Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Iya Valley (祖谷渓谷)

Nestled in the heart of Tokushima Prefecture is Iya. Because the Japanese seem to have a national obsession with ranking things, it is known as one of Japan's three "hidden valleys".

Like many foreigners, my interest in visiting Iya came from reading the book Lost Japan by American Alex Kerr. In it, the author recounts his years spent living in this secluded, almost Narnia-esque fantasy land, devoid of modernity.

It's an interesting read, and although I strongly disagreed with around two thirds of what was written, I must admit that his idyllic descriptions of this area peaked my interest.

Reaching and traveling around Iya Valley is a bit difficult, requiring a three hour train ride from Tokushima Station and multiple buses, if you want to see the main sights without a rental car. Learning my lesson from the infrequent island buses of Yakushima, I thoroughly researched the timetable this time, and made sure to coordinate how to get to and from all the places I wanted to visit.

Though now well over ten years ago, even when writing his book, Alex Kerr had already begun to see the changing landscape of Iya due to an influx of tourism. I chatted with a Japanese woman while sipping a yuzu tea sample inside the absolutely mammoth tourist center built near the famous vine bridge. She had last visited Iya some twenty years ago and noted the stark contrast in development.

Indeed, the more accessible west half of Iya Valley is now developed (I must use this term lightly). There is a first-rate onsen, multiple restaurants, a handful of souvenir shops, and the aforementioned gigantic tourist facility. While it didn't feel significantly more modernized than Yakushima, I can understand the debate over whether ever increasing tourism is a good thing or a bad thing for this traditional region.

I enjoyed my trip to Iya very much. The area of course offers some splendid natural views and unique attractions. Though, for me, I must say that I felt significantly more connected to nature during my climb up Ishizuchi Mountain. Even my walks by the local river are a more relaxing experience than bathing with a gaggle of tourists.

I guess in that sense, perhaps one doesn't need to travel to an official "hidden valley" to experience the best of what Japanese nature has to offer.


The Iya Valley is one of Japan's three "hidden valleys". It is renowned for its breathtaking, undisturbed(?) nature views.

My first stop was Iya Onsen, and its peaceful outdoor bath. The lukewarm bathwater was almost a milky white color.

The outdoor bath is located 170 meters below the main onsen building, near the naturally flowing river. Guests must ride this strange, vertical cable car down to the bath. The cable car travels along a 45 degree incline, so I naturally felt it should plunge straight to the bottom without breaks, creating the ultimate bathing thrill ride.

A view of the river taken from near the rotenburo (outdoor bath). Watching the beautiful natural scenery while bathing was particularly memorable.

My lunch at the onsen. Iya is famous for its soba noodles and salt grilled fresh water fish. This particular fish is an "amego," caught from the local rivers. Also popular is the "ayu," which is similar in size and appearance. Both fish are sweet and incredibly delicate, so you can eat the bones, tail, fins, and head. Absolutely delicious. I could eat river fish all day long!

A short walk from the onsen is the famous "Shoben Kozo" or "Peeing Boy of Iya." This little tyke bravely stands on a cliff and pisses into the wind to prove his manliness. This is meant to encourage us all to have bravery and strength in our own lives. That, or find more adventurous ways to pee.

Iya's best known attraction is its Kazura Bashi (vine bridge). This used to be the only way to cross the river in these parts. Another plus was that the bridge could be easily cut down to stop pursuing invaders.

There are actually several bridges throughout the valley. This is the most famous (and likewise most touristy) bridge, located in West Iya. 500 Yen entitles you to a one-way trip across the wobbly, perilous structure.

Waiting my turn to cross the Kazura Bashi. As you can see from the picture, there were a huge number of tourists present. We crossed in two parallel, single file lines.

Who thought a vine bridge would have so much vine?


What's this I spy...a steel cable? Clever girl! Actually, the entire structure has been retrofitted with steel. It has been this way ever since the destination became a popular tourist attraction. Despite looking precarious, the bridge is 100% safe.

"X" marks the spot for adventure this bridge crossing season.

A section of the bridge for your viewing pleasure. Honestly, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was on a set piece from Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean (the movie series, not the ride!).

The thin rungs and visible "watery death area" below do make for a slightly adventurous crossing. I felt perfectly safe, but many fellow tourists were screaming in fright.

I managed to make it across without plunging to my death! My reward? Another salty grilled Ayu Fish...YUM!

Here is the 50 meter tall "Biwa no Taki" waterfall near the Kazura Bashi. A biwa is a Japanese lute. Though there were differing opinions among my students, it seems that the waterfall is named such because, in the olden days, spectators used to sit by it and play biwa music.

Water that goes up...must come down.

One final shot of pristine Shikoku nature as we say goodbye to Iya Valley.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Naruto Whirlpools (鳴門の渦潮)

I include this stock internet photo so that you can experience what I did not - the elusive Naruto Whirlpools.

Located about one hour from Tokushima by bus, Naruto is a sparsely developed, sleepy little city whose sole claim to fame is its whirlpool system located in the Naruto Strait.

My tourist pamphlet said that, at their peak intensity, the whirlpools can reach a speed of 20 km per hour and some have a diameter of 20 meters. Needless to say, during my sightseeing boat ride, I would have been lucky to see a swirl one meter in diameter.

As I learned, whirlpool visibility is heavily influenced by the daily tidal cycle. Thus, there are recommended time windows during which one should view the pools (usually one hour before / after high and low tide). I made sure to get on the boat during my day's optimum viewing time.

Unfortunately, beyond just the simple ebb and flow of the tide, the whirlpools seem to only start whirling at their pamphlet cover level intensity during either a new moon or a full moon.

All of this basically means that one needs a doctorate in earth systems in order to plan a successful Naruto Whirlpool viewing.

The tour guides are nice enough to warn you about a "weak day" as you buy your tickets and climb on board. "Weak" is being a bit generous. I was unable to make out anything that resembled a whirlpool.

Still, I enjoyed the boat ride...and the fact that if you turn a faucet in Naruto, you can drink Pocari Sweat!


Here is the sightseeing boat I rode to view the Naruto "Whirlpools." It was called the Aqua Eddy and sat around 25 passengers. A larger ferry style boat was running tours as well.

The boat had those little underwater viewing windows that you could peer through to see fish and other aquatic beings. Straining to see the smallest semblance of a whirlpool through the fuzzy glass made me feel quite queasy, so I quickly went above deck.

Speeding towards the nonexistent whirlpools. We made the run in less than twelve parsecs.

On the plus side, I did get to snap some nice pictures of the imposing Ohnaruto Bridge. When viewing the whirlpools, tourists can either opt to ride a sightseeing boat (as I did), or walk across a special glass-floored section of the bridge and view the swirls from above. With a main span of 876 meters, this currently ranks as the 28th longest suspension bridge in the world.

Just in case you were wondering, the current longest suspension in the world is also located in Japan. It is called the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge and its main span is 1,991 meters long.

Both bridges are part of the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Project, which links the two islands together by way of the Seto Inland Sea.

There's a whirlpool somewhere out here...I just know it!

Naruto is home to one of the three national headquarters for Otsuka Pharmaceutical, the makers of Pocari Sweat. I wasn't able to snap a picture of the factory in time as we passed by on the bus, so you'll have to settle for this tricked out bench instead.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tokushima City (徳島市)

Hi all,

I just returned from a short three-day weekend vacation in Tokushima Prefecture (known as Awa during ancient times). Tokushima takes up the southeastern chunk of the island of Shikoku, and is about 2.5 hours away from Matsuyama by highway bus.

Below are pictures from the city itself. Future blog posts will feature pictures and stories from my various day trips outside the city. Downtown Tokushima is actually quite small and can be easily traversed on foot.

The city's main tourist spot is the 280 meter Mount Bizan, whose summit offers an impressive panoramic view of the surrounding city. Another popular stop is the Awa Odori Hall, which educates visitors about the city's famous summertime dance festival.

In general, travelers may initially feel a bit underwhelmed by Tokushima's city center and its relative lack of exciting things to do. Luckily, the prefecture boasts some great day trips and has an abundance of natural scenery to experience as well.

Enjoy the pictures below!


Sudachi-kun welcomes you to Tokushima City, the capital of Tokushima Prefecture!

A local specialty of this area, the "sudachi" is a small green lime-like citrus fruit similar in size and taste to yuzu.

Clever building decoration at a drugstore in downtown Tokushima.

I thought junkie usually leaves unwanted baby in dumpster.

Sure, you may have seen a swan swimming in the castle moat before...but have you seen the swan's penthouse? I wonder if the other bird is brown?

As seems to be the case everywhere in Japan, Tokushima City is famous for its regional ramen variety. Tokushima Ramen is characterized by a dark brown soy sauce / pork bone base and incredibly thin noodles. Traditional toppings include ribbons of seasoned pork and a raw egg. This particular ramen shop was absolutely delicious.

Tokushima's crown jewel is its annual Awa Odori (literally Awa Dance) Festival held every August. The festival attracts some 1.3 million tourists from around Japan and abroad. The centrally located Awa Odori Hall offers visitors the chance to watch a short dance performance anytime throughout the year.

Awa Odori has a history dating back over 400 years. This picture shows the three main "generations" of dance. The middle pair is the ancient style. The right hand pair is semi-modern. The left hand pair (with the vertical hats) are the modern dancers. While the choreography has stayed largely the same with each passing generation, the overall speed and intensity of the dance has increased tenfold.

A shot of the dancers in action. Awa Odori's rhythm is a simple duple meter (2/2). Dancers alternate right foot - left foot - right foot - left foot. With each step, they flutter the corresponding hand in the air.

"We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance."

Mount Bizan (280 m) is a small mountain located in the middle of the city. A rope way car whisks tourists up to the peak in about five minutes. Bizan's claim to fame is its impressive panoramic view of the city.

Pictured here is Tokushima City during the day...

...and at sunset...

...and at night.

Since the rope way stopped running at 5:30 PM, I had to take the 30 minute hike down to the base of Bizan. Hiking down the side of a mountain in the near dark, with only the light of your cellphone to illuminate the path, is not something I would recommend.

The peak is adorned with several tourist facilities. Pictured here is the Burmese pagoda. This structure is dedicated to those who died in Burma during WWII.

There was a shrine atop Mt. Bizan as well. This mountain is home to some 1500 cherry blossom trees and is a popular site for flower viewing. Unfortunately, the flowers were not in full bloom during my visit.

This pagoda was a gift from the city of Saginaw, Michigan, Tokushima's sister city in the United States.

I also found this statue of Sean Connery with his trusty dog Tsuyu.

And finally, a shot of the setting sun over Tokushima City.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Stupid Stories of a Short Nature (バカ話)

#1) I went to McDonald's the other day and ordered some French fries. Per usual, I asked for two little ketchup packets, because in Japan they won't give you any ketchup unless you specifically as for it. I was seated at the table and the lady brought them to me with the fries.

About six minutes later she came back to me and said, "It's actually our policy to only give customers one ketchup packet. Don't worry, I'm not going to take the other one away from you. But, I'm going to have to ask you to keep this a secret. Just between us!"

I told her the secret was safe with me.

#2) I (and the many other passengers in my train car) may have witnessed a strange old Japanese man masturbating while en route to Matsuyama City. To be fair, it wasn't clear exactly what he was doing, as his hands were crammed in the pockets of his big overcoat.

Needless to say, our mostly quiet and serene train car atmosphere was suddenly punctuated by his crescendoing pleasure cries. Most of the people seated around me immediately burst out laughing. This scene happened not once, but TWICE before he got off the train. Got to hand it to the old guy.

While I'm all for jerking off on public transportation, I have to draw the line at one ejaculation.

#3) I was walking past a Shinto shrine in Matsuyama this afternoon when I witnessed the following. A middle-aged Japanese woman abruptly stopped her car in the middle of a busy intersection, thus hindering the flow of traffic.

Once her vehicle was satisfactorily lined up with the shrine's torii gate, she clasped her hands together, bowed her head towards the steering wheel, and began to pray. She was stopped just long enough for the irritated motorists behind her to begin honking.

Watching her, I thought of the most brilliant idea...A DRIVE-THRU SHRINE!!! Motorists deposit their money at the first window and then pull up to the second window to pray!


Monday, March 09, 2009

Flower Power (生花)

Ikebana is a window to the soul.

If these words printed on the cover of the English pamphlet are to be believed, then my soul is overcrowded and hastily thrown together. A soul desperately longing to be complexly pondered, but secretly knowing that it lacks the form and composition necessary to be regarded as anything other than a child's "art project."

The phrase "space alien like" was used by one of the elderly female spectators to describe my masterwork. Perhaps my soul most closely resembles that of a space alien.

Ikebana is the disciplined traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. Moreover simply throwing flowers in a vase, ikebana is the precise and deliberate placement of branches, flowers, leaves, and blooms to create symbolism and evoke an emotional response from the viewer. Arrangements are exercises in minimalist composition, with particular attention being paid to shape, line, and form.

At least this was true of all the master works on display in the 7th floor exhibition hall at Takashimaya Department Store. The same cannot be said for my foray into the flower arranging world.

My friend Cara and I sat down at the hands-on table, clearly intended for children half our age. After what seemed like an hour of assorted shuffling and nervous glances from the man and woman running the craft area, I verbally reassured them that we could speak Japanese.

With both of the volunteers releasing a huge sigh of relief, the floodgates were now open, and various sprigs, twigs, leaves, and flowers instantly appeared by my side. I hadn't intended for the afternoon's friendly flower activity to suddenly become Iron Chef: Battle Flora, but, in retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable.

Team "MAN" was comprised of myself and the stoic male craft volunteer, who spoke his suggestions which such passivity that I could only assume he had long since achieved personal enlightenment through ikebana. Staring at my recently moistened dark green frog with no clue where to begin, I stuck a single yellow daisy in the center, and, happy with my minimalism, turned to the volunteer and proclaimed with a huge smile, "I've done it!"

His hand began nudging the damp mass of twigs and leaves closer to me. I guess I wasn't done quite yet. As if bound by some cosmic law of art non-intervention, my sensei would select each piece of material for me, for instance a whimsical fern frond or stately carnation, but provide absolutely no guidance as to what to do with it.

Twisting the foliage around with all the precision of a child playing with his first Spirograph, I did my best to shoot the appropriate pathetic puppy dog eyes to my master. Each time I was greeted with a cool and calm,

"Yes...that is one possible option."

Meanwhile, team "WOMAN" had long since inserted several flowers into their frog, and seemed to be feeding off of each other's creative ideas and enthusiasm. Something about Cara's placement of a particularly tall daisy, with two branches to the side resembling arms, seemed to represent, "the essence of konnichiwa." At least this was the consensus from the elderly women running the play-by-play commentary behind us.

Indeed, taking a moment to look up from my flowers, it became clear that everyone in the entire exhibition hall, staff and visitor alike, had gathered around the small craft table to watch us. Something about the sight of two foreigners trying their hand at ikebana proved more captivating than the works of the grand masters on display. Heck, I think we even gave Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade a run for its money.

It wasn't long before the cameras came out. Flashes began erupting around me from all directions and I was temporarily blinded. I can't help but feel that the active expression of my soul through flowers was somehow damaged in the process.

I brought my creation to a close soon after the photo shoot, having more than adequately suffocated my original daisy with so many contrasting plant elements. Team "WOMAN" was the clear winner of Battle Flora. Their arrangement actually resembled something that could be considered ikebana. I can't say that I received many compliments while proudly displaying my Franken-flowers.

At this very moment, somewhere in Ehime Prefecture a group of art lovers and well-to-dos are planning next year's ikebana exhibition. I would not be the slightest bit surprised if photos of Cara and I serve as a central element in their advertising campaign.

I'm envisioning a two-page spread in the local paper with the headline, "Flowers promote cross-cultural understanding."


Another shot of my flower arrangement. This picture was inspired by the movie Pleasantville.

Friday, March 06, 2009

My special can of Ultraman cider (Dragon Ball figure sold separately).  The can design is based on Ultraman's original costume from 1966.  After I drank the soda I grew to gigantic proportions and began shooting specium rays from my arms.    

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Sea of Japan (日本海)

Below are pictures from my winter vacation trip along the Sea of Japan (Nihon Kai) with my friend and fellow English lecturer Cara. We began in northern Kyoto Prefecture and traveled southward through Tottori and Izumo, before ending up at our final destination of Hagi.

The weather was bitterly cold and snowy throughout most of the trip, but it was still an incredibly fun and memorable journey. Of particular note is the local train route which, while slow, runs along the coast and offers some breathtaking views.



This giant Tengu is found at Mount Kurama in northwestern Kyoto. Mt. Kurama was the first stop on my travels along the Sea of Japan.

Pinocchio is jealous.

The Nio-mon Gate marks the entrance to Kurama Temple.

Japanese nature shot.