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A final thought from Hiroshima from my recent two day trip.

With two days to spend in Hiroshima my girlfriend and I used one day on Miyajima and the other visiting the A-bomb museum and the various memorials in Peace Park. All of which I have written about before.

The night of our second day we wandered down Peace Boulevard to look at the “Dreamination”. Basically Christmas Lights.

I don’t know about other countries but in Britain we have a big tradition of municipal Christmas lights. Every December cities up and down the U.K. tart themselves up in illuminations and then hold a fairly naff ceremony with a local celebrity to switch them on. Thus done the cities are transformed into a festive winter wonderland. Well not quite, but it would take a scrooge of epic proportions to object to Christmas Lights. For one month of the year the same old streets and tired shop fronts transform into something a little bit more interesting and fun to look at. The whole experience of just being in a city is subtly altered for the better.

I have fond memories as kid of being driven around the city centre with my Mum, Dad and two brothers with Christmas music playing on the radio looking at all the lights and pointing out all the strange shapes they were in. Snowmen, stockings, wreaths, presents, bears, Santas, candy canes and most memorably in Leeds the Santa parachuting down the side of an office building.

The “Dreamination” reminded me a lot of Christmas lights except that

a) They had nothing overtly to do with Christmas
b) They were up in November
c) They were confined to one (admittedly rather long) street
d) They were on a pedestrian level and pedestrians could interact with them rather than merely looking at them.

a) Can’t be helped considering Japan doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, b) is a sad indictment of our consumer capitalist society but c) I am prepared to forgive because d) more than makes up for it.

Strolling through the lights is a much different experience to driving past them looking up. Strolling arm in arm with your long time girlfriend in weather that is cold but not too cold and looking at and playing with lights is another experience altogether and a very fine one at that.

Most of the lights were still there to be gazed at, obviously but a few of them provided an opportunity to get inside the lights and pose for photos.

Most notably this carousel.

And this train which I dubbed the Galaxy Express 999.

One day I need to see that anime, if only because at karaoke with my fellow teachers one of my JTE’s sang it once.

My favourite of the lights was this awesome looking phoenix. Not very Christmassy but very cool.

Incidentally Kobe also has it’s own Christmas lights-esque festival. The Luminare. I wrote about it last year. The Luminare has its appeal but frankly I’m much more a fan of the idiosyncratic but varied lights of the Dreamination than the beautiful but repetitive lights of the Luminare.

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I apologise but this post gets a wee bit poetic and flowery in the middle.

Momijidani is one of Japan’s two famous “viewing” seasons, the other being hanami in Spring. Momijidani means to go view the beautiful maple leaves that turn Japan’s forests into beautiful vistas of red and gold every autumn.

One of the most famous sights for Momijidani is Miyajima Island near Hiroshima. The island is covered in a wide variety of maples and even has a park dedicated to maple trees.

My girlfriend being wiser and more sensible than I rightly thought that it would be a great place to spend a long weekend. And she was right.

I don’t really have a lot to add about Miyajima since the last time I wrote about it. The floating torii is still a truly amazing sight. The view from the top of the mountain still offers a stunning panoramic vista of the surrounding area and the dramatic, moody mountains that burst from the sea like monsters rising from the depths. The climbed down is still pleasant and calm and takes you through beautiful primeval forest. There are still monkeys, deer and monkeys and deer together. The town of Miyajima is still charming and old fashioned and a delight to stroll through. It is, basically, still my favourite spot in Japan.

The main changes this time were to the climate and the amount of people in attendance.

Obviously it was autumn and as I said we had gone there to admire the autumn leaves. And they are definitely worthy of admiration. Autumn has always been my favourite season in Britain for the combination of the nicest temperatures of the year (September is warm but not so warm that you sweat from walking), the confluence of several festivals such as bonfire night and Halloween (which obviously isn’t a big thing in Britain but is to a horror movie buff like me) the beautiful crisp quality to the air and the glorious colours of the trees.

Japanese Autumn lacks the festivals and is still so wet that it jumps from hot to cold almost immediately but it more than makes up for it in the quality of its leaves.

I mean, wow! Words fail me.

The amount of forest in Japan helps this effect too. Japanese cities are largely devoid of trees (although Hiroshima is an exception) but just beyond every Japanese city is a dominating mountain range covered top to bottom in ancient forest. These forests are mostly a lustrous dark green but they are dotted here and there with bright apple reds, fiery oranges and sunflower yellows. In autumn every view in Japan gains a breathtaking multi-coloured backdrop.

Chief and most important of the autumn trees are the maples, the momiji which the season gets its name from. Not only do these trees effect the most dramatic change and most exciting of colours (just look at some of those reds and let your jaw hang loose in wonder) but the shape of the leaves further enhances their beauty. Symmetrical, angular, intricate, eye catching the classic maple leaf shape is the perfect canvas on which to display these autumnal compositions.

Autumn also grants the surrounding view a wonderful mist. From the top of the mountain the surrounding islands which rise so magnificently from the waters are draped in a mysterious fog. Thin enough that it doesn’t obscure the view but just thick enough to lend the islands an air of mystery and a vague ethereal quality.

Put basically Miyajima looks really pretty in autumn.

However, unfortunately, the Japanese people are well aware of this and they flock, in their thousands, to come see it.

This is a constant problem for the traveller in Japan. There are just a lot of Japanese people. And lots of these Japanese people want to do the same things as you. The Japanese are very good at enjoying their own country, much better than Brits are, and they love to travel and see the sights in Japan.

So you can be sure that at any major festival or any scenic spot that is particularly associated with a season there will be other people there in their thousands getting in your way and spoiling the view and the quiet.

Frankly I’m used to this by now and having to struggle through enormous crowds of people no longer bothers me quite so much as it did but it can still rankle sometimes, especially when we had to wait more than an hour for the cable car to the top of the mountain. Nor did I have the island entirely to myself last time either but whilst last time on my climb down the mountain last time I saw 3, maybe 4 people in total this time around I passed a group of 3 every 10 seconds.

The food is still awesome too. I introduced Fran to the delights of barbequed oysters. She didn’t like them and so I got to eat hers as well. She has no idea what she’s missing, they were tasty and juicy and perfect and meltingly delicious. I want some more just thinking about it.

And momiji-manju, basically tai-yaki but in the shape of momiji leaves, is still the finest invention in the entire history of Japan.

Hey guys. New post tomorrow for sure. I just came back from a visit to Hiroshima and I have lots of amazing photos to share. Right now though I’m absolutely knackered so just a quick filler.

birds fling delightly

Seen on a cup in our Hotel.

(topic title means “one moment please”)

Hey guys. So as promised I’m finally going to get around to posting the write up for the rest of my Tokyo-trip.

Because it’s now been so long since I went there though I’m not going to be doing full day diaries like i usually do but rather short write ups for the various attractions and places we visited.

With any luck Tokyo should all be done and dusted by Christmas.

So lets start it off with one of the experiences that will stick with me the most from Tokyo.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Our trip to Tsukiji began at the shockingly early time of 5:30 This wasn’t so bad for me as I’m used to rising at 6:00 for work but my girlfriend, who works nights, was paralysed by early morning sickness. Eventually with some persuasion I got her out of bed and dressed and we headed bleary eyed into the dawn in search of fish. However, and this may surprise you, our 5:30 awakening was actually a bit late.

You see Tsukiji is the world’s biggest and busiest fish market and one of the biggest open air markets in the world. A significant proportion of ALL the fish eaten on the main island of Japan, and certainly all the fish around Tokyo, passes through this one market. Serious money moves through this place. Japan eats a lot of fish everyday and Tokyo, with a population of about 8 million, not factoring in it’s enormous suburbs like saitama and Chiba, is a huge consumer of fish all on its own. It would be the equivalent of every meal eaten in London every day passing through one market and it is just as noisy, busy and loud as that image would suggest. In fact the market itself makes about 5 BILLION dollars annually.

Famously it’s also where the really expensive tuna gets bought. Early in the morning just as the catch comes in auctions begin where top quality restaurants bid for the largest, freshest most perfect specimens of tuna available. Prices here can easily get into the silly money territory. The record for one tuna being $55,700. Our 5:30 start might seem like an early beginning to the day but actually all the auctions were already finished half an hour before we woke up. Not that this mattered to us as due to the interference of tourists the auctions are now closed to the public.

It is, as you can imagine, for such a large and busy market, chaos. However it’s a kind of organised chaos. Everyone there knows where they are going and what they are doing, after all they do this everyday. It’s just we poor tourists who haven’t a clue as to what’s happening. From the inside it’s a well oiled machine, everybody has a role and a function and busies themselves with some small task with their uttermost focus. From the outside it is as chaotic as a hive of bees, impossible random movement in all directions with no seeming logical reason or pattern behind it. The result being that we spent most of the morning avoiding being run over by tiny little trucks called “mighty cars”. Basically a flat bed and then a tiny circular cab where the driver stands. About the size of a motorbike and moving at that speed but with unlimited access to every part of the market and some kind of gaijin eliminating screen that allows the driver to completely ignore the screams of helpless foreign tourists as he plows them down.

There are also an enormous amount of huge, dangerous looking saws. As a man I got an enormous thrill out of seeing circular saws about 4ft in diameter destroying chunks of ice and enormous fish bodies. I don’t know why, but something about huge dangerous bits of metal speaks to something primal in me.

However something about disgusting fish smells, enormous blades constantly spinning and trucks speeding about in pedestrian areas had set Fran’s nerves on edge a wee bit.

The signature fish here is tuna. Man sized fish that require years of training to properly prepare for the sushi plate. Tuna is to fishing what rice growing is to farming in Japan. Who wants to be the guy growing potatoes or cucumbers? Everybody wants to farm rice. Rice is the signature food of Japan, it is the food that the Japanese value above all others and to grow it is to be a “proper” farmer. So tuna is to fishing. You can catch sea snails all day and make a living but tuna is what people think of when they think Japanese fisherman. Indeed, as with all things in Japan, a tradition and a set “way” of preparing tuna has evolved over the centuries. The Japanese love a fixed set of rules for how something should be done. It gives them an immense feeling of ease to know that there is a set way to do something and an immense pride to master this way. From what I could observe the way of tuna seemed to involve wielding absolutely enormous blades and pretending to be a samurai. Honestly these blades are absolutely huge, more like spears than knives. The entire knife, handle included, was about 6ft long but the blade itself accounted for more than half of that.

The next stage seems to be to chuck fish heads into the gutter and in the general direction of poor gaijin trying to take photos.

Honestly, this man threw a fish head at me. I don’t think he knew I was there but he still chucked a fish head at me.

Tuna is the signature food but pretty much every thing that has ever lived under the sea is available for sale, either to restaurants or direct to the consumer. Among the weird and wonderful sea creatures on offer we saw.

Tentacles from what must have been a huge octopus.

Sea snails in their shells.

Tiny fishies.

Quite…phallic looking shellfish.

Live, and terrifying, spider crabs.

Anemones?

All this raw fish, plus a lack of breakfast was starting to turn Fran’s stomach so we set out to fulfil an ambition of mine. A sushi breakfast in Tsukiji. As one of my friends put it, we were being “more Japanese than the Japanese.”

Wandering out of the main market (god knows how we found our way out but we somehow managed it) we eschewed any attempts to find a specific restaurant and settled on picking at random any of the hundreds of small eateries adjoining the market. We had been warned that the queues for good sushi in the morning can be up to an hour and half long but at our smaller place we only had to wait for about 20 minutes.

The sushi was absolutely amazing. Hands down the finest fish I have ever eaten. I had no idea sushi could actually be this good. It had a stronger flavour than sushi usually does but a range of subtler more delicate flavours to it as well. It just was more complex and more delicious than any sushi I have ever eaten. And the restaurant itself was enormously entertaining. At the counter was a sempai (senior) chef and his kohai (apprentice) a relationship that defines Japanese culture. The sempai prepared our sushi with enormous knives and good humour. Cracking jokes in decent English and singing to himself as he did so. He carved fish into elaborate shapes and sliced with confidence and skill. Beside him his kohai nervously fumbled to make the rolls (which had waaaaaay too much wasabi), too junior to be allowed to touch the fish yet and merely allowed to observe his master at work. Throughout the entire process the kohai would make mistakes and be berated for it in jocular terms by his master. In the backroom an old bloke could be occasionally glimpsed obviously preparing the stock and berating both of them. It had the perfect makings of a sitcom. Old bloke, middle aged bloke and young bloke in a sushi restaurant together and the fun that occurs. At least one episode would be about the apprentice incorrectly preparing fugu I reckon.

So Tsukiji, in summary, busy, smelly, fishy, delicious.

A quick follow up to Tuesday’s Ninja post today I am going to discuss.

NINJA BISCUITS!!!!

Oh yes!

There were a huge variety of different brands of ninja biscuit available in Iga, all basically the same thing. An incredibly, astoundingly hard biscuit covered in either ginger or seaweed (Japan has different ideas about what constitutes savoury).

How hard are they I hear you cry. So hard my friends that they come packaged with a tiny hammer.

A tiny hammer which incidentally is bloody useless for breaking the damn things.

Ostensibly these biscuits are really hard to prevent them from going stale and so a ninja can keep a stash of them to feed himself on dangerous missions.

Considering neither museum once mentioned these biscuits I’m going to treat this claim as, um, shall we say dubious. Nonetheless stick the word ninja in front of something and it automatically makes it 1000 times better in my world. I was powerless to resist the allure of ninja biscuits.

That said, they’re not very nice. Oh sure they taste nice, even with the inclusion of sweet seaweed, but it’s difficult to get too excited about eating something that could make passable tank armour. Honestly you have never eaten anything this hard. You may be thinking “oh ho Adam, I’ve eaten some pretty tough toffees in my time,” well not as hard as these biscuits you haven’t. I’m sure if pushed to it I could kill a man with one of these. Actually come to think of it maybe that’s why the ninja carried it around. Food and weaponry in one handy package; it’s dwarf bread from the Discworld books. Available for consumption in Japan, the land of no food taboos whatsoever.

In the world of more palatable confectionary we have two new offerings from Kit-Kat this week. Well newish.

The first is a Muscat of Alexandria Kit-Kat from the premier line. The premier line consists of incredibly pretentious packaging, within which are 2, single finger kit-kats which are slightly larger than the standard size and have very unusual flavours.

The Muscat of Alexandria is a white grape flavour rendered in slightly pale green chocolate. It smells, very, very strongly of grapes but also faintly of milkshakes. I’m not sure why it smells of milkshakes, possibly a shared gelatinous component but I do know that such an odour provides a torment for me. I gave up eating at fast food places about 5 years ago and milkshakes are the thing I miss more than anything.

The first taste of the Muscat kit-kat is surprisingly bland. It doesn’t really taste of anything other than vaguely waxy. After a few chews though the grape flavour is really, really strong. Much stronger than I’ve come to expect from these kit-kats. Obviously it lacks the sourness of a proper grape and I think without that it’s way too sickly sweet. It probably needs some salt (like the watermelon) to just cut the sugar down a bit and make it a nicer overall experience.

Next up we have…. Untranslateable flavour. I’m pretty sure the hiragana says kooji (pronounced ko-O-jee) but I can’t even hazard a guess at the kanji. The picture on the packet seems to indicate English (or if you prefer Black) tea but the Japanese for that is koocha.

A quick taste check confirms that this is indeed English tea. This is not a new flavour for kit-kat. I had an English tea kit-kat last year as part of the premier line (which was very strong and unmistakeably a cuppa). These are part of the kit-kat mini line, apparently meant to be eaten alongside a cup of Japanese tea. Japanese tea is notoriously bitter and it customary to eat really very sweet cakes and biscuits with it to counteract some of the bitterness. Consequently the tea flavour is a bit weaker but the product is much sweeter. It isn’t nearly as sweet as the Muscat though. In fact I really quite like these. They taste like what a kit-kat tastes like after it’s been dipped in tea (but with a still crisp texture). However, for the life of me I cannot figure out what the market for these is? Surely they can’t complement a cup of green tea, because, well, they taste like black tea. And eating them with black tea would just be redundant. They’re too small to be eaten on their own so I ask you Nestle Japan, what are they for?

Oh and before you ask, yes, Japan does produce matcha and green tea flavoured kit-kats too. In fact I’ve eaten them and I do intend to get around to reviewing them on this site eventually.

Well that’s all for now. Next week I’ll probably get some of my Tokyo trip photos posted (finally) and we’re all going to learn about Japanese politics. Don’t miss out.

I’m back!

Ninjas!

Ninjas seem to be everywhere these days. They pop up frequently in all levels of pop culture as stealthy. magical, weapon wielding assassins and the thugs for low grade super villains.

I, love ninjas.

And something that I just recently grasped for the first time is that ninjas are actually real.

I mean they really did exist.

It’s hard for that to sink in. With all the comics, movies and computer games about ninjas, all the super-powers they seem to have and the sheer other worldliness of them ninjas seem more like a recurring fictional archetype than an actual historical occupation. But they were real, they really did exist. And what’s more they existed in the country I live in.

Why have I suddenly had this revelation? Well it came to me courtesy of a recent trip to the Ninja Museum in Iga Ueno.

I know, an actual honest to god ninja museum. I love this country.

Iga is one of the two villages in Kansai that styled themselves as the largest and most influential of the ninja clans in Japan. The other was Koga, also in Kansai and both within a day’s travel from Kobe. Ninja clans were generally based around villages which, appeared to be a normal farming village but in actuality were training camps for clans of ninja. There were hundreds of these villages scattered around Japan, each practicing a subtly different version of ninjitsu but Iga and Koga were easily the most powerful.

Although only being a day trip away Iga is remarkably difficult to get to requiring that I ride 5 different trains and travel for about 3 hours top get there. Including a journey on one two car train that appeared to have been built before the invention of suspension. It was a horrible ride but it did at least have curtains, always a sign of modernity and safety. Also it boasted jaw dropping mountain views. Still, suspension wouldn’t go amiss.

Not that I minded too much because the last of these five trains was the “ninja train!” Basically a train, painted to look like a ninja. Yeah. As you can tell on the subject of ninjas I am kind of easily pleased and I was excited beyond all reason to be riding the ninja train.

The ninja train approach to improving mundane items spread to the rest of the town of Iga too. Everything here is geared towards ninja and covering every available surface in them. Right down to the little pink kunoichi (a female ninja) on the manhole covers and this toilet sign. Being at heart an 8 year old boy this pleased me enormously.

The main draw of the town is the park in the centre which has 4 ninja themed attractions and a few minor additional ones.

The first of the ninja themed attractions was a restored ninja house. The ninja villages I mentioned before generally looked like ordinary villages and so the buildings just looked like ordinary Japanese farmhouses.

From the outside.

From the inside what appeared to be a one story building in fact had three as it contained both a cellar (with tunnels that led to underground passages linking the entire village) and a hidden attic from which the ninja could spy on intruders. Inside, the house was filled with various trapdoors, hidden doors, hidden rooms, hidden weapons (under floor planks and secret holes) and a twisty turny structure that allowed someone who knew the layout to observe nearly all of the house from one room. I particularly liked the secret door that could only be unlocked by sliding two pieces of paper under it allowing a quick escape in case of attack.

A guide followed you into every room demonstrating all the secret features but in some rooms a woman playing a kunoichi (in bright pink) would also come into the room and demonstrate the features herself. It is one thing to be told there is a secret door, it is quite another to see a woman clad head to toe in neon pink disappear into the wall and leave no obvious clue as to how she did it. It’s rather spooky and hammers home more effectively than anything else that ninja actually were real.

The second attraction was an excellent museum explaining all about the skills, tools and devices used by the ninja. This was hands down one of the most entertaining and informative museums I have visited so far in Japan and it was a real eye opener with regards to myth busting. Did you know, for example, that ninja almost never wore black? Apparently black shows up very clearly in shadow as a silhouette. Instead most ninja wore dark blue which faded much better and had the benefit of being able to be reversed and worn as peasants clothing during the day.

In fact disguise was used much more commonly than stealth. Much like the ninja house ninjitsu focused on using objects that appeared to be normal but were in fact deadly weapons. The various scythes (gama) and knives (kunai) which appeared to be ordinary farmer’s tools (in fact often were farmer’s tools) all had a dual, deadly purpose. Ninja attire was also focused on disguise. Ninja would dress as many of the traditional wandering tradesman of Japan such a Buddhist monks or merchants. This way nobody would ask too many questions of the strangers in town and they could move around unquestioned.

As well as this I didn’t know that ninja were so intrinsically linked to gunpowder. Ninja were one of the few groups in Japan with the knowledge of how to make gunpowder, a secret they jealously guarded from other clans and from the rival military power of the samurai. Many of the conflicts ninja engaged in were to defend their own secrets or secure them from an enemy.

Ninja were masters at using gunpowder too, making elaborate weapons out of it including a primitive landmine and this, my favourite thing in the whole museum, an arrow with a stick of dynamite attached. This is so green arrow-esque and super heroey that I couldn’t believe it was actually real. Ninja were so skilled with gunpowder that during the do period many of the clans were reformed into an artillery corps, accounting for the dying out of the more elaborate stealth and disguise techniques.

The museum also did a very good job of explaining the basis behind many of the supposed “supernatural” ninja powers. In particular their ability to “walk on water” which stems from exaggerated accounts of ninja using mud spiders; basically large wooden shoe/floatation devices that spread their weight on boggy or swampy areas of moats that couldn’t be swum through.

Finally there was an excellent video showing the proper use of various ninja weapons and how someone armed with only a rope and a scythe could easily overpower a fully armed samurai with a sword.

The next area was another museum purporting to demonstrate “how the ninja lived” but in fact making really rather wild and I daresay outright false claims about ninja. Some examples of the claims in this museum are that ninja could hang from the ceiling using only the strength in their fingers (I’ll believe it when I see it) and that the main difference between the Iga and Koga clans was that the Iga clan was superior in “sorcery”. Complete bunkum I fear but the museum still had some interesting exhibits about the various codes ninja would use.

You might find it strange that I just openly disbelieve a museum but frankly there is a surprising amount of lying in Japan and I’m used to it by now. Japan is not a country that has ever placed the same value upon truth that we do in the west. In Japan appearance is the crucial thing and so long as everyone appears to have gone away from an encounter happy the truth is irrelevant. I am certainly used to encountering this in social situations but I was shocked the first time I realized how often it is done by authority or advertisers. I know that advertisers bend the truth back home but they don’t come anywhere near the wild claims that Japanese adverts make. In the west a coca cola advert might implicitly suggest that it makes you cooler and have a fun time. In Japan “you will be cool and have great time super long life health benefit to enjoy total happy” or something similar will actually be written on the bottle and nobody glances twice.

The last attraction a ninja show was possibly the best of all for sheer entertainment value. Several martial artists came onto a stage and showed off some tricks and the use of real weapons. And they were really real weapons as they demonstrated by lovingly eviscerating some bamboo. Some of the skills on display were extraordinarily impressive, such as the man who threw 3 shuriken (throwing stars) at once with complete accuracy. Some of the demonstrations incorporated staged fight scenes, again, with real weapons that were very exciting and really well done. However they were also cheesy as hell, courtesy of the “acting” on display and a backing track that features both early 70’s sonny chiba-esque kung fu music and loud sound effects whenever someone hit someone else or did a kick. Hilarious though these were the show clearly knew it was a bit cheesy and anyway we weren’t there to see fine acting but rather to be impressed that a guy knew how to use sai. Which he did, and very impressive it was too.

Afterwards there was a chance to have a go at throwing shuriken at a target. My friends and I all had a pop but due to an arm injury I had picked up earlier I only hit the target with 1 star. This was worse than my last attempt at using shuriken and so I sadly could not pretend to be a ninja in my heart.

After these four main attractions my companions and I hit up the rest that Iga had to offer. This consisted of a, um, thing.

Yup, no idea.

Obviously it’s something to do with religion or memorials of some kind. There is a statue of a man inside and the architecture suggests a Buddhist temple. But it doesn’t look like any temple I have ever seen. There were no signs about to inform us what it may be and even if there were odds are we couldn’t read them.

Still, it was interesting in a mysterious sort of way.

Iga also hosts a reconstructed castle, which in true ninja style was difficult to spot and hard to find. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about it, except for the ninja dummies dotted along it’s insides, but it did offer some wonderful views of the town and the park.

And that’s it from me today. Thursday should see another post and with any luck I can get back into a routine. Just in time for Christmas when it’ll all end again.

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