Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sado Island

Sado island is the 6th largest island in the Japanese archipelago (excluding the northern territories), behind the big 4 that make up the main body of Japan, and then the 5th, Okinawa. It is relatively close to me, about 2 hours by car, then a 2 hour ferry. I have wanted to go for some time, but just could never work out enough time to get in gear. Last week was Silver Week. It is called such because in May there is Golden week, a time when many holidays happen to fall on the same week and so lots of people vacation then. This year, certain holidays in September happened to fall during the week, creating a 5 day weekend. Time to travel.

Aya and I did a little research, packed up the car, and groaned at the ferry fee, but we made it to Sado very sound. It was great weather the whole time, sunny with a slight breeze and just perfect temperature. I felt like I was some little girl in a bear’s house eating porridge. Just right.
There are many interesting things to see on Sado Island from the oldest steel lighthouse in Japan, an abandoned gold mine, lots of beaches, an endangered species (the ibis), the Alcohol Republic, Charles Jenkins and tarai-bune.
The first day there we departed the ferry and started to drive north east, reaching futatsugame beach where we spent some time foraging on the beach. I felt like I was home again with the wind in my hair as I combed the shore for glass and interesting bones. It was great. From there we followed the coast west and took a glass bottomed boat ride over some very interesting rock formations, but really we did not have much time that day to do anything as just about everything shuts down after 6. Sado was strange and wonderful in that way. The buildings were very old and the atmosphere very small town. It was very relaxing compared to the hustle and plastic in the rest of Japan.

Day two had us up early (since we went to sleep at 9) and on my morning run I discovered the oldest iron lighthouse in Japan was about 30ft from our hotel. We snapped a few pictures then headed south and west along the south shore to have some fun in the tarai bune. Basically, these are giant wooden washtubs that people paddle with one ridiculous paddle. You basically have to grab the handles and make a churning motion to move the boat. When Aya tried we went backwards. She was really good. After that we headed north and to the Alcohol Republic. It is so named because there are a good number of sake factories in close proximity. I was told you could get a passport and get stamped at various establishments which of course excited me because it combines two of my favorite things, using a passport and alcohol. Unfortunately no one seemed to know where to get a passport. They did however know where to get free sake for me to taste, so I was ok with it, and then pretty happy with it, then I wasn’t sure what I was or was not happy with.
After some lunch in town we headed to the gold mine to find some gold of our own. After paying a 700yen entrance fee we went through a small museum and into an area full of troughs with sand in them. We were then showed how to pan and let go for 30 minutes to find what we could. We each scored about 8 small flakes. I told Aya that we should do this for a living, she did not agree. After getting brow beaten by an old lady outside to buy an ice cream cone (we got chocolate) we took off again, this time to see what Aya’s co-worker had described as the best thing on Sado Island, animatronics robots performing a Noh play. I had to wonder how robots performing a Noh play could be the best thing on the island, considering there was an endangered species and a gold mine, not to mention REAL Noh plays in the cultural birthplace of this distinct type of theater. We arrived at the center and found out the bots were broken; I guess I will never know the best part of Sado Island.
After that disappointment we went off to see the Japanese Crested Ibis. I had read about the Ibis and was almost as excited to see it as I was to see the Liger in Korea. This particular type of bird was thought to have gone extinct about 5 years ago, then some were found in China (is everything just waiting to be found in China?) and they were bred and given to Japan, which has since managed to breed a good number of the birds, so much in fact that about 12 were released a year ago, back into the wild. The center, nicely priced at 200yen, is basically a small museum and then a short viewing area from which you can see the birds at about 100ft. You can’t get closer. I don’t know if I really wanted to though, they birds are ugly and their call is far from beautiful. It sounds like someone blowing their nose and shrieking. Needless to say it did not compare to the Liger, but it was still cool to see a living thing so rare.
As we left the Ibis center we realized that it was 430pm and it would soon be getting dark. I felt somewhat like we were on an island that would be seized by vampires after the sun set as everyone scurried around doing what they could before activity ceased around 6. We had a plan of our own and went back to our hotel to get drunk.

On day three we had about 3 hours to kill before we headed to the ferry, first on the list, go back to the gold mine and pan again! That’s right; I got Aya to change her mind, almost. She agreed that it was fun, so we went again, but she still would not concede that we should do it full time. This time we managed to get past the old woman hawking ice cream on the way out. With about 1 hour left to kill we decided to do what I had been rolling over in my mind the whole time, visit Mr. Jenkins. Charles Jenkins defected to North Korea when he was serving as a soldier for the US army in South Korea in 1965. One night after deciding that he did not want to go to Vietnam he drank a bunch of beer and walked across the line. He says he almost instantly regretted it. Many years later he was introduced to a Japanese woman the North Koreans had kidnapped from Sado Island, they fell in love and had two kids. Mind you still in N. Korea. In 2005 through a deal between the Japanese and N. Korean government he and his family were allowed to enter and stay in Japan. Once there Jenkins served 24 days in a U.S. army jail for desertion and was discharged. Jenkins now lives on Sado, with his wife, and works at one of the local history museums/ gift shops. He is a very popular tourist attraction and I must admit that I wanted to go see him, but at the same time I was thinking that he must be awfully sick of all the attention. We arrived at the museum and found out the fee was 700 yen to enter, which was just enough to deter me from going in. You may have your peace Mr. Jenkins.
After that we went back to the ferry port, boarded for our way home on a beautiful sunny day and left Sado behind. It was a very quiet and lovely place.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

John Lennon Museum

Aya and I went to the John Lennon museum located in Saitama last weekend. It was really cool. The price to get in is not much, I think it cost us 1,300yen for the both of us and we got a discount because we were married, funny. Although most items in the museum have a Japanese explanation accompanying them, a great deal of them also have English which was really nice. Also, even though it was a Saturday, there were not many people in the museum and at times we were entirely alone.
The items in the museum and the set up itself is pretty cool. Room by room you go through the objects and stories of John’s life starting from his early years all the way to his death. I was very impressed with the amount of authentic objects in the museum from guitars to glasses, to art and signatures, to his report cards and diary. We were asked not to take pictures and I obeyed, mostly, one picture I could not resist and that is the one above, John’s report card!
The overall feeling of the museum was great, it really gave me the impression of actually understanding the years passing and progression from one thing to another. It gave me a much greater perspective on John’s life. I even learned that he visited Japan a number of times and kept a journal with pictures for learning Japanese, that was really cool. There were also many photos and objects from other personal moments and I felt the most moved when viewing objects from the 5 years when John took off to care for Sean.
If you are in the Tokyo area and are a Lennon fan I would highly recommend this place. If you are just a casual tourist I would still recommend it, but only if you have ample time to see other Tokyo places first.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I finally got around to climbing mount Iide (2105m). Last summer, myself and a group of friends got up the mustard to give it a try. Driving to the starting point Aya and I were separated from the rest of the group and we started up a different path. It was very difficult and after about an hour Aya said she couldn't take it anymore and we decided to turn around. Rightly so, it was about a 50 degree incline. Very difficult.
That was last year. This year I returned, alone, to claim the top. I had wanted to go with some friends, but everyone was busy. The weather was perfect and I finally had a day free so I decided to go it alone despite that hiking alone is not a good idea.
I started at 9am. After the first 15 minutes of flat trail the fun began. Much the same as last year, despite that this was a different path, the 50 degree incline was intimidating. I slogged on for about 2 hours before that ended and I reached the top of the first of many peaks and a "flat" area. Iide, in respect to other climbs I have done, was different in that way. After the first two hours the next 3 1/2 was a series of saddles between peaks. Sometimes the inclines would be so hard to pass that chains had been hammered in to the rock so you could hoist yourself up the rock face. In a couple of places the trail was only a couple of feet wide flanked by a precipitous drop that certainly would lead to death if you happened to mis-step. In the photo above there is a rock face that seems very slim, you have to hoist up a chain on the left side then walk the middle of that with 100m drops on either side. Scary. After 5 1/2 hours, exhausted, I reached the peak of Iide. Most people that climb take 2 days or more to do so, they stay in cabins along the way which provide water and shelter for the night. Those people are wise, I was not. I had it in mind to do it all in one day, so after reaching the top I promptly turned around and headed back.
Usually when I hike I figure a 3/2 ascent/descent time. If it takes 3 to go up it usually it will take 2 to go down as the descent requires more finesse and less raw power. However, because of the saddles this was not the case for Iide. It still took me 5 1/2 hours to descend and the last 2 hours were spent utterly alone and in the dark. The sun had gone down and all other hikers had long since gone to their cabins for the night. In addition I had somehow hurt my ankle near the top and was having the pain increase on the way down. So there I was, in the dark, hours from anybody, injured, descending the mountain. This is why you should not hike alone. However I always prepare a pack with essentials. I had a sleeping bag, rain jacket, 2 days of food, rope, water, cell phone, headlamp, etc.

To stave off paranoia and to hopefully frighten off any large animals like bears I started talking to myself out loud. I sang songs, rationalized my future, commented on the trail conditions, etc. Anything to remain loud and keep my mind off the solitude of the dark forest. Finally, 11 hours after starting, I reached the bottom. I thankfully peeled off my boots and headed home for some hot ramen and a cold beer. Iide was a great hike, in my opinion more challenging than Fuji, and I want to go again. However, next time I will take more than one day and I will bring along a buddy.