October 2007


Continuing from where I left off, we ventured to Mitsuishi Temple (Three Rocks Temple) the site of the devil’s (or demon’s) hand prints.  Another English information sign for you:

Mitsuishi (Three Rocks) and the Demon’s Hand Prints

According to legend, long ago, in this district, there lived a demon called Pasetsu which was always causing trouble. The inhabitants prayed to the god of Mitsuishi and then the god bound the demon to the three rocks. The demon swore he would torment the people no more and that he would never com to this district again. The god made the demon put a handprint on one of the three rocks as the sign of his promise and then let the demon go.
It is said that the handprint on the three rocks (Mitsuishi) are the origin of the name of Iwate Prefecture (which literally means “rock-hand”).

At the temple are three very large rocks (go figure) and the handprints are very interesting.

From Mitsuishi we walked back to Kumagai Ryokan and proceeded to the train station to start our trek to Hakodate. We rode the shinkansen to Aomori then we had to switch to a train to go through the Seikan Tunnel, which actually travels underwater beneath the Tsugaru Strait from Northern Honshu to the Hokkaido region. The trip took at least three to four hours total and we had to buy the ticket for the train that travelled from Aomori to Hakodate because the JR East pass does not cover that area.

Hakodate

By the time we reached Hakodate it was getting dark, so we went to the next and most expensive ryokan, Ichinomatsu Ryokan, and dropped off our bags. In Hakodate the easiest way to get around is by trolley (streetcar, or tram), so at the station we bought two 1day tickets because we figured it would cost us less in the end as we would be riding more than three times. The cost to ride the trolley a single time was around 200 yen and the cost of the all day ticket cost 600 yen.

After we dropped off our luggage we headed to Mt. Hakodate and took the ropeway to the observatory which offered a 360 degree view of the city. A round trip ticket on the ropeway cost 1160 yen but the view was worth it. After coming back down the mountain we went on the walking tour in a pamphlet we obtained at the tourist information center. What is really nice about Hakodate is that first; it is much cooler temperature-wise than any of the previous cities we had visited, and second; at night I expect it is a seasonal thing) they light significant sites of the city for the tourists to take pictures of them at night from 8pm to 10pm I believe. Walking around the city was very refreshing and the sites were beautiful, the pictures will be on the flickr shortly.

We hopped back on the trolley to go back to the ryokan and went to sleep. In the next post I will detail what we did on our day in Hakodate then going back to Northern Honshu for our final leg of our Tohoku trip, visiting Kakunodate, the city of samurai residences, until then!

August 24, 2007

We woke up early to go on about four of the walking tours that we got from the Tourist Information Center that we combined into one long walk. First thing I want to say is that I love walking in Japan, just walking is an experience in and of itself because you will see so many differences in architecture, land, and people. We started going to a monument that was across Nakatsu-gawa, we had a hard time finding it because it was basically a polished stone with Japanese written on it with no English explanation, but the walk to find it was nice so it was worth it.

From there we headed back over the river towards the remains of Morioka Castle. I say remains because duing the Meiji Restoration it was destroyed, but it is still a nice sight to see because the walls still stand and you can walk through it without a problem. Here is what the English information said outside the site:

THE SITE OF MORIOKA CASTLE, IWATE PARK

Construction of Morioka Castle started in 1597 and it became the residence for Nambu, the lord of the Morioka Clan in 1633.
The castle was built on a hill near the confluence of the kitakami and Nakatsu Rivers. It was made up of three major buildings; Honmaru, the main building where the lord lived and worked, Ninomaru, the second building where official business of the clan was carried out, and Sannomaru, the third building which was used for Shinto rituals. The castle’s stone foundation walls were made from local granite and in some parts stones were heaped up in different ways in different ages.
The castle buildings were totally demolished in 1874. The Iwate Prefectural Government made the old castle grounds into Iwate Park and opened it to the public in 1906. The Morioka City Government gained full ownership of the park in 1934. The grounds of Morioka Castle were registered as a national historic site in 1937.
Many residents of Morioka visit Iwate Park, which harmonizes with the impressive old stone walls, to enjoy seasonal changes through the year; cherry blossoms in spring, fresh green leaves in summer, red and yellow leaves in autumn, and snowscape in winter.

We exited the castle grounds from the North exit and took a few pictures of the temple located near the exit then headed further North to see the Rock-Breaking Cherry Tree (Ishiwarizakura 石割桜 ) in front of the district courthouse. It is quite an impressive thing to see. Not to burden this site with quotes from informational tablets or anything but it says it better than I could so here it is:

The Ishiwarizakura is one of Morioka’s most famous symbols of the spirit; endurance against all hardships, even the impossible; a cherry tree growing from solid granite.
Moreover, the beautiful delicate petals come and fall each April and they have been growing for the past 350-400 years.
Standing strong in front of the Morioka courthouse, the uniqueness of this is such that it has been designated a national treasure, dear to all who take pride in being from Morioka.

From the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree we went on our way North-East to Hoonji Temple. We kind of got lost on our way there, so when I asked one of the policeman at a koban where it was he actually led us to the temple and told us to have a good time (Japanese police are awesome). Hoonji was considered the head temple among the 208 operated by the Nambu Clan. One of the reasons it is worth your time to take the 20 minute or so walk out there is that it is the home of Rakando (Statues Hall), which has the extremely impressive statues of 500 disciples of Buddha made of wood and finished with Japanese lacquer. Included within the display are statues of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Yet another English information stand was present:

Hoonji was first built in Sannohe in 1394 under the authority of Lord Moriyuki Nambu. In 1601 at the time of Lord Toshinao Nambu the temple was moved to its present location. Hoonji belongs to the Zen sect of Buddhism called Sotoshu. The temple precincts covers an area of 23,000 saim, which contains facilities for the ascetic practice of Zen. the main temple building is dedicated to the Buddha Sakyamuni. The upper story of the temple gate enshrines the Eleven Faces of the Goddess of Mercy jichimen kanzeonbosatsu. The Hall of Disciples of Buddha rakando houses the five hundred disciples of Buddha which profoundly surround the Buddha Biroshana biroshanabutsu. The Zen temple dedicated to the Buddist saint monjubosatsu contains room for up to fifty disciples.

After leaving Hoonji we went to Mitsuishi Temple because of the devil’s handprints. Because this post is going to be extremely long, it was our busiest day of our trip, I will make a part 2 to this which will follow shortly, until then!

August 23, 2007

We woke up relatively early because we wanted to do some things in Sendai before we left for Morioka. We packed our luggage and left it at the front desk and took went outside to Zuiho-den. Zuiho-den is the mausoleum of Date Masamune the founder and first lord of Sendai, the Date clan continued to rule Sendai for 270 years. I am just going to quote exactly what the informational map outside of the cemetery said, complete with capitalizations:

 

KYOGAMINE cemetery of the DATE family

On Kyogamine hill sit the three mausoleums of MASAMUNE DATE’s ZUIHO-DEN, TADAMUNE DATE’s KANSEN-DEN, and TSUNAMUNE DATE’s ZENNO-DEN. (MASAMUNE DATE 1567 ~1636 was the first, TADAMUNE the second and TSUNAMUNE the third lord of the DATE clan.) There is also a cemetery called MYOUNKAIBYO, containing the three tombstons of CHIKAMUNE (the ninth lord), NARIYOSHI (the eleventh lord), and NARIYOSHI’s wife, and a children’s cemetery containing the tombs of children of DATE leaders from the fifth lord YOSHIMURA.
ZUIHO-DEN and KANSEN-DEN were designated national treasures in 1931 as outsanding mausoleum architecture in MOMOYAMA style, but they were burned down by the air raids in 1945 as well as ZENNO-DEN.
The reconstruction of these three mausoleums was begun in 1974 and was completed in 1985. Now KYOGAMINE is a designated historic spot of SENDAI.

The cemetery also conainted a museum beside the Zuiho-den that displayed treasures that were discovered during the renovation as well as a video of the excavation. In addition, there is a memorial to Saint Mankai. I will quote the informational tablet next to the memorial:

Memorial to Saint MANKAI

Saint MANKAI, a mountaineering ascetic from Mt. YUDONO, was buried here at Kyogamine at the end of the Middle Ages. His grave was unearthed in 1636, when the grave of MASAMUNE DATE was being constructed.
A memorial to Saint MANKAI had stood to the east of the former ZUIHO-DEN Mausoleum but was lost in the air raids of 1945 and the devastation following them.
When the reconstruction of ZUIHO-DEN was completed in 1979, there rose a voice among the citizens of SENDAI hoping for the reconstruction of the memorial to Saint MANKAI. This memorial was erected on December of 1989 at the historical site of “ZANKUTSU” in ZUIHO-DEN.
* ZANKUTSU was a resting place for feudal lords visiting the mausoleum

The sights were amazing, and the best part was that Tenryukaku Ryokan was built on the same hillside so it was only a two minute walk from the ryokan to the cemetary. The museum was very interesting showing some of Date Masamune’s armor as well as other period treasures, including swords, spears, and other weapons of war. It was a very nice thing to walk through and I would suggest that anyone who travels to Sendai to take the time to visit these national treasures.

Unfortunately we did not have the time to go to Sendai Castle or the surrounding area. After we finished walking through the cemetery we picked up our luggage and headed out to Sendai station to take the Shinkansen to Morioka.

Morioka

We arrived at Morioka around 4pm, walked from the station to Kumagai Ryokan, about at 10 to 15 minute walk, deposited our luggage then started walking around the city. We stumbled upon an excellent Tourist Information Center across the Nakatsu-gawa ( “川” – gawa or kawa means river in Japanese) where they had English speaking staff available who were extremely helpful. We decided that we were going to go on a few of the walking tours, which we did the following day (we actually combined about four of the walking tours into one extremely large walking tour). For that night we decided that we wanted to try some of the local delicacies.

Morioka is famous for their speciality foods, namely:

  • Wanko-soba : small bowls of thin, flat buckwheat noodles.
  • Reimen : large bowl of cold, semi-tranparent, slightly chewy egg noodles eaten with Korean kimchi and other garnishes.
  • Ja-ja men : a bowl of thick, white noodles that comes with a few slices of cucumber and a slab of brown miso paste.

We ended up trying all but the wanko-soba which apparently is used mostly for eating contests now instead of for an actual meal. That night we had ja-ja men at the most popular noodle shop that sells it called Pairong. It was really good. What you do is first you mix the miso paste into the broth so that it dissolves and saturates the noodles and vegetables. There are a variety of spices that you can put in but I recommend that you try it plain first, I like hot food so I added some things to make it spicy. It is definitely unique. I will write about trying the reimen in a future post.

We went to the Sega arcade on the main street “Odori”. We played there for a while then headed back to the ryokan for the night because we had a long day ahead of us, which I will write about in the next post, until then!

Here are some ryokans that I have stayed at and therefore recommend to you as I have had good experiences with them. Basically If I don’t list one that you know of I haven’t stayed there, not because it wasn’t good. So far, all of the ryokans that I have stayed at I have had a very good experience with.

Also of note, I will not explain how you can reserve a room at any of the below ryokans. However, I will list web pages that you can reserve a room with them through.

Tokyo

Sendai

Morioka

Hakodate (Hokkaido)

August 22, 2007

Ryan and I left the ryokan around the checkout time of 10am to start our leg of the trip that would take place in the Tohoku region of Japan. Armed with our JR East Passes, that we had purchased on arriving into Japan, we made our way to Tokyo station to get on the shinkansen to Sendai. There is nothing much to note about our trip out there except that riding on a shinkansen is very smooth and fast.

Sendai

The trip took around two and a half hours and upon arriving at the Sendai station we took a taxi from the station to our next ryokan, Tenryukaku. We did a little video about our impressions of the ryokan which I will post here. Needless to say the ryokan was amazing. I will make a separate post with the list of places that we stayed and where you can reserve them for your reference. We spent a couple of hours just admiring the ryokan then we made our way back into Sendai (the ryokan is about a 10 minute taxi ride from the main area of the city of Sendai).

Sendai is extremely hard to navigate around. We had our Japan travel guide: The Rough Guide to Japan , and we still could not find the restaurant that was recommended by them. We asked a woman that was walking down the street where the place was and very graciously she helped us find the restaurant, after about 30 minutes of looking, even she had a hard time finding it and it was a very famous restaurant. The woman happened to speak very good English and works for a company called Gourmet Navigator. I really can not thank her enough.

Eventually we got to the restaurant, Tasuke, and tried gyuutan. Gyuutan is a specialty of Sendai and is extremely delicious, seriously if you are ever in Sendai take the time to find this place, it is worth it. After we left, we were walking back to the main street of Sendai and ran into the woman who helped us find Tasuke and she asked how we liked the food. We ended up talking for about thirty minutes and as I said I can not complement her enough.

It was getting late so we went back to Tenryukaku Ryokan for the night. Before I went to sleep I spent a little time in the in-house onsen (I love ryokans!!). If you don’t know about bath etiquette in Japan here is the short version. First you wash yourself completely in the wash room part of the bathroom (here literally meaning the place where you wash yourself or take a bath, you will not usually find a toilet in this room), then after you have rinsed off you relax in the bath. It was very refreshing and something I truly enjoy about Japan. And there concludes our seventh day in Japan.

Next time I will talk about how we spent the day in Sendai and our night in Morioka, until then!!

August 21, 2007

We got up early and headed out to the bus station to get on the tour bus to go to Mt. Fuji. We had purchased the “Mt. Fuji Hakone Full Day Return by Shinkansen Tour” from Sunrise Tours (an affiliate of JTB). The bus ride took about two hours to the Fuji Visitor Center and our tour guide was entertaining us throughout the trip giving us little facts and tidbits of information about the surrounding areas that we were passing through, as well as how to go to the bathroom in a Japanese toilet. We stayed at the visitor center for a short while, about 15 minutes, just enough time for a bathroom break and then proceeded up to Mt.Fuji 5th Station which is at an altitude of 2305 meters. We arrived just in time to get a few decent pictures of the peak of Fuji-san (what the Japanese call Mt. Fuji) and spent the rest of the alloted free time shopping in the souvenir shops.

Going back down we stopped at a restaurant which was inside a very large, expensive looking, hotel. We had a “Japanese-style lunch” which, while good, was not worth the 3000 yen charge for it, but it was an experience that we had not had before so we took it in stride.

Leaving the restaurant we travelled further on the bus to Lake Ashi, or Hakone lake, near the large city of Hakone. Once there, we got off the bus and went on a sightseeing boat from one side of the lake to the other (it was an extremely large lake). We also learned of the legend of the lake. Apparently, a dragon lived in the lake and he terrorized the people living near the lake. They were required to offer a human sacrifice, mostly young (virgin) girls, to the dragon every year to appease him. Hearing the story, a Priest named Mangan made stone stairs leading into the lake and exorcised the evil spirit of the dragon with his magical power. The dragon consented and has never bothered the people since. He is believed to have changed and began to live in the lake as the guardian spirit. The tour guide told this story as we were passing the torii of the Dragon, he also mentioned that they have a matsuri (festival) every year to commemorate the event called Kosui Matsuri on July 31st.

After getting off the boat we took a ride on the ropeway up Mt. Komagatake. It was rather scary as the wind started to pick up and we are suspended at a long distance from the ground, above the Great Boiling Valley. From the ropeway car we got a great view of the 大 character burned into the side of the mountain for the Obon matsuri which happened the week before. Thankfully, we made it to our destination safely despite the wind conditions which had gotten progressively worse. We didn’t have much time to explore the surrounding area but we did go to more souvenir shops. Hakone is famous for a local delicacy; kuro tamago (black eggs). They are eggs that are hard boiled in the local hot springs, because of the sulfur the outside shells turn black. Eating one of the eggs is supposed to prolong your life by seven years and you can increase your life by, at most, 21 years. We decided not to eat them though, oh well.

When our free time expired we got on the bus yet again to go to Odawara, to take our return shinkansen to Ueno. It was the first time we had ever ridden on a shinkansen, which was exiting. We returned back to the Katsutaro Ryokan for our final night in Tokyo. Next time I will detail our first day traveling up the Tohoku region, until then!

August 20, 2007

We got up pretty early and headed out to Shibuya to transfer to a train to go to Mitaka because we had reserved through JTB our tickets to the Ghibli Museum. When we walk outside the Mitaka station we take the cat bus themed shuttle to the museum. We walk inside the museum and are told that pictures are not allowed inside the museum but when we step outside we can then take all the pictures we wish to. We picked up the complementary packet and went to see the short film presentation, which turned out to be an original short film called Monmon the Water Spider (水グモもんもん Mizugumo Monmon).

The inside of the museum is really interesting, it had exhibitions explaining the old animation process as well as showing some moving models that, when moving fast, looked like it was animated. There were rooms inside that were set up like an artist’s room having original sketch books and different points of information. Stepping outside, we took many pictures, the roof had some extremely awesome statues of objects from Laputa, Castle in the Sky.

After spending the day at the Ghibli Museum we returned to the ryokan to pick up Lower’s luggage because he had to go back to Tsukuba to teach English the following day. We headed to Asakusa and had some dinner near Sensouji and then Ryan and I saw Lower off at the station for the Tsukuba Express.

We then headed back to the Katsutaro Ryokan because we had to get up early for our day trip to Mt. Fuji and Hakone the following day. Which is what I will write about next time, until then!