Friday, May 9, 2008

tour de tohoku

Though my parents left last Wednesday I've been quite a busy bee since but here, finally, is THE post about our 'Tour de Tohoku'. Unfortunately not up to my mom's expectations of hourly updates with photos on each portion of our trip, with at least 1,000 comments on each post, but it will have to do. Sorry, mom. Happy Mother's Day!

The day after Oga we stayed in the Yurihonjo area and visited the popular (with me, on this blog) Akata-no-daiboutsu and akata-no-taki. It was a cloudy day and rained quite a bit before we headed to my former fellow teacher's home, which happened to be attached to a buddhist temple, as her husband is a priest. Their house and the temple, which also had a lovely garden, were hundreds of years old, it was like going back in time. She served us a simple tea ceremony while we looked out at the garden and discussed mostly, rowing (husband and daughter are both rowers), and my 'moncle', as my friends like to call him, my uncle who is a benedictine monk in France. They were also hosting a memorial gathering for someone who had recently died, so there was a somber mood to the place. The ancient ways were underscored when my mother asked about succession. The husband had explained to us how this temple was passed down in his family over generations. But as they only have daughters (one of whom is in college in Wisconsin, majoring in gender studies, interestingly enough), how would this work for the next generation? Apparently, one of the daughters must find and marry a buddhist priest-in-training who can take over the work of the temple. They also brought us to their pride and joy, a new zen meditation center they had recently built on a remote hilltop, overlooking the beautiful valley and with a perfect view of Chokai. We stared out at the valley together for a long while in silence, in maybe a secular meditation. After that, we visited the onsen at Foresta Chokai, a fancy resort in the area, which also had a large all-rock rotemburo (outdoor bath) with lovely view.


akata-no-taki - I love that my mom and I have the exact same look on our faces here - the look says "omg, it just started pouring, hurry up and take the picture"

hiking back up from the waterfall

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

mount iwaki

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

the water was clear blue so you could see the white rock below the surface as well

dad looking for monkeys in the forest

mom relaxing in our luxurious tourboat


bubbling sulphur gas in the lake

creepy wrapped statue - the fabric in the middle is printed with shinkansen!

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.

Aomori city bayside park, and a bridge to nowhere too important
the 'ASPAM' building, actually a tourism center

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!
Oirase Valley

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

super tall cedars on the shores of Towada
possibly some kind of osmond shoot (like from ikebana!) growing in the wild

cedar bark

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!

Our second journey began the next day and we started off at Kakunodate, one of the only published touristic sites in Akita, known for its ancient samurai houses and cherry tree lined river walkway. It was quite busy with tour buses that day, which marred the experience of visiting the samurai houses as they were quite over-crowded. The trees along the river had long finished blooming as well. But the town made up for its lost charm with a couple of cute coffeehouses I found (an extreme rarity here) and cherry-bark craft shopping. Next was nearby Lake Tazawa. I was impressed with myself at getting my parents into a dinosaur paddleboat. It was a beautiful sunny day, and swimming didn't seem that crazy, but anyway we had to move on for on long drive south to Sendai, the only 'big city' in the Tohoku area. My being a 'city person' at heart came out upon arrival, I felt elated at the sight of the pedestrian crowds and long rows of tall buildings. Our search for a restaurant for dinner ended strangely at a 'british gastro pub', which served us fish and chips, roast beef, avocado salads, and cheese plates while we sat in faux leather armchairs. I also drank my first beer cocktail of beer and cranberry juice, which was pretty amazing, I recommend it as the new 'cape codder'.

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

steaming freshly flooded rice paddies on Miyato

beach in higashi-matsushima

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

Back in Honjo, for my parents' last day, we drove up to the lookout on Chokai - there was still plenty of snow! And later we had a nice okonomiyaki dinner - the first time my parents had had it. All in all, a great trip! I don't think there IS much left else to say! Oh except how my Dad summed up Tohoku - "Cedars and rice fields!"

Mount Chokai

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

cooking okonomiyaki

and here's a link to ALL the pictures, if you can even handle anymore

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.


Jeff said...

Awesome motorcycle!!!
The rest of this post is pretty boring though.

sophiesaffron said...

ha! and that picture was the one I most seriously considered leaving out.

But I do apologize for the ridiculous length of this post, and promise not to post any more pictures of flowering trees, rocks, or cedar bark in the foreseeable future.

Natalie said...

I love the oysters picture and inevitable food poisoning. A bit too much writing... I almost couldn't get through it... Next time post in batches. Shout out to Claude and Otto in the yukatas. Hopefully I'll be there next year for skiing!

Mom said...

Sophie, You are not only the best travel agent to organize our Tour de Tohoku, but also a great photographer and journalist.
Thank you so much for your hospitality!

Dad said...

Sophie, thanks for everything, the trip was great and the blog is prefect with all of the picures and descriptions. The motorcycle picture was for Uncle John and hopefully he will see it.
We appreciate all the work you did for our trip. I'm sure Paul and Carol appreciated your meeting with them in Tokyo.
Yes, your camera is better than mine.

mae said...

hello! i just randomly stumbled onto your blog as i was researching akita. i just got my placement for JET and am going to yokote-shi :) anyway, just wanted to ask if you could tell me anything about the place? and maybe what the weather is like? thanks!

sophiesaffron said...

hi, mae and congrats on your awesome placement! you can e-mail me at and I can tell you more akita, or feel free to read more on here!