Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

Month: November 2017 Page 1 of 2

The Nakasendo Way and Rollercoasters

Tuesday 24th

Up bright and early to catch the bus from Nakatsugawa station out to the start of my hike. A chilly start, but I decided on shorts and sandals as it was likely to warm up through the day – and this was a ~25km hike day. In the bus queue were a number of westerners – I definitely heard Spanish – and also a local all kitted out for hike probably in his 60’s. He didn’t speak much English but we chatted for a while, it seems he was gradually working his way along the Nakasendo one section at a time.

The Nakasendo was one of the five routes of the Edo period, and one of two routes (the other being the Tokaido) linking Edo (now Tokyo, or ‘Eastern Capital’) and Kyoto, the old imperial capital. Running 534km across country, it passed through 69 staging posts, or post towns, and was used by the feudal lords and their retinues. Nowadays much of it runs along modern highways, but there are stretches which feel like very little has changed for hundreds of years – and the route I was following between Ochiai and Nagiso is one of the prettiest.

I left the bus sooner than my travelling companions – they were probably heading to Magome, the first of two post towns on this section of the way, but I wanted to walk one of the few remaining stone paved sections first. After hiking up a steep road and passing a small temple, and some houses with beautiful blue tiled roofs, I found the paved section winding up through the forest ahead. Well preserved, with a stone drainage channel down one side, it was strange to think the samurai had trodden these paths hundreds of years ago – and that things would not have looked much different.

Arriving at the end of the old paved section I moved on to asphalt which was specially coloured – this marks the route of the old Nakasendo. As I walked I met the Japanese man I’d spoken to in Nakatusgawa, who politely asked if he could take my photo before he carried on his way. Past rice paddies, spectacular mountain views and fish ponds – and a Shiba Inu who did his duty as a good guard dog! – I arrived in Magome.

The town stretched up a long rising street, looking like something straight out of the Edo period – apart from the tourists! A wooden waterwheel outside one of the houses had been adapted with a generator to supply electricity to the house, the interior was a fascinating contrast – the generator and monitoring equipment on one side, and an irori (traditional Japanese sunken hearth, or firepit) on the other. A stop for a chestnut and vanilla ice cream provided a welcome cool down.

The views were quite stunning:

As I hiked on and upwards to the Magome pass at 800m (having started at 300m), I saw a brass bell hung from a post, with a sign saying “Ring the bell hard, Against Bears”. I’d seen some locals hiking with small bear bells hung from their rucksacks, this was obviously another deterrent – so I rang it hard and loud. The Japanese black bear tends to steer clear of humans – as long as they hear you approaching!

After heading downwards past massive cypress and tight packed stands of slimmer trees, I met with a couple of the locals – a cat with her kittens, as I arrived in the second post town, Tsumago. Another beautifully preserved old town, with an impressive river flowing through and hydroelectric power generation as well.

A short detour brought me to a couple of impressive waterfalls – Odakimedaki, or male waterfall and female waterfall:

On past Tsumago, and there were signs for the remains of Tsumago castle. At the foot of the path leading up the hill, I thought I’d just missed treading on a large beetle – on closer inspection it turned out to be a land crab, only a few centimetres across, who didn’t seem to pleased to see me!
There wasn’t anything left of the original castle buildings, but the views down to either side of the hill were grand. Stopped to have an apple, and a chat with a couple of guys who I’d passed a few times on the trail – they were from Barcelona, and were in their second week of their travels.

On approaching Nagiso station, passed another well preserved old steam engine, parked on a siding. Train back to Nagoya, and subway to Sakae for a well earned nights sleep at hotel The B.

Wednesday 25th

While browsing information about Nagoya, I’d come across a place called Nagashima Spa Land – a water park, spa resort, and amusement park with some epic rollercoasters. So a train to Kuwana then a local bus brought me there, and as we crossed a large river I saw the towering coasters in the distance – and thought ‘what am I letting myself in for!’.

As it was the off season, some of the rides were closed for maintenance. I started with the big one – Steel Dragon 2000 – ranked 7th tallest coaster in the world, with a 93.5m drop from the first peak. Without a doubt, the fastest and most extreme coaster I’ve ever ridden – awesome! Followed this by some of the others – Acrobat (a ‘flying’ coaster where you lie face down), Ultra Twister (a corkscrew affair), then Star Flyer (a 64m tall chair-o-plane with impressive views) and finally Aurora Wheel (their 90m tall ferris wheel).
The guys shown below on the Steel Dragon asked me where I was from – then said ‘welcome to Japan’ and high fived me – very friendly folk.

Bus back to Kuwana – packed in like sardines with a load of teens in school uniform – then trains to Nagoya and onward to Naha.

Nagoya and a Typhoon

Sunday 22nd

Come and lest in our rounge!

Started the day with a message from Satoshi, the guide who was going to lead in my hike in the Kurobe Gorge. Unfortunately, since a strong typhoon was going to blow through heading north in the early hours of Monday, the tour would be cancelled as there was no way of knowing what damage might happen to the trail.  The typhoon would drop a lot of rain, mudslides were always a possibility. We already had rain and strong winds with the leading edge of the storm hitting us. On leaving the hotel, spotted another interesting English translation opposite the station.

What to do on a rainy day in Nagoya? Head to the science museum of course! Made my way through the station to the subway, then on to the Nagoya City Science Museum. An impressive 7 story building, with a sphere holding the world’s biggest planetarium at 35m diameter. Lots of great exhibits, with lots of children enthusiastically torturing the various hands-on demonstrations. Got tickets for the high voltage demonstrations, and for the planetarium. The high voltage lab was hair-raising (see photos) and very, very loud, and the planetarium was very impressive. The presentation was all in Japanese (as was much of the signage around the exhibits), but still an enjoyable few hours.

Heading back through the (now very heavy) rain to Y.Market brewing for dinner, spotted another interestingly named ‘British Pub’. Never knew that elephants made nests.

Great nachos, chorizo and a couple of beers at Y.Market, this was a brewpub that supplied several other bars and restaurants in the area, and had a great range. Afterwards headed back to the hotel, seeing signs of preparation for the impending typhoon along the way – the yellow object in front of the entrance to a building’s car park was an inflatable barrier, ready to block any flood waters. Other places were installing solid gates with rubber seals – clearly used to this type of event. With the eye of the typhoon set to pass west of us at around 3am, I ventured out to the combini on the corner of the block at around 11pm. Luckily the wind was coming directly from the other side of the hotel, I could see horizontal rain being driven along the side streets on either side – lively!

Monday 23rd

Station sculpture

So I managed to sleep through the rest of the typhoon. Monday dawned bright and very breezy – we were still in the tail end of the winds which had peaked at 90mph sustained, gusting up to 120mph.

Checked out of the hotel early and dropped my luggage in a station locker. Walked out past the sculpture outside the twin towers of Nagoya station, and onward to Nagoya Castle, past a lovely old shopping arcade on the way. In its heyday, this was one of the largest castles in Japan, and the castle town surrounding it went on to become Japan’s 4th largest city. The first few photos show the elevated expressway leading into the area – at this point I’m already inside the outer castle town walls, but still a good 20 minute walk from the castle keep and towers.

The dude with the impressive hat is Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan. He ordered the reconstruction and expansion of Nagoya Castle in 1609, enlisting 20 of the feudal lords from northern and western Japan to assist him – their inscriptions can still be seen carved into the foundation stones, indicating which parts each one had worked on.

While walking the grounds I spied a samurai with his retainer – they graciously agreed to my request for a photo, keeping in character the whole time. This was slightly spoiled by the retainer then offering me a flyer for the samurai shows that they perform every Saturday in the grounds 😀.
The massive sculpture is a replica of one of the two golden carp, or kinshachi, that adorn the top of the main keep. They have a cypress wood core, covered in successive layers of lead, copper then beaten gold. The outer layers were melted down and recast 3 times during the Edo period, each time with decreased purity of gold – the excess used to help out the shogunate through times of financial difficulty.
The main keep and other buildings were destroyed during second world war bombardment, and were replaced with ferrocrete replicas in the 1950’s. An impressive reconstruction is ongoing – the Honmaru palace is almost complete, and in 2019 they will begin dismantling the central keep and rebuilding it in the traditional wooden style, to be completed in 2022.

The central staircase leads to an impressive view from the 7th floor – although deciding to climb it in one go without stopping not my best plan, was convinced I was dying for a few minutes when I got to the top!

Back to the station to catch the train to Nakatsugawa and a night in the Hotel Route-Inn there. Walked down to the Family Mart on the main road to get some dinner, and passed an interesting looking restaurant – kitted out like an old castle, called ‘Prince Matsuba’, apparently a retro themed sukiyaki place – meat and noodles the speciality.

More interesting translation – the sign on the window says “Coffee and stake”.


Fukuoka and Nagoya

Thursday 19th

Early bus back to Kumamoto, and time for another shinkansen – this time up to Fukuoka. At Fukuoka station, they had a shop full of merchandise about the 500 Type EVA train that I’d spotted on my last trip – this place is seriously train mad! Found a great ramen and gyoza place at the bus station for a big lunch. Spent a few hours at the hotel putting material on the blog, then headed out to the Fukuoka Tower – not actually a building but a transmission tower, with great views from the observation deck and a cool light show on the exterior – as you can see, the Japanese go very big on Halloween.

Friday 20th

Started the day in Starbucks for something calorific and one of their nitro cold brew coffees. Very smooth coffee, looks just like a half of Guinness. Walked from there to the picturesque Ohori park via the Fukuokakengokoku shrine. Ohori has another lovely example of a formal strolling garden, beautifully put together and maintained. As with Suizenji in Kumamoto, the idea is to take elements of the country – mountains, cliffs, waterfalls – and portray them in miniature. Very popular spot for couples having their wedding photos taken.

On into the main park, which has a large lake with an island joined by causeways to the bank. One of my favourite photos here – just something about the ‘out of time’ nature of the two girls in kimonos – checking their smartphones!

Back at the station in Kagoshima, I’d seen an advert for the Fukuoka Oktoberfest beer festival – which I’d thought wasn’t happening this year. Hence my addition of the city to my itinerary. Took the subway to a nearby station, and spotted a ‘British pub’ with the intriguing name “Morris’ Hippo”. Who Morris was, and why he had a hippo, remained unanswered.

New pals

Stopped in for a drink and a snack, and while sitting out on the patio was engaged in conversation by a couple of ladies – business partners who’d knocked off early for the day. Natasha was originally from Russia, but had been living in Japan for 19 years, and Erico was Japanese – Natasha described her as her ‘Japanese sister’. Erico was a fashion designer, and Natasha designed accessories. Clearly a certain amount of red wine had been consumed, and Natasha was rather taken with me – they said I reminded them of Bruce Willis, ‘very handsome’ – still not sure how to take that…

They offered to take me to dinner and then to a club, I politely demurred and said I was on my way to the beer fest – so they decided to come along. Had a nice hour chatting with them – well, since Erico spoke very little English there was a certain amount of translation, and since English was Natasha’s third language (Russian and Japanese being first and second) she was a little frustrated at times finding the right words. When it became clear I was still not going clubbing with them, they decided it best to leave me to it – I was hardly dressed for a club anyhow, still in shorts and sandals!
(I have to admit I was in fear of losing said shorts if Natasha got carried away…)

The beerfest was awesome. Apparently there is a joint German/Japanese partnership that hosts these around Japan throughout the year, but Fukuoka is one of the ones that’s actually in October (we’ll ignore the fact that Oktoberfest Munich actually starts in September…) and was started by a local who fell in love with Germany when he lived there for a time. All the big German breweries were represented, but I stuck with beers from a Japanese bewery – Fujizakura – who specialise in German style beers. I even got to meet their head brewer.

Spam musubi!

It was quite a sight as you’ll see from the video and the photos – Japanese (some in lederhosen or dirndls) singing along to the German guest bands and having a whale of a time. The guys at the front in the first video were German, and did a great job of geeing up the crowd.
I even found the wonderful Japan/Hawaii delicacy – Spam musubi! Basically a large block of sushi rice, with fried Spam on top. Artery blocking but utterly delicious. Some photos after of my stroll back through the city.

Saturday 21st

Bit of a slow start this morning, but Seattle’s Best Coffee sorted me out and I found my way by bus over to Hakata station. Two shinkansens this morning – Hakata to Shin-Osaka, then onward to Nagoya. Still raining hard when we pulled in, so was very pleased that the hotel was right next to the station.

BeerPub BRICK LANE for dinner – good reviews for their burgers, but I’d call what arrived a steak sandwich… still tasty. Stopped by Y.Market brewing on the way back, very sensible signage on their outside balcony.



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