Saturday, July 10, 2010

Japan Day 8. 27/06

Just a couple of days to go now folks. One of V's bosses had offered to take us out for a drive this Sunday. We reported to V's place after our breakfast at McDonalds. I just wanted a small breakfast as I knew we would have lunch soon enough, but the breakfast burger was huge. Far superior to what we get in Australia and more expensive, but not that much dearer.

E collected us and V and our first stop was a well known and famous shrine of which I have forgotten the name. But before then we had watched a street parade in Hirosaki, an annual event with many many dancers and a variety of music from pop to traditional. I took no notice of course at any of the hot looking guys who were dancing.

Now, I think it was a shrine and not a temple we stopped at. One is for Buddhists and the other for Shinto. After a cold drink, we then stopped at a fantastic little bakery in the middle of nowhere in the forest and a few things were bought. It is a favourite with people from Hirosaki to drive to on a Sunday. From there we went on a bit further to a picnic ground. The seating facilities were not that great, but the park was pretty enough. It was quite humid there and some insects bothered us, just like in Australia where there would be flies bothering us. E had put together a wonderful picnic, the main dish being a zucchini slice she had cooked, along with crisps, nibbly things, bottles of cider and a custard/junket dessert. On top Maccas a couple of hours earlier, I was full.

We packed up the picnic gear and cleaned the mud off the chair legs where they sank into the soft damp soil. Yes, one of us went a over t when a stool leg sank. I could not possibly confirm that it was V.

We went up hill and down dale around sweeping and tight corners as travelled a circuit around Mount Iwaki and we ended up at the beach, Ajigasawa Beach to be precise. We had seen all sorts of housing and farms along the way.

The car conversation was interesting. Although E spoke English well, having lived and studied overseas, she was puzzled about the way we speak of some fruits and vegetables. This matter had never occurred to me, but it was thought provoking. We have a banana and some bananas but not celery and some celeries. There were a few more we thought of but I can't now.

The beach was pleasant and we sat on the bleachers for a good while and V, E and myself paddled for a bit, except something stared nibbling at V's feet. It was a bit chilly for swimming, but of course that never stops kids, so there were a few in the water. They were collecting some seaweed too for later eating. It was very light and flimsy and I should think would have been eaten raw or blanched at the most. Some lads were horseplaying and dumped one of their mates in the water after pulling down his swimming shorts. Some things don't change around the world.

We left the beach late afternoon and drove back to Hirosaki by a direct road and passed by many more farms and stopped at one shop to buy local produce.

We thanked E profusely for taking us out for a lovely trip and that night R, V and I ate good Indian food at a restaurant next to our hotel.

There were quite a lot of lavender beds around.

These dancers in the parade could turn their outfits into about ten different outfits by turning them inside out, around etc.

The shrine gate.

Nice work.

The shrine itself.

Mount Iwaki as we left Hirosaki. I told E it would make a good picture with the wires when she suggested they would spoil it.

Here she is closer. Traces of snow were still adorning her crown.

Our picnic lunch.

Ajigasawa Beach. Not Bondi no, but not bad.

Catching up with mates

It was nice to catch up with our dyke friends, a couple, last night. We exchanged holiday news, they had been to Bali, and it was just the four of us at a very nice restaurant called Arabesque in Carre Street Elsternwick, and while it was not particularly cheap, the food was very nice and the service great. The wine flowed and the conversation was good. Since the four of us brought our individual wine bottle along, the corkage was high at $8 a bottle. Learning lesson, share with friends, except we all ended up with a little bit left in our respective bottles.

Oh look, at the end of the street Officeworks now occupies the site where the, surely almost the last, Coles variety store was. The 'notorious' underground lavvy known as the thirty nine steps in the opposite side street has been concreted in and only an above ground stainless steel lav tells of its history. And who was that cute dark haired, somewhat nerdy, and slightly exotic looking boi who worked in Hattams next door to the Coles variety store? I didn't think he would amount to much. Just another kid serving in a shop.

First class service by the route 67 tram, there and back. On time, every time.

Jayne, is Hattams in Oakleigh still there?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Japan Day 7. 26/06

It was a was a long long day. For breakfast V introduced us to the delights of Mr Donut. It has other food as well. I grew very attached to a small pastry, a bit like a sausage roll, but lighter and it came with its own inbuilt sauce. Of course I had a donut too and the coffee was as much as you could drink.

We bought our tickets and set off on the local train to Aomori. We had a bit of time to kill before our bus tour started, so we had a look at the waterfront renewal. The train station is either new or had a makeover to prepare it for the arrival of the Shinkansen which will begin running later this year. This will probably cut an hour from the trip from Tokyo or more, as there will be no change at Hachinohe and the Shink will be extra fast. Think of travelling from the centre of Sydney to the centre of Melbourne in four hours. Ah, I am getting angry at Australia again.

Our Japan Rail passes covered us for this hop on hop off service to Lake Towada. We left Aomori behind and the coach started climbing. We stopped at a place where there was a chairlift and quite a few people left the bus. Next stop was for tea, free, in the open air, served from a large pot by yourself using a ladle and the pot was surrounded by a large gutter of fresh water for cup washing and rinsing.

We climbed some more and stopped at resort type places along the way. We were quite high at one point, travelling through a pass between two mountains. Then, down into a gorge and the coach pretty well followed the path of the very pretty river, possibly called the Oirase Stream. We started to see some waterfalls and luckily we chose the right stop to get out to see the big ones and they were flowing well. We ate half our sandwiches V had prepared and then caught the next bus to the lake.

You can get off the bus as you reach the lake and cross to the village/resort (Towada?) on the other side, but we stayed on the bus which went around the lake. We wandered around, looking in some shops and finished off our lunch and had drinks. We went a bit into the bush and saw a temple and followed a path and came across a critter called tanuki. There was a group of Americans, probably from the army base walking the track too. Not sure if they were from the normal army base or the secret army base that everyone knows about. It is a racoon dog, one of the loudly proclaimed. It is an alternative name but V knew the correct name and it was the first time she had seen one in the wild. We made shushing motions to the group from the army base behind us, but without much effect. The tanuki took no notice of us and went about its business of finding food on the forest floor. We saw it again a bit later, near beware of bears signs.

We wandered back to near our departure point and had another drink. R wanted an iced coffee from the vending machine, but ended up with a can of hot coffee to drink instead. My feet were sore and I so wanted to paddle, so I did. The hard gravel and the cool water soothed my feet.

It was a quicker and uneventful trip back to Aomori. We found somewhere to eat called Gusto Skylark and again had very nice food. Although some sporting event had taken place that day and there were a lot of teenage boys there, they were fairly quiet and well behaved.

We were to meet a friend of Vs for a drink at a bar in Aomori at 8pm. We walked quite a long way and V did not know the exact location and nor could her friend direct her over the phone. Eventually V asked a couple of locals and after a bit of discussion, they worked out a direction for us to head. Our destination for drinks was a nice enough bar with booth seating, but very bright lighting, yuk. We met V's friend C, who is Irish born and married to a local woman and they have a couple of kids. He was thoroughly charming and could talk and with a very nice accent, as so many Irish can. He has residency in Japan and it was very interesting to hear of his experiences, extended family life on both his and his wife's side and about his kids. He adores our Kylie and we directed him to the newest? Wiggles dvd with the pink Wiggle, Kylie, in a cameo. He also is a big fan of Nick Cave and was quite chuffed to learn that we lived opposite where Nick lived once in Balaclava. I took a snap of the house when we returned home and sent it on to him. We also learnt a good bit about local western music, jazz, blues etc and jam sessions in tiny bars.

Damn, we have missed the early train home. Nothing to do but continue drinking. We caught a cab back to Aomori Station and the last local train back to Hirosaki. It was a very full day, but very enjoyable.

Remaking the Aomori waterfront.

As we travelled through the mountain pass, there was still some remaining snow. How come the cooling aircon is needed in the bus, but it was.

Crossing the Oirase? Stream.


There were professional photographers and an artist at the falls.

Another lovely drain cover.

A very hot Japanese daddy relaxing by the lake. The waist band of his jeans was below his bum. He and his family walked past us twice later. Nice. Pedal boats in the background.

My feet being soothed by cool water.

Tanuki or raccoon dog.

Look out for the bears. The tanuki was snuffling away somewhere in there.

The many menus at the Gusto restaurant.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Refugees

I am sick to death of hearing about refugees. There is a queue of them and did I hear we take in 137,000 a year. Australian doesn't need nor can cope with such a population explosion as our immigration program is bringing in people. I would cut the refugee number by a small amount, and reduce general immigration hugely. Let us start with the Kiwis who can just come here and stay and what about the English? Kiwiland and the Old Dartland are nice places. Why do we need to overcrowd our country with people from there? I won't even mention the numbers of people who are here from the subcontinent.

To use the pejorative word, illegals, arrive in planes all the time. They are either caught later or immediately intercepted or stay underground. Now a respected English banker in Mauritius, a non blood relative of R's was locked up in Villawood and subsequently deported. So she should have been. She overstayed.

I live on an island called Australia. We will decide who comes here. (it rather sickens me to quote John Howard). All this rubbish about offshore processing to prevent refugees from accessing our courts is nonsense. It can be up to them, sent back home, or a secondary processing country or a processing place in Australia, but that all it is in Australia, a process for determining their status. If they are found to be genuine refugees, then they go to a position within the queue of refugees and to whatever country will accept them.

The so called Australian refugee crisis is one of the worst aspects of Australian politics I have ever seen and we seem to get sucked in by it all.

As for PM Gillard's bad day over the matter, clearly she has not offered East Timor enough money and ET is playing hard ball. Why would they not? Disappointing moment number one for Gillard. I thought she was politically smarter and would have offered ET good inducements to say the right words.

Da trains an' da transport in Japanland

As mentioned, our first train trip was from Narita to Tokyo, and I was so zonked after being awake for so long, I did not take in the trip well.

During a subsequent trip, and another after that, I realised just how fast Japan's trains are, even just suburban ones. I sat in what always seems to be a sideways seat, feeling the acceleration of the train. Ok driver, cut the power, you are going fast enough. No, the train just kept right on accelerating. I can't say the trains are as smooth as Melbourne, but boy do they hammer along. I would not be surprised if they get up to 100kmh, perhaps more between stations, especially the limited express trains.

This indicates to me that the tracks are very good, the staff well trained, signalling is good, there is a lack of cross tracks tracks or merging tracks. For Melburnians, almost every suburban station I noticed was around the size of South Yarra, some being more like Richmond.

The disadvantage of this is there is a good bit of walking involved to change trains, and sometimes changing stations at the same location due to two companies having trains servicing the same area. Invariably the change involves escalators, stairs or lifts. Ramps seem to be seldom used. Direction signs for changing, entering or exiting were very good in the areas we were in.

Tokyo does have touch card system, but it did not seem very popular. Mind you, we were only at Tokyo Station once and perhaps the travellers from there use it more. Most people seemed to have periodical tickets but many also paid as they went by buying their tickets from a machine. From this I suggest that all ways of paying are not very differently priced.

Stations were well staffed, as was pretty well every business in Japan. The numbers of staff per customer made it feel a bit third world, but of course it isn't. It is Japanese culture to give very good service.

I believe temporary immigrant workers are used in Japan, but for us, they were well hidden away.

We struggled enough with working out the train system, so we ignored the buses. From what I could see from the outside, there was little English used.

The taxis were first class and spotless, although some quite old. I amused to see plenty of Nissan Cedric cabs still running around.

Motor traffic was generally slow in greater Tokyo, but as much for there being so many traffic lights. We never saw huge bank ups of cars like we do in Melbourne. Japanese politeness extends to the roads.

I suggest that if you are literate in Japanese, unlike us most of we foreigners, you have a wonderful above ground and subway train system and you only have motor car because you earn enough money to have one, unlike your average Japanese.

Here are a couple of easy ideas Australia could pick up. Each station sign has in smaller text the preceding station and the next station. Such a cheap idea to implement and I found it ever so useful. The photo is not a great example. Most stations had a clearer sign.

While on the subway system from Ginza to Ueno, again I had no confidence that we were even going in the right direction. This helpful indicator reassured me. I snapped it with my phone. The indicator shows station names, direction of travel and which station you are at or have departed. Looking at the photo, we are travelling in a certain direction and about to stop, because the bar is red for the next station. There is a wealth of train information there.

And I have to add a quirk. When standing in a train, Japanese people face out of the train, not inwards. If they are standing at a door, they move close to the door and look out, even if there is nothing to see, such as on the subway system. That is when they are not using their mobile phones for whatever reason. No one dares to speak on a mobile phone in public.

Japan Day 6 25/06

I am not sure where we had breakfast for our first morning. We had bought postcards for families and friends, yours is still in the post sorry, and V had told us where the small post office was located. The Japan Post Office was privatised, much to the dislike of the general population, but they offered us good service. It was fairly hot this day and we slowly wandered some streets and tried to locate V's apartment. We knew roughly where it was but could not locate it. We bought some wine and headed back to the hotel.

I knew our weekend plans and I was concerned that we were running out of yen. We tried the foreign exchange bank. We were sat down with a staff member who could not speak English, but she quickly realised what we wanted, that is cash from our Australian bank accounts. I think it is rare when you travel that you can withdraw cash from your savings account when you are overseas, so we knew it would be a credit card cash advance. The lass kept chatting away in Japanese but eventually she held her two forefingers crossed, indicating it was not possible. Ok, we will try the ATM outside. She must have spied us outside and came out and tried to help us, but again with success.

I recalled what a workmate said after he and his Japanese born boyfriend visited Japan. 711 ATMs have English. There is not a 711 in Hirosaki, but there is a department store owned by 711. Sure enough, there was an English button and we succeeded getting 10,000 yen, but that seemed to be the daily limit. I know if you use overseas ATMs, they can cost you dearly in fees, so we wanted to make one transaction. Ok, 10,000 is enough to be going on with. Back to our hotel for freshening up.

Our key was missing from the hotel desk. Sorry Sir, your room is being cleaned. Can you come back later? He then told us that it would not be ready until 3pm and it was only 11.30. We wanted to rest for a while. The standard seemed to be four hours for room cleaning. The clerk escorted us to the room for us to get rid of our stuff and I am not sure how we then filled the time until 1pm when we went to V's office. Normally a hotel cleans a room in half an hour or so.

She had just finished some work and she took us to the big post office for us to try the ATM there. It was the same as the first, but we realised we could get more than 10,000 yen. We extracted another 30,000 which was more the enough for the rest of our stay.

We then walked to Hirosaki Park. It was very hot and very humid, but the park was superb. We had to pay an entry fee for the castle area and after we finished with the park, we had afternoon tea at a teahouse.

V is a vegetarian and was cooking dinner for us that night and we had a fine repast. We stopped on the walk to Vs at an expensive bakery to buy a very long baguette. It was interesting to see where V lived, more spacious than I thought and it had a nice balcony. The entrance wasn't grand, but I guess this is Japanese standard. There are some pretty bad Australian flat entrances too.

We ate well and probably drank too much. We slept the sleep of the innocent.

What are these things called love? No idea, but they seem to require a flooding at times.

Ponds in Japan always seemed to have fish in them. I took many photos of the fish but most weren't so good. This one is not bad.

Just another stunning Japanese garden.

A peacock, the same as you see anywhere.

One of the gatehouses for Hirosaki Castle. Trivia, as the you get nearer to the castle, the streets get more winding and confusing, a deliberate ploy to bother attackers.

Every year I post you photos and a link to the Hirosaki Castle webcam when the cherry blossoms bloom. Often the red railed bridge is to be seen on the webcam.

Nice footings. This is the inner moat. There is an outer one too.

We climbed the steep stairs to the top of the castle.

From the top of the castle we had a fine view of Mount Iwaki, the second highest mountain in Japan.

Some artwork on the river as we walked home

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Japan Food

While I am sure there is some Japanese food I like, we pretty well avoided it while we were in Japan. I don't eat sushi, Californian rolls, roll mops, wasabi, miso soup and balls of rice. These are what I have tried. Yet I like Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food, as it is served in Australia and certainly for foreigners in Thailand and Vietnam.

But the fresh fruit and veg in Japan made me very angry, angry with Australia and Australians that we accept such appalling quality fruit and vegetables. The bananas in Japan were sublime. The lettuce crisp and tasty. A Jonathon apple like nothing you ever get in Australia. A pear, almost orgasmic. Oh, and the tomatoes. Not always great looking but soft, tasty and luscious. Cherry tomatoes, so sweet. We did try some more exotic f & v too. All good.

These are vastly superior to anything you may recall from your childhood, given from a neighbour, grown yourself, organic or bought at a farmer's market.

We are told in Australia that for various reasons, storage, shelf life, transport, that that is how our fruit and vegetables must be. Much is grown in Japan locally and sold in nearby towns, but fruit and veg are always seasonal. In the humid season that follows spring, and before the full on summer, how can tomatoes be in season? They must be greenhouse grown or shipped from way down south, thereby disproving the point that good f & v need to be robust to be transported.

Every piece of fruit or vegetable I tried was better than what we get in Australia. Shame on us for accepting crap (there, I swore, shows you how strongly I feel about it)

The Western food we ate in Japan was always good too, although I did not try a steak or lamb chops.

Once we had McDonalds, for breakfast. The Maccas in Japan offers very superior food to what we get here too. The burgers their did actually taste good, rather than being just a gut filler.

I really feel sorry for any Japanese person who comes to Australia and has to eat our crappy fruit and vegetables. Suppose our spuds are ok.

Japan Day 5. 24/06

By 10AM we were on track 20 at Ueno Station. The Shinkansen arrived one minute late. Disgraceful. We were travelling on the Shink to the terminus at Hachinohe where we would transfer to a limited express to Aomori and then onto Hirosaki where our Friend in Japan, V, lives. V was to meet us a the station.

The train sped through the suburbs and was soon picking up speed to about 250 kmh. For the last leg of the journey the train reached 300kmh. Now that is a decent canter. I think the Eurostar may have been a bit smoother, but memory is a poor judge. The Shink was smooth enough and I did not get the feeling of slight disorientation that I felt on Eurostar, even though we were travelling a good bit faster.

At Hachinohe we had ten minutes to change trains and we pretty well followed the hoards, but it was a good distance. I misread the board and thought we left from track 3. Luckily I checked with an attendant and he said track 4. We launched ourselves into the train with five minutes to spare. Panic was quite unnecessary.

Even the limited express was fast, about 160kmh at a guess. It stopped a few times before we arrived in Aomori. Many left the train there and and those remaining started to do things with the seats. Ah, they were turning them around, we must be going to back the way we came and turn off the main track, which is what happened.

V was at the station as we exited and after a decent old hug, she took us for refreshment to a cafe within the station building called Douter. We checked into our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, which was right next to the station. Right, this hotel was much cheaper than where we stayed in Tokyo, but we were somewhat space compromised, with only space for one sitting chair and cases had to go under the bed.

V called for us later and led us to her office where we met her co-workers, most of whom we had heard about over the years she has been in Hirosaki. All were very pleasant and politely inquisitive.

We V, R and I trooped across the road to eat at Eat, one of her bosses restaurant. The boss, along with her husband, spoke English well and we left the choice of food and wine to them. The boss, H, had spent some time in America and was used to western ways and habits. We had a fine nosh up, some Chinese, some Italian and some just international. I highly recommend Eat. It was also very spacious and had food stuffs on shelves to buy and some fresh produce on consignment available.

R was worried that his bed was rock hard and he would have back problems. By the end of our stay, he wanted to bring the bed home.

After paying the bill, H, the owner

See the small green dots, counting down to when the signal goes red. Once red, the dots show red and count down as well.

It is not quite picked up by the camera, but the Japan Rail Pass was quite glittery and beautiful. Not sure about the image of a wave swamping a mountain though.

Our train arrives, the Hayate (Tohoku line) Shinkansen.

The Shink interior with plenty of leg space.

While there were wash basins in the toilets, there was also this much better basin outside. Left is auto soap onto your hands, right is auto warm water and at the front hot drying air.

The second highest mountain in Japan, Mount Iwaki, was visible from the limited express train as we neared Hirosaki.

This statue greeted us as we exited Hirosaki Station. Nice pecs and six pack.

Some azaleas somewhere.

Our hotel.

Rather wasteful in my opinion, but clean bedding, pyjamas and towels everyday. We didn't use the pyjamas, but they kept on leaving them until they noticed there was a pile of clean ones.

Very comfortable beds.

A room with a view, of the station yards.