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Nagahama

Let me just preface this entry by saying that I have finally, after months and months, got around to fixing my laptop. Now, almost half of the problems are gone (I still need a new battery) and no more will it interfere with my attempts to blog. And yes, computer problems are to blame for my inability to blog on Thursday and Friday.

So on that happy mood lets talk about Nagahama, the town.

Nagahama, as I mentioned in the last post, is on the shores of lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. From the perspective of the shore side it may as well be the sea because the waters completely envelop the horizon. Even the mountains on the other side are dim and hazy. Were it not for the lack of waves and the plentiful ducks it would be just like the seaside.

Being British, and at the seaside, my urge was to have a picnic and so lunch was sushi, eaten in a park overlooking the lake and accompanied by local beers from the Roman microbrewery. And it was practically perfect.
For those beer fans amongst you I can’t wholly recommend the Roman brewery. All their options were quite nice but a bit tart with a strong fermenting taste left over to them; A flavor that I associate more with my Dad’s homebrew than a professional outfit. The white beer was very nice though, crisp and refreshing with a complex palate.

The park itself was the reclaimed grounds of the old castle.

I was stunned that such a tiny little town had a castle! Although it was only a small one I guess. But still an honest to god castle, although sadly a replica. Apparently the lakeside towns were involved in many minor disputes since it was such a good fishing site so all these small towns in Biwako have castles.
More surprising than the castle though was the architecture of the town. Nagahama apparently used to be a major centre for glass production in Japan and a lot of foreigners came here during the Meiji-restoration period to teach glass blowing skills to the Japanese.

Because of this the town has a really unusual architectural style that has really clear Victorian influences. I’ve already mentioned the train station, the oldest continually operating one in Japan, which seems to have been transplanted wholesale from a small town just outside Leeds and dumped in the middle of the Japanese countryside. It’s startlingly incongruous even in a country that thrives on incongruous images.

This approach extends to the whole town and it produces some really weird effects. The main shopping area is known as “Black Square” (Kurokabe) and it contains all the glass production centres along with many other touristy and crafty shops. Kurokabe is every inch the Victorian arcade. It wouldn’t look out of place in Leeds. Yet there is Japanese art hung everywhere and at one end of it there is an ancient and enormous Buddhist temple.

There were also ancient “storehouses” dating back to the pre-restoration period dotted around the town. These are a rare sight anywhere in Japan since space is at a premium and dedicating it to useless wooden structures seems a waste. But these storehouse were very cool looking. Essentially imagine a siege tower but built into the corner of a wall. It’s wooden and thin but much taller than all the surrounding buildings. Again, the incongruous nature of these ancient buildings sitting next to what looked like Victorian streets was utterly strange.

Just off one corner lay an open area with a collection of craft shops. These were selling some of the most bizarre things, from girl’s festival dolls, to home made hello kitty chairs, to telescopes and even small home made toys. But most surprising and inviting of all was this.

A giant outdoor kaleidoscope. Basically it was a big tent with a stained glass window at the top, a mirror and a handle to turn the glass. It wasn’t the most impressive sight I’ve ever seen but it was free and just randomly here for enjoyment.
The whole town seemed full of quirky little surprises everywhere we looked. There was the anglophile tearoom called “London Antiques” complete with real antiques that came from practically everywhere in Europe except London it seems. There was the gorgeous and picturesque river running through the square. There was this frankly bizarre looking samurai and so many more surprises like this.

Frankly the most surprising thing was this;

a museum dedicated to the toy manufacturer Kaiyodo. Kaiyodo will be most famous to American nerds for producing the revoltech line of figures. Now I have to stress here, Nagahama is a small place and hard to get to. It has a historic glassmaking area and some wonderful plum trees but it is hardly the ideal tourist spot. So why put a toy museum here? Kaiyodo is neither from Nagahama nor based there so what was this mysterious museum doing here? Maybe, like me, the owners of Kaiyodo had just been swayed by the sheer strangeness of the place.

Sadly time did not permit me to explore the museum, but I did get a photo of a dinosaur made of dinosaurs.

Finally we hit up the historic glass making part of town to watch someone blow glass (which is always amazing to watch but I have seen it before) and then into a glass shop to look at sculptures. Again the strange European vibe continued as Fran and I met another Gaijin, a foreigner, living in this small town…who didn’t speak English. She was Italian and working in the glass shop.

The shop was amazing of course showing off many styles, colours and products including stuff made there and stuff imported from Italy. Including real Venetian masks.

Of particular interest were the specialty pieces such as this amazing violin.

Being Japan of course artistic representations of fish were common.

Sadly, due to the long journey we had to make home we had to leave Nagahama before I really felt I had explored it. But even the small time I spent there caused me to fall utterly in love with the place. It is so bizarre and so unlike anywhere else in Japan. A tiny town, seemingly dominated by art and beauty over any real business or farming, smack dab in the centre of the countryside miles from the coast and yet with one of the most palpable European feels of any city in Japan.

I think I loved it more because I discovered it. Nagahama is listed in the guidebook I use, but only briefly. And whilst they did mention the storehouses, the castle and the kaleidoscope; the Hello Kitty chair, the toy museum and the weird samurai were all discoveries I made on my own. I feel weirdly protective of the place. I loved that everything there surprised me so much and that I went there expecting so little and came back with so much.

I think it may just be my favourite place in Japan.

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At last I can post what I’ve been trying to for the better part of three weeks. Welcome to the delightful little town of Nagahama. Today trees! Tomorrow toys! and things not beginning with a T. I ventured out there on Sunday the 15th of February and when I say ventured I want to stress just how much of an adventure this was. It required a 5 HOUR round trip! Including a 2 hour train ride over flat, dull plains out into the heart of the inaka. Our destination was Nagahama, a tiny town on the shores of Japan’s largest lake, Biwako. Our goal was an exhibition of plum trees, housed in the Japanese equivalent of a mansion, in large pots. The trees that is, not the mansion. Japanese houses aren’t contained in pots. Well except for the ones with the old school earthquake defences. Now, I really, really like plum trees. In fact I find them to be slightly more aesthetically pleasing than sakura. Sakura is beautiful of course and the combined effect when all the trees turn pink every April is breathtaking. Yet, there is something about the minimalism of plum trees that I really like. The sparseness of the branches that are lined with small clumps of delicate but gorgeous flowers is a perfect minimalist motif. Simple lines that provide a relief to a small area of focused complexity and simple colours spotted with bright sections that seem almost too colourful to be actual flowers are less overwhelming than sakura and equally pleasing to the eye. However. 2 HOURS! To go and look at trees, even really pretty trees seemed to be asking a lot. And so it was with a lot of trepidation and with very low expectations that I boarded the train and settled in for a looooooong ride. I started to get excited sometime after we had gone past Kyoto and all the surroundings were suddenly completely new to me. At first these views were pretty damn boring and brown but I started to spot snow covered mountains in the distance. Eventually the suburbs gave way to the countryside and I was treated to tiny Japanese villages with traditional roofs and the occasional glimpse of the great lake itself. The most mysterious stop on the route was when we had to sit in a train station for about 15 minutes whilst we changed trains. We sat on the train, idling on the rail and noticed a large group of families all waiting on the opposite platform but far too far down to actually board the train. There was a kind of fence on either side of them turning the platform into, well, some kind of viewing platform. I later found out that Nagahama is home to the oldest continually operating train station building in Japan, dating back to the Meiji-restoration era. And what’s more they still have a steam train that runs along the modern track. I had just seen a massive clutch of Japanese train spotters! The lovely scenery and the feeling of being somewhere uninhabited, strange and old fashioned started to get me really excited so that by the time we finally got to Nagahama I was actually quite giddy. The big question of course was, ‘were the plum trees worth the trip?’. They Were Amazing. Of course you could tell that just by looking at the beautiful photos I have dotted this post with. Not being one for flowers normally I don’t have the language to describe such gorgeous plants so I shall let you drink in the pictures yourself. Apparently this is a practice called “bonbai.” Bonbai is much like bonsai in terms of it’s techniques, the shape of the trees and how they are cultivated but unlike bonsai it doesn’t strive to create vistas in miniature. Rather the trees grow to a natural size and the shaping is purely done to give them a pleasing shape. And some of the shapes are incredible, especially the trees which seemed to be almost dead but were happily flowering. I mean just look how thin that tree is at the base. It looks like it should have snapped in half. But yet, still flowering. This particular tree was over 400 years old and many of those in the exhibition were about 200 years of age. We were so impressed that on a complete whim we bought our own tree. A bonsai. Sadly this entry is a bit late and our tree has already flowered and withered away before I could take a photo of it in bloom. I’ll try my very best to get photos next year (assuming Fran can keep it alive for one year.) Afterwards we had a walk in the Japanese garden of the mansion and it too was wonderful, full of elaborate rockeries and stone formations, all covered in a rich green moss. Oh and there was this guy too. The thinnest sumo wrestler I have ever seen. So, so much so good. The trees were really good but I was still dubious about the time spent. And then I had a wander around the town. Come back tomorrow to discover what it was like.

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