Featured

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.

IMG_9865
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.

IMG_9868
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.

IMG_9923
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

IMG_0091

*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.

Advertisements

An Art Festival in Noto

23 September 2017

One of the sheer delights of expat living is exploring not just the famous landmarks of a place, but the small, local attractions that are easy to miss as a traveler passing through.

Kanazawa is situated at the base of the Noto peninsula, a small stretch of land jutting into the Sea of Japan. At the farthest tip of this jagged coastline lies Suzu, which, according to Wikitravel, is the smallest city in Japan. Since no train goes to Suzu and the highway bus takes forever, it is highly unlikely to visit Suzu as a casual traveler. However, this isolated, tiny place boasts a few local charms: salt farming, it’s own style of pottery, and a giant rock that looks like a battleship. This year, Suzu was further put on the map by hosting the Oku-Noto Triennale, an international art exhibition held annually over 5 weeks in September and October. September 23rd was Autumn Equinox, a national holiday in Japan, and my colleagues and I had the day off from work. What a great opportunity to head north and see some art!

To get there, we decided to rent a car. Renting a car in Japan is ridiculously easy – if you have an international drivers permit. Don’t even think about trying to rent one if you don’t have this document, as the Japanese are such stickler for rules. I have one that I use for work, so the car rental process was a breeze. We used Times car rental, right next to Kanazawa Station, and I was able to make the reservation in English on their website. The car was comfortable, tricked out with a good navigation and stereo system, and had tons of high-tech safety features (the mirrors alerted me when cars were passing my blind spots! Nifty!!!). For the day, the rental was ¥97 (around $85), so split between 5 people for the day, this was completely reasonable.

One thing I actively miss about California is driving. Not city driving or stuck in traffic driving, nobody misses that, but going on a road or day trip, windy roads, beautiful scenery, tiny towns, rest stops, windows down, good music on, good friends in the car – this I miss. It was a two hour drive up to Suzu through dense green forests and along the rugged coast, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Our first stop was to see Mitsukejima, an uninhabited island that is also called Battleship Island (Gunkanjima). It’s a pretty impressive sight, this huge, vertical rock jutting out of the water. There is a rock “path” leading out to the island that is accessible during low tide. We attempted to cross it, but only made it halfway as it was actually pretty difficult to traverse and slippery in places. During one stumble I thankfully saved my camera, but dropped my sunglasses in the water. Like the heart of the ocean in Titanic they quickly sunk out of sight into the murky depths. That seemed a good enough sign to turn around and head for shore. On the shore near Mitsukejima, there is also a “friendship bell” that serves no purpose but people enjoy ringing.

IMG_0288
Mitsukejima. Shot on iphone.

Next we made our way to Suzu City to see some art! Well, first we had to eat, which we did at a sad neighborhood mall food court. A brilliant thing about Japan is that even the sad neighborhood mall food courts have delicious, cheap food. Now we were finally ready to take in the art.

The Oku-Noto Trienalle consisted of a huge variety of artworks, installations and galleries spread across Suzu. To visit the pieces, you could purchase a “passport” for ¥2,500 yen that allowed access to everything, or pay per exhibit for ¥300 (more for performances or special events). It was already early afternoon, and we weren’t sure how much we’d be able to fit in, we so opted to pay per piece. An important mission of this year’s show was for artists to discover the unique charm of Suzu and it’s people, and the 4 installations we saw all did an incredible job of rediscovering old, forgotten places around town and reinventing them.

Tatsuo Kawaguchi’s Small Lost Article Museum was a charming tribute to the small things in life we lose and forget. Located at a defunct train station, a trail of forgotten umbrellas led the way to an empty train car. The interior of the train car was completely covered in chalkboard, and visitors could use the chalk to leave a message behind. In the tiny station office was a room displaying forgotten items on the walls – which had been completely covered in yellow paint, rendering them nearly invisible. These small things are easy to forget, but the museum certainly wasn’t!

Ohji Yoshino’s JUEN: Time Flies was my favorite of the day. Yoshino’s work focuses on site specificity and incorporate wooden sculptures of farm animals and sea creatures to highlight the relationship of humans with the environment and natural climate of regions. This installation was a re-imagining of Bar Juen, an old bar with living quarters below. Each room in this traditional building had been transformed using lighting and wooden sculptures into an under-the-sea fantasy land that felt like the film set for a dreamy surrealist film. It was so well-thought out, so simple, and so effective.

IMG_0307
A strange, under-the-sea world. JUEN: Time Flies. Shot on iphone.

“Cabaret in Preparation” at World’s End was a very different piece by a unique artist that goes by the name Eat&Art Taro. Originally a chef, Eat&Art Taro’s work combines food, culture, and experience. “Cabaret in Preparation” didn’t seem like much at first, just an old, retro performance space literally in preparation for that evening’s show, but enjoyment could be found by lingering in the space. We were approached by a friendly young bartender in a bow tie and stayed for a drink of local Noto sake, relishing the inviting atmosphere, the ocean view through the wide windows, and the good company of each other. Leaving the cabaret was done through the dressing room, where viewers were invited to try on costumes and take photos. Such a delightful surprise!

As the sun was going down, we had time for one more piece. Tobias Rehberger’s Something Else is Possible consists of a huge rainbow linear sculpture perched on a mound of dirt at the end of a field. Across the way, at the end of a set of disused railroad tracks was a neon sign, proclaiming that “Something else is possible”, which could be viewed through a pair of binoculars inside the sculpture or by walking along the train tracks. I admit, this was the piece I connected to the least, but it was quite striking to see at twilight, except for the massive amount of flies buzzing around the field.

22829174_10107209755868348_2968487876356579673_o
Something Else is Possible. Photo courtesy of Jenny Lee.

Once the sun had gone down, our intake of local art was finished for the day. We had a few other small adventures, stopping at a bathhouse and a friendly izakaya, before driving back down to Kanazawa. Like I said, most people probably won’t make it up to Suzu and the Noto Penninsula, but for those of us that do, it is well worth a wander.

Happy Travels,

Mo

IMG_0528
From a temple in Suzu. Shot on film.