually serving a wide menu of skewered meats, fried chicken, sashimi, and veggie sides like edamame and pickled cucumbers with a good selection of alcohol. The best izakayas are no-frills establishments that are open late with friendly servers and chatty locals. I love izakayas. They are simple, everyone can get what they want, and they are a great glimpse into Japanese culture.

It had been a truly remarkable day in Tokushima. While I’m not usually a tour bus person, and Japanese tour buses do come with their own unique set of annoyances (like the hostess who rambles on the microphone forever), I admit it was a great way to see many of the various delights that Tokushima had to offer. We had one day left, and thankfully there was still more magic to come.

Happy Travels,

Mo

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*The photos in this post, as in all my posts lately, are a mix of film and iphone photography. Click on the the thumbnails for more information and to see the photos enlarged.

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Tokyo Rainbow Pride

4-7 May, 2018

At the risk of disappointing my writing teacher, I’m going to open with a cliche:

Japan is a land of tradition.

At the risk of disappointing Japanophiles, I’m going to expand upon that idea:

Japan is so traditional, that it often borders on old-fashioned and narrow-minded. People are quite set in their ways and thinking. People live their lives in set roles without questioning their place in their family, company, or society. A woman’s role is to go to university or work until she finds a husband, marries young, and retires to the home to have children. Homosexuality doesn’t exist, and there are no laws or freedoms granted. Racism towards other nationalities and cultures is more common than you’d expect.

Thankfully, Japan is also a land of contradictions (oy vey, another cliche!), and in its cities progressive attitudes and ideas can be found. Needing some of this in my life, I joined my friends for a weekend in Tokyo to attend Tokyo Rainbow Pride. Having spent considerable time in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, I am no stranger to a Pride event, and was curious to see how Tokyo’s would compare.

One of the delights of visiting Tokyo is the access to all of the cosmopolitan, big city things it has to offer. Friday we took in some chic culture with lunch at Le Pain Quotidien and a matinee performance of Swan Lake by Tokyo National Ballet at the New National Theatre. I’m a big city girl at heart, and I miss being able to have days like this on the regular. Of course, my wallet wouldn’t appreciate this, but that’s another matter!

Longtime readers will know that I’m a big lover of hostels, but this time since I was traveling with a group of friends and had a lot more luggage than usual (I had packed 9 potential outfits for 4 days, #prideproblems) we decided to go with Airbnb. I haven’t used Airbnb much before Japan, and my experiences then were hit and miss. I’ve used it twice now in Japan and both times were easy, pleasant, and affordable. This time our Airbnb was in Nishiwaseda, an area with quiet, suburban back roads and tons of international cheap eats close to Waseda University. It was the perfect home base for our weekend.

Saturday we had an afternoon wander in Yoyogi Park, a recommended free activity in Tokyo anytime of the year. It’s massive, and on that sunny weekend day it seemed like the whole city was out, walking their dogs and having picnics. It’s a great place for people-watching, and this particular weekend it was made better by the Rainbow Pride festival taking place.

Japan loves a good festival, so much that it is hard to imagine a major cultural event without one. This one offered Pride-goers a chance to get information from the different groups marching, see some of the floats being prepared, eat street food (it wouldn’t be a festival without the food!), and get swag like rainbow temporary tattoos. There was also a stage where various entertainers were performing. We watched with delight as a trans Japanese idol group performed, strutting in rainbow Lolita costumes to peppy dance music. The crowd went wild.

Saturday night we had a night out on the town in Shinjuku Ni-chōme, the hub of gay culture in Tokyo which is home to the highest concentration of gay bars in the world. Originally, Shinjuku Ni-chōme was a red-light district, but after the American occupation and the banning of prostitution, the first gay bars and clubs started opening in the area in the 1950s, and it has been the center of Japanese gay culture ever since. That night, I accompanied my friends to Eagle, a gay bar, Goldfinger, a lesbian bar, and Arty Farty, a club. All three had good ambiance, and a friendly and diverse crowd. Like most Japanese drinking establishments, the bars and clubs in Ni-chō are tiny, and everywhere that weekend was super crowded, with people spilling out the doors into the streets, drinking and talking, the smell of cigarette smoke and the sounds of music and laughter drifting through the air.

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Dancing in Arty Farty. Shot on iphone

Sunday was the main event, the Tokyo Rainbow Pride Parade. The route runs through some major areas, like Harajuku and Yoyogi Park, but it was kind of strangely organized. The actual street wasn’t closed off entirely, and there were traffic police who would alternately let parade floats and marchers or cars through. I was actually kind of irritated by this. True, the Tokyo Pride parade is much smaller than Pride parades in other parts of the world, but in LA or San Francisco, the street is closed, traffic be damned! This seemed like a weird compromise.

But oh, the parade itself was so delightful! There were 35 different groups marching, and each was lead by a small “float” (a converted truck that had been decorated) blaring music, with marchers and dancers following behind. Our group had dressed up to show our support, and cheered on every group and high-fived many of the participants, wishing them a “Happy Pride!” I was surprised and impressed by the amount of inclusion and representation in the parade. There were groups for businesses like Lush and Gap, rights groups like Amnesty International, ally groups, moms of gays and lesbians, adoption groups, disabled individuals, asexuals, clubs for people who dress in drag or zentai suits, sex workers, and even a country: Taiwan, who’s marchers waved banners proudly declaring their status as the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. Every single person marching was smiling and happy and proud, many with their spouses and kids and dogs in tow. It was such a joyous event, and seeing that much pride in the streets and surrounding me made me quite emotional and proud as well. It was a perfect event.

After living in Japan for a year and a half, I freely admit that it’s not all kimonos and sushi, and there are some aspects of life and culture that don’t jive with me. Although there are many things about America that I’m equally dissatisfied with, I find more and more that I was lucky to have grown up where and when I did. Diversity and representation is something I miss more and more the longer I’ve lived abroad. Thankfully, Pride weekend in Tokyo was a refreshing reminder of aspects of life that I miss, and of my personal values as well.

Happy Travels, and Happy Pride!

Mo

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Best Pride crew ever. Photo by Beatrice Lord