Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tokyo Snapshots (東京、チ~ズ)

Here are a few snapshots I took while wandering around Tokyo last week. I didn't take that many pictures for some reason. Still, there are always interesting things to see around the city if you just keep your eyes open.

The following pictures mostly come from a day-trip to Odaiba. I visited the "Miraikan" (lit. Future Building), but known in English as the, "National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation." It was a fun science center with various robots and interactive exhibits on display. It was also swamped with children on school trips.

Not pictured is me with a crazed look on my face, viciously feeding token after token into the fake gambling machines present in SEGA Joypolis.


Honda's famous robot ASIMO. This was as close as I got. Thanks to absolutely horrible planning on my part, I managed to miss both of his stage shows :(

This is the Geo-Cosmos Globe on display at the Miraikan. You can sit in big fluffy beanbag chairs and watch the world spin above you.

The globe could also change to display near real-time information on global weather patterns, ocean temperatures, etc.

These polar bears are crying because global warming is slowly melting all of their habitat.

Indeed. Let's stop them crying!

This is a prop from a Japanese athletics show that I have seen before, but have since forgot the name. In this event competitors must bounce off a trampoline and clear a jump over this horse (it gets taller as the difficulty level increases). If any part of their body comes into contact with the horse, they lose!

Some newly constructed rocket ship looking building I walked past in Shinjuku. So new, in fact, that they hadn't finished removing all the duct tape yet.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Uchiko (内子)

The small town of Uchiko is about 25 miles southwest of Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture. I took the train there as part of a relaxing day trip and enjoyed strolling around the hilly history-filled streets.

Uchiko is famous for its Kabuki Theatre (known as Uchiko-Za). The town also thrived as one of Japan's central producers of paper and wax during the Edo and Meiji periods. The remnants of the town's wax making past can be found in the lifelike wax figures that populate the city, as well as the souvenir candles that are on most "to-buy" lists.

Finally, Uchiko boasts wonderfully well preserved traditional Japanese residences (known as Machiya). Some of these homes are open to the public, but most remain closed and have been designated important national cultural properties.

Uchiko was a charming little day trip. I recommend a visit!


Built in 1916, the Uchiko Kabuki Theatre (Uchiko-Za) faced demolition due to its increasing decrepitude. However, the local theater-loving residents of Uchiko banded together and raised the money needed to restore the building to its original splendor. Now over 70,000 people visit the site a year.

Another shot showing off the entrance to Uchiko-Za. The intricately tiled roof is a special feature of this fully active, two-storied wooden entertainment hall.

This is the revolving stage, capable of turning a full 360 degrees.

As pictured, you could walk underneath the stage area and see all the secret passages. I totally felt like the Phantom of the Kabuki-za.

Why not take a break from all that boring history and look at some wax figures!? Uchiko is famous for wax after all. A popular souvenir from Uchiko are the smokeless candles, and there is a full wax museum as well.

This wax medicine man is ready to sell you all sorts of love potions, strength enhancing elixirs, and magic beans.

This cat was made of wax too.

This was a strange egg / vinegar concoction I drank. It was supposed to be good for one's health. "Not as bad as I had anticipated" was my immediate feeling after drinking.

For those who don't want to live in an actual houseboat. Why not simply remodel your house to look like a boat?

Who needs a stupid gnome? I want a Godzilla for my garden!

OK...enough fun pictures, back to learning! To this day, Uchiko contains many splendid examples of traditional Japanese homes (known as Machiya in Japanese). Pictured here is the Takahashi Residence Machiya. This home was open the the public and contained various exhibits about the owner, Ryutaro Takahashi. Since he was the president of the Dai Nippon Beer Company, many old beer bottles and advertisements were on display throughout the residence.

This is the Honhaga Residence Machiya. Honhaga was the town's first and foremost wax producing family. They visited the 1900 World Expo in Paris and put Uchiko wax on the international map.

One more fine example of traditional Japanese architecture in action. This is the Omura Residence. One of Uchiko's oldest buildings, this structure dates back to the Edo Period.

This is the Nehan-zo Statue (Reclining Buddha) of Koshoji Temple, Uchiko. Evidently, this is the largest stone reclining Buddha in Japan. When I am mayor of a Japanese city, I am going to erect the largest clay statue of Buddha beating out Michael Phelps in the 100 M butterfly.

I wish I could get as peaceful of a night's sleep as Buddha here. Perhaps if the local train didn't shock me awake every morning at 6 AM!

Maximum relaxation pose.

Decode these secret markings and find your way to Buddha's buried treasure.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tsubaki Matsuri (椿まつり)

Hello Everyone!

I just returned from a week-long trip to Tokyo. Sorry for the lack of blog posts during my absence!

This update features some pictures I took at Tsubaki Festival three weeks ago. Tsubaki Matsuri is held annually over a three-day period at (where else?) Tsubaki Shrine here in Matsuyama. I was told by a Japanese friend that it is the largest festival in these parts.

I believe the festival is somehow meant to usher in the beginning of spring, though I can say that it is still cold and rainy here in Ehime. I was also told that the female goddess of Tsubaki Shrine is very jealous and that she will notoriously break up happy young couples if they visit the shrine together. Thus, one better leave their significant other at home.

The best part of the festival for me was the absolutely ridiculous procession of food stalls that stretched on for blocks leading up to the shrine gate. I walked there but I waddled my way back, having stuffed my face with too many snacks along the way. I think my total intake was the following:

Tokyo Cake
Sweet Potato Fries
Takoyaki (octopus balls)
Hashiyaki (weird savory crepe thingy wrapped around chopsticks)

Sadly, my favorite drinkable, Ramune Soda, was absent from the festivities. Upon complaining about this to a group of Japanese students, I was politely informed that Ramune is considered a summer festival item.

Enjoy the pictures below!


The entrance to Tsubaki Shrine in Matsuyama.

My artistic shot of all the unwanted omikuji (fortune) slips tied throughout the temple grounds. Even the colors are festive for spring.

Many wooden prayer plaques (known as "Ema" in Japanese). These days, you often find prayers written in many different languages, as foreigners also enjoy participating in this tradition.

I happen to like this picture. Despite the crummy lighting, I think it is neat how the Japanese flag is the only thing illuminated in the shot. No special effects were used!

Just to show how many people were waiting in line for their chance to pray.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I completely forgot about these pictures. I'm afraid that they are now several weeks outdated. Nevertheless, they stand as proof that snow actually DID fall here in To-on City, Ehime Prefecture. I've been told that it doesn't snow much in these parts - usually just tiny flakes that melt when they hit the ground - so I was especially surprised to wake up to a fresh blanket of snow.

Unfortunately, the white stuff melted all too quickly, making snowman construction impossible.


Snow finds its way to To-on City...and STICKS!

I guess this could be considered my snow covered front lawn.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Beppuuuuu! (別府)

I closed my trip to Kyushu with a visit to the bathing resort town of Beppu.

Far and away the best thing about this hot spring heaven was the recorded voice at the train station. All of the stations I have been to in Japan have a boring old recording that plays something like, "Tokyo - Tokyo desu. Tokyo - Tokyo desu" upon arrival. Beppu Station, on the other hand, has an incredibly comic recording where the female voice goes, "Beppuuuuu! Beppuuuuu!" as your train doors open. The exaggerated "uuuuu" sound made me chuckle every time.

Unfortunately, that was probably the highlight of my time in Beppu.

I would not describe Beppu as an attractive city. In fact, it is fairly rundown and dingy looking on the outside. But, that need not dissuade people from visiting, since most of one's time will likely be spent submerged in a pool of hot water.

Beppu has two main types of baths - those that are for looking and those that are for soaking. The looking variety are called the "Jigoku" or Hells. The Hells were once natural hot springs, but they have been so elaborately decorated that they now resemble miniature amusement parks. For me, they were the biggest tourist trap I have visited in Japan thus far.

On the other side of the spectrum are the onsen / hot springs meant for bathing. Beppu boasts over 100 different bathing establishments. These run the gamut from large modern buildings with multiple pools, to small, family-run operations.

My most memorable "small" onsen experience was at a place that didn't even provide any wooden stools to sit on while cleaning yourself. I had to sit on the tile floor in front of a spigot and try awkwardly to clean those parts of my body not in direct contact with the floor. This proved more difficult than expected, considering that I had to share the spigot with an obese naked Japanese man, whose distended stomach severely encroached on my cleaning area.

In Beppu, I learned that I am a two baths a day person. After two baths, I find that my body is both sufficiently clean and relaxed, not to mention the fact that my skin has already started to become the consistency of stewed tomatoes. However, with literally nothing else to do in Beppu but soak, I was taking upwards of four baths a day. Hardcore tub fanatics shuttle themselves from place to place in rental cars and are said to visit over six different baths per day. I'll leave that type of marathon bathing to the pros.

There are a number of exotic baths in Beppu as well. When faced with the decision of entering either the volcanic mud bath or the steaming hot sand bath, I chose the mud.

My entrance into the mud bath was a dramatic one. Having just stripped off all of my clothes and completed my preliminary rinsing, I walked up to the edge of the pool. As expected, the volcanic mud was thick and gray. Actually, it looked less like the brown mud puddles of my youth and more like the gray modeler's clay I remember fooling around with in elementary school art class.

I put one foot into the pool. As I put my weight on the leg now submerged in gray sludge, I found that I had in fact missed the stone entry staircase completely. I immediately fell forward and plunged spread eagle, face first into the volcanic mud. My knees rammed into the bottom of the shallow pool. In keeping with the mud theme, they had decided to line the bottom of the pool with dirt and loose rocks.

Thus, upon pulling myself out of the muck, my face, hair, and dignity covering white washcloth were all thoroughly soaked in mud, dirt and gravel bits. Moaning like a bear shot with a tranquilizer dart, I limped towards the edge of the pool, stubbing my big toe on the actual location of the staircase.

Once I rubbed the mud out of my eyes, I saw that the 10 Japanese bathers in the pool were all staring at me with fixed eyes. Everyone was completely silent. No one said a word. Not even a courtesy, "Are you OK?" Nothing. I trudged out of the pool in silence, mud dripping off my naked, broken body.

Despite keeping quiet, I'm sure all of those Japanese people went home that night and told their families about the amazing thing they witnessed at the mud bath.

After cleaning myself up, I reentered the mud. This time I was much more successful.


I actually thought this was genuinely nifty. Right outside Beppu Station is this little volcano receptacle spewing hot mineral water. You are invited to soak your hands in it.

This is the first stop on Beppu's famous "Jigoku Meguri" or Hells Tour. Each Hell is a natural hot spring decked out to function as a mini amusement park. You pay 500 Yen so you can take pictures of the various pools of boiling water.

This is Hell 1/8: Umi (Sea). The cobalt blue water is supposed to remind one of the sea

Some scenery from the Hell. Everything about these tourist traps felt one hundred percent manufactured and artificial. I recommend visiting Aso-san if you are interested in viewing a real caldera.

These steaming rocks can mean only one thing - it's time for Hell 2/8: Oniishi Bozu (Oniishi Shaven Head). The name comes from the fact that the hot gray mud bubbles in this spring are said to look like the shaven heads (bozu) of monks.

The famous bubbling gray mud that puts this Hell on the map. This is also the very same mud that I plummeted into face first in front of a dozen stoic Japanese bathers.

My artistic shot of the mud ripples.

Rorschach inkblot test #1 - What do you see?*

*I see the Tim Burton version of The Penguin from Batman Returns rising out of the mud; his eyes and nose are visible.

Time for Rorschach test #2 - What do you see?**

**I see a humanoid fish creature rising out of the mud; Its big open mouth gasping for air.

Presenting Hell 6/8: Shiroike (White Pond). It is called such because the water that spouts from the ground mysteriously turns a creamy white color reminiscent of Calpis. You'll notice that I skipped Hells 3-5. This was intentional. I chose not to support those hells that had animals caged up in miserable conditions.

Maybe I'm an old stick in the mud, but I just don't see what is all that amazing about these Hells.

This is Hell 7/8: Chinoike (Pond of Blood!). I nicknamed this one the "Bloody Mary," due to the fact that the trees hold an uncanny resemblance to celery stocks. The spring is filled with clay which gets super heated, turning the water and steam red. They also sell red clay ointment which is said to cure a variety of skin diseases. I didn't buy any - the 500 Yen admission was ripoff enough!

A closeup of the POND OF BLOOD! (duh, duh, duuuuuuh!)

A mass of people (including yours truly) all waiting to see Hell 8/8: Tatsumaki. Tatsumaki can either conveniently be translated to mean geyser or dragon roll (if you're in an American sushi bar that is :). The geyser spouts every thirty minutes or so.

Thar she blows!!!

A giant Aloe Vera plant I spotted while walking around the hills behind downtown Beppu.

This is an individual / small family bathing hut I saw while exploring the town. It was part of a larger onsen complex and was available for rent.

When you climb up the winding hills behind Beppu, you get an excellent view of the city. I love all of the white steam plumes in the picture. Each one marks the location of an onsen.

MORE PLUMES!!! These shots reminded me of the soot spewing chimneys from Mary Poppins.

I close with a picture of Beppu's creepy mascot. This is "Pika Pika no Ojisan." The exact English caption on the statue reads: "The man called 'Shiny Uncle' who loved children." One should be sure to notice the naked Oni (demon) baby clinging onto his cape. WOW!