August 30, 2010

Well, in 12 Hours

...I'll be on the flight home.

 I'll have to hit the ground running as school starts tomorrow and I start at UPS again on Thursday. However, it will be good to have air conditioning, a mattress, and general normalcy with no mishaps on the horizo....

...Oh frack me.

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Turret Hunt, and Other Misadventures

 My attempts to hike up Mt. Fuji had all been stillborn due first to blisters, then thunderstorms. Visits to other places of interest were cool but marred by the sudden death of the blackberry's camera.

Using my laptop at a Toyoko Inn in  Sendai,  I found a simple fix online (remove, then replace the battery). Now that the cameraphone was again working, I was determined to get some more pictures.

With only three days left on my rail pass and less than 200 dollars available, I  hopped off the train from Sendai  and onto a random bullet train not headed back to Tokyo. Around 10PM JST I got off at Sakurandai, and got a hotel.  The next morning. I got up early, wandered around a bit and explored the station.

Sakurandai station is unusual for a Shinkansen station in that it is in a relativity small town. 

Off in one out of the way wing of the station is this austere platform which services Sakurandai stations only other rail line...

The Koumi Line, run by JR East. 

A little research showed that the terminus of the Koumi line (Kobuchizawa) was also the terminus for the Chuo line. A little more research confirmed that this was the same Chuo line that begins at Tokyo station. So I took the Koumi line to the end keeping my eye out for anything interesting.

The Koumi lines trains are not electric, but diesel, and they vary wildly in age with the most modern one I saw being decked out in the image of the rail lines mascot/cartoon spokesperson...
Waku Waku?

Several of the stations are so tiny they don't even sell tickets. The conductor does. The line seems to service mainly farming communities.

As the train approached Aonuma station, I noticed something intriguing, and got off.

Aonuma is a no frills station, and had no coin lockers for my  bag.
However, I was able to avail myself of the stations restroom.

Note, Aonuma station is not equipped with even a single western style toilet.

The Koumi line has narrow gauge rails.

Rice paddys require elaborate irrigation systems, and the area is crisscrossed with irrigation and drainage ditches moving water around. .

The mushroom cloud in the background may be steam from  Mount Asama, which is about 60 miles distant.

Or it could be a thundercloud, but that would be foreshadowing.

This is what I saw that interested me.
Nope...No Idea. It looked like a turret off a European castle...if not for the windows it could be a silo.
I figured I'd try to get to it and hopefully see cool stuff along the way.

There are lots of fish in these fast flowing ditches and fish and tadpoles in the ricepaddys. The don't show up on the blackberry's camera though.

Walkie walkie....pant pant. (it was in the low 90s and humid, but still way better than Tokyo)

AHA! Getting closer! Still no idea.
Theme Park?
Volcanic Research Institute?

After a while or two, a town..Usuda. Both pictures were taken from the same spot in opposite directions. .

Quite suddenly, the flatness comes to a halt.This pic was taken from the bridge barely visible in the uppermost of the two photos above.

I was pretty sure that the turret was at the top of this or an adjoining hill. I wasn't sure it would be at all accessible, but at the other side of the bridge I saw this...

A shrine entrance with serendipity stairs!

Lots of stairs...

With special bonus stairs at the top...

...that arrived at a tunnel of Torrii...that led to more stairs still..

However, those stairs were washed out.

At the top of those stairs the grass was more than two feet high.

There was a stage, suspended over a small cliff, but  seemed to be in poor repair, and was not likely to hold my weight.

Further down the path, an abandoned and dilapidated house. Presumably belonging to the family that once maintained the shrine below and just beyond the stage.

The purification fountain is dry,  the paint is faded, and there is a good deal of rot.

Someone left some sort of offerings.

Inside through a gap in the screen the shrine seemed to be in decent shape. I wonder if it is used. In any event it is guarded by faithful carpenter wasps.

At the top of another washed out staircase and through a patch of Kudzu I found a little park, with a carefully manicured lawn  in stark contrast to the dilapidated shrine 70 feet below........and there was this monument.

...and this, next to a Mausoleum.

I was at the top, so I began looking for a way down less dangerous than the way I came, and then...

"AHHAHAHA...I found the....wait what?"

I did not expect this.

Wandering around it, I found that it is unstaffed but open to the public, it has power, but most of the lights don't work. A flight of stairs goes to the upper decks. The AC is blowing hot air, which makes the observation decks a bit unpleasant in August. There were several electrical outlets on the midlevel observation deck...some of which worked and I was able to charge the Blackberry for a while. The side opposite the shrine has a small park and playground.

As  to why there is a rocket on this hill, well there is this display case facing the entrance in one of the "stabilizer fins".

It's a sort of museum dedicated to Osumi, Japans first satellite. However, there is no other display or information aside from a chart displaying various constellations.

The view from the mid-level observation deck....shows the most awesomest looking playground slide ever

Not ~ 15 minutes later.

From the ovenlike upper observation deck, about 100 feet up, a view of the bridge I had crossed earlier.

Leaving the park I stopped at a drugstore and got directions to the nearest station. This turned out to be Usuda station, in the town I had passed through earlier. It is a full station with a bicycle garage.

It has a full service ticket office and is staffed. It is a two platform station, but one must walk across the tracks to get to the second platform. Note that Suica cards are not usable out here.

The interior is small but sports a stove for use in the winter.

The trains along this line come in 90 to 120 minute intervals, but my timing was good and I was soon on my way.

After a while,the train entered the mountains and  arrived at a somewhat larger town, Koumi.

Koumi Station is a fairly large two story affair, built to be a shopping center like many other train stations in Japan.  Its first floor contains a post office, a grocery store and connects to what appears to be a much older restaurant.

Most of the station building is vacant however and  is blocked off. There is a skyway that leads to a park on top of the cliff behind the station, but curiously does not connect to the stations second platform....which must be accessed by crossing the tracks.

Walking up the mountain brings one to a school, a few offices, several houses and the aforementioned park.

In the restaurant, there is a total dearth of plastic display food, or menus with pictures, or English.  Lunch was excellent. I tried their ginger ale....which was much like a ginger bomb going off in my mouth, It actually went good with the curry.

I walked downhill a ways and came to this bridge, which is interesting as the arches appear to be water mains (well they sound like it...).

From the observation deck one can see the paved river below. Erosion control, flood control and mitigating landslides is important.

Aside from two gas stations I did not see a single chain store of any type in Koumi.

But there is a whole lot of water being directed through the town.

After walking downhill quite , a ways, admiring the scenery and rapids, I noted the weather was changing.

I realized that the next town (and station) was closer downhill than Koumi was uphill.

Managashi is a quiet little burg.

And its station has a shelter! Woot!

After the thunderstorm passed, with about an hour before the train arrived, I noticed off in the distance, a shrine. So I headed over to see what was there.

Along the way I stopped and examined a dilapidated, abandoned farmhouse. I was curious as to how they were built.
Mud over bamboo thatch, covered in what looks like a thin layer sheetrock, but is probably closer to stucco.

At this point the bottom fell out.

I took refuge under a cypress tree, which was surprisingly efficient at keeping the rain off.

Of course it was in a graveyard...

...but was just short of my goal so when the sun came out again I went over to the shrine.

Behind the little shrine there was another set of steps, but these petered out in a glade, where I found a rather large cage trap perhaps for boar or even bear...neither of which I particularly wanted to meet.

...and so I was quickly back to the station and on my way.

I hopped off again at a full service station in a little village in a gorge around dinner time, hoping to catch a bite to eat. However, there were no restaurants near the station. 

There was a sawmill....but that wasn't the same.

Not pictured, the smell of freshly cut cypress.

I just wandered around for 90 minutes till the next train came looking at the scenery.



This tiny town of about 50 buildings had a seriously elaborate system of levees breakwaters and other hydraulic management systems.

The levees were 40 feet high in places. I guess when you live in a gorge in the mountains in an area prone to hurricanes, flash floods are a real concern .

These warning sirens would seem to suggest that even such measures can be inadequate.

The station in this little town is graced with this fellow, who is IIRC a traveling monk from the Kamakura period, but I can't find his name.

With night falling I hopped on the next train out and I arrived at Kobuchizawa well after dark, and left around 9 on this, the exact opposite of a Shinkansen. 

After a 3 and a half hour trip into Tokyo, I did manage to get to Ueno in time to get on the last train to Yotsugi and so even got to sleep that night. The mark of a successful day!

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Sendai Station

Demonstrating why the Blackberry's camera is of somewhat limited use at night...

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False Advertising

There is no duck flesh to be had in this Sendai establishment.

Though their seafood soup is good.

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Seen in Sendai Station....

The new E-5 series Shinkansen is not yet in service. Although capable of 360kkph it has been downgraded to ~300 due to noise pollution and wear on the overhead power cables. One result of the attempt at dealing with the noise is that the shinkansen tracks between Omyia and Sendai have much higher sound barriers, which makes for a very limited view of the scenery.

There is a way around this unpleasantness which I availed myself of on the way back from Sendai, and again as I took the Nagoya line from Omyia.....

Previously on this trip, I'd assumed these new double decker bullet trains were, like the Nozomi, not open to users of the JR rail pass.

This is not the case.
The JR Rail pass works just fine and the second deck  is available in  the non-reserved cars as well. If you can get a second deck seat, go for it!

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August 22, 2010

QUICK! To the Tsunderemobile!


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The Washinomiya shrine is said to be one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan. According to Wikipedia it is located in the town of Kuki which was once the town of Washinomiya.

This is not entirely correct as a walk through Kuki will attest.

There is a city map at the city center which does not include Washinomiya. I gather that Washinomiya was annexed by Kuki, not renamed, and is some miles distant. I got on the train and got off at Higashi-Washinomya...which is NOT the station one wants to get off at if one wants to see this shrine. Washinomiya Station is on the Tobu line and one should transfer to it at the station in Kuki. However, it is not covered by the JR rail pass and as I was able to get directions to the shrine I decided to hoof it.

At a fairly brisk pace, the walk from Higashi-Washinomiya takes about 2.5 hours. (Possibly less if one refrains from walking in very large circles.) The directions seemed unduly complex, given the fact that I was standing on country roads in rice paddies, but I soon realized that there are irrigation ditches that are impassable and these cause the roads to change course multiple times.

The elaborate nature of the irrigation system was interesting...

...and very understandable given the needs of rice, as well as this bit of trivia which, being as I'm a coastal southerner interested me greatly.

Eventually, I passed the water traps and  began entering a less rural area area which had its own hazards...

Two tigers, a penguin and a Texan polar bear from Hawaii...Just don't make eye contact...

And eventually after getting directions from 2 convenience stores and a police box, I saw the wrong side of Washinomyia Station.

If you look back and see this...YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!

Turning left as one exits the station on the side without the bridge takes one  on a pleasant and short walk down a road parallel to the tracks which curves to the right and ultimately to this bridge...

..and after crossing it, about a block further will put one in the parking lot to the shrine.

I was completely unprepared for the scale of the place.

The Tori is massive and leads not to the shrine, but to the path to get to the shrine.

Along the way there are a couple of small alters/ shrines such as this one overlooking a pond.

After a walk of at least a hundred fifty meters one comes to the purification station, complete with helpful instructions.

At that point one is in the main part of the shrine....

And beyond this, two more gates each of which  leads to a path through the woods

Fairly long paths...

Each of which passes by these small prayer houses/ shrines.

The place is huge.

It is also very important to the Shinto religion and gets well over a hundred thousand visitors on New Years.

I spoke to a shrine maiden who was selling fortunes and asked her some questions to the best of my ability. She was very patient and helpful despite the language barrier.

She was adamant that this is THE oldest Shinto shrine in the Kanto region. I gathered that this place honors most types of spirits hence the large number of shrines (and the little garden in the courtyard...with a shrine beside it.)  There was a lot I did not get, but she got out a pamphlet and circled certain headings that I can look up in my Kanji dictionary. She seemed quite happy that a fat ugly American  was asking her questions...that pertained to the shrine.

This may seem odd, what else would one ask?

Well there is one other thing about this place, (scarcely worth mentioning of course).

This, you see, is the view from just outside the front gate...

And this is a frame grab from the opening credits to Lucky*Star.

Some time ago someone put this piece of trivia in Newtype....and the 'pilgrims' began arriving....and life got very strange for this August and solemn place....


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Fukaya Station

It should be noted that while it can be accessed via Blackberry and is very convenient, Wikipedia is an imperfect source of Japanese rail line info.

One result: I belatedly realized at one point day before yesterday that I was on the wrong train, going the wrong way. I began looking for an interesting looking stop to get off at and was soon obliged by the appearance of a most atypical Japanese train station.

The station and several buildings in the town square are very late 19th century English in character. I think the train station may actually be restored to its former exterior appearance, though the interior is quite modern.

The phone booths are new but have the same look.
There is also, in the park adjoining the station, a monument...
To a man of some considerable substance...

I feel really inadequate right now.

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Things to Look Out For In Kurihama

Kurihama is all the way at the end of the JR Yokusuka Line. The Keisei Line also dead ends here.

There is a helpful map by the Keisei Line train station.

Yeah...That random encounter table can be a beeotch.

(It's a Godzilla dear....get in the Taxi)

There is a less menacing attraction though, and it is of some interest to history buffs...

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My Trip to the Konbinri

I got off the train last night after two days of train bumbling and realized I was out of both clean clothes AND laundry detergent.  So I went down to the Lawsons 100 across the highway. As I approached I noted a great hue and cry from behind the convenience store and dozens of women in kimonos were heading into an adjoining alley.

The property behind the Lawsons actually opens into the rear of a shrine I had noted earlier while figuring out how to get to the guest house from Yotsugi station.

Last night however it was much livelier and every bit of space was being put to good use.

The pictures are not the best as I disabled the flash on the Blackberry out of courtesy. I was the only westerner present and there was no other flash photography happening, I was also concerned I might dazle the drummers on the tower who were in tight, highly elevated quarters. 

Not pictured..the very loud drum music and singing.

...and the smells of all the fried and shaved ice concessions.

Most everyone in traditional garb danced around the dais in a sort of konga line.

One interesting thing I noted as I left, there is this shed next to the Lawsons with a chrysanthemum emblem and red spinny lights kind of like on a police box, but it is always locked. Last night it was opened and I found out what it was.

It's a little fire station manned by the local VFD, just to deal with the potential of a fire during a shrine festival.
It contains a hand operated fire truck cart.

The moral of the story? ALWAYS bring a camera anywhere you go around here as even a trip to a convenience store can become something really cool....or, as in Lilly's case, something entirely 'other'.

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