at the satos' zen meditation center (dad's pic)
The next day we began the Aomori leg of our trip. In Hirosaki, we were glad to have sunny skies to visit the castle park. I think this was the first castle I have visited in Japan, and its unimpressive diminuitive size was made up for by the beautiful and expansive park. All the regular cherry trees had just finished blooming, their petals littering the ground and castle moat, but the hanging/weeping variety (of which there were plenty) were in full bloom that day. We also had a clear view of the nearby Mount Iwaki. When we felt we had sufficiently viewed the blossoms, we moved on to Hirosaki's 'temple town', an interesting street lined with 20-something temples on each side, leading up to Chosho-ji. The different styles and ages of the temples were interesting, but I think I decided my favorite kind of temple is the ancient unpainted, ornately carved wooden variety set in the middle of a cedar forest a la akata-no-daiboutsu. After some more time exploring the streets of the city, we headed for our hotel in Aomori city. That night we had a delicious traditional japanese dinner where we saw (gasp!) 4 other foreignors at the restaurant.
at hirosaki castle park
a strange ancient octagonal temple in temple town
a newer temple
some interesting statues inside part of chosho-ji
the main gate at chosho-ji
hirosaki and mount iwaki
mount iwaki at sunset, on the drive to aomori city
The next day was reserved for a few natural wonders of the Shimokita peninsula in the northwest of Aomori. After a mosburger lunch in Mutsu, we arrived in Wakinosawa just in time to catch a boat trip to the Hotoke-ga-ura cliffs. We weren't sure what to expect but the cliffs certainly were impressive and unusual. We were allowed to roam the beach and hillside area near them for a while, which had a bit of an otherworldly vibe. We had heard there were monkeys that lived in the area, but try as we might we did not find any. This was near the notherly most point of mainland Japan, and said to be the world's most northerly colony of monkeys. Next on the list was Osorezan (Mount Dread) which is said to be a gateway to the afterlife, a kind of earthly buddhist purgatory where unsettled spirits roam. We arrived at dusk and were the only visitors in the thousand-car parking lot near the temple. In the summer there are a few ceremonial days where seers and mediums of various sorts help the thousands of visitors communicate with their deceased relatives and friends. We did not stay long around the bubbling sulphorous lake, in part due to the pungent noxious odor, but mainly due to the chilly, creepy, atmosphere. Back in Mutsu we had a delicious yakitori dinner at a local hole in the wall, and again we spent the night in Aomori city.
the western arm of the two peninsulas in the north of Aomori
some red cliffs on the way to hotokegaura
the strange and out-of-place, out-of-this world, really, hotokegaura cliffs
dad looking for monkeys in the forest
The next morning we decided to give Aomori city a little more than a glance and explored its bayside park area. Aomori used to be a large important city due to the ferry linkages to Hokkaido but has lost a lot of traffic since the tunneled train lines have been built. I still quite enjoyed the bayside and its downtown area with blue-lit trees at nighttime and covered, wide sidewalks. Just outside of the city we visited the Nebuta-no-sato, the museum of the city's summertime Nebuta festival, in which giant internally-lit paper sculptures grace the streets on floats that spin. The floats were, in a word, awesome, housed in a large darkened warehouse in the middle of a lovely park which still had some blooming sakura. From there we drove through the mountains around Hakkoda-san and along the beautiful Oirase gorge to Lake Towada. We had a nice lunch on its shore - Mom had a barbecued whole fish and Dad and I had nabe soups, mine was with kiritampo, like from the cooking class. After a brief jaunt on a lakeside path, we drove home for the evening.
The floats at Nebuta-no-sato
in the park outside the warehouse, some of the last flowering sakura on honshu
you could rent cabins in the park. a japanese businessman too involved with keitai business to take in the beautiful nature.
the famous aomori apple trees, not yet flowering
Driving near Hakkoda, the snow was higher than my car!
the walking paths along the oirase, which we eschewed for driving
Dad looking for fish from the riverbank. If I had a dollar for everytime I heard "Should have brought my fishing pole..." on this trip...
an evil lady supposedly lived under this rock and beckoned to/killed/ate passersby. may have misunderstood the story.
mom enjoying a longing look at her fish's head
At Lake Towada
the "Maidens of the Lake" statue
Our 'day of rest' the next day turned out not to be very restful at all, I brought my parents to my junior high in the morning, where we had tea with the principal, met some of my co-teachers and students, and went on a tour of the school. My parents were slightly freaked by the wall of windows into each classroom -we were certainly distracting the students by walking past each and every one! They were also impressed by how a temporarily teacher-less class remained quiet and in their seats. Next we were to have lunch with some members of the Board of Education - I had initially just invited my supervisor and the other matronly type from the office, looking forward to a casual luch maybe at the JC department store, but apparently the superintendent got wind of this lunch and decided it would be an important international affair involving every member of the Board of Education staff and the fanciest hotel in town. The mood was stiff and formal, with the superintendent speaking at length directed at my family which my supervisors had a hard time translating because, apparently, it didn't make much sense in Japanese either. We all had 'hambaga' a hamburger/meat loaf patty smothered in sauce, with unmemorable side dishes. After lunch, we went shopping for a bit - my parents were impressed by the Walmart-esqe (but possibly higher class) local massive shopping center, Aeon. I even got them to do purikura in the arcade. That evening my mom and I had tea at my ikebana-sensei's house - I had asked her to give us both a lesson but she was disinterested in that idea, and instead wanted to take us out to dinner at a local ryokan (traditional inn). She brought her husband, too, who is a professional mountain climber and had hiked Chokai just a few days before (still snowy!), having run into Doug on his way. I did not know such a nice restaurant existed in yurihonjo, so that was a real treat.
mom and ikebana-sensei outside the ryokan, check out the giant tulips!
a samurai house in kakunodate
hipster classical musicians entertaining the crowds in a small park
samurai armour on display in one of the houses
a resting area at one of the houses
My dad wanted me to take a picture of this 'indian' motorcycle for uncle john
cool coffeehouse #1
cool coffeehouse #2
miles of green cherry trees along the river
in the paddle boat at Lake Tazawa
pedestrian-only covered street in Sendai
Matsushima Bay day was next. We arrived fairly early and jumped on a boatride around the bay. Again it was pretty crowded and the favorite thing to do of the tourists on these boats is not look out at the interestingly formed islands, but instead feed the aggressive seagulls that surround the boat chips and other snacks. We were pretty turned off by this (and wouldn't the Japanese people be wary of the dirtiness of touching the rat-birds? apparently not.) and I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few birds died of over-eating each day in the bay. Anyway despite the birds becoming the subject of nearly every photo I attempted to take, my parents were quite impressed by the bay, and Mom even got to have fresh oysters from the bay for lunch. I think I had a better experience here for the second time, as we took the time to walk across a long footbridge to one of the islands, which is a nature preserve, as well as go further up the coast to visit a few beaches. We called it a day early, marveling at the crowd who now waited for the tourboats, though the bay had become hazed over. Back in Sendai, I had the chance to do a little much-missed window shopping, and Dad and I had dinner at an Italian restaurant while Mom slept off her mild food poisoning from the oysters (she's fine now!).
on the cedar-lined path through zuigan-ji in matsushima
matsushima bay islands!
oyster farming in the bay
along the footbridge to Fukuura-jima, an island nature preserve
mom and her cursed oysters
on a beach on Miyato-jima
view of Sendai from Aobayama-koen
The next day we traveled north to Iwate prefecture to visit Hiraizumi, which has a temple called Chuson-ji. One of its halls, the Konjiki-do is known as the treasure of Tohoku as it is completely covered in thick gold leaf and mother of pearl. We had crowds there as well, especially since it was a festival day. We didn't witness much of the actual festival, which somehow involved horses, but I think because it was a special day there were performances going on on an open-air stage. We hurried on to the Geibikei gorge near Ichinoseki where Japanese-style gondaliers pushed our wooden barge down a shallow creek to view the beautiful nature, as you may say in Engrish. The gorge was indeed impressive, and the fact that you could access it only via these wooden barges made it seem quite remote and magical. Some of the gondaliers even sang Japanese folk songs as we slowly made our way down the river. There were so many patrons we estimated the gondaliers made over $60,000, just that day. Well done! From there it was a short distance to our ryokan (traditional japanese inn) Itsukushien. We were surprised by the high-class welcoming at the entrance, a nice change from the business hotels we had been staying at previously. We were shown to our tatami room with a view onto another gorge, the Gembikei. We had a hostess for the room who was so suprised by our foreigness she spent most of her few encounters with us stuttering and sweating profusely, despite my attempts to calm her with Japanese-speaking. We were served dinner in our room, with about a thousand plates of different delicacies. Most delicious was the individual sukiyaki (boil you own beef strips, and make soup from the broth) pots, and the sashimi. It was so much though, we could not even imagine a Japanese person, with a better palate than ours, finishing it all. My favorite was all the different color bowls. After dinner, we put on our yukatas and visited the onsen. It was not particularly memorable but the rotemburo (outdoor bath) was all-cedar, which I had never expericed before, quite nice to sit in their a while listening to the water flowing through the gorge nearby. This day was my parents' wedding anniversary (somewhere around 35th? I think?) so I hope the ryokan was a nice celebratory experience for them!
the main hall of Chuson-ji, Hon-do
the gilded konjiki-do is housed inside this non-descript building (no pics allowed). I wore golden shoes for the occaision.
super bamboo at chuson-ji
the open-air theatre performance
a mini temple to be paraded about for the festivals, to be carried by the locals below
loading up the barges at geibikei gorge
mom and dad on the barge, which had a thin tatami mat floor
our gondalier on the way there, a young fellow more interested in pointing out nature-related info than singing to us
an egret in the tree
Dad attempting to out-throw a small child at successfully getting a rock into the natural hole in the cliff-face, for good luck
the edge of the creek and my now-inappropriate footwear
our singing gondalier on the way back
in our room at the ryokan
dinner is served!
our futon beds, getting into our yukatas
the anniversary couple!
The next morning we explored the Gembikei and found a random glassworks factory nearby called Sahara. Of course, it woudn't be a vacation with my parents without a visit to a glassblower, so that was quite the fortuitous find. Our final day of touring was spent in the Tono Valley (after an expertly navigated drive up all back-mountain roads to avoid the traffic), which was a bit of a let down, maybe more because of the unfavorable weather and the fact that we were running out of steam. Tono is famous for its legends, or folklore, most involving otherworldly spirits. They had an interesting museum mostly devoted to the legends, which included pretty easy-to-follow and sometimes beautiful cartoons running on large monitors of some of the stories. You could also watch videos of older locals telling the stories themselves, which seemed to be quite popular with the kids. One story, from what I could follow, was about an invincible white deer. Tono also had a preserved small village of ancient homes, which had a restaurant where I had the best soba, actually probably the best meal I've ever had in Japan. So, maybe I'll go back again for more soba and to give Tono another chance to impress me. Apparently, the thing to do is bike around the valley visiting the different sites where some of the legends are said to have taken place, but we skipped out on that.
the Gembikei gorge
I think you can just barely see it here, but the gorge's gimmick was a restaurant that passed drinks to customers on the other side of the gorge via a basket on a rope and pulley system
our ryokan, Itsukushien
at the somewhat tacky Sahara glassblowers
some apples trees in bloom in rural Iwate, drive-by style
in Tono Folk Village
One of the many random little statues around town. I think this is a kappa, a mischievious water sprite that wears a plate on its head
a safe in one of the preserved houses
open fire pit in one of the rooms
an antique bookshelf in the house that looks just like the one Mom and Dad kindly bought me for my house while they were here
a preserved room, not looking all that different from what you might see today in a japanese house
the trailhead. perhaps I'll wait for a bit more melting before venturing up.
me almost getting windswept to my death for the sake of a good photo
Chokai from Kisakata marina
On Sunday I met my aunt and uncle in Tokyo for the day, we did a bit of sightseeing - it was their first day on a tour of Japan and China! Hope they have a great rest of their trip!
Uncle Paul and Aunt Carol in Asakusa
I was excited to get back to school with my kids last week, though my enthusiasm dwindled when I was reminded of the 'school pet' part of my job description when I got 3 "sensei, kawaiiiii..." (hey teacher, you're supercute!) from some sannensei girls before even entering their classroom. But this was tempered by one of their classmates asking me to explain what "agitation" and "infernal" meant after class. The kids are going on their school trips this week, the older kids are going to tokyo, while the 1st years will go to the next town over to have a picnic.