Soul of Japan

Purveyor of Fine Japanese Cuisines,Nihonshu,Shrine, Onsen and Jukujo.
20 Apr

Yes.  Tokyo has vast greenery and nature, but I’m sure you knew that already.  I had gotten a private invite in the mail a few weeks ago for a drinking party in Ome, a vast swath of countryside  located about two hours outside of central Tokyo.   The meet up was with a group of long time sake buddies I used to hang out with around Fussa and Nakano.  A few times a year we all get-together and enjoy watching  a local folk tradition somewhere in Tokyo, or we head to a sake convention for some good drinks and eats.   It was good seeing all of them again and having an amazing BBQ and soba making party.   

The post will highlight a few points I want to make about sake, food, and women, but before that I want to explain a little about Soba ( buckwheat noodles), which for the most part are imported from other countries.    Only the local artisan grows his own buckwheat and makes his own soba by hand here in Japan.   It took me awhile to get the hang of it.   Like making bread, the buckwheat flour has to be kneaded and compressed into a ball.  Making sure to use copious amounts of flour the ball of dough has to be flattened and compressed by hand first before using the stick to roll it out.      Making soba is not easy.  I had a try making my own soba and it came out rather disastrous.  The key to making good soba is to not be afraid of the dough, and to use nice even strokes.   If you have long nails cut them.   I watched two masters at work making soba and I was impressed at the level of skill and dedication these guys had.  

The morning we arrived on site it was a bit chilly and slightly humid.     Lucky for us the owner of the place  already had two large fires burning for us so that we could warm our hands before we started making and cooking our food.   In order to warm our insides we had warm sake made by a traditional Japanese style kondoku, an all metal contraption used for heating Japanese sake.    The “sumi” or petrified  wood that was used to heat the sake gave off a smell that was so nostalgic in a way that felt like I was sent back hundreds of years in the past.   That smell mixed in with the smell of sweet rice wine was so Japanese for me.  

On the grill there were bamboo roots that had been slow cooking for hours and hours, and it too smelt very surreal.    You do not have to drink your sake very hot to enjoy it, warm is fine. Actually, either is fine.   “nurukan- warm” “atsukan - hot.”    There were dozens of Tokyo sake on our table.    For an in depth look at sake brewed  in Tokyo click on the link.   Make no mistakes, Tokyo has really good water and sake, unfortunately popular opinion sees sake coming from only certain prefectures, hopefully this view will change in time.

Women always make a party brighten up.  Their cheerful and playful nature mixes with the nostalgia and turns a boring event into something exciting and memorable.    All of the lovelies were sake drinkers which only added to the fun.    We had so much meat and vegetables.  I haven't had that much beef in a long time and all of it was good.  As a matter of fact, the ladies were pretty strong at drinking.  We had four 1.8 liter bottles of sake  and a few yongobins ( 720ml), and nothing was leftover afterwards.   There was only one can of beer on the table which nobody drank.   
Handmade noodles

With great sake and soba you have to have delicious tempura.  We had boxes of it and all of it was freshly fried hot and readily served in copious amounts.    One point  I want to make about an essay I wrote about here which highlights a particular tree called the Angelica Tree that is enjoyed as a delicacy here in Japan.  

Again, the beer was half empty the whole time and nobody touched it.  I love eating and drinking with like minds.  One virtue I have always lived by is that no matter where in the world you choose to live, if you have good women(sex), good food, good sake, and good sleep your life will be full and complete anywhere.

As a finisher we all ate Kusaya, the most horrible fish in the world.   Click on the link to read the wikipedia.  I almost puked because it’s like eating fish & shit on stick.  Absolutely the worst taste for me, but at least I tried it twice and made a good go of it.   It is said that if you can eat this fish you are a true Japanese.

14 Apr

3am call.

Funny luck I guess.  As luck would have it I would receive a text from a long lost friend at 1:30am.
I’m already tucked in with my plaid pajamas on, and night cap and the mattress is feeling really good and comfy.   Sleep begins to warmly slide over me when a text comes in on my iPhone.   So i reluctantly slide my finger across the screen, one eye squint the other shut, to quickly punch in my passcode; was hoping the text wasn’t from some random freak wanting to just “sext.”   Instead I was greeted with a “come fuck me” invitation instead and suddenly I am wondering about my schedule for that morning.  I was scheduled to  attend a hanami party in Yamanashi and had worked tirelessly to get things organized for the event; sake and snacks.   

From Yokohama to Kiyomisu shirakawa is a stretch for a racing gentski( 50cc race scoot).    I couldn’t refuse, so I got up, got shaved and packed my laptop and fresh bottles of sake for my two hour late-night  road trip across Tokyo’s pitch black, sometimes neon lit streets.   At 1:30 am, police are crawling all over route 15!  Speed traps and unmarked patrol cars were all over the place.   My racing scooter is very loud and primed hoodlum style.  It’s because I am truly a bad ass Japanese mommas boy freak and I can show my ass to everybody — delete that.   I arrived at her address at 3am!   My ears were ringing from the 19mm carb and exhaust with my German SS Waffen shiny chrome helmet and grimacing with a master plan.   I have crystal encrusted letters etched on the front shield of my scoot that says “ Jukujo Love.”   

The friend I was meeting is a long lost Japanese sake companion I met at a sake event in downtown Tokyo.  I had lost touch with her.   I met her on that night and shagged her on the same night I met her,  and was with another female friend at that time at the same event,  if that didn’t make matter worse.    She’s an avid golfer, young Jukujo and heavy in the legs and ass area.   Finally arriving, according to the GPS, I text her to come and get me.   She picks me up and takes me to her lavish condo!   I was very impressed especially the with the giraffe figurine.  All she wanted was to get right in the bed, and god do I remember those big ass legs and soft flawless skin.   

Nuggets of wisdom:  Motorcycles were built for America and gang banger scooters were built for Japan.  7-11 was kind enough to let me park my scooter on its property and I had an excellent night.   The moral of the story.   You can have your cake and eat it too.  Although I had a previous engagement to hang out with a bunch of dudes at a flower party, I chose the best way, even though I was late for my hanami party, I was able to still enjoy spring..…  

Part 2
The sun peeked over the horizon at around 5:30am.   We were in our second throws of passion.  I could smell fresh womb mixed in with coconut oil incense permeating through the room and from our bed.   I was scheduled to meet my hanami group at Shinjuku station at 7:30, but there was no way I was going to getaway from this moment.   I finally pulled up at around 8:30 and kissed her good bye.   She has a thing for golf on sundays, and I am just not that interested in swinging clubs, so I packed my things and headed down to grab the bike; it was still  there and intact.   I figured, what the hell, so I headed over to Tokyo Station and jumped on the Chuo line for Shinjuku.   There I transferred to the Kaiji Express bound for Isawaonsen Station.   I had one fresh bottle of sake left from the previous night that I popped open for the trip up.   After arriving, I texted the events organizer but never heard back from him, so I wound up just showing myself around.  

I am a certified onsen sommelier and am probably the first foreigner in the world to receive such a distinction.   I am also a master sake sommelier certified by the Sake Service Institute of Japan, the highest and only legitimate governing body of Japanese  sake in the world - That does not mean I am a brewer; although I do have experience making my own sake in a Japanese brewer.   I am among the top five in the world!  Why in the hell do I need anybody to show me around Japan!?    I am a former Captain of the Japanese Army…. okay…delete that.   When I formed my own right wing group back in early 2000, nobody wanted to join.  Zero membership, except maybe for some obasaans ( Japanese grannies .lolol… I am my own party)—delete that.

The point I am trying to drive home, is that you have to know how to live life in Japan to its fullest, but most times not even Japanese know how to live life in their own country.  Most foreigners would never scoot all the way to Tokyo at 2am just for tail, and still keep their appointment for the next day.   A Japanese man would just simply  apologize to the girl and say maybe next time, then head out to be with his male drinking buddies.    Read this post again.   
3 Mar

The internationalization of sake has presented many challenges for the sake industry.   In order for sake to appeal to a broader range of consumers - since the people who matter most ( young Japanese ) don't drink it-   sake has to be presented in a way that is more palatable to Western drinkers instead.   And in order to achieve this, sake has to be paired with more untraditional dishes, even spicy dishes,  like in the case of nigori sake ( cloudy sake), which  is supposed to work well with spicy Thai food dishes.     Apparently there’s supposed to be some play on the tastebuds that make the nigori taste like coconut even though there is no actual coconut in the sake.  

The problem here is do resturateurs  change the food or the drink?   It was only a matter of time before the American palate would  evolve to appreciate more delicate and nuanced  flavor profiles.   About 30 years ago when Mr. Yoshida introduced  teriyaki sauce to American style grilled chicken, most Americans were comfortable with slathering their chicken with American style BBQ sauce, either that, or something ketchupy and thick.   You could wash that down with any watery American lager which tasted sort of like carbonated mineral water mixed with brown tea.    In reality, who cares what you drink with your overly sauced teriyaki chicken…?   Whatever works, right?    Pizza and coke, right?   Sake and ……?   Sake and Japanese food.    Or, uhhh….We are getting to that part…

The elitist and the Eurocentric chefs and Japanese entrepreneurs have big plans for Japan.   They are devising a way to totally reinvent the idea of authentic Japanese dining by incorporating more and more foreign concepts into the national cuisine of Japan.   There was an article in the Times the other day about an ambitious plan to reinvent the earthquake ravaged area of Tohoku by turning it into a  wine producing region.  Nothing could be so wrong about this, but I assume I am the only person who sees it this way.     

I believe that sake has reached a major crossroads as well as more and more Japanese women acquire a more sophisticated palate.   Their eyes are in Europe; dreamy bloodshot eyes, like they are possessed by the great white ghost of Charlamagne himself the most brutal Christian in history.  You steal the daughters of Yamato and Japanese men encourage it, just like they encourage the exploitation of their own natural heritage by exporting sake overseas!    Why not export the culture too.   The exportation of ideas is fine, but just because domestic  sake consumption is on the decline doesn't mean you need to kick up exports of the national beverage.   A vigorous plan needs to be in place to re-market sake to younger drinkers here in Japan first before mass exporting overseas.    If the next generation doesn't acquire a taste of its own national beverage, it's not going to matter how many geeky white people love the sake abroad.   

Originally, the fathers of sake brewing made sake for the Gods, and they in turn were blessed for it.   For their loins brought forth beautiful Japanese daughters who would later grew into beautiful Jukujo, the mother’s of all of Japan.     Sake was never intended to be a drink for men only.  It was a drink created to be enjoyed by men and women who love the Japan that I have come to love.    The Musashi Plains, Mount Fuji, Izumo Taisha, Ise Shrine,  and so many more places that all  embody the poetic apotheosis of this nation.   

The soul of sake is in its prismatic dew drops that roll down the legs of a succulent debutante draped in black  kimono.    What it is not is a white mans reinvention of the goddam wheel?   You cannot improve on it, no matter how many time you add fruit juice to it.   You shouldn’t eat it with a greasy chili cheeseburger either.   Sake is nuanced for god sake.    

In America they love to experiment with unique food parings.    Some food experts will go as far as pairing bananas with ketchup, dark chocolate with parmesan, french cheese with almond cookies.   Even chili-powder and vanilla ice cream.    Recently, in America, some sake experts are pairing nihonshu with pizza and cheeseburgers.   Japanese sake and spicy Thai cuisine.   I do not understand these pairings.  

I like simple food with Japanese sake.  Nothing spicy, nothing sweet, nothing oily.   I love sake with finger foods and delicately  nuanced delicacies that make you think when you eat.   I think sake and fresh food pair well together.  Dry and easy to drink with dryer types of sake.  


20 Feb
I have been to Yamagata a half a dozen times in the last half decade.   Maybe I was in search of The Promise Land, you know the story  mentioned in the Bible...   No.  Scratch that.  All of Japan is the Promise Land.   Too grandeur a statement, you say?  Ok.  All BS aside there's a reason I keep coming back again and again.  Here.  Here.  Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here  Here. Here. Here
Here   Here.

I would never refuse an invitation from a fellow sake lover, either.   It's my duty to sample as many and as much rice brew as possible before I die, but that is not my only duty though.    For years I have been sampling some of Japan's greatest natural hot spas, which many regard as a preserve of the rich.   Samurai didn't bathe in such mineral hot springs, extravagance is not a samurai quality.  Only lady boys and concubines used to enjoy such respite.   Long gone are such notions in our day and age, though.   Men want to look more supple too,  I suppose.   I guess like with our distant ancestors ( monkeys) who too enjoy natural hot spas, we share the same affinity to mother nature's warm embrace.

The bitter chill of winter is unforgiving in these parts of northern Japan.   We struggled with transit routes trying to get up this way; so many cancelled routes.   We had a bus divert from Yamagata to Fukushima to come pick us up in Koriyama.    We were 40 minutes behind schedule on our planned itinerary.

Our first order of business was to visit the famed Yonetsuru Sake Brewery.   Here we took a 40 minute tour where we had a hands on experience kneading rice and stirring the large sake tanks.

In this picture you see the sakamai version of Dewasansan, one of the signature rice grains of Yamagata with mold spores already on them.   Sakamai is rice specifically harvested and brewed for Japanese rice wine.   You can sample a small teaspoon in your mouth to taste the sweetness and it is not the same as table rice.

Here we get to sample the finished product directly from the tank.  Pure heaven.  How lucky.  Founded in 1704(?) Yonetsuru is one of the oldest sake brewers in this region with world-renowned sake like F-1 Junmai Daiginjo ( Absolutely amazing taste), Jinenryo, just to name another.   The tour lasted for about 40 minutes and  was thorough, one of the best brewery tours I have been to in a long time.  At the end of the tour we all did a blind tasting between five sake.  The winner gets a certificate.

By 11am it was lunch time, so we headed over to the Ebisuya Hotel for some more delicious food and select Yonetsuru sake.    By the end of lunch I was thoroughly sauced - we all were.  N.B. The bus tour afforded us plenty of nap time between destinations on the bus.  From station to brewery I napped; from brewery to lunch area I napped; from lunch area to onsen I napped; and from onsen to another brewery I napped; from the last brewery to dinner I also napped.   Sake, hot spas, and delicious food knocks me out every single time.   It just doesn't get any better than that folks, and if anybody tells you any differently they are a damn lie, and you can tell em' I said so right here on this blog.

After lunch we headed over to Akayu Onsen Gotenmori an onsen I wrote about back in 2008 when I published my book on Japanese onsen.   One of the oldest onsen in Tohoku and a cultural landmark hot spa that has been preserved for centuries.   The stone used to make the outdoor bath was sourced from a sleeping volcano.

I had some deep conversations here with two associate professors.  The first time I was here it was  on a beautiful balmy spring afternoon with cherry blossom petals floating in the water.    Epic!

If you've ever been to a natural hot spring spa before then you may have noticed that some smell like sulfur.   Imagine the smell of raw eggs.  That may be off putting for most people, but for older Japanese it is the smell of heaven.   For young people it is a repugnant order that lingers on the skin long after you've bathed, sometimes for days.  

As with any method of bathing, after drying the skin may experience different levels of dryness.  A good moisturizer comes in handy after bathing.   Soap is important too.   Good mild all natural soap is important for the skin too, especially facial soap.   Body wash soaps, liquid soaps, and deodorant  bar type soaps are not to be used on your face, you need facial soap.    In the picture above is a natural bar soaps made from green tea leaves which this onsen hotel is famous for selling.

Underneath the soap you can see a netting that you can insert the soap into to enhance the lathering.
The smell and feel of thick lathery green tea scented soap on your face is relaxing.   After leaving this onsen feeling relaxed and refreshed we got back on the tour bus and headed to our next stop.
Soumura Sake Brewery.

In this picture you can see a brownish greenish cedar ball hanging up there, sort of like a natural clock for telling whether sake is young and fresh, or fuller and more aged.   With modern technology now it's rather unnecessary to have it, but still all sake breweries  have it as a way to gauge how old the sake is, as well as the season in which it is brewed in.

The smallest brewery I have ever visited that has a make-shift facility for everything.  The Koji room looks like it was built from a cardboard box, like the whole facility was built in a garage.  Very unique atmosphere though.   Looks can be deceiving though.  Sake from these smaller breweries can  be surprisingly delicious and innovative.

 With any sake, good snacks are essential in exploiting the full range of flavor profiles associated the the sake.   In the top picture you can see small dried fish and squid; most are salty and aged.

Soumura has a beautiful female Toji, this too is essential as most sake breweries have alters built in their brew houses.   The Gods enshrined in these alters are all female deities, so in essence all Japanese women who drink sake are Goddesses.    In the magazine is an extremely radiant beauty making sake and next to her picture in the magazine is a sake infused cake which she made presumably.   Next up was dinner at a place called Bekoya Yakiniku.

Beef in Yamagata is world-renowned for its marbled fatty goodness.    And it's not as expensive as that Kobe beef knock-off.

 The beef is so tender and fatty lain across steamy hot rice melts on the tongue.

Shaky hands from pouring so much delicious cold sake.   Pure bliss.  It doesn't get any better than that ladies and gents.


10 Feb
I was invited to go to Akita by some old friends I met in Sendai a few years ago.   It’s been a year since the last time we met.   I am the soul of Japan, for those who do not know and what that means is that I preach of this nations many wonders and virtues through three core ideas.

( " principles:  nihonshu, natural hot spas, and Jukujo.   I count food in with nihonshu because the two are inseparable").

Arriving in Sendai, I changed trains heading to Kuromatsu Station where I met a three car convoy of sake drinkers - old friends.    Six men and six Jukujo!  Love was in the air.   We commanded three SUVs across miles and miles of Tundra, through pristine valleys and lowlands, across frozen lakes and icy plateaus.    Ravines steamed down through snowed over rice fields half frozen and timelessly beautiful.   This only confirmed that we had reached Akita in break neck speed.   Heaven bound.    

In the bottom picture you can see a mountain in the background.  It’s called Chokkai and it’s located in southern Akita, in an area rich in natural beauty and delicious water. 
_________________________________________________________________________________  Akita has its own private highway that takes you through the heart of snow country.   Our driver took the scenic route so that we could take out time and really enjoy the snow scenery.   
Our first major stop was at a sake brewery called Akita Seishu, one of the top sake houses in Japan.   Here we had a chance to tour the brewery to see how sake is made.  Every sake house has its own particular way or method of doing something.  

In the picture below the sake worker is emptying a bag of sakamai ( sake rice) into a machine.   This machine washes the rice before it is used for making sake.  Traditionally, the brewer would do this by hand. 
                                  This is a list of the breakdown of the different rice used.

 After the tour my crew headed to the dining area to thoroughly soak our livers in some of the best sake ever made.  It was fresh, clean, and crisp!  

                              The Yama Toshi Tsuku was absolutely outstanding, and is a new favorite of mine.  
The Yama Toshi Tsuku was absolutely outstanding, and is a new favorite of mine.   After getting nice and drunk we were off to our onsen ryoukan.  We went so deep into the sticks you had to pipe  in the sunshine!   In other words, there was no cellphone signal.  My crew were all veteran Tohoku people.  The Driver Ozawa lived in Akita for 15 years and had deep connections.   It’s good having Japanese friends even though I still enjoy traveling solo from time to time.  .  
 This is what you call old rustic traditional Akita style onsen hotel.   The food and onsen was fantastic!   We drank down four 1.8 liter bottles of Jizake and ate lobtsers and crabs and steaks.  Just simply amazing.   We slept in on tatami and just partied hard!  

20 Jan

Through my mind’s eye I can see in tunnel vision.   I knew I had to go up again this time, to my snow kingdom filled with hot spring spas and tasty little treats.  I know I could imbibe with the Gods up there and revel in their many bountiful pleasures.   A cold snow country with warm charms is what Tohoku is about for me.   After leaving Nikko behind I knew my eyes would be blessed with this view.   You see, it didn't snow the whole way up from Tokyo until I got through this last tunnel.

I love how from Tokyo, when the commuter train is full of vacationers, and I can tell where most of the people are headed to, just by guessing their ages.  Maybe they are  on their way somewhere to some gorgeous holiday that they saw on a T.V. program.  Japan is notorious for package holiday tours.   There’s a package for everything in this country by travel agencies that promote all the same stuff about where to eat, sleep, and sightsee.   As the train pulled up to Nikko Station the train emptied out and the only people left were me and a group of old-timers.   All the young people usually head to Tochigi or Nikko to enjoy hot spas and other winter activities.   Nobody ever heads to Yunokami Onsen, or so it'd seemed.  

From Tokyo I can reach Fukushima in about 6 hours by local rail, my preferred method of travel. It’s also cheaper.  Cost me about 3500 yen one-way.   We must not take for granted the natural beauty from the train window because there’s so much to be taken in just by eyesight alone.    I believe we need to feel the outlay of the land from every direction:  the air, the sea, the mountains, the rivers, and valleys.    The liquid essence of rice love.

On this journey  I decided on a whim to head out to Fukushima; it’s been a few years  since I was there last.   I boarded the Tobu Line / Skytree and grabbed a seat on the starboard side so that I could see Tokyo Skytree through my window.     As the train snaked its way through Sumida the Tokyo skyline was visible from all round me on a beautiful sunny day.    The beauty of Tobu Line is that you start from the very center of Tokyo and end up somewhere in a countryside hot spring town.   I enjoy how the landscape changes through my window, especially during autumn and winter seasons.   After passing the Skytree the city began to take on a different form for me.  Buildings became smaller and less modern looking.   Eventually all I could see were miles and miles of snow clad   rice  patties and mountain ranges as far as my eyes could see.   It was an absolutely gorgeous winter day.   

I even marched through the winter chill across frozen bridges and tundra to tucked away hot spas like at this spa in the picture.   I have always felt a special affinity to the rugged backwood of Japan, I love to go up just for the hot spas most of the time.    I bathed and bathed; drank and drank copious amounts of delicious local rice brews.   I ate sumptuously and slept like a baby, only to repeat it all again the next day.   I love this lifestyle.  After arriving in Yunokami Onsen I decided to walk around to some of the free baths; there’s a foot bath adjacent to the station.  As you continue down the icy roads you can take in the winter views of mountains and streams.  

There was intermittent snowfalls through out the afternoon.   Sometimes the sun would peak out from a cloud and shine down on me, and then twenty minutes later a hail of snowfall would powder everything around me.  This continued all day.
Tatenoyu Yunokami Onsen Fukushima
I enjoy how soft cold snow began to gently fall down over my head and neck. I could still feel the sun’s rays beam down warm hues of fresh sunshine across my shoulders.   I could still smell the fresh coolness of pine mixed in with the sweet aromas of hot steamy mineral water bubbling up from the hot spring source beside me.  

After leaving the quiet comforts of Tatenoyu behind, I headed over to another spa with excellent views of snow and trees.  I made my way over to Shin-yu spa for a quick dip.   The key to the backwoods of Japan is learning how to enjoy day-use spa baths.   I always make it my first priority to visit at least three baths a day when out traveling around.   This hot spring bath for me was epic, and I loved the view from the stone bath.

I loved how the warm energy flowed out from this rock inclosure.  The water was a perfect 45 Degrees centigrade, just hot enough to make you go “aahhh—-ooohh!”  

What sets Yunokami Onsen apart from so many other hot spring towns is the quality of the water both tap and onsen.   Most travelers pass up the opportunity to explore the town on foot, and miss out on the little hidden gems nestle deep in some mountain gorge somewhere.  You know, the stuff that never makes it on the travel brochures.    As a certified onsen sommelier I do not approve of drinking alcohol of any kind when bathing in a hot spa.  However, I enjoyed several ice cold beers and sake while bathing and loved the liquid essence of both spa and sake.   I was in heaven.  Combined!  The liver needs soaking too.

Of course afterwards, more beer was necessary to cool my insides, so I headed over to a local diner for some hot ramen and ice cold beer.  The veggies were grown up in the mountains wild, and the ramen was made to perfection
7 Jan

"Would you "yuzu" yuzu?" says the Japanese guy.   So it's not news that the Japanese enjoy their hot spring baths.  They enjoy them all year round, and then some almost like its a religious event.   The hot spring spa or "onsen" as it's called in Japanese is like partaking in the baptism of life itself.   The changing seasons compliment the bathing experience whether it be outdoors, indoor, or even in a mountain valley.  The scenery is endless.

December 22nd is the start of the winter solstice in Japan.  On this day bathers like adding yuzu, a type of citrus, to their bath water.  It's not uncommon for Japanese to add fruit to their hot water, even onsen powders, but never bubble bath agents!   You can read-up a bit more here on the Examiner. 

Yuzu baths are often enjoyed by young women, and very seldom by old-timers.   There's also different traditions in different prefectures as well, but I will only cover one.   The purpose of this post is to show you a correlation between differences in generation preferences.   The original fruit most enjoyed was the Pomelo.  You can read up a little more the fruit itself here.  

When it comes to onsen the Japanese have truly mastered the art of geothermal dynamic architecture and have blended it so perfectly with the ancient concept of wabi-sabi.    Onsen is a cultural pastime here and each prefecture lends its own fixture to this elaborate chain of modernity and antiquity all blended in so surreptitiously, so as not to disrupt the continuity of tradition  nor to commit a culture faux paus against the ancestors.    Tokyoites have glamorized the use of the now ubiquitous yuzu and yes, we still love its juices especially in the  hot humid summer months in Japan.   I love yuzu.

Before yuzu was introduced to Japan,  old-timers in west Japan ( Hinagu Onsen) used to use pomelo in their bathwater, as with Japanese pumpkin, but not everyday of course.  In this short snippet below you can see these huge grapefruits called Banpeiyu float around with pumpkins.  The natural oils from the fruit skins mix in with the hot water to release aroma into the hot steamy air.    According to Japanese medical science this is supposed to be good for stress as well as other skin related illnesses.  

       ("In the video you see a man sitting in what's called a Toji-Furo ( Winter solstice  - bath) ")


 In North America the grapefruit has never been really that popular for eating; this is mainly because of its acidity.   Nevertheless,  even since ancient times the pomelo has been regarded as the forbidden fruit - seriously.  Some scholars even argue that pomelo was the actual fruit Eve bit into, and not the apple.   For centuries the pomelo has been called the forbidden fruit and has been used in citrus inspired cocktails.  There's even a legendary liqueur named after it.  

Experiment a little in your own bathtub.  Feel the warming affects of forbidden pleasures.

3 Jan
http://shizuoka-sea.com/en/ I have rang in the new year in Japan in many different settings.  The first new year celebration was in the snowy coastlands of Hokkaido in a cozy cottage in a warm dining room next to a kotatsu ( a low table that warms your feet) snowy hot natural hot spas with huge snow clad pines surrounding it.   I rang in 2014 in a green tea plantation in Shizuoka, the tea capital of Japan and one of the most premium tea regions in the world.  Unlike my Hokkaido experience, it doesn’t snow in Shizuoka instead the view is replaced with majestic views of Mount Fujii and the beautiful coastline.      

I think it’s worth noting that in order to really experience Japan you need to experience a new year celebration in the countryside.    Sure, Tokyo has always been the go-to destination for new year celebration, but this is a strictly “Tokyo” experience, and I mean that.  You could experience the same wild excitement in any major city in the world.    New Year celebration in Japan is about being with “family!”   It’s not about shaking your ass in a night club and kissing some random stranger after countdown.   

Fields of green tea lined neatly along rows of rolling hills dot the Numazu city landscape.   That’s what it looked like from the BMW’s window as my girl steered her car seemlessly through a labyrinth  of green tea plantations.   Up a hill and down a hill; passed by  several tea factories along the way.  The weather was beautiful.    It was nice being back up this way again, but this time with a new squeeze if you know what I mean.  I was going to meet her parents for the first time and spend a wonderful New Years with all of them.  

You simply must take in the views high atop the Numaza Service area too, which is located five minutes down hill from her parent’s house just off the brand new super modern Shin-Tomei Expressway.   The sea and the Shizuoka peninsula all blend in so well with the town just below where we were positioned.   A five minute walk from her parent’s house there is the family grave plot dating as far back as Yayoi Period.    Very old family family lineage she came through, which was impressive for me.   And just a few yards from the family plot was the very powerful and wealthy Tsuruga Bank family plot which was gorgeously arranged with huge stone slabs.     Architecturally it was beautiful.  

I was particularly impressed with the stretch of Shinkansen railway next to the cemetery.   Many of the residence received enormous payouts for the construction of it.  

After taking our walk we returned home for a feast of kings!   After taking our walk we returned home for a feast of kings!   This time of year Japanese housewives can take a break for four days and just order food and relax with the family.  In the picture you can see crabs and all sorts of seasonal pickled dishes.  
We ate and played together and had a wonderful time getting to know each other.  Me and dad drank lots of beer and sake together.  It was wonderful.  Then we all went to sleep until 11pm then headed over to the main shrine to offer up prayers and ring this huge bell.

At around a quarter to 12 we headed out towards the temple.   Walking in the pitch black starry night sky, I was pleasantly reminded of how wonderful it is to be in the countryside again.  I used to live in King’s County in Central California, so it was nice seeing stars again.   Five minutes to midnight the temple monk ring this huge bell and then everybody gets their turn to ring the bell once.   It is one of the most beautiful

It is a tradition in Japan  to drink a hot sweet  non-alcoholic beverage called amazake.  It’s an acquired taste so if you don’t mind something with a pulpy velvety consistency then you won’t mind drinking it.  It is also served 50/50 with Japanese sake if you prefer something with a kick.  

New Years in Japan  is about family, eating good food, and prayer time.   It is this continuity in Japanese tradition that lured me to this country.    I loved it.    Japan has 8 million Gods!  

Naorai-no-sake. Sake once offered to gods is then drunk by believers. It is believed that by sharing foods and drinks with god, people can receive gods' power. BTW, Happy New Year to you, Tony. Let's have nice sake together also this year.

Otoshidama is a gift money for children up to the age of around 15.   Well, I have always been a kid, so Japanese feel compelled to give me pocket money.  I got $50.00!   I was so happy.  My trip, yet again, was another epic journey into the old Japan and with more stories to come in 2014

The tea I had and recommend is called sencha from Nogazaki-en   The tea I had and recommend is called sencha from Nogazaki-en.   For further reading on more of my tea posts click here, here, and here. . 
9 Dec
Winters spent in Tokyo can be some of the most memorable moments for the tourist.   Even for us long term staycationist and long-term tourist, the charm of Tokyo never seems to die off.   We still love visiting are old favorites, like Asakusa Temple and we still love the smell of sweet potatoes wafting through the chilly night air.    We quaff our beers, especially the minus zero black stouts on tap kind.   There are very few rules to live by in Tokyo’s gastronome.    The rules are invented and broken here, and then reinvented again.   Who says you can't drink a minus zero black stout from a tap in winter?   

After about 3 cold ones we headed out to a scenic spot along the Sumida River to take in the singular view of Tokyo’s newly erected Tower of Babylon.  That behemoth  Tokyo Skytree that seems to look like every other tower.     If you get a little cold then there’s a Tully’s  50 meters away from you in Sumida Park.    Watch the tower light-up in red and blue and get swept away by its allure.   It’s beautiful.  

If you are coming from Kanagawa Prefecture the best way to reach this area is via cruise boat from Hamamatsucho Station.   JR Keihin Tohoku will get you there in about 38 minutes if you are coming from Yokohama Station, I do not remember how much I paid, but I am guessing it’s around 380 yen.   From the Hamamatsucho Station you can walk to the Hamamatsu boat terminal.   There are plenty of signs to guide you along the way, so I don’t think you’ll get lost.   There are a few boats you can choose from and they all allow you excellent views of the river.   
Sumida River Cruise

Sumida River has its own vibrancy and culture, or its own personality so to speak.   I have never seen Tsukiji Fish Market from the river before.    They start business at 4am and close up shop at around noon.   I like how you can see five star hotels collage into the skyline alongside Tsukiji Market.   This port is the life blood of Tokyo.  Without Tsukiji Tokyo would not exist.   The very first bowls of ramen ever made in Tokyo were  made from fish broth sourced from this port.   
Tsukiji Fish Market

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa speaks for itself.  No need for historical intros, just know that it is an amazing piece of architectural history and that no trip to Tokyo would be complete without visiting it.  The night scenery is gorgeous as well as the daytime view.  I love the little stalls and what they sell.  The aroma of sweet beans and incense is what defines the experience of being in a place that represents so much of Tokyo’s appeal.   

4 Dec

Another autumn has come and gone, my 9th autumn in Japan.   I didn’t know Tokyo had such wonderful parks, especially kinds that really bring out the beauty of the seasons.   I have seen the evening lights drape  across the temple’s eaves under a blood orange sunset.  I have inhaled the perfumed evening breeze from the furs of fashionable matrons ambulating through a narrow patch of grove.   A popular Japanese belief is that if you catch a falling leaf make a wish.   The Tokyo vibe is intoxicating  and so are its myths and folk traditions.   

Rikugien Garden is a Tokyo metropolitan park in the heart of Tokyo. The name Rikugi comes from the idea of the six elements in Waka poetry. The park consists of a small pond, trees, and a hill.  I like the layout because it’s different.   Not all parks in Japan are alike, each with its own design scheme and its own theme.   I like how the flow of water slowly meanders along all most unnoticed as little ducks paddle their way down a waterway.   It’s sublime.  
It was a lazy late afternoon when we were there holding hands.  When you think of autumn in Japan you think of big name places like Kyoto and Nara.  I spent my last autumn up in Aomori Prefecture, at the largest natural virgin Beech Forest in the world and relishing in its autumn offerings.  You do not have to go far to find beauty because Tokyo has it, even when it utterly clashes with the overall landscape of this mega city.
Getting there is surprisingly easy.  Just read up on it here.    If you are looking for brilliantly colored leaves, then you may not find that here.  There’s something about Tokyo’s weather that lightly paints the leaves of a few trees a deep orange reddish  color.   All while retaining the greenery left over from summer blending the two seasons together.  


The truth is is that I wanted to visit Kyoto this time around, since I never got a chance to experience autumn there.  I have friends there.   Instead I chose quality time with my special someone to reflect on the quietude of it all.  It was nice.  I loved it.  
26 Nov

In 2009 I did a write-up on my top sake choices for Gunma Prefecture, so if you want to follow-up you can click here.   The significance for this post is to re-introduce another great Japanese sake from one of the best breweries in the industry.   Nagai Shuzo.     I shot most of the trip in film from a Pentax K1000 at 400 iso Fujifilm.   No filters.  35mm.   No better time to be up in these parts of Japan than in autumn.    The lush vegetation this prefecture is known for having is now toasty brown and amber, especially when viewed along the highway.   The preferred mode of travel is via “ The Drink Bus.”   A group of old men get together and rent a driver and a large bus for the whole day.  At the back of the bus is a round table replete with sake, beers, and cocktails.   This was actually the reunion bus from last year, so it was nice seeing some of the same people I saw last year.  

Our itinerary was to meet up in Tokyo first.  7a.m. and from there to Kawaba in Gunma Prefecture, about a two and half hour drive.   Breakfast on the bus was from 7am to 7:20pm, then we moved on to cup sake and by the time we got on the expressway the party was on.   Sundays are supposed to be spent this way.  We even had a half a dozen Jukujo for the trip.  I was happy.   

If you read my write-up back in 2009, you’ll understand that there are a few types of sake brewed at Nagai Shuzo, but what I didn’t mention were the two different yeast strains.  A flower yeast for their shiboritate(first press sake), and mountain yeast for their Tanigawa brand.    On the drink bus we had plenty of time to sample both kinds, so by the time we reached the brewer we were thoroughly sauced.

When our bus pulled up to the brewery, thoughts were running through my head.  These guys do not know me, but for the last five years I have been the only person pushing their product, in both languages, and now they are really getting looked at.  Business is very good for them now, so much so that just about everything is automated down to the milling machines.  

Water makes up about 80% of sake in its final stages, so whenever you have a chance to sample the water, like in this picture you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how delicious it is.  It’s rich in potassium, phosphoric acid, and Magnesium which are all ideal for brewing sake.   However, just tap water is not suitable as it contains trace elements of iron and  fluoride which are detrimental to sake, as well as manganese.   

In this picture you can see yeast propagation  tanks in their 2nd week.   Basically, you walk up to one of these wells and remove the cover.  Looking down into one you’ll see and smell yeast propagating as it releases carbon dioxide into the air.   The aromas are divine.   

We also had a chance to sample the "sakamai" or sake rice to check for firmness.  Often times brew masters will chew rice to check for sweetness this is a good indication that the mold is propagating perfectly onto the rice - haze.    A very crucial step in the sake making process is to have good mold propagation which is a big determiner in the final taste of the sake.  

The tour of the facilities  continues on and then it was dinner time with all-you-can-drink sake, beef, and chicken. 
We sample the entire line up and it tasted like the soul of Gunma, beautiful, refined, and refreshing.   

When making sake the yeast and the water play a significant role in the final product.  I also believe that the landscape adds regionality to the sake being brewed.    There's something about the trees and the crisp cold air for me that's reflected in every sip of Nagai Shuzo sake.    The rustic little houses and wooden sheds that adorn rice fields.     

I had plenty to reflect on over dinner.   I really stress the next time you visit a brewery, try to buy of "first press" sake because these are what usually sellout the fastest.   I have to in my fridge right now waiting for my guest to come over this week.   

25 Nov
Shot using a Pentax K1000 Fujifilm 400 iso.  Taken at Kawaba Village

The holidays are upon us in reds and yellows.  The skies are thin and shy, spread across a vast expanse of blueness.   It’s still officially autumn in Japan and yet you can see Christmas decor going up all around you, if you’re in Japan.   When  I officially post this, it will be November 25th, the day Mishima Yukio committed  ritual suicide atop the Japan Self Defense building.   But of course, no one remembers him.   We rarely remember the symbolism of such an act in our day and age.   On this day I try to reflect on Japanese people and what they have meant to me.   I try to post some nice experiences to share. 

Random Acts of Kindness

So I'm at my favorite watering hole.   I ask the bartender for his recommendation.   He brings out three bottles of the good stuff.  You know, the seasonal stuff that’s fresh from the sake brewer and is usually in limited quantity...   I order all of them at once.    So I'm sitting there and imbibing with the locals when this 80 year old Japanese man walks up.   He starts ordering shochu, you know, the distilled stuff made from sweet potato.   So we strike up a conversation.   From the way he was dressed he looked like a CEO.   On my second round I order up another three sake from the bartender.   This time the  old guy pays for my drinks. This continues on for about two more rounds, so in total I drank 10 drinks.  He shook my hand and left and I didn't even have a chance to say thank you.  Not even a name.    

For those of you who do follow my blog, you know I worship the Jukujo, and there's no shortage of Jukujo candy in Japan.   The whole time I was enjoying the free alcohol at the bar I made friends with two other people sitting next to me.  To my right was a lovely  and delectable Jukujo who was about 42, and to her right was a transient guy from Osaka.   He was sipping on some of that wine juice from France called Beaujuolai Neavues ( and I spelled it wrong smart ass).   The whole atmosphere was convivial and warm.  I have always said that alcohol lubricates the wheels of social interaction.  It adds color and spice to our life.  We finish up and me and the Jukujo head off to have a light dinner nearby at another place.   

Acts of Kindness 

So I miss the last bus to Ojiya Station.  From the bullfight arena to the station is about a 10km taxi ride. The fare would've easily set me back 4000 yen!   A random stranger, a Japanese lady, greeted me and had asked me where I was from.   She knew I had missed the bus, so she offered me a ride back to the station for free!  Again, I have never met  her before.  
Acts of Kindness

Fell asleep on the train last night and woke up in Yachiyodai.  65.5km from home!  It was well passed midnight and there was no way for me to get back home.   A stranger invited me into his home and offered me a hot shower and bed for free.   Next morning he prepared coffee and maps for me then escorted me to the station!  I made it home safely.  

6 Nov

During the 19th century foreign nationals had lived in the best parts of Yokohama, up  in the hills of Uchikoshi and Yamato, away from common Japanese folks.   The soul of the nation was ruptured during this period in Japanese history because of it.    

Foreigners brought with them their religion, their education, their national identity, and their language, and for no other reason but to colonize the minds of ignorant Japanese people.   The  idea of Christmas and Christian values are deeply intrenched within the mindset of the Japanese, more so than what they actually admit.  The most exciting place on earth for Halloween is Shibuya in downtown Tokyo.   

A century after Yokohama opened its  ports, the cultural landscape of the nation has undergone immense change.    The city of Yokohama has its vibrancy, but its roots are  somehow lost in the gulag of the soul.   War guilt, shame, ignorance, and self loathing just to name a few. Then there's the denial of the past which destroys the soul.
Black ships sailed through here  Mishima Yukio’s famous novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace by the Sea is set mostly in Yokohama.  The story outlines the development of the city’s architecture through Western influence.   The birthplace of tennis  in Japan was in Yokohama.   

Mainstream Japanese aim to either emulate or appease the hordes of foreign indigents  and dignitaries because they somehow sanctify their creative endeavors to be just like them, the foreigner.  Japan imports everything from almost every country, and then tries to reinvent, repackage, and market the import as a Japanese innovation.  Port Hill Yokohama, Minato Mieru Park, and so many other non-essential Japanese monuments and places of mention have been erected in honor of Western influence.  
In return, foreigners took with them  Japanese brides and made them less Japanese by destroying their soul.  The greatest lie is the denial of this split between' We Japanese' and' I am a Proud Japanese' because I marry outside of my race is one of the greatest contradictions in Japanese history.   When a 72 year old Japanese man embraces defeat, like so many have, and all while disregarding the sacrifice of his own brethren is one of the greatest travesties of the Japanese soul in the history of this nation.

Yokohama is a showpiece city and it is replete with everything a foreign national could want.   Home away from home, sort of like Okinawa.   Sixty years later this all that’s left to show.   300 yen Lamb cutlets, fish & chips, and pretzels.  

Every year, in Japan there’s a day called Culture Day, and it is held on November 3rd.   This day commemorates Japan’s post war constitution.  The actual significance of Culture Day was for the Emperor Meiji, but was changed.  On this day you can expect to see cultural exhibitions from all over Japan.   Foreign nationals will often set up stalls to sell their own national cuisines and dress up in their costumes and carry on like it’s their national holiday.

I wasn’t so keen on the event, although they did have hot dog and yakitori, and I did help myself, I was a little distraught at the lack of Japanese cultural exhibits in Yokohama.   Maybe there was a costume parade somewhere in Yokohama.     I was expecting something along the lines of Japanese cooking demonstrations, or maybe even a martial arts demonstration.   Culture Day is a Japanese holiday.  

Maybe the historical references associated with Suribachi, or maybe even how the seasons match well with Japanese tea and confectionary.  For me,  it’s  that time of year again when it’s time to bring on the hot sake and the oden( a broth soup with vegetables).  It's time to ready the kotatsu( low table with a heating element).  It's time to slow down and take in all the fall foliage and to relish in the changing of the seasons.  I saw none of that on this day in Yokohama.   The Japanese suribachi is called ' mortar & pestle' in English and often times pharmacies will have this as their symbol.   It is a grinder.  I like fresh sesame seeds ground down to a fine powder, and I like adding that to sesame sauce to give it that extra oomph, or to Japanese spinach for that extra added texture.   I saw none of that on this day in Yokohama.

Suribachi ware gets its name from Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi a dormant volcano.   It is here that so many Japanese men died by the hand of the U.S. Marines during one of the most fierce battles in war history.    Many American soldiers had died as well.  But, it is also here where President Roosevelt tacitly  approved the dismemberment and brutality wrought upon the Japanese forces, even those that had surrendered.   

Interesting note here.  Japanese have always been accused of mutilating dead corpses, and in many instances taking them home as war trophies.   But history tells a different tale, one that cannot be denied.   American forces had mutilated hundreds of Japanese soldier, of whom many were still alive.   It wasn’t uncommon in 1944 to mail fingers, noses, and even skulls back home as war trophies.   Nobody condemns America for such barbarism.   


Suribashi Mountain

I am left still wondering what the significants of Culture Day really means?   But one things for sure, it is not here in Yokohama.   It is an American War Trophy.  
27 Oct

The seat of power is confined within these walls, in this ominous building that’s shrouded in mystery.  It is the center of Japanese politics and international affairs where foreign dignitaries  and Heads of State have dined alongside some of Japan’s greatest luminaries and national fathers.    This is the government of Japan.

Why is it called the Diet?  
Answer:  The Japanese architects had to draw from the vast resource of knowledge developed by the forefathers of Democracy, as far back as ancient Greece.   Three languages were used in choosing the word Diet: Greek, Latin, and French.   In Greek it’s “diaita” In French it’s “diete”  and in Latin it’s “ diaeta.”   All of these meanings translate to how one leads his/her life.  However, according to Middle English it means, “ day set for meeting.” The forefathers had to choose a word that was not only international, but easy for Japanese to say.   
ダイエットwould sound something like " Dai - e - to," which for many modern Japanese would mean cutting back on food, but for native North American English speakers would mean how  a person chooses to eat.   That could mean someone with an illness, like a diabetic for example, may choose to refrain from eating starchy foods.   In other words, his dietary requirements are different than somebody with normal blood sugar and insulin levels.   He or she is not necessarily striving to loose weight, but working towards managing his/her blood sugar through restricting his diet to non-starchy foods.    "I'm on a diet"  means you are reducing the amount of food you eat for the sole purpose of losing weight.    

The term "Diet" was chosen to reflect old Western values from countries that share the same Democratic principles such as the aforementioned countries.    The Japanese name for the National Diet of Japan is called "国会/ Kokkai" in the Japanese language, which translate to gathering of government officials.   Mr. Ito Hirobumi, one of Japan's greatest Statesmen, understood that you couldn't expect Westerners to be able to pronounce "kokkai" properly, and there's nothing worse than when someone butchers the English and the Japanese language.   Diet was a much easier word for Westerners and Japanese to use and pronounce, therefore it made sense to choose it, and not "kokkai."  There is a slight pause in the vowel "o."   

Tell me more about the Diet Building:   Click on this link in English.

What did you like about the tour?
I think the Central Hall was the most impressive area for me.   I was particularly impressed with its decorative ceiling adorned in hundreds of chrysanthemum reliefs.   Many of the walls were made from Fossils sources from Okinawa and Tokushima Prefectures.   The stain glass ceiling were also noteworthy, but slightly gaudy for Japanese architecture.   
In the above picture you can see the Chamber of the House of Representatives where its plenary sittings are held.   You can often see this on the news.   If you are interested in attending one of these plenary sittings it's open to the public by appointment only, and you can only stay for a short time.    The balcony is where the Emperor of Japan sits, but that's quite rare nowadays.  The woody decor is all original from as far back as the 1930s, and has not been changed.   

What was your impression of the place?
I don't know.  Initially, I felt the original architects over did it with too many Western enhancements like with the American made doorknobs and stained glass window panes on the roof.    The sanctity of the National Diet Building was somewhat perverted by this overcompensation to appear international or Western.   There were no sliding paper doors, no tatami, no references to Shinto.   Some of the offices had doors that were 8ft high and were totally un-Japanese.   The toilets had marbles sinks.   

The guard staff and tour guides were extremely ignorant about their own history and the building itself, and were not ashamed of their ignorance - not a single apology.   One painting by Watanabe was Eurocentric and had no correlation to the Times, and sorely misplaced.    The good point is that building itself was immaculate  and in order, as it should, which only highlights how good stewards Japanese have become for the former Occupational Authorities under S.C.A.P.   
There was no correlation between the number of pillars; either 4 pillars or 6 across, both bad numbers according to Asian astrology.   The most important symbol  is far out of view  at the end of the North Gate, which is a huge stone monument of Ito Hirobumi.    You are not allowed to see it, and it's a shame because he was the most important figure in Japanese history during the time of this buildings construction and had a hand in its design.    It wouldn't be fair for me to tell you not to go, you should, and take from it what you consider to be good.    
7 Oct

 Nestled in the pristine backwood of Koguriyama in Ojiya, there's a beautiful hilly area surrounded by thick green trees and Shinto Shrines.   There's a god for everything in Japan, even bulls.    The road up to the arena is on a steep, uneven and windy path.  It's hard to believe they built a bull arena this deep in the sticks; making it the most inconvenient place you could possibly reach.  I thought the taxi driver was lost!   The air had a grassy manure smell mixed in with pine and beer!   I loved it.   On the way up, there was almost a deafening silence in my eardrum.   I could finally distinguish the sounds of nature; bird, insects, the sounds of tree branches rustling in the breeze.  It was nostalgic.  Places like Ojiya are often associated with great poets like   Junzaburo Nishiwaki, a four time Nobel Prize nominee, and a Person of Cultural Merit by the Japanese government.   It's easy to see where he derived his source of inspiration earlier on in his life. 
The Bulls are led out from their stables The nooses are loosed  Horns are locked and then they go at it

Since the 17th Century bullfighting has existed in Japan.   Bullfighting or bull sumo, as it's called euphemistically, is not the same as Spanish bullfighting where man is pitted up against a 2000 pound bull  whose only intent is to kill or maim his opponent.  In Japan,there is no blood spilt and neither is the bull executed after losing.   Togyu is not as widely known a sport in Japan as it was centuries ago.  Most native Japanese have never even heard of the sport until recently thanks to syndicated news organizations like NHK.    The sport itself originated in Okinawa but eventually spread to Shimane, Iwate, and eventually Niigata.   There are other places as well.  

After loosing a match
 I chose  Ojiya City in Niigata Prefecture, the motherlode of great sake, southern uonuma rice, and hegi-soba, to enjoy watching bull sumo.     I could've easily went to Okinawa or Shimane, but for me, the idea of watching a bullfight in the rice capital of Japan was rather intriguing, since  Niigata is also known for having delicious beef.  

("Beef and rice together is worth more than life itself.   Hot fatty beef over freshly steamed southern koshihikari rice is simply divine. ")    
The final event of the year will be held in November, so check around for it.    In bull sumo there are rankings for how well each bull performs, just like you would see in a real sumo tournament.   There are also different weight classes so that each match is evenly balanced.    There's even a bull yokozuna( grand champion) with its own tassels wrapped around its head.   In the beginning of a match bulls are paraded around the arena in order to showcase their muscular bodies.   Just like in human sumo, where each wrestler crouches down to intimidate his opponent by staring each other down, bulls also do a kind of ceremonial posturing.   They let out a series of loud throaty moans.   This exhibition of sound is exquisitely beautiful to watch and hear.  

You can reach Urasa Station via the Max Toki shinkansen from Tokyo Station.    Then transfer to the local line and continue to Ojiya Station.  There is nothing in Ojiya but old shops.  Also buses are highly infrequent.   From the station to the arena is  about 8.5 km.  or a 3500 yen taxi ride.    In my other post I will list up a couple of good places to eat around town.     

All in all, the event was spectacular especially as the bulls became more aggressive near towards the end.   It was also nice watching the trainers wrestle the bulls away from each other, and watching them get thrown around like rag dolls.    The sheer power of these animals on display is worth coming this far up to watch.    Really.   I can't think of a better post-summer activity to enjoy.   

This country never ceases to amaze me at how vast its cultural heritage is..   The Japanese have successfully merged so many natural and spiritual elements together so seamlessly; lest you had a keen eye you would hardly notice it.    The bulls that fought today were friends, they weren't out to kill each other.  You could sense that in the air.  Just good sports(bull)ship. 
12 Sep

This is perhaps the most local spectacle of lights in Japan that most people will not go out of their way to travel to.   If you have time and the will to make it this deep in Niigata, it'll be well worth it! The blast you see over the shrine in this picture highlights only a small fraction of the power of the shell used.

I had two days left to use my Seishin Juhachi Kippu ( Seishin 18 Ticket) for the summer.   This is a special discount ticket which allows you unlimited train travel on all local JR lines in Japan for five days.    This time decided to head back up to Niigata to a city called Ojiya, a town famous for making and using the largest  fireworks shells in Japan and delicious southern grown koshihikari rice and bullfighting!   The bulls here are more well-mannered than the bulls in Pomplona, Spain.      
On the way there, I stopped over in Ikaho to stretch my legs in a nice onsen.    From Yokohama to Gunma is over two and a half hours, so I needed to get the blood flowing again.    After finishing up there, I headed to Shibukawa Station to continue my journey.  I stopped over in Echigo Yuzawa to check-in to my hotel and drop  off my bags.    Wet my whistle with some delicious sake then headed back to the station to catch the 5pm train bound for Ojiya Station - 59 minutes.

This sake is called Birokuchou - Jazakari by Niigata Meijo.   The reason I purchased it is because it is only brewed and sold in Niigata, and nowhere else.  They do not sell it outside of Niigata.    A truly wonderful sake with excellent flavor profiles.  The guinom i is called "shiho-hai" and it's a must-have sake ware if you want to use it for drinking chilled sake. 
Naturally of course the hot spring  had to be enjoyed as well, and so I entered it and went straight to heaven.   Hot with nice calcium aromatics in the nose.   

On the way up to Ojiya, I cracked open the train window to let in the fresh air.   It was so cool and fresh as the afternoon sun began to wane.    I was thoroughly sauced with some great sake and freshly made soba.   The trip to Ojiya was essential.   There are many great fireworks shows in Japan, each with their own unique style.    In some of my other posts on fireworks I mentioned about technical merits and sound composition being two of the most important steps in grading a good fireworks performance.   

I often tell people the best time to come up this way, or anywhere in Hokuriku or Tohoku, is either in June or late September when the rice paddies change colors.  Around July you can see water soaked rice fields, and in late September you can see golden rice field ready to be harvested.

I arrived just at sunset.  From Ojiya Station to Katakai is a 30 minute taxi ride.  I paid 3000 yen.  Buses are infrequent, as you would expect in the countryside.   What makes Ojiya Katakanai Fireworks stand out is the size of the shells that are used; the biggest shells used in all of Japan and the loudest bangs that make the night sky shutter.   In addition, the drunken revelry is absolutely amazing.   You absolutely must experience hearing these shells go off in the night sky.  It's amazing.   

Video footage will be added shortly... The snippet with sake is a Monk's Sake, or holy sake you drink after offering up a prayer.
Fatty beef on a stick!  Lovely

11 Sep

The beauty of Ikaho Onsen is found in its timeless comforts.   Like in its  percolating natural steamy hot spring baths that bubble up from a brook, or through some prehistoric stone wedged in somewhere.   Trees and stones that've been there since forever, and is forever a part of the landscape.   Everything is still there, as I remember it.  
From JR Shibukawa Station you can take a local bus to Ikaho Onsen.  

Pole #3 and #4 are two buses that'll get you there.  But based on my own experience the best option would be to just take a taxi and save yourself time.   Just split the fare between two or more people at around 1500 yen each.   The first time I came here was by car and think that is still  the best way to travel anywhere in Gunma Prefecture.   

If you are looking for attractions, aside from the dairy farm and petting zoo , then I don't recommend Ikaho.  The  sort of people who come here are old timers and people like me who are really into natural hot spas and greenery.    This is the main allure of visiting Ikaho, is that there are so many natural hot spring baths.   The reason it's my second time here is because of just that purpose alone, and it's been five years since I was there last.   Getting there is tough on the knees.    The local bus will drop you off at Ikaho bus stop.   From there you'll have to hike up a very long stone stairway.   

 By the time you reach the top where the  shrine is located, your legs will feel like rubber.   After offering a pray to the local gods, I turned around and took in the view while taking some nice deep breathes.
Along the stone stairways and all along narrow passage ways you'll find shops selling everything from manju to tea.  Manju is a sweet paste filled cake, you can find them all over Japan.   The only thing Gunma is really famous for is great miso and yakimanju, in my humble opinion, but I am sure some smart-ass knows better.  
The water is naturally a brownish-yellowish color because of the iron and calcium deposits naturally found in the water.   No artificial chemicals are added and it's uncirculated water, which means that fresh water comes in and the old water flows out.   Left half is hot water, and the right side is warm water.   Entrance fee is 800 yen person.    
Note:  There are many hot spas on the way up to this onsen.   All of the water is good.   There are no bad choices.  However, to make the hike all the way up to this onsen in the picture is well worth it.   You will definitely experience an authentic Japanese style onsen hot spa.  
4 Sep

Before Japan was poisoned by Western charms, legends used to abound of great Asian men who formed the intellectual upper-crust of societies all over the world.  Centuries ago, Dutch used to be the official foreign language of Business & Commerce in this country.  Japanese merchants were trading with Europe and America long before Mathew Perry appeared on the scene.   These samurai delegations were courted by royalty and dined with  Kings and Queens in many foreign lands, and took part in the forming of treaties and global alliances.   There were so many great Japanese intellectuals and legends that are fully documented, these were men who fully embraced their gods and local folk traditions, and were proud of their legacy.   Japanese hardly  pay homage to their own great legendary figures anymore, but instead have been leaning more towards Western folklore.

Yet they still manage to hold on to memories of their long gone ancestors  and gods, albeit, in a more obligatory way nowadays.    Most Japanese shrug off the notion that they are loosing touch with their own myths.   They claim that Christmas is merely a marketing ploy to boost lagging sales, and to make an excuse to buy their significant other an expensive present. There are other far flung notions.    It is not uncommon now to see stuffed stockings in Japanese homes nowadays, and even Christmas trees.   As you know, this is a hypocrisy.   You cannot claim to not celebrate Christmas in Japan when you partake in its ceremony.   I still receive complaints from Japanese men about how expensive presents have become over the years as their children become more Christmas oriented;  they expect to receive  more and more presents each year and at higher price tags.    Most Japanese still stumble over the significance of December 23rd, but are quick to acknowledge December 24th and 25th, like it's their own national and cultural  holiday.


Not all of Japan has forgotten its myths, nor have they replaced their gods with Anglo-gods.    There are places and institutions that still remain intact.  Institutions like the Shinto Faith have been the bridge between the ancient gods of Japan and mortal Japanese men for centuries, still remains intact.  The institution of Shinto is sacred.  I call it an institution because it is where the transmission of culture, history, and sake have evolved from.     In Japan, drinking sake is an act of purification and consecration.    It plays a major role in Shinto wedding ceremonies, as the bride and groom serve it to each other as a symbol of the vows they are making.  Sake is often  given out at shrine festivals to worshippers, and participants in those festivals usually have some sake before the actual festival begins.   Sake is a way where god and the Japanese could come together, intersecting both body and soul.  Sake definitely brings strangers closer together.  In the Western Christian church there is a similar practice called communion in which either red wine or grape juice and unleavened bread is partaken to symbolize unity between god and mortal man, and to remember the sacrifice of The Christ.    Sacraments are also issued to symbolize a divine act.

Like Christianity, Shinto is shrouded in myth and legends passed down from generation to generation.    The Jews have a completely different take on The Christ whereas Americans think otherwise, which leads me to the question of " How real is myth?"  myth and reality is intricately interwoven to give life to form.    How would Rome and Greece be without myth ?  How can you sit there and allow yourself to become so dry, boring, and uninteresting?  You need myth more than you know it.  From cradle to the grave myth surrounds us and give our existence meaning.  

Santa Clause evokes images of a great big jolly fat white man who rides around on his sleigh delivering presents to good little boys and girls.  This  is one of the most endearing myths ever created.   It has become the most widely embraced myths in the world even here in Japan.  In reality, we deny the myth to make ourselves appear normal, but in fact without the legend of Santa Clause,  Christmas would have no meaning.   The story of Jesus Christ has very little relation to why people wait outside in the dead of winter, or why people fight and even kill each other over a Christmas present.    Myth is real when it's spun in the imagination.   Myths are charming.   They give us joy and light-hearted conviviality with friends.   

"Fantasies and myths are real according to the minds that create them," according to a famous Jungian psychologist.    It's easy to throw around words like "god" in the lower-case, and words like "myth" when referencing Japanese cultural pastimes.    That is what I was thinking about as my train neared the last stop.    As the train squeaked its way nearer towards the station I could sense that I was exactly in the right place at the right time.    
The birthplace of anything is always special.    It is the beginning of all things; the place of our origin.    The home of the womb of our desire.  The place where we took our first steps.    The cradle of civilization is said to have originated somewhere in Africa, and that there remains the Lost Garden of Eden.   In Japan, there are many Edens.   The birthplace of many things, but how that's interpreted  is subjective ambiguity.      It is said that the Yangtze River in China was where the first rice grain ever sprouted from soil.    You and I were never around to confirm such a finding, just hearsay according to some "great somebody."   The first flower that ever bloomed is not even known.  This is why we attach myths and folk legends to tales told by old, wise, and sapient men.   This in turn evokes a sense of wonder and enchantment which fuels are curiosity.

In the taxi on the way over to Saka Jinja I notice this huge Torii gate.   According to legend, Japanese gods gathered in this area to set up a kitchen.   They made sake and spent quite sometimes drinking it.     Eventually these gods went their separate ways.    This event was called sakamizuki and this is why you have the word "saka." You'll notice a difference in the kanji. too.     The name of the god that is enshrined is called Kusu-no-kam. 

さかじんじゃ(まつおじんじゃ)  Saka-jinja & Matsuo-jinja
Ichibataguchi Station is the nearest station to reach the shrine.  On foot it shouldn't take no more than 15 or 20 minutes.   If you come in the late afternoon you can witness a gorgeous sunset of Lake Shinji.

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And up I went.  Most holy shrines in Japan have these steps that you have to climb, like you are ascending into heaven.
Reaching the top the shrine is there, just like it was centuries ago.   It still holds its annual doboroku festivals every October 13th.   The energy and power is still there.   It's a solemnly beautifully place.
Off to the right you see an Ochoshi with small sake cups.   Ochoshi is sake ware for pouring the sake in to sake cups.  Choshi have been used for divine services from ancient times.
The sake is free, and for me it was pretty good.  For some others it may be an acquired taste, so don't expect much if you are looking for the best sake.   Pay extra attention to the aftertaste.
I want to believe in the ancient myths of Japan.  As a matter of fact, I choose to believe that gods roam about and congregate in holy places.   They inspire man to do great things and through teaching these ancient myths to future Japanese, Japan must continue spreading proper teachings of its national history, folk traditions and pastimes, so that future generations do not forget.  
31 Aug

I purchased (juseki) non-reserved ticket and I boarded the Yakumo bound for Yasugi Station, Shimane Prefecture.   From my train window Okayama looks like any other rural Japanese town.    Going deeper into the backbone of  Shimane you'll see acres upon acres of rice fields, dated houses with modern insulated tile roofs, quiet, and sleepy.    

Okayama Station I could've flown to this part of Japan, but I would've missed out on so much of the verve and energy of the place.   Shimane and Tottori Prefectures are regarded as spiritual places untouched by time.   The birthplace of the Nation of Japan and the birthplace of Japanese sake, two of the most important reasons for visiting this region, make it one of the most spiritual places in the whole country, the place where all Japanese gods intersect and mingle - 8 million gods.  

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In the second map you can see how my route cuts through from the Pacific coast to the Sea of Japan side.   From Niimi on you'll take in pristine views of the backbone of one of Japan's most quiet and most well -preserved vistas.   Winding through valleys and lowlands, you'll see flowing rivers meandering around tiny man-made waterways and eddies.  

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I had  organized a lunch box for this two hour trip.   When visiting this region of Japan just about every train station will have its own unique lunchbox.  Having lunch during a long train ride is the quintessential Japan experience, and has been for many rail fans.  I tend to focus a little more on the local sake of whatever region I am visiting.   The picture below is of a bottle of  Shimane Prefectures  own Rihaku Nama Tokubetsu Honjozoshu.    Can't think of a better sake that paired so well with the lunchbox I was having.   This is a nice all-around sake that's light on the palate.  Seimaibuai 58%. unpasteurized.   I didn't notice any distinguishable fruity notes, just a perfectly well-balanced sake that I am officially in love with.

 The first lunch box is Shimane beef miso with egg.   If you love the taste of beef and miso, you'll love this one.
 You lightly poke the egg so that the yoke flows out over the beef.   This enhances the flavor of the miso and beef by adding texture and consistency to the flavor.   Eat the white part last or with a large portion of meat and rice at the same time.  Divine.

 The lunch box below was something I had to get, but didn't need.  Izumo Beauty.  Looking at it as it is you would think it was just an ordinary lunch box.  Look more carefully at the rice and you'll see some slight coloration in it.  Red.  This is because the rice has been steamed in red wine which completely blew me away.   It actually worked.  Very faint taste of wine on the rice which worked well with the sake and the seafood.

 As the sun began to wane, we sped by a small water flow glistening in the foreground.  I was satisfied with my trip thus far.  I was heading deeper inward to mingle with the gods!

 Welcome to Japan.

30 Aug

No summer in Japan would be complete without visiting the requisite landscape garden.   You have so many places to choose from and so little time to decide which one is best.   There are 827 recognized gardens in Japan.   You could fly as far as Okinawa and bask in the glory of Shikina-en Gardens, a world heritage.    You could follow the throngs of visitors to Kyoto and relish in the beauty of Ryoan-ji Temple, considered by many a masterpiece garden.    I chose Adachi Museum of Art.   Awarded the best landscape garden  in the world  seven consecutive times.    

What better way to enjoy the waning days of summer than to be surrounded by neatly pruned shrubs and Japanese pines.   Bring on the green tea and your frothy matcha latte and come sit in the midst of one man's genius creation - Mr. Adachi Zenko.    Cultural landscape design is a Japanese tradition that has been passed down from one legendary monk to the next for centuries.   The beauty of such landscape gardens is how well two religions infuse aesthetic principles into its grand design.    The two principle religions are Buddhism and Shintoism.  

 From Okayama Station via the Yakumo you can either get off at Yonago Station, or continue on to Yasugi Station.   Both stations are about 15 minutes apart.   From Yasugi the free shuttle to the museum is more frequent and is about 15 minutes from station to museum.   If you take a taxi from Yasugi Station the fare will be 2310 yen.   That's about $25.00.   Admissions was 1100 yen plus an additional 500 yen for English audio assistance.   I highly recommend the English audio  5525.   

 Here you can sit and take in the beauty.   I sat here for about ten minutes relaxing and listening to the audio explanation.   You can snap pictures of the garden but not of the museum.

 This is the view I enjoyed with my matcha latte.   The views were soothing and relaxing.
Sitting in Silence

 Mr. Adachi Zenko believed that art should be a living thing, like his gardens.   Art and nature are two living things that should be infused and blended much like Shinto and Buddhism has been for centuries.
 Mr. Zenko's idea of a hanging scroll is actually a living scroll.   The framing in the backdrop evoke a scenery and is forever changing as people stroll along in its view.   This is the best example of a living hanging scroll, not just an ornate piece of fabric with ancient Japanese calligraphy written on it.

 My second tea time, and this time I was in another tearoom adjacent to the main hall.  Below is a Japanese summer confection made with milk and red azuki beans.  I was also served tea in a bowl.  That is on video.

Not only is this a masterpiece landscape garden, I have only spoon fed you a very small portion of this museum, but it has an impressive art gallery.   By Ito Shinsui.  
This depiction is a popular genre of Mr. Shinsui that evoke sensuality and passion with a summer theme.    I chose this painting because it reflects on the evolution of Japanese art, especially in regard to Nihonga, which means pure Japanese artistic expression.   No longer the thin unnatural lines of women, but more sensual, tender, and beautiful artistic expressions of Japanese women.   This changed the art world forever in Japan.   
Cool Another very important note is that many of Mr. Yokoyama Taika's works are here also.  A legend then and now, this man refined and perfected the art of Nihonga.   I haven't posted any works of his on this post because I feel he deserves a separate post of himself.   Just note, that if you visit this museum spend at least 30 minutes studying his thoughts and artistic expression, and then spend some time studying Shinsui's art.   There are over a dozen artists whose works are on display, and they change every season.

The best time to visit Adachi Museum is in the summer!   Other people will tell you all seasons, but to be quite honest summer time is better.  The greenery and tea and the cicadas are a perfect setting for enjoying this amazing place.   
26 Aug

There are three big fireworks shows in Japan: Omagari, Ibaraki, and Nagaoka.    No summer in Japan would be complete unless you attend all three of these events.    Akita is far away from most major cities, but even still it drew a crowd of close to a million visitors for this event.   The first picture is a local delicacy found all over Akita.  It's called Kirintanpo a cylindrical shaped rice treat with light miso.   The best way to enjoy this is when it's slightly burnt.  The drinks for the evening came from Dewatsuru of Akita Seishun.   Ginnama ( Ginjo-nama; quite dry;nihonshu-do +3; seimai-buai 57%; ) Fresh, vivid, fruity flavor profiles.      Acid Seven was the next best sake I tried, but one that is only available online, and one I probably had direct involvement in its production...When stopping in Akita Prefecture, you simply must drink the sake.   This sake is extremely rare.   Last spring I had attended a sake event in Akita for a sake naming event.  Everybody critiqued several dozen different sake and wrote down their favorite ones.  We also had to come up with a name for the sake.   Acid Seven?   Never understood why Acid Seven was selected... Here's a link if you read the back of the label.  I assume because there were no good names to choose from, seven of us( six friends plus me) were the best names that came up.  I do not know if this is true.  I am just making up a theory.    A beautiful sake to drink, nevertheless.  

I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time, and finally the day came.   I packed light and headed out to the station to catch the 4:19a.m. train out of Yokohama to Tokyo where I'd changed over to the Shinkansen bound for Aomori Prefecture.   There I would rendezvous with three friends and then head down to Akita, the site of the Omagari Fireworks show.   
My Japanese sake brothers  BMW coupe was clean.  Luckily we were able to park the car at a sake brewer friend's house very near where the fireworks show was being held.   We stocked up on plenty of beer and snacks for the road.   It took us about three and a half hours to reach Omagari from Aomori.   By the time we got there I was nice and sauced.    Thankfully all the unseasonably scattered showers dissipated before the show.   A sake brewer friend had reserved "A" seats for us on a stage like structure situated next to the river.    I was able to lay down flat on my back and enjoy some amazing views.
Unlike other fireworks shows, this one is a national fireworks competition where 27 fireworks manufacturers from all over Japan shoot 18,000 fireworks high up into the night sky.   The whole show lasts about 2 1/2 hours!   The winner is awarded the Emperor's cup.   Close to a million visitors and locals from all over Japan were in attendance.   
In this video you can get a sample of the apotheosis in a beautiful symphony like score with dazzling lights.  To simply take pictures wouldn't be enough.   

The highlight of the evening for me was when The Chariots of Fire musical score was being played and all of a sudden heavy rain fell.   It poured for about ten or fifteen minutes straight and the whole place got soaked out, yet the fireworks display never stopped!    It was strangely beautiful for me because somehow the music and the fireworks display worked in perfect order with the rain.    When the rain finally stopped and all you could hear was water dripping from the guard rails The Godfather score played over the speaker with accompanying fireworks in dazzling white.    Something about the violin, cello, and the slow dirge working in sync with the white colors in the fireworks, and as each tear drop shaped firework fell from the sky I was moved.    That stuck in my mind.   

To compare this display with others is totally unfair.   In a previous post, I had ranked Nagaoka the best fireworks show.    The music makes the show memorable.   Nagaoka used a lot of Mariah Carey's music along with some J-pop whereas  Omagari used a lot of Enka pieces and a few musical scores from hit movies like The Godfather.     These two shows are completely different, even the technical merits.   Omagari uses bigger shells.    Another interesting point is the afternoon fireworks displays.   At Omagari you can enjoy daytime fireworks which are completely different from nigh

26 Aug
The word gokon comes from the Japanese words 'konpa' -  or get together for group members.  Some references state that compa (as opposed to kompa) comes from the English word, "companion".  Another expression would be "Omiai-Gokon" which is commonly used today.   Omiai is a more formal set up whereas gokon is more playful; groups often go out drinking.  

After six months of procrastinating I attended my first Japanese group dating party.  Normally, I prefer meeting girls on the fly, like when I'm on my way to somewhere.  Doing it that way has a higher fail ratio than if you were to join a get-together.   What to expect when attending an "omiai-gokon" is a group of  30 females to 30 males.  You have to look around for the type of "omiai" party you want to attend.  For example: Japanese women seeking foreigners for marriage.   Japanese women looking for Japanese men for marriage.   There are also age specific groups for singles looking for those in their 30s and 40s.  The group I searched for is for heavy women over 40.   The criterion  for participating in this event is that you are between the ages of 30 and 40, and overweight.  The group I avoid are  the Japanese women looking for foreign men because most often these types of women have dreamy I-want-to-go-to-America eyes.    My search was very specific:  Over 40; heavy; and a woman who wants to live in Japan.  

The two terms here is ぷに子 ( Puniko = chubby) and ぽっちゃり(pochari = heavy).  There are other less colorful expressions in Japanese used to describe someone who is fat.   There are many groups like this popping up.   Japanese men are showing less interest in young thin women, and are starting to open their eyes to more down to earth and well developed women.    I have never attended an East meets West party. I mean, I do frequent the wine parties but there you have the super thin types who are single mothers, and those who are seeking a security blanket.    Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I am no security blanket. 

I have been in the hunt for heavy and well-rounded Japanese women for years, and thanks to social media I found some.   I like my girls healthy and well-fed, and most of all, well grounded.   No longer the Christmas cake types with their dreamy eyes of having a better life overseas.    Of course I won't divulge this information to you, find your own party, there are plenty.  Having a modest command of Japanese is essential because most women in age specific groups simply do not speak any English.  

The number one rule when attending a Gokon-Omiai is to never be late.  This is where I failed on my first try.  This is because you only get two minutes to talk sell yourself to each female.   Another reason you need to be there on time is because you need time to fill-out your information card.   It's sort of like your resume that you hand to girls.   The more information you write down the better your chances at finding a connection.   The ultimate goal here is to get the phone number.   

The organizers will take a tally of numbers and match them up with your numbers; basically you write down the number of the girl you like, and then they are paired with the numbers each girl had chosen to match each individual according to taste and preferences.   This is done throughout the course of the event, about 3 times.  In the end, the organizers announce the perfect pairs, which is where I felt the organizer cheated me.    

I chose Yuki a busty 40 year old Aomori beauty with fair skin.   She was paired with an average looking Japanese salaryman.   When the event had ended they both walked out of the room together.   As the rest of us were shuffling our way towards the elevator I watched her walk away with her selected Japanese companion.   Just before they entered the elevator she ran back to me and exclaimed that she had chosen me!  But I had arrived late and so therefore my name wasn't entered the first time around on her list of choices.   Three chances.   Had I arrived on time she would have chosen me.    

I will try again.

9 Aug
26 hours later I finally arrived at Aomori Station by local line from Kanagawa Prefecture, Yokohama.  That's a little over 475 km.   I was spent and I had no energy left to do anything.  If you've got balls to ride local lines this far with luggage in tow then more power to you.  The Seishin 18 ticket makes it possible to travel on any local line in Japan unlimited five times.    Two  things that kept me motivated were the sweet girls I had met along the way, like when the girl across from me in daisy dukes was doing up her toe nails in candy apple red; she had spread her legs half eagle open wide across the empty seat.  We enjoyed nice conversations together and took pictures of each other.  The other thing was the beautiful view rural hamlets from the window.   It still blows my mind how a person can be born, live, and then die in the same town without seeing anywhere else their country.   You can see the tomb stones in the backyards of homes!  Most Japanese living this far up north were born at home and grew up and died in the same home.   At my friends house where I had stayed I was told that his great grandmother, grandmother, and  mother, including all of his siblings were born under the same roof.    Amazing how in the 21st Century how the continuity of tradition still lives on.  This is Japan.

The vibe this far up north is surreal.  There's just no comparison with Tokyo.   People in Tokyo have become too Euro-trashy and confused about what  " Japan" is, like just after Meiji period when people starting wearing Western-style dresses and trousers.     Aomori is where it all comes together in terms of everything:  Great sake; amazing looking women; awesome seafood; wonderful hot spring spas; pristine nature, and so much more.   I could say that about all of Tohoku, though.   Americans are wholly ignorant about Tohoku.   They think radiation radiation whenever they hear the word Tohoku,  like Fukushima Daichi is the capitol of Tohoku or something.    Tepco poisoned all of Tohoku!   You can believe that if you want.   There is no Chernobyl here in Japan, and never was.

I arrived at my hotel just after 5:30 when the sun was starting to set.    After I got to my room I washed my face and got changed for the evening and headed out with the 60D and a few cold beers in a plastic bag.

At the intersection I crossed over to a convenience store to grab a can of sake "joppari."

I spot the local scenery.   Everyone was adorned in traditional wear and were in a festive mood.
It's not my first time in Aomori.   I have been here several times in the past for great food and hot spas.  My purpose this time was to attend the most celebrated matsuri in Japan.  Coming here again just reaffirms my beliefs about what I claim about this prefecture.  The Aomori Nebuta Matsuri.

The three major festivals (matsuri) in this prefecture are Hirosaki, Aomori city, and Hachinohe.   They are all beautiful and they all have illuminated floats.  One float costs anywhere from 3 to 6 million yen depending on the sponsor.   That's about as much as a brand new car.   Below is Mount Fujii.

There was something for the whole family.   Summer festivals are a town event enjoyed by the entire community.   The more sinister looking floats are intentional and evoke a sense of power from way back when warring factions fought each other for dominance in the Mutsu Province.

On my 3rd beer and I was really starting to enjoy myself.   I was even starting to pick up on the groove of the marching music.   The name of the marching music and chant  is called "Rassera"or ラッセラー.  If you where stereo headphones you'll be able to hear it along with the accompanying drum sounds in the video below.

Just being here amidst all the noise and chatter was exhilarating.   I got to see 30 very large floats being paraded around town.   I have tons more pictures to post up, but probably won't.  Just know that you cannot miss this event next year.   You absolutely need to check it out.
7 Aug

As the Joestsu Line made its way through the backbone of southern Uonuma Valley I could sense the festival mood growing on the train.  People, mainly backpackers, were drinking beer and getting carried away in drunken revelry.   I didn't let that spoil the view of rural Japan.   Well.  I was a little tipsy too.

So I finally made it up to see the greatest fireworks display on planet earth.    How do you judge a fireworks show?   Some people only judge the technical merits, or how well the bursts were executed.
Another way would be how well music is choreographed with the bursts.    Location is another way of how to judge the total performance, but this is my own opinion.

Of course over a river or a dry bed is the best place, but how about along the Shinano River in an amphitheater like surrounding where you can enjoy 180 degree views of bomb shells going off in the night sky.

From left to right you could see fireworks being shot up into the night sky.   It was beautiful.

These were huge shells 36"!  The sky lit up the night sky in dazzling white with Ayumi Hamasaki blaring from the speakers which sent echoes through out the whole park.    It was magical.   Then Vivaldi was next up on musical choices which elevated this fireworks show to the stars.

My drinking buddies had a blast.   I loved these electric Japanese fans that they were carrying.

This last video was the finale and it was amazing!   You haven't seen a fireworks show until you've seen the one in Nagaoka.

5 Aug

On my epic journey that started from Yokohama had ended in Aomori Prefecture.   It took me 26 hours via local lines only.   I met so many people along the way.  We all came from all over Japan.    We wondered around in station terminals together looking for our next connection while scanning over our notes.   I had kept my instructions on my iPhone while others had written everything down on paper.   We were all so very distant, and yet so very close in this strange land called "inaka."    The worst thing you could've done was to miss your connection.  Trains in the countryside are infrequent and come only once or twice a day in many rural areas.   

The "Seishin kippu" is a ticket that allows you unlimited rides on all local JR lines through out Japan.    The Japan I have always loved has never changed and I still feel the same sense of nostalgia and nervous anticipation since the first time I set foot off the plane when I first arrived here.    The Japan I know is full of green with rice fields that seem to go on and on forever.   

Super express trains like the shinkansen serve only to save time, so that you can enjoy more of your vacation time.   However,  I contend that you  have not experienced a Japanese summer until you have ridden through the backcountry here.  There's no better way to see Japan than via local trains.     
I woke up on a slightly overcast morning on a friday.   I had a tripod and  suitcase in tow.   I made my way down to Sakuragicho Station where I boarded a train bound for Takasaki Station.    A copy my itinerary is as follows: http://www.jorudan.co.jp
到着順出発時刻が遅い順所要時間順乗換回数順安い順  経路108/05 09:38発 → 08/06 10:50着25時間12分乗換 13回12,720円  経路208/05 09:33発 → 08/06 15:18着29時間45分乗換 12回13,040円  経路308/05 09:38発 → 08/06 21:49着36時間11分乗換 11回12,720円  経路408/05 09:33発 → 08/06 21:49着36時間16分乗換 11回13,040円 経路1 08/05 09:38 → 08/06 10:50着 所要時間 25時間12分 乗車時間 15時間0分 乗換 13回 総額 12,720円 距離 884.1km 印刷 テキスト 経路乗車位置運賃指定席/料金距離 桜木町路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメホテル 09:38-09:41
3分根岸線(赤羽行)2・3・6・10号車10,500円2.0km (0分)横浜 ≪直通≫ 4番線着 4番線発 路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 09:41-10:27
46分京浜東北線(赤羽行)↓32.4km (8分)上野 1番線着 5番線発 路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 10:35-11:01
26分東北本線(古河行)↓26.7km (7分)大宮(埼玉)11番線発路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 11:08-12:14
66分宇都宮線快速(宇都宮行)↓79.2km (23分)宇都宮 10番線着 8番線発 路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 12:37-13:27
50分東北本線(黒磯行)↓163.3km (6分)黒磯路線図時刻表地図グルメ 13:33-14:37
64分東北本線(郡山行)↓↓ (16分)郡山(福島)路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 14:53-15:40
47分東北本線(福島行)↓↓ (17分)福島(福島) 3番線着 5番線発 路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 15:57-16:45
48分奥羽本線(米沢行)後↓148.6km (47分)米沢路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 17:32-18:18
46分奥羽本線(山形行)前~後↓↓ (42分)山形路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 19:00-20:10
70分奥羽本線(新庄行)前↓↓ (3分)新庄 2番線着 4番線発 路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 20:13-22:52
159分奥羽本線(秋田行)↓150.1km (401分)秋田 6番線着 1番線発 路線図構内図時刻表地図グルメ 05:33-08:04
151分奥羽本線(弘前行)↓185.8km (3分)弘前路線図時刻表地図グルメ 08:07-08:52
45分奥羽本線(青森行)↓↓ (30分)青森 6番線着 2番線発 路線図時刻表地図グルメ 09:22-09:59
37分しもきた(大湊行)2,220円96.0km (9分)野辺地路線図時刻表地図グルメ 10:08-10:50
42分青い森鉄道快速(八戸行)↓↓ 八戸路線図構内図地図グルメホテル
My goal was to reach Niigata by late afternoon with some extra time to spare.     There were two destinations along the way I wanted to have a look at.   The first was a place called Yubiso Station on the Joestsu Line.   I have a thing for old  train stations.   Yubiso station looks abandoned but it's not.  It is a very long dark train tunnel station that I wanted to visit.

This is one of Japan's deepest and longest train tunnels.   The station after Yubiso is called Doai Station
and you can read about it here.   There were a few things I really liked about this station.  One was that you can hear water flowing from above; could be a subterranean stream.   The water flowed so cold out of the cracks of the tunnel was refreshing on my hands  I could barely keep my hands under it because it was so cold.

 Because it was summer and temps. were hovering in the 90s I was tempted to sip this fresh cold mountain spring water.   Inside the tunnel was quite cool and comfortable from the sultry heat outside.

Outside the tunnel station is a town full of lush greenery and unspoiled nature.   I walked a little bit just to get some fresh air and to stretch my legs from the long journey from Yokohama to Gunma.    It was nice being out of the big city and taking in nature.    

There's nothing in Yubiso.  It's a sleepy hot spring town with only a few day spas.   I found a nice little foot soak place along the way.    I sat in one for about 20 minutes.  It was great for my feet.   Just across from the foot bath there was a soba shop with two grannies in it.   I was hungry so I paid them a visit.

            Most often udon is served hot, but if you have a chance to eat it cold it is simply divine.  
After finishing up I headed back to Yubiso Station to hop back on the Joetsu Line bound for Niigata, but I wound up getting off again at Echigo Yuzawa Station for a proper lunch, not just one serving of noodles.   In Echigo Yuzawa Station you can enjoy good food, great sake, and even a hot spa.  No better combination than that.   Sat back down at the table and ordered up an extra large serving of something called "hegi-soba" a cold buckwheat noodle made from "funori" a type of seaweed infused into  wheat dough.   This is done to give the noodles an ocean taste.    If the noodles are really cold then it is the best.   Not very many places serve it so cold, or chilled.   I had copious amounts of nihonshu to wash it all down.

I am hooked on local trains.  There are so many hidden gem spots dotted along Japan's expansive rail network.   I look forward to many more stops in the future.   In my next posts my journey will take us through Niigata to the greatest fireworks on earth.  2013 Nagaoka Fireworks Show. 
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