A Travellerspoint blog

Sado Island - Slipping Slowly Off the Map

semi-overcast 16 °C

In the 13th Century, Sado Island, a few hours ferry ride off the west coast of Honshu in the Sea of Japan, was a distant place where disgraced emperors, poets and priests were exiled. Today it is best known by tourists for its taiko drummers and traditional wooden fishing coracles known as Tarai-bune…
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Sado is the fifth largest island of Japan with a population that once exceeded 120,000, but in recent decades the population has nosedived as legions of youngsters fled to seek their fortunes in the bright lights of Niigata and Tokyo. Almost half the population of Sado are senior citizens today so it’s not surprising that bits of it are falling apart. The last flight left a couple of years ago and the big hotel in the port town of Ogi was abandoned when half the front fell off. The old school in Ogi is still here – inhabited only by the ghosts of the teachers and pupils...
School_room.jpgThe unlocked door invited us in and beyond the abandoned classroom we found Ogi’s skeletons - the cold detritus of everyday life stripped of its living flesh. It’s all here: the furniture; tools; washtubs; rice bowls; and even the clocks, left behind by the generations of the departed…
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Room after room, corridor after corridor, stuffed from floor to ceiling with the largest un-curated agglomeration of everyday artefacts imaginable. On Judgement Day the re-incarnated residents of Sado island will have no problem re-furnishing their modest abodes with familiar objects. They will also find many of their temples much as they left them. This is the Kokubun-ji temple dating from the 8th century…
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The Seisui-Ji temple is pegged as the highlight of Sado but is no more than a fuzzy memory in the minds of the locals. There are no signs and no one could point us in the right direction. Nevertheless, our intrepid guide, and excellent translator, Tom Whalley, had the tenacity of the great explorer Hiram Bingham searching the Peruvian Andes for the lost city of Machu Picchu, and there it was...
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An overgrown avenue of trees at the end of a farm track led us up a long flight of broken stone steps to the decayed remains of one of Japan’s oldest sacred places…
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This temple was built in 808 AD and is a replica of the great Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, but, like many of the buildings on Sado island, it has seen better days. The nearby Myosen-ji temple, circa 1278), containing the tomb of Suketomo Hino a courtier of the Emperor Godaigo (1288-1339), has faired much better and is accompanied by an impressive five-story pagoda built in the 1830s…
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As the hillsides of Sado blush pink with the awakening cherry buds we have to leave this sleepy isle to rejoin the hurly-burly of Honshu to experience one of nature’s most spectacular displays – the mankai – the blossoming of the cherry trees in Kanazawa.
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Posted by Hawkson 19:18 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Japanese Etiquette 101

sunny 15 °C

We are currently staying in a ryokan in Ogi on Sado Island. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guesthouse with an onsen, (a communal hot tub), and there are very strict rules of etiquette. Firstly, all shoes must be removed at the front door and replaced with slippers. However, not all slippers are created equal; there are regular slippers and toilet slippers. Regular slippers must be worn at all times except in toilets, bathrooms and on tatami mats. Tatami mats cover the floors of all rooms used for sleeping. We sleep on futons on the tatamis…
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Everything is done on the floor in traditional Japanese ryokans. We walk, sleep and sit or kneel on the floor. The tables are just 12 inches high. There are no chairs, but if you are elderly or foreign you may sit on a legless chair on the floor with your feet stuffed under the table where there is a small electric heater…
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The Japanese love warmth and spend a lot of time in hot water. Etiquette is paramount to the orderly minded Japanese and we spend time in hot water if anyone catches us not wearing slippers or wearing the wrong ones…
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This is easily done as the largest Japanese slippers are made for ten year old western kids. The slipper protocol is as follows: When you enter you take off your shoes and cram your feet into a pair of regular slippers. You trip on the stairs as you go to your room because the slippers don’t fit, and then sigh in relief when you get them off to walk on the tatami mat. You then realise that you needed a pee, so you step off the tatami and squash your toes back into the slippers. You take five shuffling steps to the bathroom, take off the regular slippers and jam on the toilet slippers...
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Once you’ve pee’d you wrench off the bathroom slippers, squeeze into the regular ones and painfully shuffle five steps back to the tatami before you remember that you left your glasses in the toilet. So you ram your regular slippers back on again and painfully shuffle five steps etc. etc. etc. It’s all very civilised really – apart from the swearing.

We love staying in ryokans because the food is fabulous. However, there is no choice – you eat what you are given…
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This is only part of one dinner. The island of Sado is renowned for its seafood and we had 8 different fish in this meal including the infamously deadly puffer fish (fugu). We survived, so the chef must have known what he was doing. The sashimi chef also had a good handle on things as he made us this dinner…
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We love ryokans that have communal hot baths,(onsens), but there is etiquette to be observed. Bathers have to be totally nude, (but never mixed), and must balance a few inches off the ground on a midget stool made for a size one bum while washing under a Lilliputian’s shower. Only when totally clean can you enter the bath.
It’s all very civilised – no tattoos, no photos and absolutely no swearing.

Posted by Hawkson 06:03 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Springtime in Niigata

semi-overcast 20 °C

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This Shinkansen high-speed bullet train sped us through the mountains of Gunma in a series of tunnels rivalling the Chunnel and in just an hour we travelled halfway across Japan to arrive in Niigata…
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This is the Niigata Conference Centre where some of the G7 meetings will take place later this month. If the delegates have a few spare minutes they can stroll across the road to the fish market and enjoy browsing the fabulous selection of seafood…
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They will, of course, enjoy some of the finest sushi, sashimi and tempura known to man – just as we did…
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Although Niigata is fundamentally a modern city with superb shopping malls and department stores, (manned by legions of impeccably turned out, irrepressibly helpful and polite staff who still cling to the belief that the customer is always right), it retains elements of a bygone era. The hundred year old Saito family residence is a magnificent wooden building with formal gardens. A young visitor wearing a kimono was unaware that she had turned an ordinary photo of a garden into a watercolour work of art…
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The care and concern shown to us by the Japanese is beyond belief. For instance: we miscalculated our lunch bill in a backstreet family restaurant by just 50 cents and the waitress came flying down the street after us to give it back; we left our morning tea cups a quarter full when we went for a city tour and the maid carefully covered them with napkins so that we could finish them when we returned; and we watched as small sugary cakes called Po-po-yaki were made in Hakusan park in Niigata and this family absolutely insisted on sharing theirs with us…
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The major Japanese TV headlines are currently focussed on showing us where the cherry trees are blossoming, and we will soon be heading south to witness the great tide of blooms as they sweep northward across the country. The blooms are still a week away from Niigata, but Hakusan Park looked radiant in its verdant spring coat…
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This stone lantern in the park was erected in the early 18th century..
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Spring is a time of renewal in Japan; a time to count our blessings. It is also a time to buy a new car and take it to the Hakusan shrine to be blessed by the priest…
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Now we are catching the ferry from the main Japanese island of Honshu to the smaller island of Sado. We are leaving behind the glitz of upmarket Niigato and stepping back to a simpler time among the island's traditional fishermen and farmers. We wonder what welcome awaits us.

Posted by Hawkson 04:44 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Signs of Japan

sunny 24 °C

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The attention to detail in Japan is totally unimaginable to westerners. No purchase is too small not to be boxed, gift wrapped and given its own bag. No snippet of information is too mundane not to have a sign. For instance; this useful sign at our hotel informed us in English that we could take a free copy of this entirely Japanese newspaper…for wrapping tempura and chips perhaps!
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In western hotels we might expect to be given soap, shampoo and conditioner, but we could easily travel Japan with just a passport and credit card. Yukatas (robes), slippers, combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste and razors are just the start. Our Niigata hotel offers free shoeshine kits, shoe horns and shoe deodorant in addition to hairdryers, trouser presses, irons, laptops, cellphone chargers, nail clippers, corkscrews, sticking plasters, umbrellas and even a bicycle.

When it comes to sanitary facilities, we’ve previously reported on the all-singing, all-dancing Japanese toilets that have self-lifting covers; heated seats; mood bowl lighting; temperature, direction and pressure controlled bidet sprays; waterfall and musical accompaniments; and built in washbasins. However, it is insufficient to offer such niceties in Japan without a relevant sign. While our loo signs are considered victorious if they manage to point men or women in the right direction, that is not so in Japan. Here you need to be in full possession of the facts before choosing a suitable washroom. This is a typical sign…
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Now, non-desperate potential users can browse long enough to conclude that this washroom has six urinals, two regular stalls, a large handicap stall and three washbasins for men. He or she can also determine that it has facilities for pregnant women, parents with children, parents with babies, the elderly, handicapped and the generally wobbly.
Enlightening signage doesn’t end at the toilet door. Once inside we quickly discover that every urinal, stall and washbasin is accompanied by a hook for hanging your brolly…
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Umbrellas are important in Japan due to frequent rain, but most western umbrellas are considered unfit for purpose. Japanese umbrellas, on the other hand, are the Samurai of raingear and are rated from 1 to 5 in ascending order based on their ability to withstand wind. Anyone venturing out with a 4 or less in a typhoon is just asking to get drenched, but a Japanese man armed with his number 5 is a formidable foe in any storm. Now, folded wet umbrellas of all grades have a nasty habit of dripping, so all Japanese buildings have one of these at the door…
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Just drop in your wet umbrella and it is instantly enshrined in its own waterproof condom. Bingo – no more wet foyer floors and, you might think, no need for signs reading, “Slippery When Wet!” But you would be wrong. The Japanese love signs. There are signs for absolutely everything…
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And some of them even make sense.

Posted by Hawkson 17:15 Archived in Japan Comments (7)

Takasaki’s Good Fortune

Springtime in Japan

sunny 22 °C

No matter how many times we ride the Japanese bullet trains, (the Shinkansen), we can’t fail to be enthralled. One minute we’re hurtling through the urban jungle of Tokyo’s sprawling suburbs and the next we’re a hundred miles away in the peaceful countryside of Gunma Prefecture near Takasaki to visit the Daruma Doll factory…
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Nearly 2 million smaller versions of these papier-mâché dolls are made every year by the farmers and their families in a tradition that began in 1781 because of a 6 year famine. To make money in the lean years the local Zen Buddhist priest taught his flock to make and sell these good luck charms called Fuku-Daruma and the practice caught on. Many people leave Darumas at the doors of the Sharinzan Darumaji temple to bring themselves good fortune…
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This Shorinzan Temple was founded here in 1654 by a Chinese priest named Shinetsu...
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In a clever, though devilishly devious, marketing ploy it is said by the Daruma makers that if your doll brings you good fortune you should burn it and buy a bigger one. But if it doesn’t work should you buy another one. These are unpainted Darumas drying in the warm sunshine outside the factory…
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We didn’t buy a Daruma, but our lucky weather fairy came through as usual. It is not supposed to be 22 degrees for another few weeks in this part of Japan, but the cherry blossoms are already bursting with joy. Here’s just a teaser… there will be more - many more…
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But we can’t dither. We have a lot of miles to cover - albeit at 350 kilometres an hour on the Shinkansen. Next stop – Niigata on the coast of the Sea of Japan. We are hoping it will stay warm, but the scorching days of the Australian Outback already seem a long way off.

Posted by Hawkson 02:22 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

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