Published: November 25th 2009September 15th 2009
September 10th to 15th 2009 - Hakata, Sendai, Matsushima, Tono Valley, Morioka
Blog writing being the long and tiresome business that it is (I only do it cause I love you guys so much), it's easy to get behind with updates. The week I spent between my time in the very south of Japan on the island of Yakushima, and my arrival in the very north in Hokkaido, was one week that I never really got the chance to document whilst I was there. Nevertheless, it was a week that, 2 months later and back at home, I look back on with a lot of fondness, and given that I often read back over these accounts myself, I wanted to write a condensed blog about it, even if it was retrospectively.
To get from Yakushima up to Hokkaido is not a stroll round the block, even with the unparalleled Japanese rail and ferry system up your sleeve. I wanted to explore some of the more rural and less visited parts of northern Japan on my way - that like Yakushima and Hokkaido, see few foreign visitors, but are themselves deeply immersed in a lot of the legends and
superstitions that still persist into modern Japanese culture. Even better, my timing was to coincide with a spate of festivals in the area. So, on the Thursday, I reboarded the long ferry back to mainland with reluctance (having in the last hour of my time in Yakushima finally discovered a supermarket in the main port where I absolutely stuffed myself with food) and then began an even longer train journey across Kumamoto. Given the time and distance, I was forced to stop for the night in Hakata, but as it was, this was a perfect opportunity to experience a true Japanese phenomenon that I had been very excited to try out.... the manga kissa.
Manga Kissas are, put simply, 24-hour internet cafes. However, they are not anything like any internet cafes I had ever seen before... which were namely mozzie-infested underground rooms with a single broken fan and computers that had been constructed in the 70s by an unlicensed company that shortly after went bankrupt. These were more like libraries. Each person hired a little private cubical containing a pc, tv and dvd player, lamp, blankets and either a reclining chair or a sleep mat, depending on your preference.
Free soft and hot drinks are available, they have showers, sometimes laundry facilities, and a vast collection of DVD titles to choose from. Originally designed for (and still mostly used by) salarymen who had missed the last train home, these manga kissas are perfect for a cheap place to sleep, and if I ever have the capital, I fully intend to set up a few in London nightlife spots as a pre-tube-opening crash pad.
The next day, slightly bug-eyed from all the film streaming I had managed in 9 hours, I set off again northwards on the train, still a good 10 hours in front of me. I had decided to base myself in Sendai, a large but still attractive city in Miyagi-Ken, and then do day-trips from there, and thus booked myself, with slight trepidation, into another of those formidable Japanese Youth Hostels. Sendai is fairly normal as far as Japanese cities go, with little in the way of sight-seeing, but somehow I quite liked it anyway; it's bustling shopping streets and downtown illuminated billboards giving the place a vibrant air. This atmosphere was increased considerably by the Sendai Jazz Festival that was being held over the next
couple of days, with buskers from all over the country (and outside it) coming to perform on the city's streets. Jazz was a loose term for lots of it, which included 'The Calling'-esque Japanese boy-bands, hippies on panpipes, middle-aged heavy rock bands and ensemble orchestras, but it was really fun, and I spent an entire day and evening wandering round, listening to the bands and visiting Sendai's castle with its panoramic view over the city. My favourite was this old chap who must have been about 70 or so, who was playing this wooden flute/recorder/pan-pipe like instrument (hey, I'm the opposite of musical, I don't know my woodwinds) and was absolutely amazing. An entire crowd gathered around him and gave him an encore, and he looked so happy, it was really sweet.
The following day I left the city and headed to the coast, my destination Matsushima Bay - eulogised by Japanese poets (Basho) and rulers (Masamune Date), domestic tourist mecca, and 'one of the top three sights in Japan'. Whilst I find the obsession with Japanese list-making amusing (even from me, Miss obsessive-compulsive list-maker herself), it's difficult to disagree with their assessment. The bay is dotted with over
250 pine-covered islands, some small enough only for a miniscule sprig of greenery to perch on top, some large enough to hold tiny fishing hamlets. I really enjoyed my day there, strolling through the small town and visiting some of the shrines on the nearby islands, then taking a boat trip out into the bay to view them from a different angle. In the afternoon I caught the train a couple of stops further up the coast, then hiked out to Oku-Matsushima, a deserted headland that provided an amazing view over the entire bay and the dramatic clouds that were forming above it. I arrived back just as dusk was falling, and explored the extremely creepy Zuigan-ji temple before catching my train back to Sendai and a pizza in a roof-top restaurant overlooking the city.
On Monday I travelled even further afield to the sleepy Tono Valley, centred around the tiny 'city' of Tono. Despite it's small size and the fact that they receive a tourist about once a year, I had been really looking forward to my visit here. The valley is well-known as the centre and origin of a lot of Japanese folklore, including the famous kappa,
the mischievous protector water spirits. The day I arrived was also the day of the Tono Matsuri, the 700 year old harvest festival, so there was a small parade through town of floats and kappa dancers who went from business to business performing a dance to ensure financial success for the forthcoming year. I hired a bicycle from the local tourist office and then set off to explore the valley and its countless shrines. The scenery here was amazing, huge skies full of dark grey clouds, big towering mountains, and bright yellow rice-fields cut through with straight flat roads perfect for cycling. It reminded me of pictures of the American mid-west, Edward Hopper style, and it is possibly the only time I've ever hankered to go to Missouri, but in any case, it was beautiful, and one of the highlights of my trip. Particular favourite shrines included the Unedori-sama shrine, where if you tie a red ribbon around a branch of the tree you will find true love (I failed and had to use my teeth too, so looks like I'm destined to be a spinster), the Joken-ji temple, with the original Kappa pool behind it, and a lot of
breast-shaped offerings, and the Gohyaku Rakan, an amazing gloomy valley full of moss-covered carved rocks engraved with images of the 500 disciples of Buddha. There are meant to be lots of bears around here, but sadly I missed out on seeing any again. Perhaps it's kismit.
On my final and forth day in Northern Honshu, I checked out of my youth hostel (forbidding and silent as ever, but at least I got my own room) and headed up to Morioka, a city right in the north. This is famous for it's Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree, a 300-year old specimen that has managed to grow in the crack of an enormous granite boulder, and appears to have split it apart as it grew. A highly symbolic representation of the Japanese belief in fortitude and endurance, it sits outside the front of the District Court, and is photographed every day by hundreds of Japanese tourists. Morioka itself doesn't have much in the way of distractions, but, yet again, I had timed my arrival to coincide with the Hachiman-gu Matsuri, the traditional harvest festival, and as I wandered round the temples and the old castle park, I could hear the chanting and the
monster taiko drums being beaten as the chariots went round. These drums are amazing - you know how a really good bass beat vibrates inside your whole body? Well these are the same - it takes years to become a professional player, and your core muscles have to be amazing as you sit slightly leaned back the entire time that you are playing. In the evening the real carnival started, with processions of chariots filing through the main street, pulled by hundreds of people dressed in robes and traditional sandals. Aside from the spectacle of the whole thing, part of the amusement lay in the fact that it was absolutely tipping it down, so whilst we, the spectators, were huddled dry under the shop awnings, these poor participants were drenched to the skin and splashing through massive puddles in their sandals. I've never seen a carnival procession look so miserable in my life, poor sods. Even me, kept (mostly) dry and (mostly) warm, didn't feel the urge to stay out in the cold any longer, and once the carnival had finished, decided impulsively to head onto Hokkaido that night rather than stay in Morioka til the following morning.
pretty much fills up the gap between blogs, and sorry it's so condensed, but I've mainly added it for me rather than anyone else. I just like going back and looking at those landscapes of the Tono Valley every few weeks.....!
There are more photos below