Noilly Prattle: April 2015

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 20 – thar she blows

rising plume of smoke
and ash from Mount Aso
(not my photo)
     The last leg of our drive around southern Kyushu was to take us by Sakurajima, Japan's most active volcano. We had gotten a kind of foreshadowing soon after leaving the Takachiho area the previous day. Off in the distance over the Mount Aso volcano region we could see a huge plume of white and gray smoke rising high above the crest of the mountains. At first we thought it was a cloud, but on closer look it was a plume of smoke and ash spewing from the volcano, which has been more active than usual lately. Missed the chance to get a good shot at it unfortunately. By the time we realized what it was it was too late to get a good enough view to take a photo. Photo on the right is similar but not nearly as dramatic. Missed opportunities! 

        There were news reports of increased activity around the Sakurajima volcano. Mount Aso and Sakurajima seemed to be behaving in tandem. After leaving Kirishima Shrine we chose the road that goes around to the east of Sakurajima leading to a bridge right onto the island in the shadow of the volcano. Although we didn't know it, this was a fortuitous choice since the best view of the active vents are on the eastern slopes of the volcano.

roadside park with great view of the spewing volcano
gray smoke and ash
blowing out of a vent
        Sakurajima, not unlike Mount Fuji, dominates the landscape for miles around. It's massive profile became visible soon after descending from the heights of Kirishima and pretty much stayed in view for the rest of the day. As we got closer and closer we began to distinguish smoke that appeared to coming out of the mountain and blending into the surrounding clouds. At first it was hard to distinguish one from the other. But as we rounded a bend in the road at one point the mountain accommodatingly belched an obvious plume of gray smoke into the sky. We stopped to take a photo and soon after that stopped at a roadside park with a perfect view of the volcano. The vent that was spewing the smoke and ash was clearly visible leaving no doubt what was smoke and what were clouds. We learned that the volcano had belched a record 34 times the previous day and was well on the way to equaling or surpassing that record the day we were there. 

classic profile of Sakurajima from the ferry boat
gray most noticeable on roof
        Soon we crossed the bridge onto Sakurajima (which means The Island of Cherry Trees). In other words the entire circular island is an active volcano. The road led south of the vent and it was necessary to drive through the smoke and ash since the wind was blowing in a southerly direction. Once out of the smoke, we stopped to have a look at the car which had been black and shiny. It looked a little grayish after coming out of the smoky area. From there we drove to the ferry landing to board a ferry for the mainland and drove south to Ibusuki to our hot spring hotel on the sea coast. Sakurajima remained in view to the rear for quite some time.

pouring sake from a length of bamboo

early morning soak in the balcony hot tub

hot sand bath
        The thing to do in Ibusuki is to indulge in the hot sand bath, which was within walking distance from our ryokan. The hot black sand which is volcanic in origin is right on the beach so that it is both comfortably hot and moist—supposedly good for whatever ails you. You are essentially buried up to your neck in the sand. It is a curious feeling reminiscent of what it might feel like being buried alive. You can feel the weight and the heat of the sand so much that you can actually feel the blood pulsating throughout your entire body. I was able to withstand 10 minutes and started to get restless and wanting to get out. An attendant came over after the minimum (unless you panic) 10 minutes and told me I could stay longer if I wished, but I declined, so he told me to simply move my arms and legs and work my way out. At that point it became an itchy experience brushing the sand off...and heading for a shower. Next, the city of Kagoshima.


To be continued...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 19 – Japan's (and our) love affair with hot springs

I hate driving through long tunnels - this one 7km. long
     After checking out of the, believe it or not, budget Grateful Hotel (couldn't help but being reminded of the “Grateful Dead” rock band), we spent most of the morning and early afternoon high-balling it to the Kagoshima Airport to meet our son who was flying in from Tokyo.

       We were to spend the next two night at hot spring inns (ryokan 旅館) that were more pricey than budget hotels, but well worth the price in terms of relaxation, comfort and pampering.

our private and quiet detached house in Kirishima
       A word about the hot spring culture in Japan. Most visitors to Japan are impressed by the neatness and cleanliness of the environment and the politeness of the people. This is not a myth but a reality. Japan is a very clean country and the people are invariably polite, even to a fault. This is not to say that there is no rude and common side to Japanese culture, but one has to live here long enough to perceive it. First-time visitors to Japan will be smothered in politesse. The hot spring inn combines the best of both politesse and cleanliness. It is probably the ultimate experience if one wants to experience the real Japan, ideally speaking.

natural garden and hot spring tubs from living area
       We met our son at the Kagoshima Airport and proceeded to Kirishima, a half hour drive from the airport. We had reserved rooms with their own hot spring tubs for two nights in contrasting locations: one in the mountains and one by the sea. The first one was in the town of Kirishima in Kyushu. It was a detached house nestled in the natural surroundings of a mountainous region. It was isolated and completely private with two inviting stone hot tubs in the garden that were visible through a huge plate glass window. Inviting as the tubs were, however, we decided to do a little exploring in the area, where we were told that there was a beautiful waterfall.

        While walking up from the inn, which was nestled in a little hollow valley, we saw steam and water bubbling out of the ground. 

steam coming out of the ground
        The area is an active seismic area with active volcanoes and hot water and steam literally coming out of the ground. After some “oohing” and “aahing” and a few “Wows! “ we found our way to the promised waterfall. It wasn't Niagara, but impressive enough for something you can see from the roadside. After seeing the waterfall, the lure of the hot tubs called us back to our hidden cottage in the woods.

relaxing soak before dinner
full course Japanese style dinner included in fee
        A sumptuous Japanese style dinner is always included in the ryokan fee so that, if you consider the meals included (dinner and breakfast), the overall cost isn't so much different from some four- or five-star Western hotels. After a relaxing soak in the hot spring tub it's time to go down to dinner where you are treated like royalty in your own private dining room. Let the food and the sake flow and you will feel quite mellow—guaranteed.

        Our hideaway in Kirishima had the extra-added charm of a little room with an old-fashioned fire pit. Comfortably dressed in traditional sleeping kimonos, it was perfect for a little more après-dinner sake, schmoozing and some sweet bean cakes grilled right over the charcoal to put a nice cap on the evening. And a prelude to a moonlight soak under the cherry tree in the garden.

moonlight soak
morning rain
        In the morning, and you couldn't ask for more, it was raining. It was perfect for a morning soak in the hot tub in the rain.

        Before bidding farewell to the gods and myths of Japan the next day, we stopped off at Kirishima Shrine. This shrine is dedicated to Ninigi the grandson of the sun goddess. In the Kojiki, Ninigi is said to have descended from heaven in this area bringing with him the sword, the mirror and the jewel—the so called “Imperial Regalia” of the Japanese emperors. Ninigi became mortal, married a local princess and sired the line of Japanese emperors who, through Ninigi, claim an unbroken lineage from the goddess Amaterasu. Not bad to have a sun deity for an ancestor.

Kirishima Shrine
wedding at Kirishima Shrine--
dressed in traditional wedding garb

To be continued...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

ゴミ袋じいさん - The Garbage Bag Man

     There are many foibles and peculiarities about living in Japan. Some people of a certain age might remember a book entitled The Organization Man by William Whyte (1956) in which the herd instinct is thought to be stronger than the mythos of rugged individualism. We can think of Japan as The Over-organization Society where conformity trumps individuality unless you are an individual who appoints him/herself the enforcer of conformity.

        Just about every aspect of communal life in Japan is organized to the point (in the eyes of an “outside person”) of absurdity—and, I might add, profit. Take garbage, for example. In the sacrosanct name of re-cycling, there are endless lists of the correct way of the disposing of garbage. Here is a quote from a 2005 New York Times article:

"What should we do?"
(garbage reduction cycle guide)
The city of YOKOHAMA, Japan . . . “handed residents a 27-page booklet on how to sort their trash. Highlights included detailed instructions on 518 items. Lipstick goes into burnables; lipstick tubes, "after the contents have been used up," into "small metals" or plastics. Take out your tape measure before tossing a kettle: under 12 inches, it goes into small metals, but over that it goes into bulky refuse.
Socks? If only one, it is burnable; a pair goes into used cloth, though only if the socks "are not torn, and the left and right sock match." Throw neckties into used cloth, but only after they have been "washed and dried."

        Got your head spinning yet?

        Which brings me to a story I heard recently about the garbage bag man. The Yokohama story is an extreme example, granted. You might think it's a joke. But it isn't as exaggerated as you might think. We take our garbage disposal seriously in these here parts. Not only do you have to separate your trash, but it has to go in a specially designated colored (yellow) bag that has to be purchased at the supermarket. (Some municipalities, in order to increase revenues, are encouraging businesses to advertise on the garbage bags--for a fee, of course.) You can't just put your trash in the free plastic (clear white) grocery bag supplied by the check out cashier. If you do, your bag will be glaringly obvious from the approved yellow bags and it WILL NOT be picked up, but left in plain sight until you feel embarrassed enough to go and pick it up. I kid you not, I've seen this with mine own eyes.

         Listen. The story I heard recently on local TV news is about a city that has introduced several color-coded bags for specific types of trash and garbage: red, yellow and blue. The specific content of each color bag is not the point of the story, however, silly as it may seem. No, the twist in the story is the 80-something-year-old man who has appointed himself the garbage policeman of his neighborhood. This gentleman has made it his mission in life to supervise the proper use of the color-coded bags for the correct disposal of the neighborhood garbage.

"Today is RED BAG day!
Does this look like a red bag to you?"
          Naturally he must be properly uniformed (this IS Japan, after all) to be a garbage policeman. Since a different color bag is used on different days, he has to have color coordinated attire. This old dude is very creative. He designed his own uniforms. He went to a department store and picked out three sets of trousers, baseball caps and wind breakers in, yep, you guessed it, red, yellow and blue. On red bag day he wears his red outfit and patrols the trash dumping sites. If he sees a miscreant using the improper colored bag, he scolds the individual, embarrassing and shaming him into going home and re-bagging his trash in the correct colored bag--red, in this case. On blue bag day, the blue outfit, on yellow bag day the yellow outfit and so on. When the neighbors were interviewed on TV, they praised the garbage bag man for his community spirit and zeal in making sure the rules were being followed. But one elderly lady, something of an individualist no doubt, said, with a wry smile, of garbage bag man: “Yes, he has fine community spirit, doesn't he; and we won't dare cheat, will we?”

Ha-ha. If you read this far,
bet you were expecting this picture!
        When there is no longer one miscreant left, garbage bag man says he will consider his “Mission Accomplished” and retire, presumably to go on to his eternal reward in that big dump in the sky.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Ballet Dancers

Two Studies of the Nude Figure
Coupy Crayon 
Ball Point Pen

Monday, April 6, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 18 – A Little Journey Beyond the Mists of Time. . .

. . . into a world of gods and myths.

GPS Navi
     We rented a car with a GPS navigation system in Kumamoto for the next three days of our getaway. I have sung the praises of a good GPS system for traveling in unknown country before, and this one proved its value for the extra cost of the rental fee. It really takes all the guesswork and detours out of driving. I wouldn't travel by car away from home without one.

high country around Mt. Aso
       Our route took us through the high country of Mount Aso, an active volcano in central Kyushu, to the city of Takachiho, which, according to the Kojiki, is the place where Ninigi, the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, descended from heaven to plant rice and sire the Imperial line of Japanese emperors. He is considered the First Emperor. Thus, Japanese emperors claimed divine descent from Amaterasu up until World War II, being forced to renounce their divinity after the War.

Shirakawa Suigen shrine
delicious, cool, clear spring water
       There is a ropeway to the Mt. Aso crater but it was closed due to the high level of activity in one of the vents which was spewing smoke and ash several times a day. We simply bypassed the volcano (which is just a series of undifferentiated peaks, no single dramatic conical shape like Mt. Fuji), content with viewing it from a distance. To make up for the mild disappointment of the undramatic Mt. Aso, we ran across one of those little unexpected bonuses called Shirakawa Suigen. (White River Spring Source) From this spring, 60 tons of water gush out every minute. The spring is the source of the river. As is usually the case with such unusual natural phenomena in Japan there is a Shinto shrine located near the spring and a placid pool of unbelievably clear water with gentler bubbles rising to the surface. The cool clear water is deliciously drinkable. 

Shirakawa Source

Bubbling Spring

Shirakawa (White River)
      And so, on to the land of gods and myths as promised in the subtitle.

main altar with the mirror
and 16-petal chrysanthemum
logo of the Japanese emperors
mirror symbol of the sun goddess
(with me reflected in it)
       A seminal legend of Amaterasu is said to be based in the Ame-no-Iwato cave near the city of Takachiho. The myth goes like this: Amaterasu had a fight with her brother Susanoo, the storm god. He destroyed her rice paddies and looms and she was so angry that she decided to go down to earth to hide in a cave thereby casting the world into darkness. Things being in a chaotic state the other gods went looking for her and suspected she was hiding in a certain cave by a river. To lure her out the gods gathered in front of the cave and threw a “party”. Curious about the noise and merriment, Amaterasu peered out and saw her own face in a mirror. She was then pulled out of the cave while one of the strongest gods ripped the stones from the cave mouth and threw them far away. Light, thus returned to the world.

statue of Tajikarao hurling the stone
from Amaterasu's cave

footpath along the river to the cave
stack the stones and make a wish
       Naturally, we were curious to see this cave and drove to the site, where, of course there is a Shinto Shrine dedicated to Amaterasu. This shrine is authorized to display the 16-petal Imperial Chrysanthemum since it is associated with the Imperial line. The main altar features a round mirror, the symbol of the sun goddess. A map indicates the path to the cave, which, on the map looks fairly close by—an easy hike along the river through the woods. It turned out to be quite a hike with a steep descent down to the river with lots of steps and ups and downs along the path. But! Eventually you come to a bend in the river with a cliff face obscuring what's round the bend. Suddenly, as you walk around the cliff this enormous cave is staring you in the face. There is a rather primitive looking torii in the opening and as you approach you find yourself in a forest of stones piled one on top of another all around. My first impression was: “Ah, yes, I see.” A hiding place for a truly majestic being. The stone piles are, of course, for making wishes. You balance one stone on another without toppling them and make your wish. If they topple, I suppose you don't get your wish.

truly a cave fit for a goddess to hide in

tough climb back calls for some rest and refreshment

venue for the Kagura performance
       The main thing on our itinerary for visiting Takachiho was to attend a traditional dance performance called Kagura (神楽; "god-entertainment") accompanied by drums and bamboo flute at the Takachiho Shinto Shrine. It was the culmination of our little journey into the world of gods and myths. As it turned out, our trip to the Ame-no-Iwato, was the perfect prelude to the Kagura dance. The dance performance was a rendition of the cave story in mime, dance and music. Although these dances are performed only by men in full costume and masks there was originally it seems a far more risque version.

Shrine priest blandly talks
about tits and ass
       Before the start of the performance, the Shrine priest made a little speech of welcome and explanation for those not familiar with the topic of the dances. He was at pains to point out that the dance of the goddess Ame-no Uzume, though appearing quite chaste nowadays, was actually quite, as he put it “etchi” (lewd), with the goddess behaving like a burlesque stripper doing bumps and grinds in the nude and swinging and shaking her “oppai” (tits) to the great amusement of the gods who were engaged in what I can only imagine was an orgy. It was this wild revelry that lured the sun goddess out of her cave. I suppose she felt left out and wanted to join in the fun.

The Dances:

Dance of Tajikarao

The Dance of Ame-no-Uzume
(sorry, no video)

To be continued...

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 17 – Head Start into Spring

     Towards the end of March and cherry blossom time, spring fever calls for a getaway from the cabin fever of winter. In Japan, just as there are weather fronts that bring changes in the weather, there is a “blossom” front that traces the blooming of the sakura () from the south (Kyushu) to the north (Hokkaido) of Japan. For those who just can't wait for the flower front to reach their area a trip to southern climes is the just the ticket for chasing away the winter doldrums.

Lord Katou Kiyomasa - builder of Kumamoto castle
the donjon and battlements of Kumamoto Castle
       We decided on a 6-day 5-night getaway to southern Kyushu and were not disappointed either by the weather or the cherry blossoms. As soon as we stepped off the Shinkansen in Kumamoto it was evident that it was warmer than when we had left our house in Okayama. After taking the tram we checked into our budget hotel called the Dormy Inn. The name probably comes from the French word for sleep (dormir), but I persisted in calling it the “Dreamy Inn”. The hotel seems to be part of a post-bubble-burst trend to lower cost hotels for budget-conscious travelers. Japan used to be notorious for its high cost of travel accommodations. But, 20 years of deflation and recession have left their mark on the once spendthrift nation. Accordingly, we were able to book a room for two for less than $100 a night. Furthermore, the hotel had a public hot spring bath on the top floor and it was convenient to the station, a car rental dealer and the main tourist attraction, Kumamoto Castle.

strong walls, many steps and culs-de-sac and
zig-zag passages softened by trees
       After checking in there was plenty of time for a visit to the 16th Century Kumamoto Castle which was about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. It was a gorgeous afternoon, balmy temperatures and plentiful sunshine. I was most impressed by the excellent condition of the castle walls and battlements. They had either stood the test of time remarkably well or had been painstakingly restored—probably a combination of both. At any rate I got a very good sense of entering a fortified castle. It would have been very difficult for an enemy invader to penetrate the high battlements, steps, zig-zag twists and turns and culs-de-sac under a rain to arrows to reach the dongon of the castle. Yet, the effect of the fortifications are softened by the calculated positioning of cherry and other kinds of trees and design elements of the buildings giving an odd overall sense of aesthetic appreciation and strength blended into a harmonious whole.

the donjon, highest point in the castle and last retreat

       Most of the buildings are restorations, but they are faithfully carried out in wood according to the original plans. This is particularly notable since many castle restorations in Japan are done in concrete. Kumamoto Castle is one of the most beautiful castles I have visited in Japan.

painted directly onto the wooden door

three tiered veranda facing the gardens

the only tower that is an unreconstructed original 
beautiful wall and sliding door paintings

the shiny black edging is done with "urushi"
a lacquer made from a poisonous plant 

ceiling partitions are also of black lacquer

"KOI" carp in the castle moat

battlements in the golden glow of the magical evening hour

       Kumamoto City is famous in Japan for horse meat. There are many restaurants that feature horse meat on their menus. Westerners probably tend to think of horse meat as either dog food or used for making glue. I was skeptical but willing to try some and it turned out to be very similar to beef in color and texture and didn't seem to have any particularly characteristic or gamy taste. It was very good lightly braised served with a ponzu sauce and garnished with green onion and sprouts. There was even a minced horse meat pizza that was also very tasty.

braised horse meat with garnishes and ponzu sauce

minced horse meat pizza

chopsick wrapper says: horse meat
the first kanji 馬 is the character for horse

       For the next step of our getaway we rented a car just around the corner from our hotel.

To be continued...