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Tenjin Matsuri 2010

July 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Only one week remains until Osaka’s biggest festival, the Tenjin Matsuri. Millions attend this epic event, known as one of the three great festivals of Japan, and also as the greatest boat festival in the world. It reflects Osaka’s mercantile, canal-centric history as Japan’s “city of water.” The Tenjin Matsuri’s history reaches back 1,000 years, and is dedicated to Sugawara-no-Michizane, who is enshrined and worshipped as the Tenman Tenjin, the god of learning and the arts. Needless to say, it is an important time for Osakans, and is a huge part of Osakan culture.

Along with a tremendous fireworks display, over 100 boats and 3,000 people take part in the festival, and spectators from around Japan and all corners of the world flock to Osaka, clad in yukata and geta for a summer experience they will never forget. The festival technically takes place throughout the month, but the main events are on July 24 and 25. It starts at the Tenmangu Shrine (link to Japanese-only site), and proceeds first by land through the streets and then by water down the Okawa River. Bunraku performances and other events take part throughout Osaka, and of course there are plenty of food stalls and alcoholic beverages for sale along the riverbanks. The boats going down the river is the highlight of the event, with hypnotic rhythms throwing people into a dancing frenzy as the decorated, lit-up vessels cruise down the river and circle the bonfire blazing atop the water’s surface.

Once again, that’s July 24 and 25, 2010. For more information, as well as footage and shots of this spectacular event, check out at Osaka-Info’s website.

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Hikari Renaissance Holiday Light Displays

December 13, 2009 3 comments

The winter holiday season is here, and Osaka’s Hikari Renaissance light displays and events have begun! Christmas season is a time for romance in Japan, so this is the perfect chance to take someone special out for a walk by the river and the grand old buildings of Nakanoshima. It can also be fun for expats who miss the holiday cheer of home.

Aside from the lights, there is a large Christmas tree on display, choirs singing, and a musical performance with amazing visuals projected on the wall of the Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library (don’t miss this!). The Osaka University of Arts’ musical groups will also put on a pop music concert. And numerous open-air food stalls are set up on the east end of Nakanoshima Park and at various spots along the riverbank. Finally, there are numerous limited-time, breathtaking river cruises operating at night in illuminated boats around Nakanoshima and other parts of town.

The lights can be seen every night from 5:00 to 10:00 PM, from December 1st through 25th (although the main events are from December 12th). Most of the lights and shows are located near city hall and Kokaido, as well as throughout Nakanoshima Park. The best way to get here  is via subway or Keihan rail lines: get off the train at Yodoyabashi, Kitahama, Naniwabashi or Oebashi Station. The display on western Nakanoshima is most easily reached from Nakanoshima Station (Keihan Nakanoshima Line). If you happen to be near the aquarium (Osakako Station on the Chuo Subway Line), or in Chayamachi (near Hankyu Umeda Station), stop by and check out the lights there also.

Visit Hikari Renaissance’s English-language site for details, river cruise times, and maps.

Aqua Bus Tours

October 21, 2009 3 comments
Aqualiner sightseeing boat passing under Tenmabashi Bridge

Aqualiner sightseeing boat passing under Tenmabashi Bridge

Run by the Keihan Group, this sightseeing boat company operates various cruises around the city of Osaka, long known as “the City of Water” due to the historical and importance of canals and rivers in the city. In fact, during the Edo Period (1600-1868), when Osaka was the economic center of Japan, storehouses of the powerful domain lords were in Osaka, as was the futures trading market, and the best way to get between the market and the storehouses (as well as just get around town) was by using the city’s network of canals. Seeing Osaka from the water is one of the ways to truly understand that character of the city, and because cruises feature refreshments for sale and explanations of passing scenery, residents and tourists can also have fun. Furthermore, cruises can be easily integrated into a city-center sightseeing itinerary, as the river routes connect some of the most popular spots in Osaka.
There are a variety of tours available. The Aqualiner services operate quite frequently every day, and they provide river sightseeing cruises that make stops at Osaka Castle, Tenmabashi, Yodoyabashi, and OAP (Osaka Amenity Park). Aqua Mini services cut north-to-south through the narrow Yokohorigawa River canal connecting the Okawa and Dotombori Rivers, and stop at Osaka Castle, Dazaemonbashi (in the center of the Dotombori entertainment district), and Minatomachi (a port near OCAT in Minami). The Himawari service is a restaurant ship that departs from OAP and goes along the Okawa River. The Santa Maria is a replica of the ship of the same name, and it provides sightseeing cruises around Osaka Bay, departing from Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. The company also offers charted cruises and special event cruises.
While the Santa Maria and Aqua Bus tours operate every day, other tours may not. Please check the official website for departure times, days of operation, prices, and other details. Tickets can be purchased at the ticket offices at any of the ports.

A Journey Around Lake Biwa: Part 3

October 17, 2009 6 comments
Sunset near Makino over Lake Biwa

Sunset near Makino over Lake Biwa

Makino was the turning point in my journey, the non-climactic climax of my loop around Lake Biwa. The pedals moved smoothly on the bike I had borrowed from the hotel, and I glided effortlessly down the narrow lakeshore road, dodging cars and pedestrians on a lane too narrow for either. I passed ancient wooden gates protecting majestic temples, mixed in with old wooden houses belonging to anglers, farmers, and wealthy individuals lucky enough to have summer homes. There were bright green paddy fields and dull gray boat ramps, small shrines and old tea shops. There were also staring eyes, especially when I stopped to take a picture of something that seemed perfectly normal to local residents, such as a beautiful field or the sunset dipping over the lake.

Why was Makino a climax, a turning point in my journey? Well, in the physical sense, it was the halfway point of the loop I was taking around the lake, and the point from which I started heading back toward Osaka rather than away from it. It was the place where I experienced my first and only disappointing hotel of the trip. It was also the least urban, most rural place I had been so far. But more than that, it was the people who were different: the scenery of Makino was friendly, but unfortunately, the people were not. This was a different Shiga than I was used to.

Riding my bike through Makino was a good experience

Riding my bike through Makino

Speaking of the hotel–I won’t mention the name out of courtesy–it was a giant disappointment. This was the only luxury hotel I was to stay in, right on the lakeshore and at twice the cost of the other business hotels I had stayed in thus far. However, its location was bad (15 minutes walk from the station through the middle of nothing with no pickup service, which is unheard of in Japan); its carpets were stained everywhere; its bathroom had random hairs stuck all over it; the swimming pool was much smaller than its picture made it look, filled with dirt and spots, and not open for use once the whole time I was there; the “private beach” smelled like garbage and dead fish; the “bar” and “restaurant” were identically plain (cheap folding chairs and cheap plastic tables in front of a large window looking out at said smelly beach); the staff were unfriendly, unhelpful, and uninterested; and my view was of a pile of concrete slabs, pipes, and tools strewn about.

But I was thankful for the bikes.

Because of delays arriving to Makino I had to change my schedule around a bit, but after checking out from my hotel (good riddance) and trudging back to the station, I was on the train for Katata. After calling the Katata tourist information center and conforming that there were in fact lockers at the station, of course. I felt a tinge of sadness as I rode the nearly empty train southward, near the west shore of the lake. Tomorrow I would be heading back to Osaka. While my feet hurt and the prospect of my own bed seemed nice, the idea of my vacation ending and “real life” starting again made me a little blue. On the other hand, I was looking forward to the day’s sites and also to a scalding hot spring bath that night.

Ukimido (Mangetsuji) in Katata

Ukimido (Mangetsuji) in Katata

The first thing I noticed about Katata was the people were different from those of northern Shiga. They were much more friendly. The bus driver really helped me out, stopping the bus as the stop where I got off and coming down to the street to point the way to the place I was looking for. He was a really friendly guy overall, and without him I would have been lost in Katata. The main site I visited was Ukimido (can be translated to something like “floating Buddha hall”), which is a structure that is built on stilts out in the middle of the water, and is part of Mangetsuji Temple. The structure was built by a monk from Enryakuji Temple (a temple on Mt. Hiei) about 1000 years ago, and the current structure is from 1937. It is probably the most celebrated spot in Katata, and it’s easy to understand why–it floats perfectly on the surface of the lake, surrounded by beautiful pine trees, providing a truly calming sight that brings one’s thoughts to things spiritual. I also dropped in at nearby Honpukuji Temple and walked around the surrounding neighborhoods, which were charming.

Pagoda atop jagged rocks at Ishiyama-dera

Pagoda atop giant rocks at Ishiyama-dera

My next destination was Ishiyama-dera, one of the most famous temples in the Otsu areas. I took the train to Yamashina and from there rode the Keihan line through the mountains and along its steep, winding course into Otsu, where I transferred for another local line that led me to the bottom of a hill near Ishiyama-dera. This is one of the temples of the Saigoku Piligrimage route, buried in a forest on the side of a steep, craggy hill. The gurgling of water over moss-covered rocks, quiet stillness of the forest, and chirping of birds complemented old buildings that seemed as if they had been there since the beginning of time. A truly magical and mysterious aura floated through the grounds of Ishiyama-dera, one that transported me as a visitor to another world until I reached the top of the hill, looked out over the city, and remembered that Iwas, in fact, in modern Japan. There are buildings here that are more than 800 years old, and one of the rooms there was used by Lady Murasaki when she was writing The Tale of Genji. As I was sitting on a bench near the summit, a couple of people came over and talked to me, and two older ladies even asked to have their picture taken with me. One of them was from Osaka, the other from Okinawa, and the latter said she was planning to visit the American west coast later that year.

This strange crest appeared on lanterns all throughout Ishiyama-dera
This strange crest appeared on lanterns all throughout Ishiyama-dera

After I took the long way around the vast temple grounds, I finally made it back to the entrance and caught a bus back to a Keihan Line station, continuing from there back to Yamashina where my luggage was stored. I spotted a Starbucks near the station, something I had not seen for days, and decided it was time for a cup. After resting there and reading my book for a while (I was currently reading Itoyama Akiko‘s Fukurokoji no Otoko), I headed back to the station, only to have yet another lady I didn’t know come up and talk to me. Apparently she talked to me without taking a good look at my face first, because partway through she stopped when she realized I was a foreigner, assuming I wouldn’t understand. I assured her in Japanese I had no trouble speaking the language, and we actually stood there and talked for about an hour in front of the train station ticket machines. She was apparently studying English, but she was glad to talk for the first time to a foreigner in Japanese (beyond the level of “konnichiwa,” “I’m 26 years old” or “where’s the bathroom?”), something that is rare in Japan. It turned out she was a Jehovah’s Witness, and I politely declined her offer to come to her church, she was one of the most interesting people I encountered during my trip.

That night I stayed at Ogoto Onsen in a nice hotel with indoor and outdoor hot spring baths built in. In contrast to my last hotel, the staff were waiting with a bus when I arrived, and we followed winding, woody road up to the top of a hill where the hotel was located. The staff were courteous, and the baths felt wonderful after four straight days of traveling and walking through mountains and towns. It was at this hotel that I met the dreaded “slipper obaasan” (“slipper granny”),as I have decided to name her. What is the slipper obaasan? Well, she is an old lady who wears a yukata and works in the hot spring public bath section of the hotel, and her job is apparently to make sure people wear their hotel slippers when they walk down the corridor leading to the bath. During check-in, they had mentioned that I needed to wear the hotel slippers when going to the bath, but when I got to the room, I found that the slippers were about 2-3 inches shorter than my foot. I called the front desk, but they had no other size. Nice. In the end, I put on the yukata and walked to the bath sans slippers, only to encounter the slipper obaasan along the way. When she saw that I didn’t have my slippers, she flashed the giant X-shaped dame sign with her arms and started freaking out at me–I kind of thought she was going to rip my head off. With impeccable timing, the young girl from reception saw us and intervened, saying I could go for now and she would find a pair of soft room slippers for me to use and put them outside the bath. When I had finished bathing and was in the changing area, still not clothed, the slipper obaasan walked nonchalantly into the room full of naked men, stood in front of me, and told me my slippers were waiting–I think she had been worrying terribly about this, which I suppose was her job. She even stood outside to make sure I actually wore them, and followed me all the way down the hall as I left.

The slipper obaasan got mad at me for not wearing these slippers...as if that were possible

The slipper obaasan got mad at me for not wearing these slippers. Reasonable? I think not.

Refreshed after a nice bath–there was even one bath outside that had water falling at close intervals from above, so it hits your shoulders and feels like a massage–I returned to my room and took in the gorgeous view of the lake from my window. As the sun set, the lights of the cities clinging to the shores of Lake Biwa and the few fishing boats still out in the water became the only things that were visible. After breakfast the following day I would return to Osaka. My trip around the lake was finished, yet I still felt there was so much to see. I never had the chance to spend time in Takashima or Imazu thanks to JR delays, I still wanted to visit the ninja town of Koga on the east side of the lake, and I had never been up to Mt. Hiei or to Mii-dera in Otsu. But I suppose that’s be best part about Shiga Prefecture: there’s always something new to discover.

Nightfall over Lake Biwa, seen from Ogoto Onsen

Nightfall over Lake Biwa, seen from Ogoto Onsen

See part 1 and part 2 of the journey.

To see a map of my journey, click here.


 

Because of delays arriving to Makino I had to change my schedule around a bit, but after checking out from my hotel (good riddance) and trudging back to the station, I was on the train for Katata. After calling the Katata tourist information center and conforming that there were in fact lockers at the station.

I felt a tinge of sadness as I rode the nearly empty train southward, near the west shore of the lake. Tomorrow I would be heading back to Osaka. While my feet hurt (I am still recovering from and injury that makes it hard to walk) and the prospect of my own bed seemed nice, the idea of my vacation ending and “real life” starting again made me a little blue. On the other hand, I was looking forward to the day’s sites and also to a scalding hot spring bath that night.

 

A Journey Around Lake Biwa: Part 2

October 6, 2009 1 comment
Nagahama Castle

Nagahama Castle

As I rode the train northward through paddy fields and old wooden houses, the shore of Lake Biwa drew closer and closer as the I entered Nagahama City. This would be one of the two real sightseeing hotspots I would spend time in during the trip–the other being Otsu–and I was looking forward to what Nagahama had to offer.

After detraining, I headed out toward Nagahama Castle, which is about 10 minutes or so on foot from the station, near the lakeshore. Nagahama Castle is not the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen, and even though it’s a modern reconstruction, it has a certain charm to it. Upon looking through the museum inside, I learned that it was at located at a vital location near Sekigahara, a mountain location where the decisive battle between the Tokugawa and Hideyoshi alliances was fought in 1600 to determine the future path of Japan, which ended up being one of long-awaited prosperity and peace for more than 250 years. The castle is small, but the view from the top is impressive, as you can look out over Lake Biwa as well as out toward the rolling hills around Sekigahara. Gazing at the illuminated castle keep that night, I had to admit the odd-shaped structure was not overly impressive, but in my mind its historical significance has left an imprint in my memory that is far bigger than the fortress’ physical stature.

Kurokabe Square

Kurokabe Square

Next I went to Kurokabe Square. This is considered the center of Nagahama, and its name comes from the stately old black-walled (“kurokabe”) building that acts as its centerpiece and gives the district its name. The two-storey building was built in 1899 and served originally as the Daihyaku Sanju Bank building, but today it is a well-known shop selling the famous glassware of Nagahama on the first floor and imported glassware and jewelry on the second floor. The shop’s goods were absolutely amazing, and since I had come all the way to Nagahama, I couldn’t resist buying a few glass animal figurines (which somehow made it home undamaged). The surrounding area also has a number of wooden Edo- and Meiji-Period buildings. I splurged at a restaurant nearby and bought sukiyaki with Omi beef, a regional specialty. Though expensive, this tender, delicious, high-quality beef is worth it. Afterward, I visited a couple of temples in town.

Glass souvenirs from Nagahama

Glass souvenirs from Nagahama (turtle, pig, and blowfish)

In the morning I got up early to catch the ferry to Chikubushima, an island in the middle of the lake where a temple and a shrine are located. I threw my things in a locker and walked to the ferry pier, only to find that (1) the time schedule in my guidebook was out of date and I had just missed the boat I planned to take, and (2) even though I thought I was clever enough to arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds, so had everyone else in Shiga Prefecture. Thankfully, I got a window seat on the ferry and we set sail across the placid waters of Lake Biwa.

On the ferry that goes to and from Chikubushima

Chikubushima from the ferry

As the boat closed in on Chikubushima, everyone went out onto the deck to take pictures, but I decided to wait until the return trip–which was a smart move, since it wasn’t nearly as crowded on deck during the return trip. The approach reminded me a bit of the time I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, sans the chill running up my spine. Chikubushima itself was not as good as I had expected, although the imposing old gate of Tsubusuma Shrine and the beautifully carved Buddha statue inside were impressive, and the bright orange pagoda of Hoganji Temple surrounded by vibrant tropical greenery was refreshing. The shrine boasts a unique way of praying: you buy a pair of round ceramic fragments, write your name on one and your prayer on the other using a brush, and then try to throw them both through a Shinto gate (torii) perched below on a rock in the water.

Buddha statue inside

Buddha statue inside Tsubusuma Shrine

After boarding the ferry back to Nagahama, snapping said photograph, and relaxing in the air-conditioned cabin after a lot of stair-climbing, I started to mentally plan the afternoon. I would ride the JR line around the north edge of the lake and down to Makino on the west side, put my things in a locker there, go sightseeing further south in Katata and Imazu, then return and catch a shuttle to the hotel and find a restaurant to eat dinner at. Little did I know that a combination of incorrect information, misleading information, the reality of the countryside would nullify my plan.

I went to Nagahama Station and saw that the next train would be leaving in a half hour. As the departure time approached, an announcement from the platform speakers informed us that the trains were now delayed a couple of minutes, followed by another that they were delayed by 30 minutes, meaning I would be waiting an hour just to get on the train. The train finally arrived, 40 minutes late, which just goes to show how dangerous it is to rely on JR (in West Japan, JR seems to have trouble handling busy travel weekends). I had to switch at Imazu-Shiotsu station for the Kosei Line, but thanks to that lovely delay, my train had left one minute before and I now needed to wait another hour until the next one came. After about 35 minutes I got impatient and decided to go call a taxi, so I went down the longest station staircase I have ever seen inside a train station and asked the station attendant for the nearest taxi company’s phone number. As luck would have it, the train arrived at that very moment (apparently the Kosei Line was delayed, too), so I ran up the longest staircase ever with my bags in hand and barely slipped through the door and into a vacant seat before it departed. We soon cut through a tunnel and rushed out into the breathtaking, verdant scenery of northern Biwa.

Around Makino Station...absolutely nothing

Around Makino Station...absolutely nothing

Despite the information on JR’s website, when I asked the station attendant where the coin lockers were, he gave me the “are you insane?” look and told me there were none. I couldn’t very well go sightseeing with my bags in tow, so I called the hotel, but despite their claim to be a lakeside resort, they didn’t even have a pickup service from the station. This meant I would have to haul my stuff 15 minutes to the place. Furthermore, there was nothing resembling a restaurant near the station–mostly just old houses and paddy fields. With a groan, I put one foot in front of the other. With trains that arrived only once and hour (and unpredictably delayed), my arrival at Makino several hours later than planned, and my legs worn out by the time I walked through the hotel’s front entrance, it seemed as if things that day would not go as planned.

Fortunately for me, when it comes to trips, I thrive on unpredictability. Stay tuned for part 3.

See part 1 and part 3 of the journey.

To see a map of my journey, click here.

Lake Biwa: Northern Lights

September 4, 2009 1 comment

Osaka Prefecure is an amazing place, but I would be lying if I said it was the only thing in Kansai there is to see. One of the great things about Osaka is that it its location–right in the center of the Kansai Region–and you can easily get to Kyoto, Kobe, Mt. Koya, Nara, and many other places in a short amount of time.

Recently I had a chance to travel to Shiga Prefecture and spend some time in Omi-Hachiman and Hikone, both are which were absolutely amazing and incredibly peaceful cities to be in. I am planning to take a five-day trip by myself in a loop around Lake Biwa (which is what Shiga Prefecture centers around geographically) in just two weeks. Oh, and I will definitely write about my trip here afterwards, including all my lake-swimming, mountain-climbing, onsen-bathing, fish-eating, castle-raiding adventures. 🙂

One of the great things about Lake Biwa and Shiga Prefecture is the abundance of natural sights and scenery, all of which are easily accesible from the big cities like Osaka. I have recently had the pleasure to learn about a small business called Northern Lights that operates on the northern shore of Lake Biwa, and is run by two friendly folks named Eriko and Yasuhiro (who hail from Osaka, in fact). They have been running Northern Lights for the last decade up in the beautiful northern tip of Lake Biwa, a truly special place (as those who have visited well know), renting out their log cottages to guests from all over Kansai and beyond.

Only one hour from Kyoto and 90 minutes from Osaka by train, the cottages are self-catered but come fully equipped with modern conveniences. With great views of the lake and the cleanest air around, it is the perfect getaway for school groups, families, couples, and any group up to 30 people. Locally, activities like fishing, kayaking, hiking, and cycling are available, and a sports hall can even be rented out for a cheap price, if that’s your thing.

Please visit http://sites.google.com/site/shiganorthernlights/ and take a look at what Northern Lights has to offer. As someone who formerly worked for a small travel company, I can guarantee that working with Northern Lights will be to your advantage because, unlike the big players in the industry, they will pay attention to your individual needs.

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This blog's author near the top of the HUGE staircase leading up to Chomeiji Temple (ironically, the temple's name means "long life"), near Lake Biwa. If I recall correctly, there are over 1,000 steps to climb before reaching the top, but it is more than worth it!

Note: top photograph used with permission of Shiga Northern Lights.