Day 13–Hiraizumi, the Peaceful Spring

There was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald the other day about flood prevention methods in Japan. The government has built levees and floodgates and overflow channels and whatnot everywhere, designed to withstand a hundred-year storm, and possibly spending more than they can afford to do so… and last Saturday, around the region, several of them failed. Experts are suggesting that with the way the climate is going, it might be necessary to upgrade the defences to withstand thousand-year storms… but it might actually be more cost-effective to simply educate people to evacuate to higher ground faster instead.

Today, more breakfast. The mochi wasn’t on offer today, but there was some Napolitan pasta…

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So, Ichinoseki is the furthest south, and second largest, city in Iwate Prefecture, part of the Tohoku Region. Iwate is actually the second-largest prefecture in Japan, after Hokkaido, though Hokkaido is so much larger than Iwate that it barely counts (actually, Hokkaido is more than twice as much larger than Iwate than Alaska is than Texas… if that makes sense. What I’m saying is that if Alaska is X times bigger than Texas, then Hokkaido is more than 2X times bigger than Iwate… actually, it’s 2.2X). It’s also got the second-lowest population density, after Hokkaido. Back in ye olden times, Ichinoseki marked the northern edge of Japanese territory (the name means “first barrier”) – everything further north belonged to the native Emishi people, who were largely wiped out as an independent nation after the year 802, being incorporated into the newly unified Yamato nation as the “Northern Fujiwara” clan.

Today, though, I headed to the neighbouring town of Hiraizumi. It was once the capital of the Northern Fujiwara territory of Oshu, which comprised almost a third of the land area of Japan, and town at its peak rivalled the capital of Kyoto in size. The town was destroyed in 1189, and the Fujiwara clan fell not too long after. When the haiku master Matsuo Basho visited in 1689, he wrote the following haiku after what he saw:

Ah, summer grasses!
All that remains
Of the warriors’ dreams.

Which, honestly, kinda reminds me of a Japanese haiku version of Percy Shelly’s sonnet Ozymandias (“Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”). Today, Hiraizumi is mostly known for the UNESCO heritage-listed “Historic Monuments and Sites of Hiraizumi”, which is what I came here today to see. (Actually, my original plan for this day was to head further north to the town of Hanamaki, birthplace of author Miyazawa Kenji, and since the sightseeing spots there are quite separated, and there’s basically no public transport that I could find, I was planning to rent a car and drive there, the first time I’d rent a car in Japan. In the end, though, I decided it was a bit silly to go all that way when there were places I wanted to  visit nearer Ichinoseki, even though it’d let me visit some Michi no Eki en route.)

Absolutely lovely weather today. Someone recently told me that there’s always nice weather after a typhoon, and Neoguri has disappeared from the JMA forecast, so clearly he’s puttered out somewhere, taking the weather with him. I even decided to leave my umbrella at home. Before leaving the hotel, I headed up to the eighth floor to take some photos from the fire stairs – not the highest floor of the hotel, but I’m fairly sure it’s the highest one with the door to the fire stairs unlocked. Very nice view. Because of my short sightseeing day yesterday, I didn’t need to change my camera battery, and decided not to do a just-in-case charge last night. I paid for that this morning by having my first battery run flat almost immediately…

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So, I hopped on the train. It’s two stops up the Tohoku Main Line from Ichinoseki, and I made sure when I was at the station yesterday to confirm that I could actually use my Suica card at Hiraizumi, and I could – no repeating my error from yesterday. At Hiraizumi, instead of renting a car, I rented a bicycle – my first time renting a bike in Japan. My sightseeing spots are a little way apart, and I got the impression from Google that buses are… infrequent, so I decided I’d rent the bike to speed things up. Even decided to splurge for the electrically-assisted bicycle.

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Hopped on and started pedalling up the road with the greatest of ease. First stop: there’s a Michi no Eki in Hiraizumi, not too far out of my way, so I went there. Pretty nice building. And there seemed to be a film crew filming something in the shop there. Also, there were stamps there as part of a Michi no Eki stamp rally, and they had gold ink. Gold! So pretty. And also a small booth selling local ice cream flavours – I decided to get Japanese mustard flavour, and… that may have been a bit of a mistake. It was quite a bit more bitey than I had been anticipating. Quite possibly that would be the actual mustard seeds embedded in the ice cream.

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Took a brief detour up to the highway atop the embankment behind the Michi no Eki to see what I could see, and it was quite pretty, though a tad difficult to encompass in the camera’s view.

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Then I rode back down and headed for my first main stop, the temple of Chuson-ji. En route, I found them re-doing the centre of the road with pavers… not all the way across, though. Anyway, Chuson-ji is said to have been founded in the year 850 by Ennin, a priest of Enryaku-ji in Kyoto, but other evidence suggests it was founded instead (or possibly it was re-founded) by Fujiwara no Kiyohara (who also founded the Northern Fujiwara clan) in 1095. With halls running up the side of Mount Kanzan, it’s the head temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism for the Tohoku Region.

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Parked the bike in a free bike parking area I came across, then headed into the temple. It was an pretty steep walk up from the main gate up to the first hall, but at extremely picturesque one. Turns out there’s a whole heap of different halls before reaching the main hall – a Hachiman hall, then a Benkei hall, then a Jizo hall, then a Kannon hall, and so on and so forth. The temple was also holding a chrysanthemum festival, displaying chrysanthemums grown by all of the local flower-growing associations, and even some from a local elementary school. There was a display of bonsai trees too, which I was quite impressed by. (Side note, there’s a big autumn festival here too… which starts the very day I leave Japan.)

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The main hall was pretty impressive, but admittedly nothing particularly special – though for some reason, it had a statue of of a literal white elephant inside, made from what appeared to be papier-mâché. Sadly, noone talked about the elephant in the room. No photos allowed inside, as is typical.

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No, the main drawcard here is further up the hill, past several more smaller halls – Konjiki-do, the gold-coloured hall. It’s a hall covered entirely in gold leaf, right from the tip of the ornament on the roof’s peak to the footings of the support pillars. It’s inside another building to protect it from the elements, and while the rest of the temple is free, entry to see the Konjiki-do costs money (though you also get access to the temple’s treasures museum with the same ticket). Sadly, no photos are allowed inside… but for some reason, temples of the outer building are often featured in tourism images for Iwate Prefecture – for example, the first image on the Wikipedia article for Hiraizumi. The hall is apparently the first structure in Japan to be declared a Japanese National Treasure. For a brief moment at this point, it actually tried to rain, but it quickly reconsidered.

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At the top of the temple was a restaurant named Kanzan-tei, so I decided to go have lunch there. I had soba noodles in soup with tororo (grated nagaimo, Chinese yam, which has the curious property that it turns into a slimy paste when grated finely). I was also given a little thing which I’d taken to be red bean paste, but which turned out to be a small chocolate cake-like thing… filled with red bean paste. I confess, I’m getting a little bit tired of soba and udon, but it’s largely what seems to be available in places like this. Spectacular view from the windows, though. The minimum rental period for the bikes is four hours, so I’d set an alarm for three hours to judge how much progress I was making, and it went off while I was eating lunch – and I was still at my first sightseeing spot.

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So, I decided I should zip back down to the bike and head to my next spot, probably. First, though, I went to visit Hakusan Shrine, which was next door. It’s thought to have been the first building constructed in the area – a writer in 1334 recorded that the shrine was already seven hundred years old. (The building itself is not, mind – it’s been rebuilt several times.) It’s also got an extensive noh stage.

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Walked briskly back down to my bike. It was a nice temple, but I had to dodge busloads of Chinese tourists the entire time, except for Kanzan-tei and Hakusan Shrine. It was especially bad inside the Konjiki-do building. Back at the bike, I decided to skip stop number two, as it’s within an easy walk of the train station, and head for stop number three.

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Stop number three was not within easy walk of the train station, hence the rental of the bicycle. Specifically, it’s 6.7 kilometres down Prefectural Highway 31. For some reason, I kind of imagined that the ride between sightseeing spots would be, like, unremarkable featureless forest, or something, but actually it was broad open countryside, alongside a river, covered with rice paddies with houses scattered here and there, and I had to constantly tell myself not to stop every five metres to take photos. Downside of the electric bike, though, is that while it’s real easy to start off and get to full speed, they’ve got no gears, so staying at full speed requires constant furious pedalling. (Well, specifically, the motor has three gears to assist in hill climbing, but the pedals don’t.)

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About a half-hour later, I reached my next stop: Takkoku-no-Iwaya, a temple to Bishamonten. Designed after the stage at Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, it’s built underneath a rock overhang, so it looks quite spectacular. The temple was founded in the year 801, but the current building dates from 1961. There’s also a hall dedicated to Benzaiten on an island in a pond in front, and a hall to Fudo slightly behind – which had plants growing all over the thatched roof – and even its own Kondo (gold hall) though this wasn’t covered in gold leaf. Curiously, the temple had three torii gates at the entrance, which is usually indicative of Shinto shrines. The temple was nominated to be included as part of the Hiraizumi UNESCO listing, but it was turned down for reasons I don’t entirely understand – they’re still working to get it accepted.

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Departed for the next stop, another 3.2 kilometres away down the road, up and over a small mountain – and on the way down, there was a fairly nice view over a temple from the top of its graveyard. I also discovered the bike’s regenerative braking charges the battery if you’re coasting above a certain speed, but said speed was almost terrifyingly fast, and I only hit it this one time during the entire day.

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Next stop was the other famous gorge in the area: Genbikei, the Gorge of Severe Beauty. And it was really quite pretty. No boat ride here, just a bit of a walk, and a few bridges to cross – including Goranba Bridge, a suspension bridge that one brochure says was “built for the Emperor”, but doesn’t expand on that.

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But that came a bit later. First, I found a spot to park – I asked an attendant at one paid parking lot where I could park, and he kinda pointed vaguely down the road, before changing his mind and letting me park in the space between his booth and the fence (I got the vague impression that most people don’t ride bikes to Genbikei). Then it was down to a gazebo built at a vantage point over the gorge to try a local specialty: Kakko dango, “flying dango”. There’s a zip line over the gorge, and at the top end of the line is a restaurant specialising in dango – they send down a basket, you put money in the basket, hit a wooden plank with a mallet to signal that you’ve done it, and they haul up the basket, and send down a box with three sticks of dango and some green tea. 400 yen buys you the dango; I think the tea is free. They do make change, but I’m honestly not sure what happens if, say, you put a thousand yen in but only want one serve – it seems a bit like the restaurant guys watch who’s ordering and tweak the orders as needed; I was talking with a couple from South Africa right before ordering (they let me order first) and he sent me three cups of tea.

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The Chinese tourist buses were back in force – while I was trying to pick up my change, a box of dango and three cups of tea with two hands, they all leapt up and pushed in front of the South African couple while I was getting in their way – but they told me later that the basket had come back down with a note basically saying “those two were first”.

I chugged down my tea to free up my hands for dango (though I may have tossed one cup on the ground). Like I mentioned, you get a nicely-wrapped box with three sticks – one with red bean paste, one with black sesame paste, and one with sweet soy sauce. Quite tasty. And I think I arrived just in time, because when I went to the bins after I was done eating, there was a sign on the basket saying “sold out”.

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(Side note, you can also eat in the restaurant itself if you like – it’s just a short walk from the main bridge crossing the gorge. And you can, if you like, take a tour of the room from which they launch the basket – the walls are covered with photos of visitors, and they’ll also hang your country’s flag from the basket and play the anthem as they launch. I’m just reading this from the internet, mind – I didn’t actually go there myself.)

After I was done munching, I went for a quick walk down to the suspension bridge and back, enjoying the view all the while. Plus, some autumnal trees. Discovered that the resonant frequency of the bridge is fairly close to the beat of American Pie, because I was whistling it as I walked and stepping in time, so perhaps don’t do that if you visit. Also discovered there’s an Onsen Shrine just there, so I popped in for a look. There were dragonflies everywhere in the gorge.

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Returned to the bike, offered to pay for parking (he refused), and turned to head back to town. Actually, Genbikei is closer to Ichinoseki Station than Hiraizumi Station, by about half a kilometre, but I kinda perhaps needed to return the bike. And go back to the stop I skipped. It was a good half-hour ride back, downhill almost all the way, as the sun started to wander down towards the horizon. Ocurred to me halfway back that there was another Michi no Eki at Genbikei that I clean forgot to visit. Humbug. Decided to go straight back to the bike rental place, and the guy seemed kind of unimpressed at my timing – because of the way the prices are quoted, I was under the impression that you pay a base rate, then pay for any extra hours when you get back, but apparently you need to make a guess upfront how long you expect to take. Ah well. I paid for the extra hours all the same.

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Bike returned, I walked (so slow!) back to the temple I skipped: Motsu-ji. The temple was possibly first founded in 850 by Ennin (as with Choson-ji), but for sure it was founded as Enryu-ji in the mid-12th century by Fujiwara no Motohira, the second Fujiwara lord (the son of Kiyohira). Once Enryu-ji was built, he ordered an identical copy to be built next to it, named Kasho-ji, though he did not live to see its completion, which was done by his son. They were surrounded by a huge garden representing the Pure Land of Buddhist tradition. Buuut… both of these temples, and all of the associated buildings, were destroyed after the fall of the Fujiwara clan. Today only the foundations remain. The current temple, Motsu-ji, was built in the 18th century, and is a temple in the Tendai sect.

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I arrived here only shortly before sunset, though the sun had already fallen below the trees, so commenced a brisk walk around the central lake so I could see everything before it got too dark to see. It was quite nice, though. Very pure. Much land. I left my shuincho to be inscribed at the office as I entered, and the woman told me to come back later, but then the priest walked in, and offered to do it then – which is good, because despite the woman bookmarking the exact page it needed to be on, the priest seemed quite unsure.

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Heading out of there, I decided to  visit the Hiraizumi Onsen, just up the road. I quite liked the big entrance hall, and the tatami-mat room off to the side. According to the sign, it’d cost 1000 yen when entering after 5pm, but the woman only asked for 300 yen – apparently there’s a special campaign of some description – though of course I also needed to buy a towel. There was just the one big bath inside. I relaxed in there for a little while, then came out to use the massage chairs – much cheaper than the ones in Chichibu, and also left me feeling much more relaxed afterwards. Then I bought a bottle of milk and relaxed in the tatami mat room. (They had milk with fruit juice as an option. Ew?)

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Then it was time to find some dinner. The onsen has an attached dining hall, but tragically it closes at 4pm, so I headed out to find something on the main street and… I complained back in Nikko that it’s basically dead after dark, but the main street of Hiraizumi doesn’t even have street lights, much less anywhere to eat. I eventually found a Korean barbecue restaurant. Ordered a plate of kalbi, a plate of gyutan, and a plate of vegetables (cause vegetables). The kalbi was much more peppery than I would have liked, I really had no idea how to cook the vegetables without just burning them, but the gyutan was absolutely scrumptious.

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Once I was done, it was time to scuttle off to the train station – I’d set an alarm to make sure I finished dinner in time, because the next train wouldn’t be by for another hour, but I was on the platform with minutes to spare. Plenty of time to take some nice photos.

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Back at Ichinoseki, I bought a hot can of “onion gratin style soup” from the vending machine, which sounds… weird. It… wasn’t terrible.

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Today’s photo count: eight hundred and eighty six

Today’s pedometer count: 23,241 steps – 16.7 kilometres – 62 flights of stairs. Honestly… that’s a lot more than I expected. Perhaps some of the biking counted as steps – according to Google maps, I rode about 20 kilometres by bike. (One wonders how it counts flights of stairs – Googling suggests it counts one flight when you gain three metres of altitude in the space of sixteen steps. With that in mind, climbing Mount Kanzan may have counted for stairs.)

Today’s goshuin count: Nine – I honestly thought I stood a chance at beating the record from day four, because every subordinate hall at Chuson-ji seemed to have one. Not all of them, though. So, from the right as usual, Benkei-do, Jizo-do, Doso-jin (Jizo’s Shinto equivalent, I think), Yakushi-do (pasted in), Chuson-ji main hall, Konjiki-do, Hakusan Shrine (all at Chuson-ji), Bishamon-do, Benten-do, Himemachi Fudo Myo-o (all at Takkoku-no-Iwaya), Motsu-ji. And, abruptly, there’s only six pages left in my shuincho – time to start keeping an eye out for a new one that I like.

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Today’s stamp count: Eight – two stamps at Hiraizumi Station, both badly over-inked (and that filled my second stamp book), two lovely golden ones from the Hiraizumi Michi no Eki, one from Takkoku-no-Iwaya, one from Motsu-ji, and two teensy ones as part of a regional stamp rally – if you get all nine, you get a special prize, but (if I read it correctly) you can get a minor prize with three, and conveniently three were at places I visited… except I clean forgot to look for the stamp that should have been at Chuson-ji).

(For a quick note from the future, which is to say, the present day. I mean, the time when I’m writing this – Thursday evening. Bualoi, aka Typhoon 21, is due to pass some distance off the coast tomorrow, being Friday, before puttering out altogether. It’s going to bring rain with it, and some strongish winds are forecast for the afternoon, but hopefully it shouldn’t be too bad, and very hopefully it shouldn’t affect my plans. Touch wood with fingers crossed.

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Close parenthetical note.)

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Day 12–Geibikei, the Gorge of the Lion’s Nose

Today’s October 22nd, the day of the Jidai Festival in Kyoto, one of Kyoto’s three biggest festivals, which commemorates the city being appointed the capital of Japan by Emperor Kanmu in the year 794, except the festival itself was only instituted in 1868, when Kyoto stopped being the capital during the Meiji Restoration (I guess, to help the people feel better about not being the capital?). Well, ordinarily that’d be the case anyway – this year it’s been postponed to the 26th, because instead, the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito was today. The new era name is Reiwa, which doesn’t really roll off the tongue in English or Japanese – according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, this should be translated into English as “beautiful harmony”, although in modern Japanese, the most common definition of the “rei” is not “harmony” but rather “order” or “command”.

Started with breakfast, which included mochi (a rice cake made from pounded whole rice grains – it’s the thing in the little bowl covered in green paste), apparently a local specialty; Ichinoseki is supposedly sometimes called “the hometown of mochi”… or possibly that’s just what the Ichinoseki tourism board is trying to promote. No curry this time – perhaps curry at breakfast is a Kanto thing. Though there was rice-with-things-in as well as the plain rice.

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Considering the late night I’d had last night, I decided to take things easy today with a quick visit to a nearby location. Take the train, spend a few hours, then take the train back and have an early night. That, and Accuweather was predicting rain in the afternoon. Though with it already raining in the morning, I checked Accuweather again, and it now says rain all day, heavy rain in the afternoon.

But yeah, time to break out the umbrella again. I headed for the station, and hopped on the Ofunato Line – the same line that hosts the Pokémon With You train, though not today, sadly. Instead, I was on a cute little two-car diesel train. Unfortunately, I’d entered the station with my Suica, but realised pretty quickly after the train pulled out of the station that the train’s ticket machine was on, meaning there was no Suica available at my destination, so I should have bought at ticket with cash rather than using the Suica.

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Well, it was a nice little trip through the countryside anyway. I took a few photos, but before too long, the windows started fogging up from all the rain and the people breathing, so photos stopped. Hopped off at Geibikei Station, a cute little single-platform station with a teeny tiny waiting room. Paid cash as I got off. There’s Pokémon images all over the platform.

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After a short walk from the station, I arrived at my destination for today – the Geibikei boat ride. “Kei” means “gorge”, and “geibi” means “lion’s nose”, the name of a rock formation near the upstream end of the gorge. Boats poled in the traditional style take tourists from the town to the rock and back again, a trip of about ninety minutes. It’s apparently quite nice with autumn leaves, but I’d been unable to determine exactly when the leaves here change, so I decided to just come and hope. Let’s just say, an attempt was made. The gorge is regarded as one of Japan’s 100 Landscapes (Lake Chuzenji, the Nagatoro Gorge near Chichibu and Mount Takao are also on the list, from the places I’ve visited).

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Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be getting the full trip today – according to a sign in the window of the ticket office, the river was running too high – so we also got a corresponding discount (there’s a nominal price listed on their website, but it’s adjusted on the day as conditions require). The boats are fairly broad and flat, and you sit on the floor (or rather, you sit on cushions that also function as lifejackets in an emergency). To keep the rain off, there was a plastic roof – unfortunately, it reduced my view across the boat to little more than my handspan at arm’s length (on the nearside, it was closer to my forearm’s length), and I wasn’t lucky enough to get a seat at the open front or back. The boat’s pilot stood on the back, and had to crouch down if she wanted to speak with us (also, I’m fairly sure she was the only female boat pilot employed by the company – not certain on that).

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Women also came aboard with baskets selling drinks and snacks – I bought some dango covered with a paste made from mashed green soybeans called zunda (a local specialty; I think the mochi at breakfast might have been covered with the same stuff). You could also buy pellets to feed the ducks en route, though I elected not to. But, soon we were off.

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It was quite a nice and relaxing voyage, even with the constant patter of rain on the roof, and the rather reduced view. As we headed upriver, the ducks all followed along behind, knowing they’d be getting fed. And here and there was a tree changing colours. At one point, there was a shrine on the shore which we could try throwing coins into the collection box – I threw twice, and landed too low both times.

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Then we reached the point where we’d have to turn around… and there was an excavator just sitting in the middle of the river making sandcastles. Not sure what that was about the water level being too high. On the way back, our pilot sang us the traditional song of the Geibi boat pilots… but since it includes the line “Take the Ofunato Line, it’s not far from Ichinoseki”, I’m not entirely sure how traditional it is.

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Well, it was a nice enough ride, and the weather made it kind of ethereal, which was nice. Only forty-give minutes long. Might have to come back again in clearer weather, though. After we’d disembarked, I poked through the nearby paper museum – paper being a specialty of the town of Geibikei, then headed for the nearby Geibi Resthouse for some lunch: Geibi Udon, cold udon noodles with a raw egg and various assorted sides. Tasty enough.

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I went for a quick wander around town (among other things, I saw a line halfway up a wall in the middle of town with a label saying “Typhoon 6 high water mark, July 11th 2002”, which was… concerning), but soon headed back to the station – I needed to get the next train, or I’d have to spend another two hours wandering to fill the time to the one after. Had to ask the station attendant to cancel the active ticket on my Suica card when I arrived back at Ichinoseki, and as I did so, I somehow completely forgot how to phrase the request. Bought a bottle of fuji apple juice from the vending machine on the way out of the station. I’d also bought some sauce-mayo-flavoured “monja snacks” from the 7-11 in Geibikei for afternoon tea. Quite tasty, but not completely sure what they’re made of (or what they have to do with monja = kinda Tokyo-style okonimiyaki).

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I was back in my hotel room by 2pm, fortunately not too damp. Plenty of time to get caught up on blogging… or just take a nap, which is what actually happened. I did get two blog posts written, though. No particular sign of the prophesied heavy rain in the afternoon.

Headed out at dinner time for some dinner. I decided to wander down the road away from the station to see what I could find, but there were just more izakayas and such (including one that seemed quite popular). Then I found one tiny place that I almost walked past because it seemed to be a B&B, but it turned out that B&B was its name, and it was a restaurant. Cute little place – three tables and a counter, except one of the tables was actually an old-style table-style arcade game (mahjong, specifically, though it was off). There was one other customer, and everyone was watching baseball on the TV. I decided to sit at the counter, and as I’d feared yesterday, the woman behind the counter tried to make conversation. I think I managed to convey information, but I’m sure I misunderstood everything she asked me.

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I had oyako-don (chicken and egg on rice), which was most tasty. One weird thing, the other customer lit a cigarette almost right next to me, and I couldn’t smell a thing – but at the restaurant in Omiya the other night, the a customer three tables away started smoking, and all I could smell was cigarette smoke. Anyway, as I left, I noticed the cook came out to bring in the “open” sign – not sure if they were staying open just for me, or if they’d just decided it wasn’t worth bothering with staying open any more. Bought a bottle of blueberry-flavoured Irohas drink on the way home. Trust me, it’s blueberry.

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Back to the hotel to wrap up the blogging and get to bed.

Today’s photo count: three hundred and sixty-six

Today’s pedometer count: 7264 steps – 5.3 kilometres – 7 flights of stairs. Pah, not even trying.

Today’s stamp count: Four – found two non-Pokémon-related stamps at Ichinoseki Station (one celebrating the proximity of Geibikei, one about “the hometown of mochi”, which I accidentally shifted while putting it down on the page), one badly under-inked one at the Geibikei boat terminal, and one rather nice one at the paper museum.

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Day 11–Toda, the Door to the Paddy

Some fun new news coming out of the Japan Meteorological Agency. Meet storm number 20. Little guy, goes by the name of Neoguri. He never got above category 2, and even now he’s pottering out, but he’s still bringing down the rain, which is not awesome.

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And then there’s the next guy, storm number 21. Name is Bualoi, currently sitting comfortably at category 4. Not forecast to directly make landfall, but he is due to juuust scrape past Tokyo on the 25th. And guess where I’ll be on the 25th…

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Guess I’m really not getting the luck for weather this trip. At least the two big festival days were nice. And Nikko, too.

But anyway. Breakfast.

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Considering the late night I’d had last night, I decided to take things easy today with a walk around the area of my hotel. Take a stroll, spend a few hours, then get the train to my next hotel and have an early night.

As previously mentioned, I’m in Toda, a city in Saitama Prefecture. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics put Toda on the map when the rowing events were hosted here – and the starting line end is just a few blocks from my hotel. The course was actually built for the 1940 Olympics, which were cancelled due to WWII, and they were then restored for 1964. The city is right on the shore of the Arakawa – the same one that passed through Chichibu, so if I really wanted, I could swim back there – and in this area, the Arakawa forms the border between Saitama and Tokyo – one station further south on the Saikyo Line and I’d be in Tokyo. (It’s part of my I stayed here – if I hadn’t gone to the museum yesterday, I could have just as easily headed to Tokyo for a day trip.) Toda is also sister city with Liverpool in Sydney.

But as well as going for a stroll along the Toda Rowing Course and the Arakawa, I also had an ulterior goal: not one, but two manhole cards are available in this area, one about a quarter-hour’s walk from my hotel, the other almost an hour’s walk (so I’ve marked the first on my map in yellow, and the second in dark orange). But there’s also a bus that runs from the second all the way back to Toda-Koen Station, so I decided I’d walk to the first along the Toda Rowing Course, walk to the second along the Arakawa, and then get the bus back.

Had a little bit of a senior moment before I left – I threw a twist tie into the bin, then a minute later was surprised to find it still on the desk, and then a minute after that I realised I couldn’t find my sunglasses (yep, I’d thrown them in the bin the first time). It was an interesting walk. People were rowing on the course – a pair of eights and a pair of singles.

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Then I headed north for the Toda Community Centre (where I’d find Toda’s manhole card), and came across the canal that runs past my hotel, except here it’s extremely picturesque and lined with sakura trees. Not in bloom, of course, but certainly in full leaf. Quite nice.

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After popping inside to get the card (I had to head up to the fourth floor, and into the actual administration office to get it, but as I prepared to wait in line for it, one of the ladies behind the counter waved me over and handed it to me while serving someone else), I headed back to the rowing course where I could cross over it on a bridge.

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On the far side of the bridge, there was a rowing centre that had clearly come out the worse for wear after Hagibis – there was dirt everywhere, and several windows were boarded over. Just on the far side of the building was the embankment along the shore of the Arakawa – and it’s quite a high embankment. I clambered up the stairs to the top, and there was a fairly nice view of the Arakawa, though admittedly not awesome. Lots of little flying insects – probably why everyone up there was jogging or riding a bike. Saw some massive flood gates preventing the Arakawa from flooding the Sasame River (though I guess perhaps the Sasame River flooded the Toda Rowing Course instead).

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After crossing under a highway bridge, I came upon a section of the shore with some noticeable evidence of flood – bent over trees, grasses and rubbish caught in things, and at one point, there was an obvious high-water mark running along the embakment.

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Eventually, I reached Sasame Park, and found a baseball match in progress. Took a few photos, then crossed over the road to the Arakawa Left Bank Water Circulation Centre, where I got the Saitama Prefecture A001 card (there’s eight cards relating to Saitama Prefecture rather than any specific city, though only this particular one was available here). Sadly, the specific manhole depicted on the card was a fair  distance away, but fortunately there was a replica in the lobby.

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Card got, I headed down the road to the bus stop. Actually it was a small bus depot – the bus I could, I’d be riding all the way from one end of its route to the other. And soon I was back at Toda-Koen Station. Stopping for a moment to grab a photo of the Toda manhole cover, I headed for my hotel, retrieved my luggage, and returned to the station again.

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Caught the Saikyo Line to Omiya once again (used day four on my JR East Pass – today’s my second most expensive travel day). It occurred to me I’d done that every day I was here – would have been nice if there was a Toyoko Inn in Omiya. At Omiya, I planned to head to Bic again so I could buy an external hard drive – I discovered last night when I went to backup my photos that I’d only brought one hard drive, and it’s the one that (for reasons I can’t work out) won’t mount on my laptop – but after booking a seat for my next Shinkansen trip (it’s a two-hour trip, so I’m not gonna rely on the unreserved seating), I had only about twenty minutes until my train left, I still needed to buy lunch, and it was an hour until the next one.

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So I bought lunch at a bento shop – fillet katsu – and a bottle of strawberry milk from a vending machine, and headed up to the platform to wait. Unfortunately, I was given an aisle seat, and my window partner had the blind down. I took a few shots from the vestibule, but mostly I just enjoyed the trip. My train is a Yamabiko on the Tohoku Shinkansen line – faster than the all-stops Nasuno, but slower than the few-stops Hayate or Hayabusa. It’s Japan’s longest shinkansen line, with a total length of 674.9 km from Tokyo to Aomori. (A yamabiko, by the way, is a mountain spirit – if you’re in the mountains, and you hear a delayed echo, that’s not an echo, that’s a yamabiko. It’s usually depicted as a cross between a dog and a monkey, with its arms outspread like it’s in the middle of a shrug.)

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I’ve headed up to Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture, way up towards the northern end of Honshu. This part of my trip is the last remaining part of plan “head north and see the autumn leaves” – I figured Iwate was about as far north as I could go without losing too much time to travelling (and honestly, there’s not a large number of things on my to-do-in-Japan list that’s further north than here).

Hopped off the train at Ichinoseki Station, and it’s a fair bit cooler here – back to the temperatures of Nikko, basically, and back into the jumper. As I stood on the platform waiting for the train to leave so I could photograph it, a Hayabusa went through on the centre tracks at full speed, and the entire Yamabiko train rocked from the air pressure. Scary. I could see my hotel from the Shinkansen platform, which was nice. (Actually, when I arrived at the hotel, there was an advertising video playing on the lobby TV counting how many Tokoyo Inns can be spotted from the Tohoku Shinkansen – it’s twenty-six, if memory serves.)

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There’s a whole lot of posters in the Shinkansen concourse campainging for the International Linear Collider to get built in Iwate (apparently they’re still trying to decide where it’ll be, and Japan’s quite interested in hosting it). Also there’s posters about a Pokémon tourist train – the Pokémon With You train – that leaves from here on the Ofunato Line (I think it’s intended to reinvigorate tourism – part of the Ofunato Line was damaged beyond repair in the 2011 disaster, and it’s been replaced by a Bus Rapid Transit system). Tragically, it only runs on weekends, school holidays, and public holidays, but not last weekend. And it’s Monday anyway.

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I headed out of the station for my hotel. From Google Maps, I was expecting to have to walk around the block to reach it, but in real life, there’s an entrance on the street that crosses in front of the station – this may well be the least walking I’ve had to do to reach a hotel so far. Sadly, I wound up arriving a couple of hours later than I’d intended. I’m on level five again, but fortunately this time the lift is working. Actually, my room is right across the hall from the lift, and facing the station – I can see trains moving around from my window.

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I wandered out to see if I could find somewhere selling removable storage, but the reception staff could only suggest I try convenience stores, and they do have USB keys, but only up to 16 GB. So I bought four of them. Then I went to find some dinner – sadly, most places around here seem to be either izakayas or snack bars (which are basically budget versions of hostess bars, run by women, often with karaoke machines). There’s not even a McDonalds or a Mos Burger or anything. Eventually found a little eatery named Ninjin (= Carrot) with a counter and a few tables – I thought of sitting at the counter, but I’d probably be expected to make conversation, and all my Japanese knowledge escapes me when I try to do that. I had Japanese-style hamburg, with soup, salad and rice.

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Unfortunately no time to get caught up on blogging, but I at least I got a post done so I didn’t fall further behind.

Today’s photo count: Five hundred and ninety-eight

Today’s pedometer count: 16,083 steps – 11.1 kilometres – 12 flights of stairs

Today’s stamp count: Just one – a Pokémon With You train commemorative stamp.

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Day 10–Omiya, the Big Shrine

Japan has an area less than half that of New South Wales, yet it’s divided into forty-seven prefectures, each of which is roughly equivalent in legislative power to the states of Australia, so far as I understand it. If you omit Hokkaido (the largest prefecture by far), the average size of Japan’s prefectures is only a little larger than the average Local Government Area in NSW. When I imagine local councils in Australia passing laws, it almost makes me wonder how anything gets done…

Just to shake things up a bit, I thought I’d start today with breakfast.

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Considering the late night I’d had last night, I decided to take things easy today with a trip to a museum – the Railway Museum in Saitama City (Saitama Prefecture), just north of Omiya Station (actually, it’s located alongside the Shinkansen tracks, so I’ve seen it a few times from the train already). It’s JR East’s museum – JR Central has a museum in Nagoya, while JR West has one in Kyoto. But the plan was to just go there, spend a few hours, come back and have an early night.

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The museum’s main exhibit is the huge rolling stock hall, with about 30 railway cars and engines, but it’s also got other things like authentic train driving simulators – for the Tokaido, Keihin-Tohoku and Yamanote Lines, D51 steam locomotive, and E5-class shinkansen – hands-on exhibits of the science behind trains, historical exhibit and future projections, libraries, movie theatres, a huge model train diorama, mini trains you can drive yourself, mini trains to ride, and temporary exhibitions. Not to mention restaurants and cafes. Whew. It’s also got an app, which (unlike the Kawagoe Festival app) is available in English. And one of the things I find clever is that everything in the museum has a coordinate based on how far north or south it is from the main entrance (for example, the Kids Cafe is listed as 1F N110 = on the first floor, 110 metres north of the entrance), and everywhere you go there’s markers on the floor saying what coordinate you’re standing at now.

So, I went. Took the Saikyo Line to Omiya – and actually, this is the first time I’ve actually had to wait for the Saikyo Line train, instead of arriving on the platform to find the train already there. At Omiya, you change to the New Shuttle, a rubber-tyred people mover that runs along the sides of the Shinkansen track (and actually, it’s only a bit over six months newer than I am, having opened in December 1983, so it’s a tiny bit of a misnomer there). It’s a private line, though the operating company is part-owned by JR East, Tobu Railway and the Saitama Government. Unfortunately, in the sense that I wanted to ride it for the fun of it, the museum is only one stop from Omiya.

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From Tetsudo Hakubutsukan Station (= Railway Museum Station), it’s just a short walk along a covered concourse to the museum entrance. The concourse itself has a few exhibits – a bunch of different-sized train wheels, a steam train and an electric train you can photograph yourself in front of, and a design in the ceiling that took me a while to figure out – it’s a graph of the train timetable (forward and back is the time axis, left and right is the distance along the track).

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At the museum, I bought my ticket – it’s actually a contactless IC card like a Suica, and you enter the museum through ticket gates that look like station gates. Several of the exhibits require reserving a specific timeslot (and, occasionally, an extra payment), and I discovered when I arrived that the mini train driving, D51 simulator and E5 simulator had already been booked out for the day (the other three simulators are free and don’t require reservation, just queuing). Aww. I could probably have arrived sooner, but I wonder if it’s possible to book in advance or something. Today’s Sunday, incidentally, and it’s the museum’s busiest day of the week, according to Google Maps. So yeah. And probably half of the visitors were young kids. Yeah.

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I decided to try wandering over to the mini train driving to see if there were still slots available despite the sign at the entrance, but nope. Looks like fun, though.

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I strolled along the mini train driving tracks to the Teppaku Hall (“Teppaku” being an abbreviation of Tetsudou Hakubutsukan – the reason it’s -ppa- rather than -tsuha- is due to how gemination works in Japanese) where there’s a kid’s library (including books in English, like The Little Engine That Could) and a theatre showing videos of various trains, but I didn’t stay there long – I hopped on the Teppaku Line, a little hobby train in the shape of a Shinkansen, which took me back to the main building.

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At the main building, I headed up to the simulator hall in the south building to see if they still had availability there. I misread a sign, and thought they did still have spaces for the E5 simulator, and quickly put my name down, then went to queue for one of the free simulators. I managed to reach the second place in line before my enrolled time arrived, so I had to leave the line, and go to what I’d enrolled for… which turned out to be the Train Driver Simulator Classroom.

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Not what I’d intended to sign up for, but it was quite a bit of fun all the same. It’s a big room filled with twenty-one mini-simulators, you get a pair of cotton gloves similar to what train drivers wear, and they teach you how to actually drive a train, and an overview of the controls. Before pulling out of a station, you need to wait for the light on the console to come on which indicates that the conductor has signalled the train is ready to depart – you need to raise your hand to your (invisible, as it was) hat brim, point at the light, and say “tentou” (“lamp illuminated”), then raise your hand again, point at the green light in front of you and say “shuppatsu shinkou” (“vehicle departing”). Then you can start moving.

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More to the point, they also teach you how to stop – the brake has eight power settings and then the emergency setting, but the usual highest level for passenger comfort is B6, but when you’re travelling at 80 kilometres per hour, setting B6 requires 350 metres to stop – they briefly showed a graph of speed versus stopping distance for all of the brake settings, but they showed it far too fast for me to memorise. First, though, they let you try to stop completely unassisted, and then they put your performance on the screen next to the ideal performance, and let you know how badly you did. I… rather badly overshot the first time. On my second attempt, though, after seeing the graph, I managed to get just sixty centimetres from the target position. Nice. I… neglected to take a phot of this for posterity. On the third attempt, they added rain to the simulation, and I rather overestimated how much effect the rain would have, and undershot by a fair amount. The class was all in Japanese, but I largely managed to follow along… I think. May not have quite caught the point of some of the things. Slight downside: occasionally, a touch screen is used to administer test questions, but the screen doesn’t work if you’ve got the gloves on.

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Anyway, I think you can tell I enjoyed that. Might have to go back for the intermediate and advanced classes, though I also might need to be able to read faster for that. Then I went back to have a go on the other simulators. The first one I tried was a much older model of train than what I’d trained on, so it took me a little while to get used to the controls. Then I tried the third one in line, the one with the same model as the simulator classroom, and I did pretty well, though wasn’t able to replicate my earlier success – I undershot by five metres, then overshot by five metres.

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Then it was time to go and find some lunch. I seriously considered the View Restaurant – it’s on the fourth floor of the south building (uh, I mean, 4F S235) – with a nice view over the shinkansen tracks on one side, and the surface train tracks on the other, but I noticed on the ground floor that they had actual train cars you could sit and eat in, so instead I went to the Ekiben shop and bought an Omiya-specialty bento, and sat in the train cars.

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The train cars, they… uh… well, they stank the stink of ancient upholstery, which was really not conducive to enjoying a meal, so the View Restaurant would probably have been a better idea (especially as I’m also planning an ekiben for lunch tomorrow). The ekiben was nice enough, in any case – from left to right, it’s purple sweet potato croquette, mustard greens nigiri, tamagoyaki (with “Omiya” written on it), Napolitan spaghetti with red paprika (a Japanese pasta style, rather than Neapolitan…), sausage-meat nigiri, miso pork, onion corn slaw salad (with edamame), and pickled ginger.

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After lunch, it was off to the Rolling Stock hall. Actually, I’d already walked the length of the second-floor balcony about three times, heading back and forth from other things. It’s an absolutely spectacular room. It’s got everything from the very first steam train in Japan up to a Series 200 Shinkansen (the first train to run on the Tohoku Shinkansen), and also the driver’s compartment of a Series 0 Shinkansen (the first train to run on the Tokaido Shinkansen) that you could climb inside (and “climb” is the right word – the drivers’ seats are up two very high steps). I quite liked the old train cars with the wooden floor boards, and there was one car with screens set up outside the windows with video of the countryside going past.

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Side note, drawings of the Series 0 and Series 200 Shinkansen are still used on station signage to represent the Tokaido and Tohoku shinkansen lines, even though neither train has been used since 2013. Rather like the way a floppy disk is still used to represent “save” in computer applications…

There’s also a working turntable in the centre of the room which is given a full rotation twice a day for the entertainment of visitors – and the second of those two times just happened to be when I walked in. So I watched that.

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Once I’d seen all the trains to my heart’s content, I went upstairs to see the model diorama. It’s quite an expansive diorama, with trains running all over. There’s also a show every now and then – all the guests sit in the seats, while the host operates the lights and trains while narrating… something. Honestly didn’t catch a word of it.

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After the show was done, it was 4:30, so I decided to quickly head over to see the Science exhibit, getting distracted on the way by a 360° 3D movie experience about shinkansen trains that turn into robots to battle other shinkansen train robots. Only about five minutes long, and stuff that was too close in the foreground just made my eyes water, but it wasn’t bad. Not entirely sure it was worth the ticket price, mind. Actually, it was 4D, because they blast air at you every time a missile or shrapnel or whatnot goes past, which was a shade disconcerting.

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Finally reached the Science exhibit. Much science was done. There’s displays on why train wheels are shaped the way they are, why they’re made of metal, while upstairs there were displays about automatic signalling and regenerative breaking and so forth, and… I don’t seem to have taken any photographs here. I could have sworn…

Quickly popped outside to see the Panorama Deck, which had a view of the Shinkansen tracks, and also a timetable so that you’d know precisely when trains would be passing by, but by now the sun was already setting. Or had set. After one more whip around for a couple more photos, I headed out. And it just now occurred to me that I clean forgot to visit the ground floor of the south building at all (which had exhibits about the various jobs that go into running a train, like ticket sellers, conductors, emergency repair crews, and so forth).

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Hopped back onto the New Shuttle – I briefly considered going a few stops the other way for the fun of it, but it was dark, so I wouldn’t have been able to see much. Instead, I headed back to Omiya. At Omiya, I went the nearby Bic Camera to buy a few things to make up for the loss of my power board (I e-mailed the hotel about it, but I never received a response, and the phone number that I have for them just gets a “no such number” error) – bought a Japanese power strip (which actually turned out to be intended for travellers – it’s got multiple plugs – and which I’ve just noticed has a label on the side saying “NOT FOR JAPAN”) to make up for lack of plugs, an Australian-to-Japanese converter (quite surprised to find that, actually), and a Japanese four-port USB charging hub (so I can charge all my USB stuff without using any adaptors). That cost rather more than I would have liked, especially considering I can get a new board for pocket change in Australia, but it’s better than managing without most of my electronics for the next week.

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Then it was time to go find somewhere for dinner, while simultaneously having our regular video chat with the family. I eventually wound up eating at a place that basically did bar food – I got beef-and-cheese meatball on a stick (I was actually expecting two sticks, but only one arrived), half a loaf of fried tofu, and fried chicken with cheese. That… actually cost a fair bit more than I’d expected, considering each individual item wasn’t all that expensive, though there was also some sort of cover charge on the bill as well. Ordered via iPad too, which was nice.

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I still can’t get over the fact that Japan has this chain of stores that only sell snack foods and lollies. Like, there’s even a stack of shopping baskets outside, so it’s not just a “grab a bag of chips” thing, it’s a “fill a whole basket” thing. And business people were going in there, on the way home from… work? Wait, it’s Sunday…

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Then it was back home to Toda-koen. The knee that I banged on the stone pillar yesterday wasn’t at all painful today, but when I took my trousers off this evening, I discovered much of it was turning dark purple. Doesn’t hurt at all, though.

Today’s photo count: five hundred and fifty. Also rolled over the next ten-thousand photo tick on the camera. Think that makes ninety thousand photos… I think. That seems like a lot. Can’t remember if the count of ten-thousands started at zero or one, and perhaps some numbers got prematurely ended by camera setting tweaks.

Today’s pedometer count: 15,538 steps – 10.9 kilometres – 20 flights of stairs

Todays stamp count: Three – the New Shuttle Tetsudou Hakubutsukan Station, one at the Railway Museum (which I also stamped in the space provided on the back of the museum map and a souvenir ticket-like thing), and another one at the museum with the E5-model Shinkansen robot on it. The New Shuttle Omiya Station doesn’t have a stamp. Aww.

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Day 9–Kawagoe, the River Crossing

Be warned, this one’s a biggun.

Just as Japan likes to borrow words from English, English likes to borrow words from Japanese. Well, English likes to borrow words from every language, but you get what I mean. Aside from obvious ones like samurai or ninja or ikebana, here’s some words of Japanese origin you might have been unaware of: tycoon (as in, a business tycoon) comes from “taikun” meaning “leige lord”, honcho (as in, head honcho) comes from “hanchou” meaning “group leader”, and skosh (as in “shove over a skosh, would you?”) comes from “sukoshi” meaning “a little” or “a few”. Ginkgo is from classical Japanese “ginkyou” – the modern-day words are “ichou” (for the tree) and “gin’nan” for the nut. The rather topical word “typhoon”, despite its strong similarity to the Japanese equivalent “taifuu”, did not come to English from Japanese – in fact, it’s Greek, “tuphon” (though it’s possible the vowel sounds in English were shaped by the Chinese form “taifung”) – Arabic, Hindi and Persian all have similar sounding words for the same sort of storm, so clearly it’s a thing.

Broke the fast. My first breakfast at the new hotel… which had curry, again. I can’t work out if curry at breakfast is an autumn thing, or if I’m just so unobservant that I’ve never noticed before that it’s always been there. The miso soup had snow peas in it, which was new. Also, the TV in the dining room was showing exactly the same show I’d watched last night, the one with the costume host with the CG face.

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Then it was time to head out of my hotel for the next surprise discovery event that kept me near Tokyo instead of heading north: the Kawagoe Festival.

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Strictly speaking, the festival of Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe, it’s held on the third weekend of October each year, and is Kawagoe’s biggest event. Kawagoe is a smallish city in Saitama Prefecture, a few stations from Omiya – and trains from Toda-Koen go directly there, which is why I’m staying in Toda-Koen for this part of the trip (it’s one of the nearest Toyoko Inns to Kawagoe). It’s sometimes called Little Edo, for its many historic buildings. After the Meiji Restoration, the city was very briefly the capital of Kawagoe Prefecture in 1871, before being made the capital of Iruma Prefecture that same year, until it was merged with Saitama Prefecture in 1873. (Kawagoe is also going to be the host city for the golf events of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so they’re going a little bit crazy over that.)

The festival began in 1648 as a parade of Hikawa Shrine’s mikoshi (portable shrines), but influenced by Edo’s now-defunct Tenka Festival, festival floats were later added, one maintained by each district in the city. The floats are entirely human-moved, despite being about eight metres tall and weighing as much as an elephant – each is two storeys tall, and has a figure of a historical person standing on top – the upper storey and figure may be retracted into the lower storey, a feature copied from the Tenka floats, which needed to fit through the Edo Castle gates so that they could be paraded in front of the Shogun. They also have a small stage on the front for a band and a dancer, and the entire top of the float can be rotated independently of the wheels. (The band is always the same, mind: one big drum, two small drums, a flute and a Japanese type of handbell called a kane (that’s kah-neh), which is played by striking with a mallet. The dancer wears a mask – usually a lion, a fox, an old man or an old woman.)

Today, there are twenty-nine separate floats – twenty-eight maintained by residents in each district, and one owned by the city, though only twenty floats typically take part in the festival. The festival was declared a Nationally Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property by the Japanese government in 2005, and included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2016.

The festival runs for two days – Saturday and Sunday – and attracts over a million visitors in that time, and the entire historic town centre is closed to vehicular traffic during that time – all the way from the near the JR Station up to Hikawa Shrine, a distance of about three kilometres. Google maps has a handy indicator to warn people. (Pointless side note: after staying in Chichibu, served by the Seibu Railway company, then Nikko, served by Tobu, now I’m in Kawagoe, which is served by both (as well as JR).)

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But (since according to the festival website) official events wouldn’t start until the Jink0-sai (mikoshi parade) at 1pm, I thought I’d head over in the morning and see as many of the historic structures and areas as I could manage. So I did. And when I arrived, I discovered festival food and game booths already being set up around the place. First it was a couple on the side of the road at the edge of the closed-off section, then a car park with booths all around the sides and tables in the middle, then a long pedestrian mall lined all the way along; every time I thought I’d found the big centre of the festival, I kept turning a corner to find ever greater concentrations of stalls. And it was already getting fairly crowded with people. (Also saw, at the barrier of one of the closed-off streets, two cars parked diagonally across the lanes to form a kind of slalom, with signs saying “terror alert” in English, which was a little disconcerting.)

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And then I looked down an alley just in time to see a festival float round the next corner, several hours before I expected to see any floats moving around, so I chased it down to watch for a bit. It’s pretty impressive watching up close (and considering how narrow the street we were on was, close was pretty much the only option).

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After popping back to the JR Station for a quick Pokémon Go raid (as one does), and a stop to divest myself of my bags so I could take my jumper off (and never put it back on again for the rest of the day – after the cool weather in Nikko, we’re straight back in the hot humidity I had in Tokyo… actually, I carried my umbrella around all day for nothing too), I strolled back up the pedestrian mall, seeing what was available at the stalls. After the Ryusei Festival when I ate one thing and was full, today I decided to try as many things as I could. First: some dango – both sticks soy sauce flavoured, but one wrapped in nori (though honestly, in mind of my plan to try as many things as I could, getting two sticks was kinda silly). Then a chocolate-coated banana (nice enough, but may have been nicer if frozen… but I guess that’d be a bit tricky to manage at a festival stall).

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Then I finally headed for the place where I was heading when I got distracted by the passing float: Hon-Kawagoe Station (the Seibu-line station), and what turned out to be one end of the actual centre of the festivities in the station car park, continuing as far northwards as I could see up the road. But what drew me to Hon-Kawagoe Station was the Information Centre… which was offering a manhole card. One of the ones I’d colour-coded green on my map of card locations (meaning I’d have to make an effort to not pass right by it – actually, there was another green one near Kegon Falls the other day, but tragically they were out of them… and had possibly been out of them for over a year).

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There was also a festival information table there, and as it was already getting on towards one o’clock – the time the Jinko-sai was meant to start – I stopped to ask them the intended route. And in exchange for filling out a short survey, I was given a plastic document file with the Kawagoe Festival poster on the front.

I also discovered an advertisement for an app about the festival named Kawagoe Festival Navi. It’s quite a clever app; it’s got a map with live positions of all the floats, and information about them, and maps of toilets and other amenities, and the festival schedule – and, as I discovered later, a map of the Jinko-sai route, so I hadn’t needed to ask at the information desk after all. It’s all in Japanese, mind – doesn’t seem to be an English version.

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So, I power-walked my way up the main street – and let me tell you, it was quite a novel experience walking right up the middle of the main street – and on the way got distracted by a parked float with a lion on the dance stage. See, it’s good luck to let the lion nibble on your kids for a bit, so child after child was being held up to be munched on. Some of the younger kids were… less than impressed.

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After a few more blocks, I came across a policeman coming the other way who was shooing people off the road. I was rather disconcerted by this, until I realised the reason: I’d reached my target, and the Jinko-sai parade was about to come through. According to the festival app, the order of the parade is as follows:

  • Taiko drum
  • Parishioners’ representatives
  • Flagbearers
  • Sacred sakaki tree
  • Five-colour pennants
  • Flag with the shrine’s mark
  • Flags of the four cardinal gods
  • Sarutahiko (a shinto god)
  • Lions
  • Musicians
  • A reliquary (I’m not sure what’s inside – just says “offerings for the gods”)
  • Priests and miko
  • Mikoshi for the male and female gods
  • Sacred horse
  • The shoe-bearer (carrying the gods’ shoes in a basket)
  • The shrine’s chief priest, on a horse, being shaded by the umbrella-bearer
  • A shoe-bearer carrying the chief priest’s shoes
  • Two revered maidens on a palanquin

So yeah, it was quite the parade.

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After the parade had gone past – and the three floats that had been stalled by the parade’s approach – I had a look at some of the nearby historical buildings, including the Toki no Kane (Bell of Time) belltower. It’s sixteen metres high, 350 years old, and still sounds the time at 6am, noon, 3pm and 6pm (though I’m not sure I actually heard it today).

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I decided to visit Hikawa Shrine itself from there, and it too was quite packed with people, including a looong line of people waiting to pay respects at the main building. I instead joined the fairly shorter queue to get a goshuin. Unsurprisingly (given the crowd), they weren’t hand-writing them today, but it’s an interesting two-page spread, with colour images. Gonna have to paste that one in very carefully.

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Where most shrines I’ve seen have one rack for people to hang ema on, Hikawa shrine had a whole tunnel for them, which was absolutely packed from end to end with ema, including overhead. As I came out of the shrine, I happened to pass a float. It seemed to be having issues making itself short enough to fit under some powerlines, so instead, the people on the float sat on the roof of the float and lifted up the powerlines with their hands, which gave me all manner of heebie-jeebies.

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Once I’d finished exploring the shrine and surrounds, I noticed I was fairly near the manhole that the card I received referenced, so I went to see that. Then I realised I was about half a block from the Honmaru Goten (“inner bailey palace”), the only remaining structure from Kawagoe Castle (which is apparently the nearest publicly-accessible castle to Tokyo, as Edo Castle itself is the home of the Imperial Family). It was only 100 yen to enter, so quite affordable. And quite pretty – I had a sit-down on the floor with some others and looked out over the garden for a while.

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Palace seen, I headed back towards the festival, grabbing a buttered potato on the way. Then some karaage (deep-fried chicken) in a cup.

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Wandered around a bit more watching the floats. I found at one intersection there was a set of over-hanging traffic lights that appeared to have been folded back out of the way so that floats could pass. I wonder if they were specifically designed like that for the festival, or if all traffic lights in the country can do that. I’d also worked out that the increasingly numerous scrape marks I’d been seeing all over the roads – including big donuts at intersections – were from the wheels of the floats. The donuts are from the floats being turned on the spot. The floats also have men with big poles to help them start and stop – to start, they jam the poles under the back of the wheels and lever up, to stop (and make minor course corrections), they stick the poles in front of the wheels and let the wheels run them over.

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Heading down a slightly more minor road, I pulled into Kawagoe Kumano Shrine – still not entirely sure whether it’s a subordinate shrine for the Kii Kumano shrines or not. This was also quite popular. And they were hand-writing goshuin – I got two, one for Kumano Shrine, and one for Kawagoe Zeniarai Benzaiten Tsukushima Shrine, which was also on the same premises.

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Popping out of there, I headed for a nearby Pokémon Go raid at a tiny shrine nearby (yeah, I play PoGo constantly as I’m walking around in Japan, but there’s a point to this specific bit of description, so please bear with me), but I was a bit late thanks to my time spent at Kumano Shrine, so although I was surrounded by literally scores of other people also taking part in the raid, they were all already in battle, so I wound up in the leftovers, trying to scrape together enough people to win the battle with. And I happened to find myself standing next to a kid and his parents who were also in the same raid group as me. After a long and difficult battle, we won on the second attempt.

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At which point, the kid’s mother, who was a member of one of the district associations, gave me her… neck cloth thing. Uh, I’m not sure of its name, but it’s worn by all the members of each district, it’s a unique colour for each district, and it’s got the name of the district and the name of the district’s float (the floats are named for the historical figure on top – this float was Tokugawa Iemitsu (a test for those paying attention – who was he, again?) of the Shintomi-cho First District). Point is, she assured me that if I were wearing the cloth, I would be allowed to help pull the float, if I could find it. (I’d actually seen another foreigner pulling a float earlier – I was wondering how he’d gotten in there.) They also asked if they could all exchange Pokémon Go friend codes with me. It was sunset by the time I was done there.

Fortunately, with the assistance of the app, I knew precisely where the float was, though it took me almost half an hour to battle my way through the crowd to reach it, and when I did, it was already parked for the float display part of the festival – the floats all sit in place so that people can come and admire them, though I wasn’t expecting that to start for another half hour. Instead, they had the lion out again, conveying blessings upon the children, but he was soon replaced by… a fox, I think, who was conveying cup noodles upon the children.

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Soon, it’d be time for the next event – a display of firefighter ladder techniques. A couple of blocks away, but if I was lucky, it’d only take me twenty minutes. On the way, I grabbed something called a “hattogu” in Japanese – not too sure what it’s supposed to be in English, but it was also being marketed as a Korean-style hot dog, basically a huge block of cheese on a stick, with a token bit of sausage at its base, covered in batter, breadcrumbs and more cheese, and deep-fried. Yum. Healthy.

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I was making fairly good progress up the road, so I decided to pop into Renkei-ji as I passed by. Turned out the temple grounds were absolutely packed with festival booths – including a haunted house. I had a look around, then left by the back entrance. Unfortunately, I failed to notice the crowd was parting around a waist-high stone pillar, and ran right into it, knee first. Quite painful.

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I arrived at the ladder display a little after it started, and found the street packed with people. It was an impressive display, but pretty much unlit aside from the camera flashes of people close to it. Deciding I’d seen enough, I decided to beat the crowd out of the area… at which point, the display ended anyway, so everyone started to leave. Grabbing some Pocari Sweat (for ion replacement) out of a vending machine, I went to go find my adopted float again.

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The first person I asked about letting me help out was quite perplexed, but maybe I just used the wrong words. I went to go find someone more in-charge-looking to ask, and promptly came across the family I’d met before, who all but grabbed me and dragged me into the pulling team.

And with that, the festival’s main evening activity commenced. Called Hikkawase, the floats would wander roughly at random. Each time two floats meet, they stop, rotate their tops to face each other, and immediately commence a dance-off, while all the float-pullers holding lanterns stand in between to cheer on their respective sides. I honestly have no idea how they decide who wins, though, or what the benefit is. Also, whenever we’d pass a district’s home base, or a VIP gallery, we’d stop, turn to face them, and dance to them. Every now and then when the float was stopped, the children pulling would be summoned to the float to have lollies thrown to them.

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I’d honestly intended to only do it for a bit and then strike out on my own again, but I was having so much fun I wound up staying for the whole time – about three hours, I think. Wound up being short periods of strenuous activity interspersed by long periods of standing around waiting, but I was also able to get a pretty good view of things – and I realised part-way through that my neck cloth also allowed me to stand much closer to take photos than if I were just a member of the crowd. Plus, on my own I’d have to spend my time wrangling with the crowd – in the pulling team, the crowd had to wrangle with us. If we needed more room for the float, we could just hold up the rope and literally shove the crowd out of the way – often the policemen attached to the float would help out. I admit being stationed next to the kids made things a little tricky – I had to pull one-handed at a bit below waist-level, otherwise I’d be running over the kids or yanking the rope out of their hands, and after the first few minutes, my arm was so tired I could hardly lift my camera to take photos, and somewhere in the middle I realised that the collision with the stone pillar earlier had raised a noticeable lump on my knee. Also, we spent most of the time putzing around the station area away from the other floats, so not a great deal happened, though occasionally we’d wind up in three- and four-way dance-offs. (Dances-off?) I confess I’m not honestly sure if the entire pulling team was necessary – when we turned corners, the ropes would turn first, meaning the more pullers turned the corner, the fewer of them were actually pulling on the float, yet it continued moving. Actual rotations were done by stopping the float, and then a bunch of men just pushed it around on the spot.

I got a little bit of attention from the crowd, though. One girl did an actual double-take when she passed me, and one man asked to take my photo. I actually quite liked how his photo came out when he showed it to me – almost asked him to take one with my camera, but the drum major had just signalled that it was time to move on. I’d asked one of the lantern-holders take one of me earlier.

At one point, though, all the kids and their parents – which is to say, the entire family that sponsored me – abruptly vanished, for no apparent reason that I could see. It basically left me managing about a three-metre section of rope on my own. On the one hand, more room to stretch out. On the other hand, they’re authentic traditional ropes, so they couldn’t be allowed to touch the ground, so I could no longer leave the rope to run off and take photos when we were stopped. Eventually, we turned town a tiiiiny tiny alleyway, which I thought was far too tiny for us to fit, and I was utterly perplexed as to why we were going that way… until I saw the bit storehouse up ahead, and realised this is where the float lived when it wasn’t… uh… floating.

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With the top storey retracted, we carefully edged down the alley bit by bit, with people on top holding powerlines out of the way with their hands, again. Perhaps the lower cables are cable TV, or something. And then the float was very carefully edged backwards into the storehouse, only juuuust fitting through the doorway. And the band played the entire time the float was being put away, only stopping the moment it was completely inside. I’m not sure they stopped at all for three hours, but I’m sure they swapped for new players while I wasn’t paying attention – I’m pretty sure there were at least two dancers, maybe even three.

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And then we were done. And also it was about 10pm. I’d hoped to grab some yakisoba or something for a late dinner, but sadly all the stalls had closed down – the dango stall near the JR station I’d eaten at earlier still had some sticks left, but I wasn’t sure I felt like that again. Instead, I headed back to the train station – only just arriving in time for the last rapid express train for the night (though there’d be three more all-stops local trains, but not for a while).

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Arrived back at the hotel by about 11pm, quite exhausted, and quite ready for bed. And everyone else gets to do it all again tomorrow. It’s basically at this point that I suddenly realised I’d failed to visit about six things I’d wanted to do in Kawagoe – something for next time, I suppose.

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Today’s photo count: one thousand and six

Today’s step count: 26,625 steps – 18.6 kilometres – 13 flights of stairs. I felt like I walked the entire length of the festival area about six times.

Today’s goshuin count: Three – the double-page spread at Hikawa, then the two at Kumano.

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Today’s stamp count: Two – JR Kawagoe Station, and I also found a festival stamp outside one of the district team home bases. Thing is, it was sitting in a box labelled “stamp rally” with a bunch of other quite similar-looking stamps, so I slightly wonder if there was a stamp rally I was missing out on, or whether that was an box of old stamps from prior festivals. The particular stamp I got is dated 2000.

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