A Travellerspoint blog

Crashing Into Life in Shiga, Japan

滋賀県犬上郡多賀町

BGM: "Energy Flow" by Ryuichi Sakamoto

Even while traveling, life can literally set you into a tail-spin and bash you clean upside the head- all for your own good.

Before that fateful day by the Inukami River in Taga Town, I was running myself ragged on a deadly mixture of sleeping pills, coffee and overwork- stressed and numb from a lack of attention to myself. My husband thought a trip into the cedar-scented emerald mountains of Taga would refresh me back into joyfulness, so we went out for a drive.

We crossed a tiny one-lane bridge at only 10 km/hr (slower than the average bicycle). We stopped, my husband looked both ways carefully several times, then proceeded to cross the intersection.

When we were about half-way through, from out of nowhere came this speeding white whipper-snapper of a car. I had a full 2 seconds to brace for impact and within that splinter of time I only had room in my brain for four words: "This is the end." I had no time to cry out or even be afraid. The sounds of crunching glass & metal, the pain of impact and all went black and silent.

That day ended in the emergency room of a nearby hospital, me chuckling with my husband as we picked flecks of powdered glass off of each other, mutually grooming like a pair of macaques. We were thankful to be alive and still together, let alone laughing. The guy that literally plowed his car up my butt was already home with a sprained hand. Thank God nobody was killed, today!

Two weeks down turned into two months of me not being allowed to walk. My bruises alone required at least a month of bed-rest, the doctors said. Since I was allergic to the painkillers, my team of 8 doctors agreed to tackle the miscellaneous infections and tremendous pain with hot spring heat therapy, medicine skin patches, meditation and physical therapy -an ongoing course. During that time, I repeatedly grappled with the possibility of never walking, seeing, hearing or moving normally again. My dreams of motherhood, even returning to my prior line of work were gone. I was faced with the daunting task of having to create a whole new life and skill set to survive. But my life was already more than half lived. Would it even be worth the effort?

But when fears like that start to creep into my brain, there's a particular moment that I like to return to that clears all the clouds away: A few days after the accident, we took a rent-a-car to the crash site to survey the damage. Thinking I might be in too much emotional shock, my husband suggested I stay home. But I wanted to see the place that nearly took my life.

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Though each bump in the road sent me reeling in new waves of pain, the beauty of the place astonished me. The pale, smooth skin-toned rocks and boulders, the gentle sloping mountains of precious green, a riverside trail teeming with life in all her wondrous forms- it was enchanting like a Garden of Paradise. I was allowed to remain a creature on this earth. I felt blessed to have blood still flowing in my veins. Teaching myself how to walk with a cane, I learned to re-savor the miracle of breathing, relish the cool rain droplets brushing against my feet and revere the powerful rolling thunder rumbling in the distance as if it were the beating of my own heart.

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My husband's idea of letting nature take care of me eventually worked, though not in the way either of us expected. I will never forget the beauty of the Inukami River and the mountains of Taga. Nor will I ever forget the way they inspired me to live with more appreciation for the moment. They taught me the secret to enjoying my life again on a cellular level. It was a purely physical, sensual reawakening. The spiritual transformation was yet to come.

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Posted by GenkiLee 08.05.2013 07:29 Archived in Japan Tagged japan shiga taga inukami_riv Comments (0)

Getting Lucky in Shigaraki (Shiga Prefecture)

滋賀県甲賀市信楽町:やきもの横丁、狸家分福、玉桂寺、三筋の滝、しがらきの里、陶芸の森、信楽陶器まつり

sunny 16 °C

BGM: Sene by Afro Celt Sound System

It's good to travel with an open mind.

Japan's pottery tradition is world-renown with thousands of years to its noble legacy. But for some reason, the mascot for several of the country's most prominent pottery "capitals" (like Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture), is one and the same. Enter the wild and wily tanuki, Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, aka "raccoon dog."

A real tanuki looks like this:

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(Tanuki, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto)

But hundreds of years of folk legend and artistic expression have turned it into this:

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Apparently tanuki are both symbols of luck and expert shape-shifters, so hopefully they don't mind the exaggerated features of their modern representation (especially the drunk, glassy eyes and immensely huge genitalia). But when you see hundreds of them along the roadsides for sale, all having the same dazed expression and looking as if they'd sprung forth from the exact same pottery mold, then it can border on overkill (especially when you know that these towns became famous for more refined, profound works of art). So when we drove through Shigaraki Town (Shiga Prefecture) on our way to Uji, Kyoto, we just assumed it would be another Mashiko and decided to skip it, not thinking we were missing anything.

I do, however, believe that the cumulative hypnotizing effect of all those thousands of tanuki statues somehow worked on my unsuspecting husband. For a few months later, completely out of the blue, he asked me:
"Hey, wanna go to Shigaraki?"

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Turning onto the Shigaraki IC from the Shinmeishin toll road, the foothills and peaks surrounding Mt. Konzeyama suddenly changed to bedazzling, topped with crumbling, ancient stone boulders and studded with scraggly pine trees -like scenery straight out of an ancient Chinese scroll. We exited the mountains completely enchanted at this point. Even if we were to see tanuki statues again, they wouldn't phase us this time. A hike through these mountains would easily fix that!

The smiling, weather-worn gentleman who took our highway toll cheerfully handed us a free tourist map and told us we were in great luck! We'd arrived just in time for the annual Shigaraki Pottery Festival! (Shigaraki Touki Matsuri, 信楽陶器まつり, October 6-8. My husband swore he didn't time it that way). Glowing with joy, we slowly eased onto Highway 307 and coasted down through quiet little Shigaraki, loosely situated along the untamed banks of the gracefully curving Daido River. We passed pastoral, golden rice fields and dense thickets of bamboo and deciduous forest. Every so often, we'd see a shop of cookie-cutter tanuki statues. But after getting a good look at the surrounding environment, we had a reassuring sense that there was much more to Shigaraki than we'd first given it credit for. Thrilled with our good fortune, we pulled up to Tanukiya Bunpuku (狸屋分福) for some good ole' mountain food: hand-cut noodles and tempura!

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The simple, understated restaurant interior didn't distract from the rustic charm of the hand-thrown dishes, cups and cookery accenting every table. I immediately noticed the heavy jet-black "aladdin" jar in front of me and lifted the lid: inside was a gorgeously pressed cabbage and carrot pickle dish called "oshinko" (おしんこ). What a delightful surprise! And it was self-service! With chopsticks, I served up a tiny portion for both my husband and myself. The veggies were crunchy, perfectly salted and spiked with dark-red slices of locally-grown chili pepper. It was a nice, healthy accompaniment to our nutty, starchy noodles.

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According to the plucky, outspoken lady from Osaka who was enjoying some soba noodles at the next table, Tanukiya Bunpuku is known for its matsutake (松茸, "pine mushroom") cuisine. My husband and I had only seen imported Chinese matsutake in the supermarkets, but never had the chance to taste them. Considered the "black truffle" of Japanese mushrooms, the finest quality matsutake are the most expensive edible fungi in the world, fetching up to a thousand US dollars a pound (YIKES!). Were they really that delicious?!

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(Above: imported matsutake mushrooms from China, two for 17$ US. According to a friend of mine, the more phallic the shape, the better the taste. Umbrella-like caps mean they're already on their way out).

We thought we were hopeless, but the menu on the table advertised a generous plate of deep-fried matsutake mushrooms for under ten bucks! How could this be? They were imported, right? Checking with the chef, we learned that they were from Kyoto! (Again: LUCKY!) Without hesitation, we ordered one to share. It came to our table accented with fresh, green ginko leaves and a small dish of green tea salt for dipping. First bite: tough and stringy. Nothing special. It tasted like a crimini mushroom without the poop-like stink. But wait! What was that? With each successive bite, I felt the warm, woodsy flavor of the mushroom spread throughout my mouth like the lingering zing of wine! Each juicy, crunchy, oil-covered bite made the warming effect stronger, almost like a tingle. Soon I could detect the more subtle notes in the flavor- some mild sweetness, yet no bitterness of other mushrooms like shimeji or maitake. This was smooth and dare I say, exquisite! A mushroom that virtually "hummed" with flavor! Who knew?

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With our bellies full, tongues zinging and hearts inspired by our culinary adventure, we backtracked to "Pottery Lane" (Yakimono Yokocho,やきもの横丁), to get a feel for the local artistic style. Most of the pieces were in various shades of orange and terracotta, like the vivid, cheerful autumn leaves surrounding us.

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After a brief wander, my husband wanted to see nearby Gyokkeiji Temple (玉桂寺). No doubt in an inspiring setting such as this, the local temple gardens have got to be something else, right?

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Wrong! We were too spooked to linger! We high-tailed it out of there and fled back into town before the horror of the moment could catch up with us. (Stay tuned for an exciting feature blog on Gyokkeiji Temple!).

Back in town, parking officials from Tougei no Mori (陶芸の森), the designated site of the pottery festival, were announcing on loudspeakers that all parking spaces had completely filled up. We decided to put the festival on the back burner and zoomed up harrowing Highway 12 in search of Misuji Waterfall. The twisting one-lane road mellowed out after we passed the Country Club, opening up into a calming expanse of farmland. On the opposite side of the road from the famous Miho Museum, just around the bend, a charming group of thatched roof dwellings greeted us. The spacious parking lot was intoxicating with the sweet scent of fragrant olive bushes. I noticed something glinting in the sunlight under the shrubs: solar panels! Obviously this place must have nice bathrooms! (Lucky for us, we weren't disappointed).

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The organic paradise Shigaraki no Sato (しがらきの里) is the brainchild of Shumei Natural Agriculture Network (秀明自然農法ネットワーク), a non-profit organization inspired by the teachings of naturalist and spiritual leader Mokichi Okada (1882-1955). Okada taught that soil naturally has enough power and nutrients to sustain life without the use of anything inorganic like fertilizers or pesticides. The farms at Shigaraki no Sato thoroughly utilize his philosophy of "natural agriculture" to produce seasonally fresh vegetables, grains and legumes. A huge fan of small-scale organic farming, I was so thrilled to finally see a place like this with my own eyes!

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Shigaraki no Sato holds events throughout the year including farming lessons, educational lectures and dinner gatherings -all focusing on the importance of natural agriculture. One of the staff encouraged us to explore the houses and grounds. "This is free space," she said, arms wide open with pride. My husband and I first climbed up the steep stairs to discover every nook and cranny of the beautiful kominka (古民家) house, with its bamboo roof tied expertly together with hand-wound rope. The rush mat flooring and wood finish smelled heady and sweet. This ingenious living space was dark, warm and comforting like a cocoon. I actually asked the staff if I could live there, but only got friendly chuckles in reply. (But seriously. This house made me contemplate the kind of uninspired, box-like dwellings we confine ourselves to, today. Imagine all the social ills we could heal if our living spaces were this free-flowing and sustainable!)

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We wandered like curious children across the tiny bridge and along the trickling brook singing its way towards the Tashiro River. Though the harvest season was nearly over, we could still see racks of drying rice, chilies and herbs in the farmhouse. Every turn provided a photo opportunity. It felt more like a garden than a farm.

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My husband suggested we follow the trail along the rice field to see where it led. The opalescent, sapphire-blue Tashiro River guided us along our way through the ever-increasing trees. The occasional din of roadside traffic grounded us, reassuring us that we hadn't strayed too far from civilization (though our cell phone reception had completely disappeared). The further we walked down the trail, the rockier, louder and more dramatic the river became. We were entranced! Did we accidentally enter a wormhole and return to our beloved Iya Valley in Tokushima Prefecture?

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The air was divinely sweet and fresh with the heavy, natural perfume of cedar and pine as we stepped lightly on the spongy trail. Carpet-like moss covered ancient stones and fallen trees like royal cloaks of luxury. It was a tremendous sight to behold.

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At one point, the river grew so loud we had to shout to hear each other. And then the water simply dropped off through jagged slate-colored teeth of stone into the glowing azure pool, below. We found it! Misuji Waterfall (Misuji no Taki, 三筋の滝)! The drop to the bottom is long and lethal and the heavy, old trees bear down hard along the eroding banks. Without easy access to the falls, this is certainly NOT a safe place for little children, the elderly or injured people like myself! So my husband bravely scooted close to the edge and took the vertical shot, then scaled the cliff-side trail down to the pool and took this glorious frontal photo. I was scared, but impressed.

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Talk about a "holy moment!"

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(The sign reads: "Danger! Don't come near!")

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Our mission completed, we relaxed with a filling, savory meal at Tashiro Kougen no Sato (田代高原の郷), a restaurant that uses fresh rice and produce from Shigaraki no Sato. I had the curry set lunch that included a side salad and tangy rakkyo pickles. The freshly-harvested organic rice tasted particularly fluffy and pure.

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We didn't want to tear ourselves away from this little paradise we'd discovered in quiet Tashiro Village. But we didn't want to miss the pottery festival, either. Had our luck finally run out? By the time we returned to the grounds of Tougei no Mori, the crowds had let up a bit. We easily found a decent parking spot and hiked slowly up the hill to catch the final hour of the town's annual shindig.

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American rock & roll from the '60's serenaded us via huge jet-black JBL woofers on the kiddie hill as we caroused the colorful booths, enjoying the visual bouquet of seasonal, tasteful tableware for sale. Everyone was relaxed and mellow in kind of a hippie, artsy-fartsy way. (It was really groovy, man!)

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The sheer variety of cups, vases, platters, figurines and chopstick rests was nothing short of staggering! But fortunately for us, an hour was just enough time to see the entire event. The artist Shoko-san posed for our photo with her lovingly crafted creations. Were we lucky today, or what?

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Everyone we encountered here was so cheerful and inviting! We knew we'd be making our way back to Shigaraki again, soon. Throughout this inspiring, luck-filled journey, I personally learned a few essential lessons: always travel with an open mind. And when in Japan, never judge a town by its tanuki.

Access to Shigaraki no Sato and Misuji Falls
(By Train): From Kyoto, transfer to the JR Biwako Line bound for Nagahama or Maibara (platform 2) and get off at Ishiyama Station. From here, take the Teisan Bus (No 150) to the Miho Museum. If the museum is at your right, walk straight ahead down Highway 12 until you see the group of small thatched-roof farm houses on your left (Shigaraki no Sato). Here you can explore to your heart's content or follow the maps to the waterfall. (Maps are posted around the grounds in both English and Japanese). Misuji Waterfall is a short 15-minute hike from Shigaraki no Sato.

(By Car): Follow highway 12 from either end (Ritto or Shigaraki access) to the sign that says "Misuji Waterfall." There's a tiny gravel space for maybe two compact cars to park -but nothing more. It's perfectly fine to park at Shigaraki no Sato to hike to the waterfall, but be sure to check out the facility if you do (it's really nice!). Open from 10am to 5pm, closed during winter months.

Posted by GenkiLee 08.10.2012 07:06 Archived in Japan Tagged japan pottery shiga_prefecture shigaraki shigaraki_no_sato shumei_natural_agriculture_netw tougei_no_mori yakimono_yokocho tanukiya_bunpuku matsutake_mushrooms shigaraki_pottery_festival tashiro_village tashiro_kougen_no_sato Comments (0)

A Final Farewell Taste of Ibaraki

茨城県取手市

sunny 19 °C

BGM: "No Woman No Cry" by Bob Marley

After a restless night on a hard tatami floor in our sleeping bags, we naturally awoke with the sun and the familiar screeching of bulbuls happily plucking cherry petal remnants off the trees behind our now empty apartment. I did a double-take while I stretched. Our room was stark bare: no curtains, no furniture, just a few bags of trash and a small pile of remaining things for my husband to sell at the recycle shop.

Our water had been turned off so I ladled some reserves from the bathtub into the toilet to flush it (works like a charm!) and scooped more into the sink to wash my face. I then set the lawn chairs on the patio with a small can of Georgia coffee in each cup holder. My husband stumbled out with me into the fresh, morning air and groggily zipped up his hoodie as he sat down facing me, Mr. Prickly Chin. We had a lot of final cleaning to do, but otherwise, our work in this town was finished. My interview in Shiga Prefecture was all set up. Chances were really high that I'd already landed the job. The last thing to do was say goodbye to 8 beautiful years in this serene prefecture of soft gray beaches, rustling rice fields, emerald river valleys and holy mountain slopes. What I would give for a final bike ride with him along the sparkling Tone and Kokai Rivers! But the bikes were sold. It would be at least another two years before I would ride another one.

I found myself murmuring something incoherent about wanting a final taste of Iseya rice shop's onigiri (rice balls), made from locally-grown rice. My husband knew how important Iseya rice balls were to me. Ever understanding, he smiled at my temporary insanity as white-eye birds encircled the shrubs below our patio. I watched the tall, aging sacred bamboo plumes swaying beyond his gaze. How I would miss their elegant beauty. We used to barbecue on this patio, watch rainbows, lightning storms and fireworks from here. Better than a TV. We were hoping to make Toride our permanent home (like, kids-and-retirement permanent home). We had a business, friends and a life, here.

A small earthquake shook us out of our melancholy and we decided to put off work for a few hours and simply enjoy the sunshine. Hiking boots laced, we walked up the hill, up behind the post office and into the public garden plots where we always enjoyed the colors of the changing seasons. It was spring, now. Chrysanthemums and marigolds had given way to vivid, eye-popping sprays of wisteria, azeleas, poppies and other lovely flowers.

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Wisteria in bloom

Snow peas, green onions, cabbage and some lettuce were being harvested. I scanned the landscape with my eyes, committing every sound, every color to memory. My heart was breaking.

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Onions and poppies in flower

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The prayer ribbons on this shrine look as dismal as my emotions

Our hour-long walk made us hungry, so my husband told me we'd be going to Fujishiro Town and my eyes lit up like matches, knowing what that meant! ISEYA RICE BALLS! :-)

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Iseya Rice Ball Shop (Fujishiro, Toride)

Made from rice grown right there in southern Ibaraki, Iseya's generous, lovingly-packed rice balls are the taste of the land. These hand-formed fluffy white beauties are always fresh and bursting with savory goodies like "torikara" (seasoned deep-fried chicken) or our all-time favorite, "nanoha" (steamed canola flower blossoms and stems mixed with egg bits). The shop sits right on the corner just across the Joban Line train tracks near the east exit of Fujishiro Station. The building jiggles a little whenever the high-speed Hikari trains zoom by, but that never phases the friendly, hopping aunties in smocks running the show. These rice balls have been a huge hit with students and businessmen alike for decades. With our precious package of wrapped goodness, we found a place in the warm sun at a nearby park and savored every wholesome, nourishing bite.

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Simple, filling onigiri rice balls -true champion food if you ask me.

The day was growing late and we finally completed the monstrous task of dismantling our life in Ibaraki. We reluctantly handed the apartment keys to the real estate agent, who gratefully accepted our potted plants as a thank-you, yet respectfully begged us to consider staying. We loved this apartment, but it was time to move on. Gen, our communally-adopted cat, was probably sleeping peacefully in our neighbor's room. I wanted to say a proper goodbye to Gen, who gave me nothing but love from the first day I met him.

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Neow, neow, neow-neow, nyau. ("Thanks for everything, Gen-chan!")

Puppy the Wonder Subaru had sunk down a few inches from the weight of all our things crammed into it. Collectively, over 99% of ALL of our belongings had been donated, sold and pitched. I originally thought I'd be crushed by the loss. But honestly, I felt surprisingly free and unchained by my culture as a result (I was never much of a materialist). But even that remaining 1% was nearly too much for little Puppy. Besides my clothes, all I kept were: 2 small backpacks containing my bead collection (for my hobby), my tent, some watercolor sketch pencils and paints, 8 books (mostly JLPT test prep texts), the jewelry box my mom gave me (the glass one that miraculously survived the quake), a few precious gifts many loved ones have given me over the years, and my laptop. Everything else that I'd owned and wanted to keep but couldn't, now existed in digital format as a .gif file. (Now that was a hard concept to wrap my head around!)

And with that, we loaded up on gas, shipped off a painting to my Mom, and rolled down Route 294 towards the expressway in Moriya City. It was already dark, so the only things to see were familiar chain stores still open at that hour: a ramen shop here, an okonomiyaki restaurant there, places we wanted to see but never did... The furniture shop where we got our beds, the Nitori we always bought our cookware at -everything was gone, now. And soon we would be, too.

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One Last Roll Through Town

First stop: fuel for ourselves! We pulled up to Lleno in Moriya, our favorite Italian/Japanese restaurant that always offers a reasonable set meal of pasta or meat entree with dessert and all-you-can-eat vegetable bar. The chef at this tiny out-of-the-way oasis of flavor and charm had a magical way of making everything taste like my grandparents' cooking (both of them studied cuisine in France). My husband told the staff we were leaving for Kansai and they gave us a beautiful, delicious goodbye-present: Tsukuba pork antipasto platter. It was delightfully bittersweet. Every dish pulled at my heartstrings, begging me to stay.

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Antipasto Platter (Thanks, Lleno)

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Lleno's (pronounced /Jay-no's/) seafood genoese with fresh-baked bread.

"Please come back again," dapper Mr. Kitamura, the attendant, told me with a heart-melting, saddened smile. We promised that if we ever returned to Kanto, our first meal would be at Lleno's.

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Cream cheese mousse with berry and whipped cream topping.

Ah, this was going to be tough.

Posted by GenkiLee 02.10.2012 00:44 Archived in Japan Tagged japan poppies wisteria ibaraki toride moriya iseya_rice_balls lleno's_italian_restaurant seafood_genoese_pasta cream_cheese lleno's Comments (0)

Sakura Showers and Toride Tornadoes (Ibaraki Prefecture)

茨城県:取手市岡堰乃神社公園、つくばみらい市福岡堰さくら公園、小貝川

sunny 20 °C

BGM: Sakura by Naotarou Moriyama

We finally made it back to Toride from our brief hiatus in Kansai. As we walked up the stairs to our apartment, we noticed a very strange acidic smell in the air- metallic and tangy (you could taste it), as if we were near a metal processing plant. No matter where we were- be it a park, a highway or a parking lot- the odor lingered and we couldn't shake it. Perhaps it was the smell of the wounded earth beneath our feet. Since radioactivity has no detectable odor, we had no choice but to rule that one out. But it remained a mystery neither of us wanted to ponder too much. (Did the nearby Canon, Nissin Cup Noodle or Kirin Beer factories sustain damage from the quake?)

All of our lifeline systems (gas, water, electricity) were finally back on line, again. But glass still covered the floor so we had to step carefully. We cleared little paths to the most important places (bathroom, bedroom and kitchen) and left the rest of the apartment the way it was so we could tackle it a little at a time.

I opened the back curtains and saw our neighbor finally fixing the broken shingles on his roof. It looked like a lot of hard work. At least the weather was nice for him.

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Our other neighbor had a bunch of new fractures in her already-cracking wall plaster. It made me wonder what kind of damage our own building had sustained.

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We set to work dismantling the life that we had built together in Toride. As my husband cleaned and closed down his office downtown, I tackled the job of straightening out the apartment. We had to reduce all of our things to just the bare essentials -meaning that over 90 percent of my things and 95 percent of his things would either be sold, donated or pitched. But how do you go about throwing away ten years of your life and memories? Simple: you start at the beginning, with a huge pile of boxes and a heart of steel.

I was surprised to find that the exquisite stained glass jewelry box my Mom had shipped from California had survived the quake intact. Though it lay on the floor open and contents spilled, it was still in perfect shape. Indeed. This treasure would accompany me on my next journey.

Meow! Meow! Gen, our communally-adopted cat was still around! He looked fat, relaxed and brushed out. Everyone was taking great care of him. He came right up to me from his home under our stairs, rubbing his furry black back against my ankles, savoring my scratches under his ears and chin. I knew I was gonna miss this little guy more than anything. He was the reason I chose this apartment -him and the sakura trees all around.

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Living in Toride wasn't as easy as it used to be. The apartment creaked and shook every other hour with aftershocks -some hard, some gentle, but all of them keeping us on edge, in a constant state of alert. We kept our cell and iPhones beside us since they were equipped with seismographs, earthquake detection apps and early warning alarm systems (Japanese earthquake technology is incredible!). Seconds before an earthquake hit, the cell phone would ring and we'd have a moment or two to brace ourselves before the waves finally shook us. Then we could instantly check out the magnitude and epicenter on our Yurekuru iPhone app. If it was a particularly strong one, our cell phones had built-in TV so we could check out the damage on the news. Life-saving technology right at our fingertips!

Food and gas were available again in Toride by the time we got back from Osaka (we heard other cities like Koga still had a shortage). But fresh water was in very short supply. Even though the government and news media kept insisting that Kanto's water was safe again, a whole month after the quake, all my Japanese friends were still using only bottled water for everything from brushing their teeth to cooking. Supermarkets imposed a two-bottle limit per customer. Vending machines in the entire region were completely sold out of water. Local officials had to tell residents to stop hoarding water to allow for families with small children to have easier access. But the request went unheeded, as people continued to hoard the precious commodity all the way from Yamanashi and Kanagawa to Toyama Prefecture and beyond. (The power of panic!) We used our tap water for bathing and cooking, but my husband insisted on us drinking bottled barley tea whenever we were thirsty. That was good enough for us. It still counted as hydration.

To keep ourselves sane, we kept up with our daily walking routine. Spring had come with the promise of hope and recovery. We had all made it through the rough winter, together. It was time to celebrate with the cherry trees in the beautiful, fleeting dance of life. Spring events might have been canceled in honor of the disaster, but the trees couldn't be held back. They burst forth their delicately-scented blossoms for all of us to enjoy.

つくばみらい市福岡堰さくら公園 (Fukuokaseki Sakura Kouen Park, Tsukubamirai City)

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We'd walked this park many times over the past several years. But this was the first time we'd ever seen it in bloom with sakura. Fukuokaseki Park stretches 1.8 km between the Kokai River and a small tributary, completely lined with grand, old cherry trees extending their branches gracefully over the water below. This park can easily compete with some of the best sakura-viewing spots in Tokyo, but even better with only a fraction of the crowds.

As families with children enjoyed playing badminton and catch-ball in the sun, couples in love glided down the river in canoes, enjoying the flurries of glittering petals as they fell into the water like snow. It was a vision straight out of a dream.

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Pink wasn't the only color of the day, however. Not to be outdone, bright, playful fields of lemon yellow accented the spring landscape. Whereas the sakura blossoms bring a tinge of bittersweet melancholy, thenanohana (aka rapeseed or canola flower), fills the Japanese heart with pure joy. The first blossom of spring, this sweet smelling flower is enjoyed for its beauty in early spring and harvested later for oil and food. (The blossoms and stems taste wonderful steamed and mixed with rice, or eaten as a salted vegetable like spinach).

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Ever since radioactive iodine and cesium were detected in Ibaraki, people continued wearing white surgical paper masks past hay fever season to prevent any airborne particles from entering their lungs. But for some reason, out here in the warm sunshine, everyone (including us) took them off to simply breathe under the trees in a moment of unified rebellion. It was brilliant.

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The Japanese are profuse pet lovers. One young man decided to take his pet owl out for a stroll.

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取手市岡堰乃神社公園 (Okasekinojinjakouen, Toride City)

This particular bend in the Kokai River has a very special place in my heart. Over the years, I would ride out here on my bicycle, plop down on a bench and just enjoy watching the river flow gently past. The little shrine on this islet, dedicated to the local water god, sits quietly surrounded by elegant sakura trees and hydrangea bushes. This was always a great place to think in any season. But in springtime, when the sky is alive with the peeps and squeaks of bulbul and white-eye birds nibbling off the cherry petals, it is especially breathtaking. I always had difficulty tearing myself away from this spot to start the long ride back home.

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April 24, 2011
取手市藤代グリーンスポーツパーク (Fujishiro Green Sports Park, Toride City)

The warm air of late April stimulates practically every plant in Japan to wake up and open their petals to the sunshine. My husband and I were overjoyed to find that the hanamizuki (flowering dogwood) trees had finally bloomed at Fujishiro Green Sports Park in Toride.

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As the witching hour grew near, however, the sky turned orange and we could hear thunder in the distance over neighboring Moriya City. One of the park groundskeepers made sure to warn us about the tornado alert that had just broadcast on his portable radio. We didn't take the news too seriously, but thanked him nonetheless as we continued walking alongside the gently-flowing Kokai River.

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April 25, 2011

While my husband was away at the office, I stayed at home sifting through my stuff. Within the span of an hour, the sky suddenly turned from clear blue to a thick, greenish gray and the clouds began to boil upside-down with menacing downdrafts. The thunder clap app on my iPhone told me that the lightning was striking from 10 km away -too close for me to wanna hang outside and play big-shot photographer. So like the chicken that I was, I sprinted to the patio, took in the laundry hanging outside and pulled the heavy corrugated metal storm-doors into position. All but one small window was protected from any oncoming hail. As the storm grew closer, I took a few snapshots through the glass and moved to the center of the room to pray for deliverance. (I really hate lightning).

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Fierce winds picked up and started spray-painting everything with a thick coating of cherry petals and twigs. A tiny bit of hail fell and with a few more token lightning strikes, just as soon as it had begun, the skies cleared up and it was all over.

Thinking it was no big deal, I spent a few more hours cleaning up before leaving the house to buy food for the evening meal.

"Did you hear about the tatsumaki (tornado)?" Mrs. Kobayashi asked me, her aging Shiba dog tethered on one hand and a bag of green onions in the other.

"A what?!"

"At the end of our street! Go check it out!" Mrs. Kobayashi would never kid me. She was a woman of her word and an important, long-time respected source of community gossip in the neighborhood. If anyone knew anything about everything, it was her and I trusted her implicitly. But this news was just too off-the-wall.

(AT THE END OF OUR STREET??!)

Sure enough, just an 8-minute walk from my apartment, an F2 had touched down and torn up the roof of a house behind my favorite Indian/Nepali restaurant Kumari, on the corner of Routes 6 and 294. Hoards of people gathered and gawked as a worker in a cherry-picker crane pulled and stripped the twisted metal roofing away from the remaining structure. That could've been our place, I murmured to myself, completely shocked. Holy Toledo!

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Later I learned on TV that over 60 buildings from Kashiwa City in Chiba to Toride had been damaged in the storm that sprung upon us with no warning. Fortunately, however, not a single person was injured or killed. But it made me think: no sirens sounded at all, anywhere in the area -not even after the twisters were already spotted on the ground! In Japan, if you're not listening to the radio or watching TV at any given moment, you are completely left to the hands of Fate (this includes all students, teachers, factory workers and commuters in transit). I can't help but imagine how many people it would employ if every local government manned its local alarm systems 24/7.

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Earthquakes, tsunami, nuclear radiation, tornadoes... hadn't Ibaraki been through enough, already? Should I stick around to find out?

Posted by GenkiLee 01.10.2012 09:05 Archived in Japan Tagged japan earthquake tornado kumari ibaraki toride tsukubamirai kokusekinojinkakouen fukuokasekisakurakouen sakura hanami cherry_blossoms rapeseed canola_flower nanohana hanamizuki dogwood bottled_water_shortage earthquake_detection fujishiro fujishiro_green_sports_park kokai_river kokaigawa downdrafts Comments (0)

Stabbing Westward: Shizuoka, Kyoto & Osaka

静岡県:身延、京都府:先斗町・南禅寺、大阪:難波・道頓堀

overcast 6 °C


BGM: Redemption Song by Bob Marley

While cruising down Highway 52 en route to Shizuoka, I was glad to see my husband finally begin to relax and enjoy his view from behind the wheel. Towering brown mountains streaked with cascading rivers gave way to pastoral expanses of rice fields and vivid green tea plantations. In a picturesque river valley near the town of Minobu, we noticed an enticing little soba shop that was still open for business. Jr. high students were just getting out of school for the day. Some of them looked a bit nervous. The huge earthquakes of Tohoku had set off a chain reaction throughout the entire East Japan fault system, causing places as far away as Shizuoka to be suddenly inundated with earthquake swarms of their own -which was the last thing anyone needed.

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We got out of the car and stretched our weary bottoms, gazing out across the clear waters of the rushing Fuji river below. I could see some carefully manicured tea fields in perfect little rows sitting on the opposite bank. Shizuoka green tea is considered the finest in Japan. Worried about the fate of Kanto, I found myself saying a little prayer for these precious fields, hoping they would remain untainted out here in this fresh, brisk mountain air.

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As spokesperson Edano droned on heavily about radiation and evacuations on the soba shop's big-screen TV, the sweet old lady preparing our meals listened intently to our recount of the earthquake. She said that her little shop shook so hard, she was afraid it would plummet down the cliff into the river below! Fortunately for all of us, that didn't happen, yet she expressed that everyone in her community seemed to be fearing a final blow that would take everything out in one fell swoop. Minobu is situated rather close to the western flank of Mt. Fuji, a volcano starting to show signs that it might be finally waking up from its centuries-long slumber. Though the conversation wasn't the best for a relaxed meal, her hand-cut soba noodles were earthy and exquisite! You could easily taste the ground buckwheat they were made from! (At times like this, I'm very thankful that I'm the kind of person who can find complete joy in food).

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Soba noodles, deep-fried pork cutlet with rice, pickles & miso soup.

I found myself attracted to the rich, natural interior of this restaurant that doubled as a community center with its own mini farmer's market. The place even had its own mascot! This little cat followed me everywhere but wouldn't pose for my picture nor let me pet it.

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Back on the road, we drove nervously along the Shizuoka coast down Highway One as our phones squawked with more nerve-fraying earthquake alarms. Somewhere around Hamamatsu, we felt the car jiggle as a M6.4 rocked the prefecture! Were these quakes following us?! Was it really curtains for us while we scurried about in vain to delay the inevitable? My husband wouldn't have it. He buckled down and concentrated hard on driving fast but safe as I scanned the Web for nearby hotels.

We found another Route Inn in Gifu City that still had plenty of open rooms available on the top floors (the ground floors were all booked up for obvious reasons). We were ragged and desperate so we gave in. The aftershocks kept us awake half the night but the awesome breakfast spread made up for the lack of sleep.

The gallon of coffee I chugged at the hotel gave me the hyper buzz I needed to get through the endless monotony of Nagoya City. As open-minded as I try to be about Nagoya, I still can't get over how incredibly boring it is, at least, the entire stretch along Route One. Sure, Route One is Honshu's most important commercial highway, linking Tokyo with Osaka and all major cities between. But all we could see for miles was an uncreative entangled mess of concrete infrastructure, tacky "love" hotels, blaring pachinko parlors and ramen shops- businesses catering only to the thousands of hungry truckers. It made us appreciate the stress that they obviously experience.

We finally rolled through my beloved Kyoto around 8pm and quickly settled into our very cozy room at the Kyoto Garden Hotel. My husband and I agreed we'd had enough depressing news for awhile. This was his first time in Kyoto and I was dying to show him around! To help us get over our fear of shaking buildings, I suggested we ride the seemingly endless "escalators to nowhere" at Kyoto Station. He resisted the idea for a few minutes until he noticed the unique design of the building and decided to give it a go. We ended up doing the entire circuit twice and finally rode all the way to the top to enjoy the city lights from up high. We couldn't feel a single tremor out here! Were we still in Japan?

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The chilly Kyoto air made us a bit peckish, so we hit the izakaya with the best-smelling wafts of chicken smoke emanating from it. A draft beer for him, an Uji matcha green tea hi-ball for me, plenty of grilled chicken bits for the two of us and we were on our way to drunken heaven. As our tensions melted away, we found ourselves laughing for the first time in days. Thank God for alcohol!

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We just couldn't get over it! The earth wasn't moving out here at all! We kept expecting earthquakes to jolt us out of our joy but not a one! Relaxed and in the mood to explore, we spent the next day wandering listlessly around Nanzenji Temple, calming our weary hearts with some peaceful Zen landscape art.

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Since my husband likes old districts with traditional Japanese architecture, we took a mellow evening stroll down Pontocho Alley and ducked into a quiet dive alongside the canal for some Okinawa-style udon. We gobbled up it before we could take a picture of it, but I can tell you that it was savory and rich with slices of fatty SPAM and bitter gourd strips. (Can you believe SPAM is a delicacy in Japan? I can't, either!)

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Back at the hotel, as the evening rain turned into gently-falling snow, we got news that hard rain had finally fallen in Kanto, bringing all that airborne radiation down to the ground. Our mouths dropped when we heard that our town in Ibaraki was on the list of locations with undrinkable water. Our tap water was now contaminated with iodine 131 and possibly cesium! Were we going insane? Was this really happening? Friends on the phone were telling us horror stories of damage, supply shortages and aftershocks back home. We felt really bad for leaving everyone behind. But we had our families to think of -and they wanted us out of Japan.

The reality had suddenly dawned on me; we were finally leaving.

Early the next morning, wondering how to leave behind our beloved little Subaru, we drove to Osaka and went straight to the US embassy to see if we could get passage to the States. When I saw that American flag flapping proudly in front of the embassy building, my heart swelled with a familiar, patriotic hope that I hadn't felt in nearly a decade. America wouldn't fail me. I was one of her children! My husband would be able to meet my family! He could eat a real hamburger! He could start his own business with no red tape! He could...

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Nope! Looks like he couldn't. My government was only flying out military personnel and their families. The embassy staff happily told me I would have no problems if I repatriated by myself. Thanks to new Obama legislation, it was now harder (and more expensive) for foreign-born spouses of American citizens to stay in the country longer than 90 days without a green card or a work visa. But when you're a tighter couple than John Lennon and Yoko Ono, living in a country without your significant other is NOT an option. That wouldn't work for us at all.

Just then, I experienced the strangest feeling in the world; I felt horribly let down by my own country, yet I was simultaneously thanking God to be staying on in Japan. Wounded or no, she was still my true home. I honestly didn't want to leave this beautiful place. On the front steps of the embassy, I told my husband I wanted to stay here and take our chances in Kansai. At least life wouldn't be boring in a place where everything was new to us!

As we waited on some paperwork to be processed, we spent the next week exploring Osaka, the food capital of Japan. (There's a saying that no matter where you eat in Osaka, it's all cheap and good! We certainly put this theory to the test!).

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Cook-it-yourself okonomiyaki (savory pancake) at Nikonikoya pub. Metcha umai! (way delicious!).

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Mutant tempura at Dondon Tei (this was insanely good!)

At one point during our stay, inspired by the escalators at Kyoto Station, my husband lost his marbles and told us we needed to top that with the Umeda Sky Building- on a rainy day, nonetheless. So we rode the world's highest escalator (40-stories up) and had an ice cream soda at the observatory. It did us some good, though we're never doing it again. (We'd had enough swaying buildings for a lifetime!)

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We explored a few malls in the area just to see how different it was. People chattered and laughed unabashedly in their charming Osaka dialect. There was a positive charge in the air -a freedom of expression that just didn't exist in Tokyo. My husband marveled at how similar the place felt to South Korea. We really enjoyed the liveliness of Osaka (and Kansai in general!). This wouldn't be a bad place to live, we thought.

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Our hotel staff told us we couldn't visit Osaka without checking out Namba (難波), the most famous part of the city.

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Here we saw all the famous icons of Osaka: like the retired Kuidaore Taro of Dotonbori Street (道頓堀):

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...and the huge Kani Doraku Crab

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...and my favorite: GLICO MAN!

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Meanwhile on TV, the ever-energetic Edano told us not to eat spinach from Ibaraki or drink milk from Fukushima. Since we had both of those items in our refrigerator back home, we were totally screwed.

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But seriously- EVERYWHERE we went in Osaka, the food was absolutely delicious. But hands-down, our favorite spot we found completely by chance: a Chinese restaurant near Shin Osaka Station called "Taiyouken." Everything here was savory, garlicky and mouth-wateringly awesome! We had never tasted Chinese food this good in all our travels! This place alone convinced my husband that indeed, we should move to Kansai.

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In the heavy evening mist of spring, we floated around the eerily enchanting Osaka Castle, glowing in the half-light like a ghost. The intoxicating perfume of a million plum blossoms graced our every breath. We quietly plotted our next course of action. We would return home to Ibaraki, settle the apartment and say our goodbyes. We finally knew what we had to do. We realized that the whole world could disappear at any moment, but at least we had THIS moment. We were still alive and breathing. We were grateful for this much.

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As soon as dawn came, we loaded up our tiny Subaru (we lovingly call him "Puppy") with a 2-week's supply of fresh water, an extra tank of gas, batteries and fresh food and headed down the road towards a still-shaking Kanto. We decided to be low-key about our decision to leave Ibaraki. Some of our acquaintances wouldn't understand. But after tasting life in Kansai, we knew we wanted to live in a place where we wouldn't have to scour the town for a single bottle of water, or wait hours in line for a tank of gas while rolling blackouts plagued the land. We just didn't feel the need to compete that hard for resources with everyone. The people who really needed to stay there could have our share. We didn't mind. As for friendships: friends are friends no matter where in the world you live, right?

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Our portable information/communications center: internet, TV, GPS navi and phone all in two devices! Gotta love the techno age!

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I was so glad to see the National Defense Forces on the highways, heading for Tohoku to assist in the rescue efforts. Bless them all!

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Piping hot oden stew in Shizuoka City, our last pit-stop before returning home to Ibaraki Prefecture.

Posted by GenkiLee 30.09.2012 21:31 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto osaka earthquake escalators okonomiyaki green_tea shizuoka minobu fuji_river oden nanzenji_temple kyoto_station taiyouken osaka_castle pontocho_alley soba umeda_sky_building namba dotonbori glico_man kanidoraku_crab nikonikoya yakitori kuidaore_taro Comments (0)

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