Thursday, November 25, 2010

Matsushima, Ah Matsushima !

In September this year, we visited Matsushima.

Matsushima is one of the three great scenic views of Japan called “Nihon Sankei”. It is said that the Haiku poet Basho was so mesmerized by the beauty of Matsushima, that he could not think of words to compose a haiku to describe it. It is said that the only words he could say were “ Matsushima, Ah Matsushima, Ah Matsushima, ah , Matsushima Ah! ”

Matsushima is a group of 260 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The name Matsushima means “Pine covered islands”. Most of these islands are actually tiny islets with no inhabitants. Due to the sea water and corrosion, these islands have strange shapes and few have acquired the shape of different creatures.







Best way to view these islands is a Cruise ride. The Marubun Cruise company is the most popular of the cruise companies that operate in the Matsushima Bay. We took the Cruise A which is a 50 minute round trip from Matsushima bay.  For more information on the cruise visit : http://www.marubun-kisen.com/english/matsushima/index.html

The other attractions of Matsushima are

Godaido Hall : It is a small islet off the coast connected to the mainland by a small bridge .


A small temple pavilion is  located on the island. The interior of the temple is open to public once in 33 years , the last being in 2006.
Admission: Free
Opening hours: 8:30 – 17:00
No closing days

Oshima Island:  This island also called Ojima was used as a meditation and training place by Zen monks.



There are lot of statues and rock carvings on this island along the walking trails.

This island can be reached on foot by a small red lacquered bridge called Togetsukyo Bridge.
Admission: Free

Zuiganji temple: This zen temple was originally built in the Heian period and the main hall contains precious paintings and carvings. This temple has been designated a national treasure. The entrance fee is 700 yen. The path from the entrance to the temple is lined on both sides by cedar trees.

There is also a path along moss covered Buddhist statues and caverns.



Kanrantei Pavilion: This is a tea house with a great view of the Matsushima bay. It is said that this was originally built in Kyoto by Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi who gifted it to Date Tadamune  who moved it to Matsushima.

Fukuurajima: This island is connected to the mainland by a 250 meter long vermillion coloured foot bridge.

A toll of  200 yen is payable for using the bridge. There are many walking trails on the island. Not very spectacular considering it is covered with lots of wild plants and weeds. It is more of a botanical garden than a  tourist spot.

Masamune Date, the feudal lord is said to have had a special liking for Matsushima. Many structures in the Zuiganji temple complex and the Godaido hall was constructed on his orders.

Matsushima  is located in Miyagi prefecture . Matsushima is one of the most visited destinations in Tohoku. The proximity to Sendai makes Matsushima easily accessible.  Hotel reservations are necessary. Weekends can be crowded and traffic within the town could be slow. Paid parking is available next to the Ojima island and near the Matsushima Bay and most places are only a short walk away. The train station is also a short walk from the Matsushima Bay. Easiest and most convenient way to travel around in Matsushima is on foot.

The entire town can be covered in one day or approximately 5-6 hours.

When in Matsushima, do try the fresh seafood. Lots of food stalls and joints sell oyster, squid and clam delicacies.  

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Shichi-Go-San

15th November is a special day in Japan. It is the day of Shichi Go San. Literally, Shichi Go San means 7-5-3.

Shichi Go San is a traditional rite of passage for Japanese boys and girls. The uniqueness of this festival is that this day is celebrated for 3 and 7 year old girls and 5 year old boys. It marks the passage of children into their middle childhood and as per Japanese numerology these odd ages are lucky for children.
This festival originated in the Heian period and has evolved over the centuries. In the ancient days boys had to shave their heads till they attained age 5 after which they could grow hair. For girls it meant changing the pattern of kimono or the cords which they tied the kimono with. The samurai class observed Shichi Go San till the Meiji period when it was adopted by common people. 
These days, children of this age are dressed in kimonos and along with parents they visit the Shrine and pray for good luck and health and success in their future.
Parents give children a special candy called “ Chitose Ame” which literally means “ Thousand Year Candy”. It is red and white in colour and is long and thin and is wrapped in edible rice paper film. The bag carrying this candy has a crane and turtle printed on it. Both crane and turtle are considered as symbols of long life in Japan.

Shichi Go San is not a holiday and as such these days it is common to see people observing it on a weekend around this time of the year.

Autumn in Japan

After the hot and humid summer months from June to August, everyone in Japan looks forward to Autumn. Come September and the signs of autumn are evident everywhere.  The weather is pleasant, the days are bright and nights are longer. The most visible sign however is the change in the trees, plants and grass.

 The leaves change colour from green to various hues of yellow, orange, red and brown before they fall off leaving the trees and plants barren till spring arrives. The most colourful of all the trees are maple and gingko. The deep red colour of the maple leaves and the bright yellow gingko leaves are a treat to the eyes. The Japanese word for maple and autumn season both is “Momiji”. 

 The beauty of autumn is a sight to be seen and experienced. The panorama of colours is truly one of the most beautiful creations of nature.

 The golden and crimson hues of the leaves are well complemented by the fruit laden trees. Mandarin oranges known as “Mikan” in Japanese and Persimmon known as “Kaki” in Japanese can be seen hanging from trees everywhere. 

Autumn viewing is a popular activity in Japan and in Japanese it is called “Momijigari”. On weekends families and groups of friends get together and go out to autumn viewing spots. There are popular autumn viewing spots in almost all of Japan. The locals know the exact timing to visit these spots. There are various websites in Japanese which predict the best time to visit these spots and the locals track these sites regularly to know the best time to visit these spots. Autumn viewing season begins usually around early October and ends during Mid November. Autumn colours have a pattern here . The colours first begin to change in the north and eastern part of Japan moving southwards and towards the west. Autumn arrives earlier in Hokkaido than in Kyushu and Okinawa and ends there earlier too. At many places the local shrine or the local authorities organize an autumn festival called as “Momiji Matsuri”. This is held usually at the peak of autumn in that area. In most of the tourist destinations and shrines there is special illumination at night during the autumn colours. Kyoto’s Kiyomizudera and Mt Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture are two of the most popular places for the night illumination during Autumn.

 It is said that the autumn is especially spectacular in the Tohoku region which comprises the prefectures of Aomori, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate and Fukushima. Autumn arrives in early October and lasts for over a month till the leaves begin to fall off in mid to late November. As such autumn in Tohoku is longest compared to other parts of Japan. This year was our first autumn in Japan. Based in Iwaki, it was easier for us to cover a lot of places in Tohoku region, Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures during the weekends.

Our first trip was to the Bandai region in mid October. I had posted pictures of this trip in an earlier post. Our next autumn viewing trip was to the Hananoki Valley in Ibaraki prefecture.

The Shiomitaki bridge is a popular spot. This is a suspension bridge with colourful trees on both sides and a small waterfall beneath.

 A small trail along streams and small waterfalls leads to the bridge.

 This spot is crowded during autumn and finding parking is a bit difficult.
The website link for tourist information (in Japanese) is  http://www.takahagi-kanko.jp/turn_red

Our next trip was to Mt Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture.

The Tsukubasan shrine is located at the base of the mountain. Maple trees and other trees around the shrine make it a colourful place.

A 9 minute cable car ride takes visitors uphill to the observation point. This observation point is located between two mountains, Mt Nantaisan and Mt Nyotaisan. The cable car ride offers good views of the autumn colours.

The cable car fare for adults is 570 Yen (oneway) and 1020 yen (roundtrip). For enthusiastic hikers, there is a steep hiking trail which takes you to the top of the mountain and it takes about 2.5 hours to reach the top. There is a ropeway from Mt Nyotaisan to Tsusujigaoka. The ropeway fare for adults is 600 Yen (oneway) and 1070 yen (roundtrip).

When we visited Mt Tsukuba on 20th November it was almost the end of autumn in that region and we couldn’t see the full bloom. The Momiji Matsuri had taken place a week earlier. The phone number of the tourist information center is 029-866-0502 and 029-866-0611.


Iwaki has its own share of autumn beauty. Maple and gingko trees along roads make driving around the city a pleasant experience.

Iwaki park and other gardens in the city offer good autumn views. The best however is the sight of the garden at Shiramizu Amidado temple.


 We had first visited this temple during summer. However the sight of the temple and the garden had transformed completely during our visit the last weekend.

The temple is a national treasure. The hall houses 5 statues of Buddha. However the garden of the temple is the main attraction.

A walking path takes visitors around the temple through trees and around a pond.


The beauty of the garden is exceptional in autumn. Entrance : 350 yen. Open : 8.30 am to 4.00 pm . Phone : 0246-26-7008

In Japan every season has its own speciality and the cuisine too changes with the season. Autumn is the season for “Oden” It is a stew consisting of a mix of eggs, radish, fish cakes, and konyaku (devil’s tongue) boiled in a broth of soy flavoured broth called Dashi. It is also popular during winter and is available at convenience stores, roadside joints and department stores too. The ingredients change from place to place. We had first tasted Oden in South Korea last year. In South Korea it is called “Odaeng” and is a popular dish in the cold seasons. The other autumn delicacies in Japan are Mushrooms, Pine Nuts, Gingko nuts and Chestnuts.

Children enjoy collecting Acorn, Chestnuts and Pinecones which are known as “Donguri”, “Kuri” and “Matsubakuri” in Japanese. Infact kindergartens and elementary schools organize nut collection outings in autumn.

To sum it up, Autumn is an enjoyable season in Japan especially for travellers and nature lovers.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hakone

On the last leg of our Kyoto - Nara trip, we visited Hakone.

Hakone is a tourist destination which is popular among both Japanese and foreigners, the main reason being the proximity to Mt Fuji and Tokyo. Hakone-machi town is located in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National park and is centered around the Lake Ashi.
A good view of Mt Fuji and its reflection in the water on a clear day make Lake Ashi a popular destination. The scenery around is breathtaking. A cruise in Lake Ashi on the pirate boat is one of the most popular activity while in Hakonemachi.
The pirate boat can be kitschy and the so called pirates are only two pirate images placed on the upper deck. A person dressed in a pirate dress makes the rounds with a cameraman offering to pose with tourists for a souvenir photography. No doubt though that the cruise is the best way to view Mt Fuji and the surroundings on a clear day.
The torii of the Hakone Shrine in the lakewaters is a pretty sight.
 There are lots of museums and parks in and around Hakonemachi . There are onsens in the region especially near Hakone Yumoto.

However the most popular spot is Owakudani also known as the Great Boiling  Valley.
The Hakone volcano erupted over 3000 years ago and caused large scale destruction. The entire area is an active volcanic zone and sulphur fumes, hot springs and bubbling pools are found in plenty. 
Even today at times the volcanic outbursts are strong and hence the entire area is monitored for safety all round the clock. At times entry is restricted in case the volcanic gas density reaches alarming levels.The entire place smells strongly of Sulphur. A short trail dubbed “Nature research route” leads along volcanic area . 
 A popular delicacy at Owakudani is the “Kuro Tamago” or Black Egg also called Longevity eggs.  Eggs are boiled in sulphur pits and the egg shells turn black and the egg smells faintly of sulphur too. 
These black eggs are supposed to enhance one’s life by seven years. A pack of 6 boiled eggs costs 500 yen.
The popularity of the black eggs is evident from the long queues outside the Tamago Chaya where these eggs are sold. 
Since these eggs last for 4-5 days at normal room temperature, these are popular souvenirs among local Japanese.

There are boards all along which advise people not to stay in the area for too long as one can feel dizzy.
Most people prefer to take the cable car ride to Owakudani. It is an enjoyable ride which also offers some good views along the ride. Owakudani is also accessible by road. Lots of buses operate from various spots in the Hakone region to Owakudani. Car parking is also available at Owakudani though at times it can be crowded.

The ideal tour around the area is a Lake Ashi sightseeingcruise from Hakone to Togendai. The cruise begins from Hakonemachi-ko port and 10 minutes later reaches Moto Hakone-ko port on the way to Togendai. A 40 minute one way cruise costs Yen 970 for adults. The Hakone Ropeway operates between Togendai to Sounzan. Owakudani is approx 16 min ride from Togendai and  8 min ride from Sounzan.  The ropeway fare between Togendai and Owakudani is Yen 1020 for adults and Yen 510 for children. However the entire course by cruise, ropeway and back to Hakone machi takes about 3 hours. If  time is a constraint, driving up to Owakudani and back is the fastest way. On weekends though, the uphill drive can take a lot of time with slow moving traffic. The views along the road are nice too.
Hakone is accessible from Odawara by the Hakone Tozan line via Gora. From Gora, the Hakone Tozan funicular cable car provides access to Sounzan. The Romance car limited express train connects Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto.

Owakudani :
Opening hours: 8.00-17.30 ( 17.00 hrs from December-March)
Phone No: 0460-84-5201
Entrance : Free

Lake Ashi / Hakone Sightseeing Cruise:
(Hakone-machi-ko pier)
Operating Hours: 9.30 to 17:00
Phone no:  0460-83-7550
Ample car parking (free) available near the pier