27 February 2011

Little doll people in the flower garden

Our ikebana teacher spoiled us rotten this weekend with an amazing treat-meal to commemorate my friend's recent birthday and Hinamatsuri, the Japanese Doll Festival for girls.

While she was slaving away in the kitchen we did some easy arrangements that included adding adorable little doll people on a stick to the centre of the arrangement at the end. After that we feasted until we were ready to pop.

This is some of what we ate:

  • Cooked daikon with a small piece of beef and nanohana
  • Nama (as in raw, or fresh) harumaki
  • Chawanmushi—and this was the first delicious one I ever had
  • Gomokuzushi, vinegared rice with vegetables
  • A light broth with nanohana and doughy flower shapes
  • A strawberry and a cream-filled mochi
  • The tiny thing has dried apricot inside and is wrapped in red shiso and I don't know how it's made, but it's the most delicious taste ever!

26 February 2011

Oh Honai, oh spring, oh beautiful blue ocean

Getting to Honai 保内 was somewhat dreary—as is evidenced by the lack of pictures—, but at least it was warm! It seemed absurd to go out without any warm gear on in February. But clearly spring plans to be on time this year, and I for one am all for it!

So when I started out this morning I was in my shorts again, but I ended up going for my jacket pretty soon on account of the cold wind. But the sky was blue and the sun was warming the hills of Honai and their terraced fruit orchards. On top of that the plum blossoms were out strutting their stuff against a backdrop of beautiful blue ocean, and there was still nanohana blooming aplenty.

I was also very excited, even before the journey had properly started, to find a trash pile my friend had just been telling me about over breakfast! You know me—I couldn't possibly resist some discarded fridges! They looked like some sort of strange miniature skyline, just as she had said.

When I finally got over taking pictures of obsolete technology and beautiful hills I came to a point where I was nervous for about ten seconds: a pedestrian sign before a tunnel that simply says ここまで. "Up to here." Okay? Fortunately I found the "old road"—the one that was there before the tunnel existed. It was only somewhat hilly and obviously much more picturesque. I also had the road completely to myself, so thoughts of dying were not necessary!

I passed some other cyclists on the ocean route. I love it when we have a head nod between us, cycling making us instantly worthy of each other's acquaintance, like owning a dog or having small children.

The wind was quite strong in some places, as it had been the day before, but it wasn't all that troublesome. Before I knew it I was in Nagahama 長浜. Apparently a colleague of my friend in Honai likes to joke that he lives in Long Beach (Naga長 Hama浜). Get it?

Anyway, I was ready for some lunch, a hot shower and the afternoon's flower arranging! But first I specially recorded a shaky video clip of crossing the Nagahama bridge, just for you!

Total distance: 22km
Time: about 1 hour 30 minutes
Highest point: 400m
Lowest point: NONE! It's spring afterall.

The tunnel of no mild horror, and others

View Larger Map

So the route from the last post worked out well. And above is the route I followed today—more on that later. It seems that if I spend enough time looking at something on Google maps I don't ever need to pull out the actual map book on my journey. Or I'm just going to easy-to-find places.

The worst part of the going was the tunnel of no mild horror between Ōzu 大洲 and Yawatahama 八幡浜. The cycle path was narrow, uneven, and putting a safety rail on something like that would obviously be a waste. My only comfort was the cycle tracks through the mud where dirt is somehow penetrating some of the tunnel's seams. I initially started out walking, but accessed some part of my memory where I had been driven through this tunnel and remembered that it's very very long. So I cycled along slowly, cautiously, trying to focus while I think things like "if you wobble and fall over you are definitely dead". Which wasn't a melodramatic thought, I was just being realistic.

The next tunnel was between Yawatahama and Honai 保内 and it had a smooth, wide path with a rail. Nice. The tunnel after that, pictured above, was completely separate and just for pedestrians and cyclists. My love for Honai had begun.

See the next post for the few pictures I took on this trip, and the many more that I took on my continuation today.

Total distance: 33.5km
Time: about 2 hours
Highest point: 340m
Lowest point: Being at 340m in a death tunnel

25 February 2011

Moved the dots around

Now it's time to go tackle this wind.

View Larger Map

The gear

People seem to enjoy talking not so much about where I go or what I see but how I do it.

My camera of choice is my Nikon D40. I like to shoot manually when it's practical, i.e. most of the time. It's lightweight and easy to handle. I do however look forward to upgrading to something a bit more hardcore when I leave Japan and I am so investing in a wide-angle lens at that time too.

My new small camera, which this and the last post's pictures were done on, is the Canon PowerShot A3100 IS. I finally gave up on my old PowerShot that still used AA batteries because it just kept sucking power without doing anything. I mostly use this camera for small video clips—you'll see, one of these days I'll compile all my Japanese clips of water trickling over mossy rocks—but also for quick snaps or when there's no space for the bigger one.

So there's the Specialized helmet, but more impressively there's the yellow Specialized bicycle. The thin tyres are kind of new to me, but other than that I'm loving this bike. I was never going to be a road bike person, and I'm beginning to think this robust frame with very roady tyres looks like a great touring bike.

My Sugoi winter gear in the form of gloves, sleeves, leggings and a rain and wind jacket have worked well. The combination of sleeves under the jacket is exceptionally warm. I had some trouble with cold feet, but this can be solved with small kairo in your shoes.

I really dig my two-way Shimano pedals. The flat side is great for using the bike with normal shoes, or if I'm in the city where I have to stop all the time. I've got used to the clipping in and out and only did a proper slow motion keel-over once.

My little mont-bell front bag that I ordered online has served me well so far. It's nice to have things like your wallet, phone, snacks, or a small camera on hand.

The second light I bought, the "meccha akarui" Cateye, was also totally worth it. I'm really not too afraid of nightfall, because not only will I be seen, but I'll also be able to see where I'm going.

The last major addition has been part of my foray into touring. My favourite cycling shop guy pulled out his catalogue and we got this rack and this bag to go on it. The sides of the bag can fold up and zip into the panels if they're not being used. So far I'm really enjoying how easy it is to use and not having to use my backpack, or only using it for lightweight things. The stability of the bicycle is also still good.

24 February 2011

The sea route

I left Matsuyama fairly early on Sunday morning. So early in fact that I cycled by two male hosts going home after their night's work.

The rest of the journey is filled with other similar bullet pointy observations.

View Larger Map

  • Obviously there has to be a restaurant named after the janken game
  • Kanji painted on the road can make nice geometric patterns
  • I love many things about the Japanese countryside, but I still really hate agricultural burning—I mean if you can't think of a good reason to ban it, how about visibility on the expressway?
  • Grey weather makes for grey photographs
  • The sea route includes cute pictures of sea creatures along the way
  • Embankments of blooming nanohana are exciting
  • Nagahama really loves its bridge

And then I'll have to break from this boring format to tell you about the weird stuff people were hanging on lines. I was cycling on the opposite side of the river than I had before, just for some variation. First, I passed by a lady and I thought, "my word, why is she hanging up drain dregs?" I mean... "does she use it for gardening... or something!?"

After seeing a truck loaded with more "dregs" and an old lady pushing a wheelbarrow full of it I had to stop when I saw another "washing line" scene. I asked one of the men what the stuff is used for. He explained that it's used as a flavourant in traditional sweets or other food like okonomiyaki and that it is in fact harvested from the river. I think he said you can call it aosaosa, or something else which I didn't catch. I found aosanori online. The English wiki refers to sea lettuce, but I had specifically asked if the stuff came from the sea and the man had said, no, from the river. Anyway, green laundry, there you have it.

Further I was happy to notice that spring is coming, as you can see from the smattering of plum blossoms. There was also a fancy hinamatsuri display at the market back in town.

Oh, and my aloe is blooming!

And hey, how about that weird rickety house? You can't make that stuff up! I have to add that loud enka music was coming from it. It completes the picture.

Total distance: 65km
Highest and lowest points: nothing exciting
Time: about 5 hours

21 February 2011

City appreciation

I had to go to the city again on Saturday to, amongst other things, pick up my bicycle from the shop.

I decided to try more seriously to appreciate the city and it's strange little buildings. So you can see pictures of that. I have no idea how one would describe the prevailing style of your average small city dwelling and why it looks the way it does. Ideas?

I had lunch at the wonderful Tomatina. It's frequented by girls for its cuteness and delicious pasta dishes. And this includes high school girls because it's that cheap. There is one chef and one waitress. It's just off Gintengai. Highly recommended.

I also dropped by the Ehime Museum of Art to see, well, whatever it is that is on show at the moment. It included a lot of old sculptures and other objects from shrines and temples. I think the theme had to do with the woman who wrote on these things. Not that I could read her musings, of course. But the objects were interesting anyway. I especially liked the Shinto carvings. I'll definitely go to the museum again in April when there is a show related to the Ghibli film The Borrower Arrietty. I should probably endeavour to watch the movie before that time though.

18 February 2011

Yakushima 一日

Rule number one for Yakushima is: rent a car.

With our time on the island shortened due to the ferry cancellations we had exactly one day to visit the major sights, and this would have been impossible without a car. It was also fortunate that the hostel owner directed us to a place where we could rent hiking boots. As it turns out car rental places and outdoor supply rental stores are abundant.

View Yakushima, Kagoshima-ken, Japan in a larger map

We started our morning with a short hike at Shirtani Unsui Ravine where you can see some very old Japanese Cedar trees. And as mentioned before you can experience the atmosphere of Princess Mononoke. We weren't planning on the longest hike that would take us up to the oldest tree because we didn't have the time, and the longer parts of the trails were closed anyway because of the snow. Despite the shorter trail you'll have to bear with a lot of pictures of fantastic peaceful greenery and wonderful trees.

Next we visited some more lava fields which were different from the ones on Sakurajima. Again, I'm no geologist, but the different colours and formations were really interesting.

For lunch we just pulled off the road at a place which has that run-down appearance you get in the Japanese countryside. But we didn't have to worry because the food turned out to be great and the people were very nice. I also figured that the reason many establishments keep the bottle with the 三 for their regular customers is because it's the popular local drink. I happened to have drunk some of it the night before. Local food and drink points!

After lunch we went for another mini-hike, this time around Yakisugi Land, again a place dedicated to wonderful trees and information on them.

As the clouds parted and we could enjoy some of the afternoon sunlight we visited Ōko waterfall 大川の滝. Not the highest one, but according to my friend who visited before, you can see this one much more closely than the other one.

We then continued our trip around the island, now that we were in the protected forest area. We spotted some wildlife and got some great Totoro leaf pictures.

Finally the Banyan tree place was closed when we arrived there but we sneaked one picture as a memento.

For dinner we opted for yakiniku, including more local food points because we had sausages and cuts from the famous local black pig 黒豚. The citrus sorbet for dessert was also delicious!

After our smoky dinner we were happy to discover the hostel's lovely bathing facilities before we rested for our return trip the next day.

16 February 2011

Green faces

The following morning, just as we were all packed up and ready to catch our morning speed ferry out to Yakushima 屋久島, I got a call from the company explaining that the ferry was cancelled due to stormy seas. We were to be notified about the next ferry. Bummer!

We decided to spend some more time in the city. I got some snaps of Kyushu architecture. Some of it reminds me of Cape Town, because Kyushu was more influenced by the West than anywhere else in Japan and it shows in some of the buildings. We also happened upon a Moomin clock which provided me with much joy and excitement for three minutes.

After breakfast we went to check out the Kagoshima City Museum of Art. Before we got there we popped by a little market and a nearby park with some statues.

At the museum there was a nice poster exhibition by JAGDA, the Japan Graphic Designers Association, which was free! We also checked out the Chimei Hamada exhibition which is currently showing. There were a few nice pieces.

The ferries kept being cancelled, so after lunch we went to the port and ended up switching to the other company operating from there which was in fact running.

The seas were indeed rough though. Both my friends felt a bit green after the very bumpy ride, but they were spared the agony of actually being sick, unlike the lady across the aisle from me. But she did a good job of using her little black bag.

Our rental car was delivered at the port and we immediately went in search of relaxation in the form of onsen. I found a hotel that the guide book claimed had bathing facilities open to the public. Upon our arrival and our inquiry as to onsen one of the reception people proceeded to pick up the phone. Way to feel like weird white criminals? After the call to whomever they proceeded to apologise profusely because in fact it was lies and we couldn't bathe there! Why? We don't know.

But they can keep their bath because as it turns out the nearby JR hotel has a fantastic onsen and the people there are very friendly! We may even have been able to appreciate the last bit of sunset over their ocean view if the other hotel hadn't wasted our time in the first place!

But now we were on Yakushima, safe and sound, and clean and relaxed. We found a great Korean restaurant for dinner. The proprietor's six-year-old daughter explained that her mother and grandmother are Korean, thus they made Korean food. She also explained many other things, like when she had a sheet with pictures of characters from some anime, she pointed out that you could see half of the one character's boob. She also happened to be great at English and knew lots of useful words like "ouch" and "yummy". We were very entertained and even received flowers she picked for us outside and after she disappeared for a few minutes, some oranges in a bag. We gifted her some purikura and foreign money.

After all the entertainment and great food it was finally time to head to our hostel. A wonderfully clean and comfortable place with a very friendly owner. We needed a good night's rest before we tackled all of the island in one day.

15 February 2011

Looking for an unique onsen experience?

Because boy, do we have one for you!

But let's start the story at the beginning.

My two companions and I took the night ferry from Matsuyama to Kokura. Then from there we took one of the first trains out of Kokura down to Kagoshima city. It's a combination of Shinkansen and express trains, all very lovely and deluxe (notice the gold), with easy transfers.

After collecting our rental car, our first visit was to the Meiji Restoration museum. The restoration, in short, marked the end of shogunate rule, and the restoration of imperial rule. It also meant the end of extreme isolationist policies and Japan soon saw rapid industrialisation.

The guide book correctly describes the museum as "gimmicky" but indeed, also informative. The best part was a movie with English commentary available on headphones. It told of the Satsuma students from Kagoshima and how they travelled to England to study, amongst other things, modern technologies. One can only begin to imagine what an experience this must have been for them coming from 1860s Japan. Enormous ships, new languages, new food, new technologies. Like going abroad for the first time for someone today, times a billion. And they didn't go straight to Europe. They also visited Hong Kong and the Middle East. I happened to be reading about yakiniku the other day, and let's just say that the legalisation of beef is one of the myriad small yet big changes that indicate how much Japan changed after the restoration.

After indulging in a typical travelling-gaijin lunch we drove around to Sakurajima 桜島. We saw some lava rocks and listened to the peak breathing above us as some light ash sifted down. Can you say "living on the edge"?

We rounded this off with the most amazing onsen experience of all time at the Furusato Kankō Hotel. It's by the ocean and it's a shrine. What more is there to say? This is also an experience you can actually have with anyone because the mixed bathing happens dressed in white yukata.

Afterwards we hopped onto the ferry with our car and found a nice homely kaiten-zushi restaurant for our dinner. And of course if three girls are travelling together there will be terrific purikura taken.

The next day we were to hit a few hiccups on our adventure, but more about that tomorrow!

14 February 2011


We're back from our trip to Kagoshima city, and Yakushima—you know, where Princess Mononoke and the tree spirits are from!

More instalments on our myriad adventures soon to come!

09 February 2011

To Matsuyama

The somewhat delayed report of this weekend's mission is as follows:

I left my apartment at around 08:30 and had some terrifically cold hands and feet for a while. In Ōse 大瀬 I just had to keep reminding myself that I could come back any time to take pictures around there. I had a quick chat with two old ladies taking a walk. When I said I was going to Matsuyama one of them thought I was going back to Uchiko and taking the train. But I explained and she realised what I meant confirming with "on this". Indeed, on the fabulous yellow this. They told me take care, 'cause old ladies are sweet like that.

Before I knew it I was passing the turn off to Oda 小田 and continuing straight on. By the way, this route is walked annually by students from the junior high school there. I heard they walked it on the Friday night. Yikes!

From here I took it easy moving slowly up into the Tobe town area 砥部町. The cold air was also finally explained when I saw snow at the side of the road. It blocked the cycling path here and there, but it wasn't a big deal. I was just pleased that there was any form of cycling path most of the way.

I passed through Hirota 広田町 and this looks like a nice place to visit again some time. I took a picture of the picture tourist map so I can try and figure out what all the major points of interest are.

Just when the slow and steady uphill was beginning to tire me out the cycle path ended and there was a series of tunnels—going down hill! This was of course immensely enjoyable and it was hardly necessary to pedal again until I reached Tobe city. I have to say, respect for the cyclist I saw coming from that direction a bit earlier. I wouldn't want to do this route in reverse!

The city isn't as interesting as the countryside, so before I knew it I was passing by my cycle shop in Matsuyama 松山. I had a chat with Ryō and was very embarrassed to find out my tyre pressure was way too low. As he said, maybe try a little harder with the inflation next time.

I went on to the hostel where I was staying and picked up my bag that I had sent ahead by courier. On my way down to to Dōgo Onsen for a much needed bath I witnessed the Botchan clock (not for the first time, but for your enjoyment). Anyway, Dōgo is of course the only establishment in Japan that charges less, but provides no soap or shampoo! Personally I'd rather pay more and have these amenities. Of course I noticed the vending machine selling silly tiny sachets of soap when I was leaving. At least I had some face wash with me in the first place. But I didn't have any 10 yen coins to operate the pay-to-use hairdryer! Ark! So anyway, this more stingy approach just doesn't work with onsen.

Next time I visit there I guess I'll try work out all the complicated ticket options so I can also put on a yukata and have tea or see a different bath or something. As it stands my first visit inside Dōgo was not very memorable.

After the onsen I head back up to the hostel to officially check in and get my bed ready. Then I went back to the cycle shop and arranged to have a carrier and some bags ordered to be put on the back so I can now really get into this thing I'm apparently already doing but have only now found a word for: "touring".

I took the bus into town for some dinner and hanging about until our evening programme of Scottishness with an AJET Burns Night. Upon returning to the hostel I enjoyed a fellow patron's insane snoring and sleep related noises for hours, as well as a continuation of really stupid air conditioning. Won't stay there again.

But anyway, the next morning I snapped a few snaps and was just too happy to get home and clean, of all things. This has got to have something to do with my age. Which I honestly couldn't remember when I was checking into the hostel. I had to do math. I knew I had had a birthday recently, but which one? I've also since found I'm in a new age bracket for filling in surveys. Whatever that means.

Total distance: 53.6km
Lowest point: 40m
Highest point: 460m
Inspiration for taking pictures of some shop fronts: hello sandwich

02 February 2011

Back in the saddle on a new route

How to get to Matsuyama from here is usually a question of "train or car?" Not my car, I don't own one of those, but you know, some Good Samaritan's car. I am however strongly considering taking the less obvious choice of cycling this Saturday, seeing as how I have all day to get there for a party that starts pretty late. I'm already imagining having my first visit to Dōgo onsen after a good cycle. I'm also geared to come back by train with my new bike bag, and one shouldn't waste these 10°C or above temperatures! I mean let's not say "winter is over" or something blasphemous like that—I'll always be haunted by that school outing with the sideways blizzard at the zoo—but the forecast for this weekend looks positive. Now if only I could find someone with a car to maybe take some of my heavy winter clothes I'll need to put on afterwards :P

View Larger Map