Travel2Japan! Celebrating the Joy of Discovering Japan January 2014
In this issue: The Galapagos of the Orient The Izakaya Way of Life Culinary Bliss in Tohoku The Namahage of Oga Yamadera: Spirits in the Sky
Travel2Japan is a TalkingTravel.ca Publication
Volume 2, Number 1 January, 2014 Greetings from the Editor-in-Chief These are a few of my favourite things
The Galapagos of the Orient Tokyo’s Ogasawara Islands
The Izakaya Way of Life Seeking the Perfect Local Dining experience
Culinary Bliss in Tohoku A photographic Essay
The Namahage of Oga Friendly Ogres usher in the New Year
Yamadera Spirits in the Sky
Nebuta Festival Float The Warasse Nebuta House, Aomori, Tohoku
Cover Photo: Associate Editor, Mitsuru Sasaki in full Namahage costume
Travel2Japan is a Talking Travel publication. Talking Travel’s mandate is to engage consumers in the value of travel, exploration and discovery as well as to transform travel professionals into destination masters through skill development that translates into revenue generation. Talking Travel publications are owned, operated and published by Steve Gillick. All Rights Reserved. Protected by International and Canadian Copyright Law. Travel2Japan can be shared, forwarded, cut and pasted but not sold, resold or in any way monetized. Permission is required for the use of any images or content from Travel2Japan ©Steve Gillick Please note that: Steve Gillick and Talking Travel are not responsible for outcomes based on how the ideas presented in this Magazine are interpreted or used. Travel2Japan, 500 Duplex Ave., Ste 2210 Toronto, ON Canada M4R 1V6
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Aizuwakamatsu. We stayed at the Kutzurogijuku Chiotaki. This is a first class onsen hotel—the hot bath is on the top floor so at night you get the vista of the city, below, while you are soaking in the soothing waters. And the food is fresh, local and excellent. We spent one day in the popular market town of Oouchijuku before returning to visit the sake breweries, the samurai house and the castle. Yamadera. The 1000-step climb to the top of the mountain is not too taxing and on the way, in the Autumn, you see beautiful changing leaves, small temples, shrines and Jizo statues. It really is an experience of a lifetime.
Three weeks of Sheer Enjoyment
Sendai. The Westin is a great place to stay—very close to the train station—amazing view from the rooms—very friendly service. We visited nearby Matsushima --so pretty—and so much to see—as well as Shiogame—with its incredibly fresh seafood.
Part of the beauty of exploring Japan is that there is always something new to see, taste and experience. In November 2013, with the support of the City of Tokyo, I ventured to the Ogasawara Islands.
Hiraizumi. Rent bicycles to visit the two temple areas. Again the autumn leaves wholly complemented the temples, the tall trees, the nottoo-difficult mountain climb and the pond.
Once on Chichijima, we were overwhelmed at the friendly nature of just about everyone we met. Our tours were filled with beautiful scenery, wild octopus trees, hidden beaches and walking trails. On our second evening we joined a small group to look for bats and glowing mushrooms. The bats were hiding that night but we did manage to find one fluorescent mushroom as well as huge hermit crabs on the beach.
Morioka. The highlight included the main temple and a wonderful evening at Torayah Izakaya
Steve Gillick: Writer, Photographer and Editor
Our cruise around the island—a snorkeler’s, scuba diver’s and swimmer’s paradise—was also, for me, a wonderful photographic opportunity. We also visited Hahajima—known for its walking/hiking trails and unique species of flora and fauna that not only gave rise to the nickname-the Galapagos of the Orient-but also contributed to the UNESCO natural heritage designation.
Namahage (see the story in this magazine) Hirosaki: The castle, temple street and the Neputa Museum are must sees. Aomori: Our tour guide, Qiu was terrific and he took us to so many interesting places that showcase the history, art and cuisine of the region. The Nebuta Museum (see back cover) is simply excellent. Back in Tokyo we stayed at one of our favourite properties, the Courtyard by Marriott Tokyo Ginza Hotel: Great comfort, service and location. r Other adventures in Tohoku will be covered in the .Spring edition of Travel2Japan.
After returning to Tokyo, we enjoyed ten days exploring the Tohoku Region, with the support of the Japan National Tourism Organization. And every day was filled with amazing “new things”. I say that because the trend in travel today concentrates on “what else” you can do. And in Tohoku there is no much.
A Shinto turtle protects a grave in the Matsudaira family cemetery in Aizuwakamatsu
And Now for Something Completely Different inTokyo Prefecture…
Heart Rock, Chichijima
I’ll admit that the one thing that stood between me and the Ogasawara Islands, which lie 1000 km to the south of Tokyo and are part of Tokyo Prefecture, was the mode of transportation. The only way to access the Islands is by Ferry and the ride takes 25 ½ hours each way, assuming the weather and the ocean cooperate. Despite lingering memories of notso-pleasant past experiences, I decided to be bold and confirm the arrangements for the trip. In preparation for the ride I marched into the local drug store and purchased trans-dermal patches to be applied behind the ear, as well as sea-bands—to stimulate the acupressure points on both wrists, as well as Gravol tablets-just in case the first two solutions didn’t work, and then, for good measure, a bottle of Advil, just in case the whole affair gave me a headache.
I don’t think I went overboard with my concerns. All my fears were for naught and my decision to proceed with the trip was more than affirmed with engaging people, amazing scenery, delicious food and adventure! Known for many years as the Bonin Islands (from the Japanese word bunin, meaning ‘no people’ or ‘uninhabited’), Ogasawara takes its name from Ogasawara Sadayori who claimed (some say falsely) to have been granted the islands in 1593. Ogasawara itself is an archipelago of over 30 subtropical and tropical islands, with only two of them inhabited: Chichijima, or Father Island, has a population of roughly 2000 and Hahajima, or Mother Island, has a population of 400.
A similar article appeared in the November 13, 2013 edition of www.travelindustrytoday.com
The attractions of And what do you do for 25½ Ogasawara lay in hours? Well, when you take secluded beaches, into consideration time for hiking, boating, sailing, napping, eating, becoming snorkeling, scuba diving, mesmerized by the emptiness sea-kayaking, whaleof the ocean and the swelling watching, swimming with of the waves, taking photos, wild dolphins, fishing, watching some television, conservation, as well as reading, chatting, peoplethe sheer uniqueness of watching, having an Asahi experiencing the Beer or two and sleeping, destination (what many then all of a sudden it’s 11:30 travellers refer to as the am the next day and exactly ‘what else’ in travel). 25½ hours after we left Tokyo, Plus it is important to we arrived in Chichijima. note that the Ogasawara Our tour guide, Katchan, offers a taste of the fruit from the Octopus tree. group was formed by We checked into the Seafront underwater volcanoes 48 Hotel (about an 8-minute walk million years ago and were never attached to a from the Ferry Dock-it’s a very small town). It land mass. They became home to a number of offered basic accommodation but it was neat unique species of flora and fauna, a fact that and clean and afforded a nice view of the main has given rise to the nickname, The Galapagos street from our balcony. We then roamed the of the Orient’. town and settled on a Ramen restaurant for a delicious bowl of mixed seafood ramen. After spending a few days in Tokyo, we arrived at Takeshiba Pier on a cool November day and Back at the hotel Katchan, our guide from the at 10:00 am we departed on the Ferry, the Nature Academy introduced himself and we set Ogasawara Maru. Our First Class room was on off for an orientation tour of the island. We the 2nd level and contained two bunk beds, a stopped at amazing lookouts to enjoy vistas of window, and a small television. the city, the harbour and the smaller islands in the area.
Marujo is a traditional Izakaya with excellent seafood and a friendly, decorative atmosphere
Kaisen Ramen for Lunch
Sampling Kame Sushi (Raw Turtle) one of the traditional dishes
We learned about Octopus trees (the many root shoots resemble Octopus arms) and tasted the tangy fruit. We found hidden, beautiful sand and rocky beaches where snorkelers were exploring the waters, and we discovered Second World War military buildings almost completely hidden by the forest. That evening we had dinner at Marujo, a seafood izakaya (restaurant/bar) and enjoyed fresh sushi and sashimi, including two traditional island specialties: kame sashimi (raw turtle) and shimazushi, made with sawara (also called wahoo) fish, marinated in soy sauce and prepared with spicy mustard (as opposed to wasabi). It was so good. The next morning we discovered the bakery. A small crowd gathered in anticipation of the 6:30 am opening. The sweet smell of freshly baked
Mixed Sashimi at Marujo
Shima Zushi with hot mustard: an Ogasawara speciality
buns and pastries got the better of us so we sat on the porch for a breakfast of coffee and baked goodie. Then we hopped across the road to the harbour and met our cruise boat, the Pink Dolphin for the seven-hour circle tour of the island. This was a day of absolute wonderment; sunshine, incredible land formations, wild dolphins cavorting with snorkelers, secluded sandy beaches, mysterious caves, curious albatrosses, two smiling goats, and three foot waves that quickly calmed down to resemble a soothing, rolling, carpet.
The cruise provided the opportunity to swim, snorkel, photograph and become absolutely entranced by the features of the island that contributed to the Ogasawara group being named a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site in 2011.
Tamotsu Hayakawa, our Hahajima guide
One of the more interesting sites that we passed a few times, was the Heart Rockâ€”a rocky formation boasting a red-tinged heart-shaped figure. (see P.3) We had passed by the Heart Rock CafĂŠ in town, but thought it was just a touristy take-off on the famous Hard Rock chain. In actuality, it was a celebration of the local Heart Rock!
The following day, after another tasty bakery breakfast, we boarded the Hahajima-Maru for the two-hour ferry ride to Hahajima Island, 50 km to the south. While Chichijima is known for its beaches, Hahajima is known for hiking and trekking. Our guide Tamotsu Hayakawa, a very knowledgeable and affable 69 year old naturalist met us at the Ferry to begin out day of exploration. In short, it was an awesome experience. Hayakawa had worked for many years toward the preservation of the Hahajima Meguro (also known as the Bonin White Eye), a small yellow bird with white circles around its dark eyes. Today, the entire population of 14,000 birds can only be found on Hahajima. Hayakawa was a master of bird calls and with his help we were able to find and photograph a few Meguro during the day. But he also had oodles of energy and while we were huffing and puffing to follow him up the sometimes steep mountain paths and staircases, he seemed to ascend effortlessly. We passed through forests of tangled trees and fan leaf plants, each vying for the attention of the sunlight, stood on Mount Kofuji to gaze at
Mitsuru Sasaki on the walk to Mount Kofuji
The entrance to Minamijima Beach, Chichijima
the blue ocean water, the rocky islands and the crescent shape of Minamizaki Beach far below. We clamoured through a cave, still housing rusting guns from the Second World War, and then descended to the beach itself to listen to the waves, look at the corals and shells that had washed up, and take in more beautiful scenery. After an overnight at the Nanpu Hotel it was time to head back to Chichijima and then catch the ferry for Tokyo. When we departed Chichijima, it seemed like half the town turned out, with everyone waving, bidding their friends and relatives a safe trip, and even featuring a Taiko drum performance. Then a flotilla of seven yachts followed the Ferry to the harbour entrance. It was
such a warm and heartfelt departure that it made us sad to be leaving. While the islands are mostly geared toward Japanese-speaking visitors, they do attract Europeans, Americans and in this case, one Canadian. Still, I managed to find people who spoke a bit of English and mixed with my even less bit of Japanese, I had a wonderful time. The Ogasawara Islands are most likely a destination that few travellers--and even travel agents--know about, but they do deserve attention.
The Hahajima Meguro
Throughout the trip I kept thinking of the Monty Python lineâ€ŚAnd now for something completely differentâ€?. In the case of the Ogasawara Islands, this is absolutely true.
For more information, visit www.ogasawarakaiun.co.jp/english/guide/ Our journey to Ogasawara was supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau
Top Left: The Captain of the Ogasaware-Maru, Isami Takahashi; Top Middle: Lining up for the opening of the bakery on Chichijima; Top Right: Crab Crossing signs can be found on both islands; Middle Left: “Gyosun” or “Fish Sandals”. Everyone on the islands wears them. Middle Right: The final ascent of Mount Kofuji, Hahajima; Bottom Right: A WWII gun in a hidden cave overlooking Minamizaki Beach and the Pacific Ocean, Hahajima; Bottom Left: One of the many picturesque rock Islands as you circle Chichijima.
We discovered Ohanabo by wandering the small streets of Sendai. The Izakaya is very friendly (as you can see) with a very good selection of sake and very tasty, fresh food!
THE IZAKAYA WAY OF LIFE Everyone was crying! Tears were literally streaming down the faces of the three businessmen at the table behind me as well as the woman who was sitting at the counter to my left. The izakaya owner’s wife was crying; her daughter was mopping away her own tears, and my two companions and I could hardly talk. The only thing that distinguished this scene from a sad movie or tragic event was the fact that we were also convulsed in laughter. This was my fourth visit to Tsuzuku, a tiny 14-seat izakaya, located on a side street in one of the residential areas of Tokyo. In a lot of ways it is typical of an old-style izakaya, or restaurant/bar. In fact the name izakaya is derived from “i” meaning ‘to stay’ and “sakaya”
meaning ‘sake shop’. Izakayas were originally way-stations for people to relax and enjoy a cup or more of sake. Today, most izakayas serve food—either a general menu of seafood and yakitori (grilled meat, fish or vegetables on a skewer) or they specialize in one type of food. Tsuzuku is a seafood izakaya and finding fresher, better prepared seafood would be a challenge. Tonight we savoured the assorted sashimi (raw seafood), enjoyed the ‘okara’ (a traditional dish made from soy beans) and indulged in the delicate flavour of ‘sake no harasu yaki’ (the fatty parts of grilled salmon). We tried ‘harmonica’, grilled back-fin of tuna –so crispy and tasty. And then, as the sobbing reached a crescendo, we
decided to try the house specialty, ‘Wasabi Meshi’. This delicious treat
A shorter version of this article appeared in the January 6, 2014 issue of www.travelindustrytoday.com
consisted of a bowl of steamed rice in which a lot (and I mean, a lot) of freshly grated wasabi root is mixed. Wasabi is often likened to horseradish. It is pungently hot. The owner’s wife was crying because she was grilling the food. It was cold outside so the vents were closed and the smoky cloud arising from the grill was reaching cumulus proportions. The daughter was crying because she was energetically grating the wasabi root to add to the rice and, just like peeling onions, the wasabi ‘fumes’ filled the air. The businessmen behind me were the first to taste the Wasabi Meshi. They immediately put down their chopsticks to wipe away the tears and the sweat rolling down their faces. When we looked at them, they burst out in laughter, which set the tone for the rest of the patrons, including the woman at the counter to my left, who was having difficulty seeing, because her eyes were so red from the rice dish. And my companions and I joined in the party—mostly because the rice is incredibly tasty, and if you can get through the first few bites, things begin to calm down a bit. After my first tearful venture into the rice, the owner’s daughter told me to eat it with seaweed to absorb some of the heat. I delicately plucked some seaweed from a plastic container with my chopsticks and was quickly reprimanded with “No no! Take a handful like this…” as she took a fistful of shredded seaweed and threw it on top of my rice. Of course more laughter ensued. Then the owner’s wife started to hand out bananas, which also tend to mellow the piquant bite of the wasabi. So now we are all crying, laughing and eating bananas in a seafood izakaya. Ahhh…travel memories! But it was, in a way, typical of many evenings spent in izakayas. Of course there are large independent and chain Izakayas throughout the country but the smaller ones tend to have a personality all their own. Once people found out that I was from Canada (in all cases I was the only non-Japanese patron) then everyone would try out their English, or speak with my companions to find out more about Canada or why I was in Japan or what we had seen on our travels so far. Here are just a few examples of memorable izakayas: Jo-Ki-Gen: This is a standing seafood/sake bar (i.e. no seats) in the Shinbashi area of Tokyo, not too far from Ginza. The place is extremely popular with locals so you have to arrive before 5:30 pm if you want a good spot at the counter. The chef/owner is a fisherman with a very engaging personality. The individually prepared dishes are excellent and the sake selection is very good too. The place ‘stands” about 10 comfortably but can accommodate up to 30 people. Recommendation: The sashimi combo. Ohana-bo: We were wandering down small side streets in the city of Sendai and noticed this tiny izakaya. We gave it a try and it turned out to be excellent. The very friendly owner/chef expertly prepares the seafood dishes, but the yakitori is amazing. Recommendation: tsukuneh (grilled minced meat with teriyaki sauce on a skewer). It was served fresh, hot and so delicious that we ordered more. nd
Top Photo: Tsuzuku’s famous Wasabi Rice. 2 : Grabbing handfuls of nori (seaweed) to soak rd th th up some of the heat in the dish. 3 . Lots of nori helps! 4 : Tears flow 5 : Bananas are th distributed to further lessen the effects of the Wasabi 6 : Steve Gillick, red eyed but happy.
Left: Shamesen player at Tsugaru Joppari Ryoya Sakaba in Aormori
Hai-ran-sho: A very friendly place in Aizu Wakamatsu with a young chef/owner who recently took over from his father. It’s a very small izakaya with lots of chatter and laughter. Recommendation: The assorted sashimi. The place has a great selection of Tohoku………. Region Try Snow Drop-which is a sake made with Yogurt—sweet, creamy and refreshing after a meal. YY: Sometimes serendipity plays a part in finding great places to eat. We arrived in Hirosaki at night, checked into our hotel and then asked the concierge for an Izakaya. She indicated one that was all of a five minute walk away. But it was closed…so we walked back to the hotel and asked for another suggestion. She mentioned the YY Izakaya—just next door to the first suggestion. She said it was local and had decent food. It turned out to be another amazing evening. We tried Joppari Sake –very dry, clean and clear. We sampled Kai no Misoyaki (grilled scallops with miso)
Right: Kazuhiro Matsuda, the owner/chef at Hiransho in Aizu Wakamatsu
And other local dishes including Ikano Goroyaki (squid grilled in squid ink and special sauces), Grilled white fish with Miso and Shishamo (small fish with eggs inside—you eat everything!) Torayah: Just north of the castle and temple in the city of had Morioka, we walked into an old izakaya where just about every seat was occupied by businessmen. As the crowd slowly headed home, we started to chat with the owner and then other patrons became interested in the Canadian connection. By the time we left several hours later, we were taking photos with the owner and her daughter and some of the other ‘regulars’. It was one of those comfortable evenings where everyone interacted like old friends—with ourselves included. And the food was amazing. Recommendation: the Octopus and Scallop sashimi, but literally everything was great.
Left: The staff, the food and the atmosphere at Torayah in Morioka are wonderful Right: YY Izakaya in Hirosaki —delicious food and very friendly
Aomori Tsugaru Joppari Ryoya Sakaba When in Aomori, look for the three huge Nebuta heads and you will have found this Izakaya. (The Nebuta festival takes place in the autumn and attracts thousands of people to watch the colourful floats). The Izakaya is pretty good— you sit at a large squared counter, the service is very attentive, the food (lots of local dishes) is tasty and well prepared and at some point during the meal a sameshin (three-stringed instrument) player will serenade the diners. It’s a fun, relaxed place to spend an evening. Also on my list: On my many trips to Japan, I’ve had some great Izakaya experiences. So as not to leave them out of my “Izakaya Way of Life” list, I would like to at least mention them.
We tried Snow Drop Sake in Aizu Wakamatsu—it’s sweet but potent
Yasubei –Yokohama—specializes in Yakatori. Have been there a few times. Saka-eya—a tiny Izakaya in Yokohama with incredibly good food. The Niseko Club, Niseko Village (Hokkaido)—try the grilled Hokke—very friendly service too. Goro (Niigata)—excellent food. This is a larger Izakaya but the service is very personal. Need to make reservations a few days in advance. Kurokawa, Fukuoka-a large, popular Izakaya with lots of energy and really good food. Shinki is an Izakaya chain. We had a really enjoyable lunch at the Mitaka location.
Joppari Sake has a clear, clean and crisp taste—and a great label!
Sakaeya, in Yokohama
And there are dozens of small izakayas that are rarely visited by tourists, partially due to the language issue, but also there is a bit of an intimidation factor i.e. walking into a 14 -seat restaurant filled with chatting locals. But just about every time we discovered such an izakaya, we ended up having a memorable evening. And a hint: Sit at the counter, if possible. That’s where the interaction takes place between the chef and the patrons and between the patrons themselves. What I refer to as ‘the izakaya way of life’ is a reflection of the current trend in travel to experience, taste, talk, listen, learn, laugh and go beyond the stereotype of the tourist watching the scenery. It is a way of becoming part of the scenery and enhancing the enjoyment and meaningfulness of your travels exponentially. Achieving culinary nirvana involves more than the freshness and quality of the food. It’s a holistic encounter of travel, food, culinary talent, atmosphere, relaxation, conversation, wonderment and awe.
The counter is the place to be at Hairansho in Aizu Wakamatsu
CULINARY BLISS IN TOHOKU’S RESTAURANTS & IZAKAYAS
Mixed Chirashi Domburi at Kaisen Shokudo Yamato, in Shiogame
The scallops that you catch and grill yourself at Hotate Gya in Aomori are so large, you can hardly fit them in your mouth
Tsukune is grilled minced meat Yakitori with a special sauce. Hairansho Izakaya in Aizu Wakamatsu makes some of the best
1) Negi (leak)Soba from Misawaya in Ouchijuku 2) Grilled rice with special miso sauce in Ouchijuku 3) Butter Squid from Hairansho Izakaya, Aizu Wakamatsu 4) Miso Yaki (Grilled white fish) from YY Izakaya, Hirosaki 5) Kushi Yaki Sakanaâ€” grilled fish on a stick from the market in Ouchijuku 6) Tempura Soba from Taki Fudo Nama Soba in Yamadera
THE NAMAHAGE OF OGA A disturbing and sinister moaning is getting louder as it approaches your home. Loud banging is followed by a crash as the entrance door is flung open and two horrendous figures tramp into your house. They are dressed in coats of straw. Their feet are bound in straw sandals. They carry a small bucket in one hand and a menacing carving knife in the other. They are wearing scary red or blue masks depicting expressions evil, horror and dread. Fangs protrude from their mouths. They yell out questions in an accusatory way as they clomp toward the stove or the fireplace. “Are there any cry babies around”? “Are there any naughty kids here”? ”Any lazy people neglecting their work”? The children are either hiding in fear, crying at the shock of seeing these frightening intruders— or nervously laughing at the anticipated arrival of the Namahage (pronounced Nom-a-hah-gay) on New Years Eve, December 31st. The Namahage trace their beginnings to the 1st Century BC, when Emperor Wu arrived in Japan from China, along with five evil ogres. Ogres appear in mythology and folklore as large, monster-like creatures that commit atrocities against human beings. A shorter version of this article appeared in the December 30, 2013 issue of www.travelindustrytoday.com
In Emperor Wu’s case, the ogres descended from their mountain homes to the villages on the Oga Peninsula in northern Japan whereupon they stole crops as well as young women. The villagers came up with a proposal to which the Ogres agreed. If the Ogres could build a flight of 1000 steps from the village to the top of the mountain in one night, then they would be provided with whatever they wanted. However if the Ogres failed, then they would have to leave forever. The Ogres set to work diligently building the staircase. As they completed the 999th step, one of the villages imitated the call of the rooster and the Ogres, thinking that dawn had arrived and they had failed at their task, fled the village, never to return.
believe the Namahage have an agricultural significance, as they bring with them wishes for healthy and abundant crops in the year ahead. Many consider the Namahage to be spirits (kami) or deities and that their appearance on New Years Eve carries with it, blessings of good health and prosperity for the family. Today, in villages such as Oga, New Years Eve is an exciting time where part of the tradition of ‘new beginnings’ includes a visit from 2-3 young men dressed as Namahage. They check with each household beforehand to ensure that no one in the home is ill, elderly or pregnant, so as not to upset them, and they also receive some
The actual word ‘Namahage’ refers to heat blisters—sores that lazy people get from idly sitting around the fire for too long, and the task of the Namahage is to confront the guilty and get them to change their ways before the coming of the New Year. Some
The Namahage enter a home, stomping and wailing
advance hints from parents regarding any issues that need to be addressed during the visit. If a child is not doing their homework or a member of the family is not pulling his/her weight in doing the chores, then the Namahage build this into their frightening talk as they look around the house for anyone who may be hiding. (Think of it as a version of the lyrics “He sees you when you’re sleeping/he knows when you’re awake/ he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake). And when the Namahage are finished, they sit down with the head of the household to be appeased and re-assured that those who need to change their ways, will do as the Namahage have warned. This discussion includes the hospitality of food and a cup or two of sake. I was fortunate to visit the town of Oga in Akita Prefecture in the Tohoku Region of Japan in late November. It’s a bit out of the
way: It took us four hours to get there from the city of Morioka but it was a relaxing journey by train past mountains and forests festooned in colourful autumn leaves. Finally at Oga train station, we hopped on the Namahage Museum bus. We elected to get off early at the small building known as the 10,000 Buddhas of Shinzan, which dates to 1714. Miniature, carved, wooden Jizo statues (representing the Bodhisattva who decided to postpone Buddhahood until all could be saved) cover the walls and ceilings. A place of protection, peace and comfort for troubled souls From there it was a 20-minute walk down the road to the Namahage Musuem. It was a dull, dank, dark, dreary afternoon and it seemed to complement the atmosphere of visiting displays of ogres and ghostly apparitions. But the first order of business was to dress up like a Namahage in straw cloak, shoes and masks (there were very few visitors in the museum so we did not have to fight off any kids who may
also have also wanted to dress-up). After the mandatory photos, we entered the exhibit hall filled with Namahage figures representing New Years traditions in the different villages on the Peninsula. The eerie soundtrack whispering ‘whoa, whoa’ as if it was a weird, whistling, supernatural chant, filled the hall. I have to admit that as a serious collector and admirer of masks, I was in seventh heaven. During my stay I’m pretty sure that I took a photo of each of the 100+ masks on display. We visited the Museum theatre to watch a performance depicting a typical Namahage encounter on New Years Eve. After noisily stomping their way into the home, the Namahage sought out the kids in the audience, only to be greeted with smiles, giggles, and feigned terror, as the parents had told their kids beforehand hat to expect. The visitors then sat down with the head of the household to ‘negotiate’ for better behaviour in the New Year and then, appeased with a cup of sake, they grimaced at the kids in the audience once again and then departed. It would not have been a complete visit without ascending the stairs to the mountain shrine (not a very high climb at all) to pay tribute to the kami (spirits). On the return, the outdoor restaurant ‘shack’ was open so we dropped in for a traditional snack of Shinzan Sake (named after the Shrine and the Mountain) and a taste of Gohei Mochi (grilled sticky rice that has been coated with a special miso sauce). Afterward we then had the pleasure of meeting with Chiaki Ishikawa, one of the expert mask makers and watching him put the finishing touches on one of the carved wooden masks. There is a souvenir shop that sells masks of all sizes. The days surrounding New Years represent an occasion for many societies and cultures to toss out the old, say farewell to bad luck, promise to turn a new leaf and strive to attract good karma for the New Year. The frightening ogres of Namahage are part of this enamoured tradition.
Chiaki Ishikawa, Expert Mask Maker
YAMADERA Spirits in the Sky
While I thought about visiting the Tohoku Region of Japan for several years, the thing that pushed me into action was a photo book on some of the temples. When I saw Yamadera, I decided then and there that I had to visit on my next trip.
Walking toward the mountain, we crossed the red bridge over the Tachiyagawa River and then started to see the signs in the shape of monks pointing toward the entrance to the route to Yamadera. Itâ€™s a very short walk from the train station.
We took an early morning local train from Aizu Wakamatsu to Koriama, then a Shinkanzen (Bullet train) to Yamagata and then a local train to Yamadera. The journey took a little more than three hours. When we arrived in the Yamadera train station, the sky was overcast but the leaves on the mountain (yama) were brilliant reds and yellows and oranges, and the temple (dera) was clearly visible.
The first temple is up a short flight of stairs and sets the tone with a large Buddha at the entrance, with six children clamouring all over. Nearby are clusters of Jizo statuesâ€”usually associated with protection of travellers, as well as caring for the spirits of deceased children and easing the grief of families. Each Jizo (the word means â€œearth treasury or earth womb) is clothed in the traditional red bib, symbolizing safety and protection.
And the tranquil, reflective mood of the temple is reflected by the presence of a statue of Matsuo Basho, the famous Haiku poet who visited Yamadera in 1689: deep silence the shrill of cicadas seeps into rocks After paying the admission (300 Yen per person) to enter the main temple area you ascend the pathway and the 1000 stairs to the top of the mountain.
The leisurely walk takes in the tall trees, statues and rock shrines where pilgrims have left coins in the crevices. A gateway leads to the main temple and the lookout over the valley and the mountains. Itâ€™s quite breath taking. We got our horoscopes from one of the shrines and then, in traditional manner, we tied it to a frame so our hopes and wishes would be carried by the wind and determined by the spirits in the sky.
We slowly walked down, getting a whole new perspective of the temple and the mountain. At the base we saw one of the macaques (monkey). As it was lunch time, we found the recommended spot, Taki Fudo Nama Soba and had some of the freshest tempura soba we had ever eaten. And then it was back to the train station and eventually the town of Kaminoyamaonsen for the evening. Considering that a photo of the Temple at Yamadera had inspired our entire nine day visit to Tohoku, it was certainly a memorable visit and a sensory feast of colour, calm and reflection. Highly Recommended. .
Top Row: Modern Jizo Statues; Tall trees guard the pathway to the Temple; Protective statues in a shrine Bottom Row: Yamadera Temple; Jizo with offerings; Steve about to commit his horoscope to the winds Next Page: Forest Jizo
In this issue we explore the Ogasawara Islands, Experience the Izakaya way of life, Savour Culinary Bliss in Tohoku, Tremble at the Namahage...