Place-Mattes

Oh the places I've been and the things I've seen
Bugs Bunny


Note: I have tried to provide a direct and concise translation for each city name. The author regrets any discomfort caused to Japanese.

I have been many places. Here are some of the ones I felt strongly enough to write about.

Things often get
bazaar in Shinjuku

TOKYO [East Capital] is the capital of Japan. It is a simply immense city with a huge population that mushrooms on a daily basis with the influx of commuters. With it's pollution levels (noise, particle, chemical), overly salty food, it is a constant assault on the senses. Many areas of Tokyo are somewhat distinct in their own right. There is the rather affluent Ginza [Silver Pedestal], the big-business Shinjuku [New Lodging(s)], the (supposedly) risque Roppongi [Six Source Tree(s)], the notorious Kabukicho [Sing Act Entertainer(s) Town], the ostentatious Akihabara [Fall Leaf Raw], and so on. As can be expected, pretty well everything is overpriced (no haggling in the East, either). The city is constantly annoyingly loud. There are some 'needles' within the 'haystack', but typically you are very hard-pressed to find any delicious food. In fact, pretty well all the food has a very strong salty taste. This is basically some tradition they have in the East of Japan. They have a very good transportation system. It is also highly priced. And most of my friends detest the level of service. But I personally feel that the schedules are quite convenient. You can find a great variety of non-Japanese food here also. But, it is frequently made to the Japanese 'specification' (too salty). If you like to observe drunkards stagger about the streets in search of their way home, this may be the place for you. Every weekday night, their clumsy ballet begins at about 2330h and ends at about 1330h. Oddly enough, public transit (exclusive of taxi service) is not 24 hours. It starts at about 0500h and ends at about 1300h. So, that last train is bound to be crowded and it is prudent to be mindful of whose 'spew-path' you are in. Japanese are actually, to their credit, quite good at 'holding it down'. Although it is a very big town, it is not as built up as Hong Kong. Due to the fact they are subject to so many earthquakes each year, the Japanese build tall buildings sparingly. If only because of the extra cost in making them earthquake-resistant. Tokyo is also where many of the big businesses of the East have their offices. Tokyo also has a plethora of places to visit. Not only shrines and temples, but also quite a few museums --both public and private. To put this into perspective, if you went sight-seeing at a different attraction in Tokyo each day, it would take slightly over 3 years to see them all (at least according to my contacts). If there is one word that typifies Tokyo it has to be 'politics'.


Theme bars are
so cool! (Nanba)

OSAKA [Big Wooden] is the 'real' capital of Japan. Not officially, though. Never was, perhaps never will be. But it certainly feels like one. Among other things, the 'stomach of the nation' is there. It is very hard to go 'wrong' in terms of dining in Osaka. Everywhere will have properly flavoured food. The people are typically more straight-forward than the 'Easterners'. Both have a well-developed disdain of the other. This is one of the more interesting Japanese traditions: The Osakaans ridiculing the discursive and political ways of the Tokyoids; and the Tokyoids pontificating against the brashness of the Osakaans. This is one of the things I find so appealing about them. Their dialects are also known for being colourfull, if not straight-forward in nature. Not that much in the way of tourist attractions. But the ample supply of good food more than makes up for it. Osaka seems to be the business town. The most famous dish to origionate from Osaka is 'takoyaki' [fried octopus].


Winter: Cold
and beautiful

NIKKO [Sun Light] is a wonderful little town in Tochigi prefecture. It is the site of one of Japans national parks. On a good day, the scenery is quite breathtaking. It is a site so revered, that Japanese are instructed to visit it at least once in their lifetime. Normally from the city of Nikko, a bus is taken into the mountains to see some more really beautiful sites. I do reccomend seeing this place, it is definitely worth the trip. However, in the summer, the many trails are far more navigable.


This area is
known for it's rocks

UTSUNOMIYA [Roof Big-city Shrine] is famous throughout Japan for fried dumplings (gyouza). Being in Tochigi prefecture, there is also a healthy supply of delicious rice-crackers. It is a small city in terms of Japanese cities. Not too many high buildings. And, for some, it is also a satellite community for those who must work in Tokyo.


Shot from
the long bridge

TAKAMATSU [High Pine Tree] (ShiKoku) [Four Country] is the largest city on the island of Shikoku. It is famous for the sanuki category of udon noodles. Normally taken in a soup, they are considered the most delicious of udon noodles. Being in the West of Japan, they ARE delicious. In fact, because the major industry on the island of Shikoku is agriculture, you can usually find quite good fresh food there. Takamatsu is a rather large city. Enroute to Takamatsu from Honshu (the main island), you can get a small glimpse of the local industries: Shipbuilding (A simply vast facility), and and oil refinery (the largest in Japan, so I am told).


Beautiful
Nagoya Castle

NAGOYA's [Name Old Shop] big claim-to-fame is 'pachinko'. Pachinko is a form of gambling peculiar to Japan. Some have compared pachinko to a combination of poker, billiards, and slot-machines. Like all forms of gambling, I just don't get it. Nagoya is also famous for a type of spring chicken called 'kochin'. It is really delicious and tender. I have had it as both sashimi (raw) and don (as a topping over hot rice). This is a fairly big city.


Shiver me timbers:
A diesel galleon

HAKONE [Box Root] is more of a region than a town. But basically, it is a park area. Centred around Lake Ashi, there are a limited number of trails and boat rides. The boats are diesel replicas of more ancient ships. During the trip a recording will inform you of all the noteworthy sites on the lake. This area is most famous for its boar dishes. The transportation system is quite well organised. And, on any day, you can make a circuit of the area on a convenient day-pass. The view of Mount Fuji can be quite breathtaking on a good day. Another 'breathtaking' feature of Hakone are the volcanic sulphur mines.


During the summer,
Life's a beach

ITO [This East] and ATAMI [Warm Sea] are relatively close together. They are both onsen (hot-spring baths) towns. Tokyoids flock there when they can to soak themselves in geothermal heated water. The whole area is peppered with onsens. ITO has the distinction of having a local micro-brewery (these are still quite rare in Japan). ITO is also close to Usami, where I was certified as a SCUBA diver. The area has plenty of diving-centric businesses.


So, two ninja
meet on the street...

IGA UENO [This Celebration Upper Field] is actually exactly what you would expect for a town where the Japanese feudal spying tradition was started and made famous. If not for the poorly-hidden ninja museum, ninja manhole-covers, ninja stencils on the local rail-cars, and the local legislators who now take to meeting clad as ninja, you would never know that this sleepy little town nestled between the Iga and Koga mountain ranges was the birthplace of Ninjitsu --the Japanese contribution to the world of espionage. True to form, it is acknowledged by most, if not all, Japanese that to admit you are a ninja will dis-credit yourself as a ninja. Even if you are not a fan of historical covert operations, this is a really worthwhile place to visit: All the exhibits are painstakingly laid out and well organised. Not only that, they are completely bi-lingual (Japanese and English) --even the movie-skit. My only complaint is that the gift store could be a bit better stocked (more variety). They have a live show afterwards that is basically some demonstration of ninja skills. Although the dialogue is only in Japanese, it is really well done. And, understandable through the universal medium of sight. IgaUeno also has a castle. Of all the castles I have been in so far, it has the best view (Matsuyama might have given competition, but when I went there, it was hazy). This is definitely a recommended place to visit.


Furugawa --just
North of Sendai

SENDAI [Sage Observatory] is a quiet little town North and East of Tokyo. It is primarily a Ski resort town (in winter). And, in this capacity, competes with Nagano.



NAGANO [Long Field] is another small town that has seems to be famous for only two reasons: Internationally, it was once (and likely continues to be) the training and competition place for winter Olympic games in Japan; locally it is the home riding of Maikiko Tanaka --one of the more famous modern politicans in Japan. Unlike Koizumi, when she makes mistakes, her ratings are not affected. She tries her best to speak in the local Nagano dialect, but years of schooling in Tokyo have taken their toll on that ability. I'd vote for her, though.


Another day
Another castle

MATSUMOTO [Pine Source] is a small town on the eastern side of the Japanese alpine mountain range. It is a nice cosy little town. And great for a stay over (The food at the ryoukan was really delicious). Staying over is normally a good idea as it will take you the better part of the day to pass through the alps.


Shopping malls
are put in
interesting places

KOBE [God(s) Door] is a sea port town. It is close enough to Osaka to be another worthwhile place to dine. The speciality here is a type of beef that is as smooth as silk. Apparently the secret is in the beer. Not the beer that you drink, but rather the beer that the cow drinks and is massaged with up to 3 times a day by the farmer. A good version will cost about 100 USD for about 100~180 grams of meat. Outrageously expensive. But, amortised over your entire lifetime, one little splurge is not that much. You can find cheaper is you are good at hunting. Kobe also had a really interesting (and long) shopping center underneath train tracks.


Deer are
dear here

NARA is must-see place in Japan. Not only is one of the old capital cities, but also it is home to many deer. The deer are considered messengers of the god(s) and rove about freely. You can also purchase deer-biscuits that are very appealing to the deer. So much so, that one deer was interested in proceeding to eat my jacket's pocket after I had exhausted my supply of deer-biscuits. Noteworthy to visit is the DaiButsu --the (or one of the) largest statue of Buddha in the world. It also has a nice collection of private and public parks and guardens. If you are up to braving the aggressive elderly women (obasan) and chilly weather, the OmizuTori festival is quite nice to watch. It is where fire is used to 'light the way' to the temple. According to local beliefs, if any of the burning embers falls upon you, you will be 'full of vigour' for a year. I was supprised how many vigorously jocked for a good position to catch some burning ash. There were personnel evenly stationed with fire extinguishers to limit the amount of vigour (should someone become alight).


This temple is on
every 10 yen coin

KYOTO [Capital City] is the modern name for HeiAnKyo [Level Safe Capital] (it's name when it was a capital city). It is one of the first capitals of Japan. Apparently, the town planning was done in accordance with fung-sui principles (but nobody seems to know or care of which school the fung sui was from). The local dialect is very formal and polite. A close, personal friend remarked that is to be expected from the 'City of Graveyards' (there are quite a few of them in Kyoto). The JR (Japan Railways) Kyoto station is a magnificent structure. It is close to the Kyoto Tower --a structure every one in Kyoto seems to hate. If you ever see a typical Japanese titanic monster battle take place in Kyoto, observe that, no matter which monster wins, the tower will be destroyed. In such an ancient city, the tower really is an eyesore.


The famous
steam engine

MATSUYAMA [Pine Mountain] in Ehime [Love Princess] prefecture has two claims to fame. Famous for his novel 'Bot-chan', Natsume Soseki (pen name for 'Kinnosuku Natsume') was a teacher here. He is still exceptionally famous: His picture graces every 1000 yen banknote. That is something for other countries to really take note of (literally). The other thing Matsuyama is famous for is the Dogu [Path End] onsen/spa. It is proported to be about 3000 years old. And the first onsen in Japan. Some feel that there may be older; but, the Dogu Onsen was the first to be noted of in a book.


From this place:
One of Japan's
most famous
poets

MIYAMOTO MUSASHI [Shrine Source Military Warehouse] in Okayama [Hill ridge Mountain] is the birthplace of Japans most famous swordsman. Not only was the city (re-named) after him, but the railroad station is the only one in Japan to be named after someone. An interesting aside is that this was not his 'real' (original) name: Miyamoto Musashi was a name given by himself to himself (academics are still not certain about his real original name). Musashi is generally famous for his swordplay. But, in going to the Musashi Museum, you can also see what an accomplished painter and poet he was. While I was there, I was sure to get a copy of the famous Five Ring Book. In the West it is widely believed that Musashi wrote it. Apparently, it was actually penned by someone else based on the works and personal history of Musashi. It is actually a really pleasant town with nice friendly people. It has a Dojo (training hall) where you can glimpse their combatants going at each other with their bamboo training swords. There is also a larger arena for such competitions. It is really interesting from an architectural point of view because it resembles a samurai hat (not unlike what Musashi would have normally worn). Yet, I did not expect to see a huge hat in the midst of a small farming community. It also has an onsen, for those so inclined. It is a beautiful rural area. So, if you are travelling there, best to be mindfull of the train schedules (although, I remember a ryoukan available across from the onsen). When I visited this quiet little shire, it reminded me of my homeland. Especially how the most renowned warriors tend to come from the most boring places.


If you're lucky,
off-duty samurai
will pose with
you

HIMEJI [Princess Route] (Okayama) [Hill ridge Mountain] has a big castle to tour. The castle is one that has existed in relative peace. Many other castles suffered damage beyond their original designers dreams when they were used for military purposes (and hence, became valid targets) during the Second World War. Himeji remained unscathed. It apparently has a ghost or two, but that is about it. It is very well established in terms of tourism: Pamphlets are available in a variety of the worlds major languages (eg English, Chinese, and Japanese). Guided tours seem to be present, but only in Japanese. It is one of the major cultural treasures of Japan. The castle is the most visible attraction in Himeji --but not the only. There are also Onsen (close to the castle and on the city outskirts), and I found a really nice little Chinese tea shoppe. The tourism booth in Himeji station (JR) is quite knowledgeable and helpful if you need recommendations. In fact, when I dropped by, the lady there was fluent in English (her son was studying dentistry in Toronto).


Did I mention
the big garden
out back?

HIKONE [Beautiful man Root] is also known for a castle. It has some really nice gardens also. The castle grounds are laid out interestingly also. One of the buildings added close to the original structure include a museum with an open-air Noh theatre. Performances are scarce, though, so you will have to plan carefully if you want to see any there. The tea shoppe in the museum has some nice snacks. Rather interesting is the snack that looks like a goldfish (NOTE: Not a real fish --this is a confectionery) swimming in a hockey-puck sized bowl. So cute, you may not want to eat it! Hikone is also known for a type of beef delicacy called omigyu. I personally found this to be on par with the Kobe beef --but at about a third of the price.

HIROSHIMA [Wide Island] capitalised on the fact that an atomic bomb was detonated there. There is a museum for those curious to see the fruits of atomic destruction up close and personal. The famous dome (attached to a building) has been structurally reinforced since the original cataclysm, and remains devoted to the idea of "never again". Hiroshima more famous throughout Japan for a type of 'omelet' called okonomimiyaki. It is also famous for a breaded, deep-fried clam called 'kaki furai'.

MIYAJIMA [Shrine Island] is a very scenic area rather close to Hiroshima. It is most famous for its shrine which extends out into the water. This area has onsens also.


Big Buddah at
Kamakura

KAMAKURA [Sickle Storehouse] is where another of Japans' large Buddha statues exist. It is quite a nice place to visit. Very touristy. Lots of temples and gardens. Also quite a few hiking paths. Hardly challenging by Canadian standards, but some afford a really nice view. The coastline extending to Enoshima is extremely popular with the surfers in Japan. You cannot get big waves as in Kochi (much further away on the Pacific side of Shikoku Island), but it is really convenient to Tokyo (About 1h or so). A couple of years ago, a British nightclub hostess' was apparently murdered here. This shocked a lot of people. Not only is Japan a typically safe place; but it seems especially safe for foreigners. It also has a shrine (I think it was the one close to Hase) with a section dedicated to miscarriages (really 'creaped me out'). Although not that easy to find, there are some very nice tea houses here: Just outside the gate of the Hase shrine, there is a nice Japanese style one; and, a bit further away from the Kamakura station (past the Kinokunya and tunnel), is a really nice English tea shoppe. A Japanese dessert shoppe is also in this area. Kamakura was an old capital of Japan (during the Kamakura Era) under the rule of a shogun. The shrine near the Kamakura station is quite large, and is famous for a lotus garden/swamp. This temple was also famous for an assassination (Kugyo with a sword by the big tree, for those who need a 'clue'). Some of the trees there are preserved (uncut) from the Kamakura era (about 300 years old or more).


The walk to the sea-
side of Enoshima
is worth it

ENOSHIMA [River's Island] is in the Kamakura area. In fact, just a short walk of about one to two hours. The island is connected by a bridge that has a separate walkway and motorway. The walkway has several oden (food-stuff soaking in salty hot water) and other food stands along it. On some days, a boat ride is available to ferry you to or from the other side of the island. Barring the boat, the only way is to walk through a path that snakes like the best of roller-coaster rides. Seems like most Japanese like to walk to the other side, and then return in the boat. This place really displays it's sea food. You can meet the meat at many stores. Just choose, and tell them how you would like it (It seems anyway you want it -- as long as it is BBQed). Principle fare is mussels and gastropods.