I'm living in Kusatsu-shi, Shiga-ken for an undetermined amount of time and teaching English as a second language at a local high school. This journal is to document my experiences, thoughts, and to stay connected with others at home and abroad.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Nebuta Matsuri and other Tokoku Adventures: ねぶた祭と東北巡り

For Katie's and my last around Japan together before she returned home to Athens, we took a ferry ride up to the Northern Honshu region. It was both of our first times to the area, so we had an action-packed week of trains, festivals, trains, onsen (hot springs), and yes, trains. Thanks to the Seishun 18-kippu (青春18切符 a 5-day, all-you-can-ride pass)we could take the trains all the way home from Aomori for only about $100 (usually it would cost between $250~500, depending on the type of train).

August 5th: We arrived on a ferry at 6am, and after some coffee and breakfast, we immediately started out on the trains. We went up and around the western coast of Akita and Aomori, to the Shirakami National Forest.
Few people realize that most of Japan's native forests remain, as most were stripped for lumber during the industrializing transition, probably because it's a subject people would rather avoid. (On a similar note, basically has no native, "primeval" forests left.) Japanese native flora include a vibrant mixture of beech, birch, bamboo, some cedar, pine, Japanese maple (momiji)--of course, now most people would only notice the predominant sugi (cedar). The replacement of a lush balance of plant life with a lumber-industry-driven monoculture has lead to a severe increase in hay fever (花粉症=kafunsho) among the population.
But Shirakami is still a natural sanctuary, as beautiful as fellow UNESCO World Heritage site Yakushima Island, where Katie, Mike, Efrem, and I went back at the first of May. In Shirakami we saw some of the most pristine forests and ponds, such as Blue Pond (青池)below.

Somewhere around 7pm, after arriving about 200 kilometers away in Akita at 6am that morning, we finally arrived at our destination, Kawayo "Green" Farm, about an hour outside of Aomori.
I'd like to stay again another time when I can explore more of what the farm and ranch have to offer, but we were pretty busy sightseeing, and didn't get a chance to look around much. Maybe another time...

August 6th:
We got up early to head up to Osore-zan (Mt. Osore, on of the most sacred places in Japan) up on the 下北半島, the Shimokita Peninsula, the apex of Honshu (the main island). Here are some photos form Osore-zan.

High up in what appears to be a previously active volcano, now the valley surrounding Osore-zan seems barren and resembling Pergatory. For that reason, the land surrounding is believed to be where all souls journey upon leaving the mortal world. A sulfurous lake belies the valley, next to Osore-zan and the Osore temple--a free onsen (hot spring), right?

Actually, this lake, Lake Usouri (I think that's how you say it =宇曽利湖), is sacred due to it being the gate to hell. Though not intended as an act of blatant blasphemy, Katie and I went
swimming in the Lake Usouri. Just look at how crystal it was!!

Can you really blame us? Besides, is anything so sacred that it cannot be enjoyed by a pure heart? I'm sure the spirits could see that our intention was pure, just to enjoy the marvelous scene surrounding us.

For the main event, we went into Aomori City for Nebuta Matsuri, the whole reason we decided to take this trip in the first place. I'll let the pictures do most of the talking, but a few details: all 24 floats were displayed the night we went. Also, people who rent (or make their own costumes) are allowed to join in the dancing and whatnot as they please. People without costumes are kept off the streets, where the floats are being carried around. Basically, if you pay the 3000 yen to rent a costume, you get a VIP pass that allows you to practically walk right up and touch any of the floats (and take all of the awesome pictures we were able to get).

August 7th
We weren't really sure what this day would hold for us, but we ended up taking half-a-day's train ride down to Naruko Onsen, one of Kanto's (Easten Japan's) most famous hot spring towns. Good place, that Naruko Onsen. Many local craftsmen specialize in the art of Kokeshi, a Japanese traditional wooden doll.

Kokeshi??? or Katie???

Naruko Onsen has it's own local beer, always a plus, as well as a several public baths (only about 1~200 yen), and free footbaths throughout the town. If you want, of couse, you can stay at one of the famous onsen hotels (around 7000~20,000 yen a night!), or you can do what Katie and I did; we waited until dark, after having a couple of tantalizing Naruko Onsen beers and dinner, and we made the 2 km walk/hike up to Lake Katanumaz––our second sulfurous, hot spring/lake in as many days––where we camped lakeside for free. Of course waiting until past dark is a bit frustrating when trying to set-up camp, but it wasn't that difficult (agreeing on the place was more-so).

August 8th

Waking up next to an turquoise blue lake in the middle of the mountains, with a beautiful blond mess of hair next to me to share it.

Later we visited Matsushima, as it claimed to be among the top 3 views of Japan.

I don't what your opinion is of these photos (I did my best of cut out the ugliness of the city and focus on the islands), but I honestly wouldn't rank Matsushima among the top 3 places we saw on this trip, let alone in Japan. Basho, probably Japan's most revered poets, was struck breathless by the site of Matsushima's pine-covered island upon his first sight of them––he was clearly a product of aristocratic-sponsored class of artists (as all are) in pre-industrial times, and he luckily expired before the coming of prostitution of natural beauty for money.

The next stop on our tour was infinitely more captivating and deserving of praise: Yamadera. A major temple in Japanese Tendai Buddhism, the flame that still burns was passed from Hiei-zan in Shiga (where Tendai Buddhism blossomed in Japan), and when Hiei-zan's temples were destroyed in 1571 by Nobunaga (a real roadblocker to human evolution who needed to destroy other people's faith in order to demonstrate his power), the flame in Yamadera was used in turn to re-ignite Enraku-ji's (Enraku Temple's) flame.

From Yamadera in Yamagata prefecture, Katie and I basically made a bee-line by train back home in Kusatsu. Given that we only had only 4 days of real exploring, I feel like we really made the most of it, of course there's so much that's been difficult to include for the sake of cogency. Hope you enjoyed the photos.

I realized in writing this that I haven't finished my journal entries from Katie and my Cambodia & Laos trip. Expect to find more on that soon.


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