Transport in Japan. Part 1: The Kei car, Past and present.

Today we are going to talk about (or rather im going to talk about and you will hopefully read about) a topic that I’m very fond of. Cars!

More specifically a uniquely Japanese style of car that was birthed from the unique needs of a developing Japan and has continued to evolve to a point where it almost perfectly fits domestic conditions. The “Kei Car”. If you get bored reading about something that’s not specifically about what I have been doing, feel free to pop down to near the bottom where I put some bold font (for easy identification by lazy readers) after which is a short announcement about my current state of being.

I promised shorter and more frequent posts, but this one is going to be a long one alas.  So I shall hop straight into it in the hope of getting it done in a day.

 

Japan is famous for its phenomenal and often mind mindbogglingly convenient rail system, which facilitates an estimated 8 billion journeys per year. That’s approximately 21 million individual journeys per day, or the equivalent of almost the entire population of Australia hopping on board every day. The rail system is clean, efficient, comfortable and vast, covering some 27,000Km, with over 5000 unique stations for me to explore. With such a convenient and highly punctual transportation system available, it is not uncommon for residents of Japan’s cities to go their entire lives without attaining a drivers licence, nor operating a automobile. In Tokyo and many other cities (even though traffic is no where near as bad as many people say) it is typically both faster and cheaper to catch public transport to your destination than to drive. If fact, its hard to imagine a Japan without its rail system, the place would likely be a logistical nightmare of constant gridlock and polluted air. Because of this its easy to forget that much of Japan’s public transportation system is relatively new, especially compared to other large cities around the world.

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One of the many Japan Rail Yamanote Line Trains. A good representation of the Tokyo rail system. These trains are over 220 meters long, can comfortably carry over a thousand people at any one time (or uncomfortably carry about 2500) and depart any station at approximately 3 Minuit intervals all day every day.

With this in mind, “How did people get about this country before the rail networks were up and running?” you might ask. Well one of the many issues faced in the wake of world war 2 was, many of them couldn’t. While transport inside urban centers was passable, with access to busses and occasionally trains, transport for those outside urban centers was extremely limited. Despite much of Japan’s economy consisting of rural agriculture and light industry, many towns still had little to no road access. This effectively isolated towns from interacting with the wider economy and was seen as a factor limiting development of the nation by the central government. The solution to this appeared obvious, build more roads to facilitate transport of the masses, allow them to move their produce to areas where its worth more, and then tax them on profits, its win win.

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Without that bit of tarmac in the middle there, life in that town really suck. Its a 1.5 hour walk to the nearest shop.

 

Road building alone however was not going to solve the issue of limited transport. Despite massive modernisation within the cities and comparative affluence of their populations (not so much immediately after the war, but that’s another story) residents of rural Japan remained extremely poor. The vast majority of their income was locked up in the cost of merely living, with little left over for future investment or non necessities. This meant that even where roads were present travel was limited mostly to locations accessible on foot or on low cost, unreliable motorcycles. Even for successful city dwellers cars were a luxury item, wildly expensive to both own and operate, there was no way members of rural communities could afford such a thing. Limited road use also lead to funding issues and opposition to the expansion of the road networks.

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An example of Japan’s pre-automotive rural networking system. Very pretty, but not very quick.

 

In an attempt to facilitate car ownership and an expansion of the auto manufacturing industry, the government released revised guidelines for road going automobiles in 1949, including a new class of car, the 軽自動車 [Kei-jidousha] or light automobile (here after referred to as a “Kei Car”). This new breed of automobile was heavily restricted in many ways, including size, weight, engine capacity and tyre size. In return for these limitations however, any purchaser of a these cars would be awarded with significantly lower ownership costs such as taxes and registration relating to the vehicle as well as cheaper third party or comprehensive insurance amongst other things. Furthermore, the restrictions limited a manufacturers ability to go after wealthier demographics, the typical car market at the time, by adding luxury goods and prices to match. Kei cars were the automotive personification of “cheap and cheerful” stripped of all but the basic necessities of transport. Kei cars were fantastically cheap compared to their larger automotive counterparts and soon manufacturers were rushing to compete in this new mass market, which dropped prices further. In a way, the restrictions were a masterstroke of efficiency planning, for example small engine sizes prioritised light weight construction (or else the car would be SPECTACULARLY slow) which limited manufacturing costs, while also providing superb fuel economy.

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An example of an early (ish) kei vehicle. Style, power, sophistication, “mad chick magnet brah!”…… None of these describe these early micro cars. “Can haul a lot of yams and costs sod all.” However does, which was entirely the point

Initially limited to a mere 100cc motor displacment and a tiny overall dimentions early Kei cars, particularly those of the 1949-1953 vintage, were often simply converted motorcycles with extra wheels and storage space. Perfect for hauling potatoes and children. Throughout the early 1950s many of the initial restrictions were gradually relaxed, though not removed, adding increased utility to these vehicles. For example overall maximum size was expanded somewhat, while the maximum engine displacement increased to 360CC enabling them to carry a family some distance in relative comfort. While these changes made the cars somewhat more expensive, they also enabled a much wider application of the Kei car to daily life. You wouldn’t be going anywhere fast, but it provided all the required utility of a regular car for a fraction of the cost. The early days of the market saw a massive variety of vehicles, often made by back yard industries in limited numbers, but few “break out” models. It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that then fledgling auto company Subaru managed to find a formula that beat the crowd and developed the first mass production Kei car, the Subaru 360. This little car would go on to sell more than 300,000 units domestically, to be exported on a small scale.

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Subaru 360. With a mighty 13 horse power this wouldn’t get you anywhere fast (unless it was down hill i guess) but it was cheap, comfortable and reliable for those unable to stretch to a full sized car.

A little good old american advertising for the the Subaru 360 export models.

Supported by the high uptake of the Kei car by the masses, the road networks of Japan expanded massively in the 1950s and 60s, a benefit to all road users. Similarly, residents of once isolated rural communities now had physical access to markets, education facilities and places of recreation well outside of their reach previously. The prosperity of regional areas grew rapidly as a result, lessening the divide between urban and rural Japanese living standards. Occasional expansions in size, weight and motor capacities kept Kei cars relevant throughout the 20th century. For example in 1975 maximum allowable displacement expanded to 550cc, making intercity and long distance travel possible… though not necessarily comfortable, while the 1980s saw the first turbo Kei cars enter the market, adding more power and utility with Kei cars such as the original Suzuki Alto Works beginning to outperform many regular cars of the period thanks to its meager 600KG total weight.

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Series 1 Suzuki Alto works. Through the use of a turbo charger, this was the first kei car to meet the maximum power level allowed under Kei class restrictions of 64Hp. Though sports models are no longer a huge seller any more, the addition of turbo power to the Kei car formula gave them the power they needed to be a true replacement for a regular car.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s something strange began to happen, despite Japan’s population now being comparatively wealthy, with most able to afford a regular car if they so chose, the sale of kei cars began to surge. This was particularly true of models that focused on style, performance of comfort over outright utilitarianism and cost. With regular cars such as the Toyota Corrola growing in size, weight, power and cost every generation in an attempt target western sensibilities, these previously small cars were becoming large and unwieldy on the narrow and winding roads of Japan. Their extra power was wasted in a country where highway speeds rarely exceed 80Kph (around town speeds are more like 30-40kph) and the extra luggage space was seen as similarly unnecessary by many living in Japan. Kei cars on the other hand had for generations been developed with only the Japanese market in mind, and were increasingly offering not only the bare necessities of transport, but providing a better suited alternative for significantly less money. Their often complete disregard for aerodynamic performance means they are often built extremely square, maximising interior space. Similarly their tiny power plants use much less room than the 1.6-2liter engines found in western style sedans leaving more room for occupants and meaning surprising amounts leg room for all while their freedom from EU safety regulations allows for skinnier doors for a more spacious cabin.

This rise in popularity, combined with the affluence of Japan in the late 1980s lead to the design of some wacky, interesting, and occasionally excellent Kei vehicles during this period. Particularly sports cars who’s handling benefited massively from their light weight. These included what came to be known as “the kei sports ABCs” the Mazda AZ-1, the Honda Beat and the Suzuki Cappuccino (spells ABC see?). Three cars I love and want to own. There were plenty of other sporty, funky and oddball kei cars during the period too, but these are the three most famous of them due to their similarity to western style sports cars, just Japanese sizing.

I will let a very much younger Jeremy Clarkson tell you about them.

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Honda Beat. A mid engined 2 seeter convertible sports Kei car that sold like hotcakes in the early 1990s. Today you still see quite a few of these running around. Also note the lack of any cars you have ever seen in Australia in that car park. Not at all uncommon.
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WAIT!!! THATS NOT JAPAN!!!! I hear you cry. Correct. Though never officially sold here, a small number of Suzuki’s Cappuccino have made it to Australian shores. These are not as common as the Honda beat here in Japan due to their higher cost when new. But have become highly sought after due to their excellent turbo motor, front engine rear wheel drive lay out and phenomenal handling. Yure was kind enough to let me drive this example, and it is hands down the most unique and entertaining vehicle I have ever driven.
The most radical of the three Kei Sports cars, the Mazda AZ-1. A mid engined rear wheel drive turbo tiny Ferrari look alike. Though they never made particularly many of these, I have still seen a couple during my time here. Their initial rarity seems to have saved almost all of them from the scrap heap and now they command serious coin if in good condition.
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I love the doors.

Now days, arriving in Japan and seeing the cars comes as a shock to many.  The land of the rising sun is usually thought of as the land of exotic, technologically complex, loud JDM sports cars such as the Nissan GTR and Mitsubishi Evo, where drift missiles are the rule, not the exception, and where there is a nightly reenactment of Initial D (or fast and furious: Tokyo Drift if you prefer crap movies) in every car park. In reality, it is the land of the econo-box. Wherever you look you will see tall, boxy cars with minuscule wheels and exhaust pipes the size of a bendy straw, almost noiselessly putting their way along the road. Since the early 1990s Kei cars have retained their popularity, though the years of economic stagnation and declining expendable income of the population has tamed manufacturers design choicesand they rarely now release cars as pointedly impractical (but none the less awesome) as those above. Regular 4 seat Kei cars unknown overseas dominate sales domestically, while famous cars such as the Toyota corolla are so uncommonly purchased here that Toyota terminated Japanese production some years ago. Thats not to say “normal” cars don’t exist. There are plenty of them, and you won’t go long before seeing some kind of 1990s hay-day Japanese sports car burble by, amazingly low and loud, but for every car you might recognise you are likely to see what appears to be an oversized motorised biscuit tin as well.

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Suzuki Wagon R. One of the more popular cars in japan during the past decade.
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Manufacturers often take base model Kei cars and restyle them into classic look-a-likes.  The Daihatsu Mira Gino above is a good example. These typically sell for not a lot more than the base model, making them very popular.
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The Suzuki Jimny and other kei class 4 wheel drives are popular in rural areas due to their go anywhere nature afforded by their light weight and true 4DW systems.  In urban areas they make a cool fashion accessory. You often see these with hilarious lift kits and massive wheels looking like a micro sized monster truck.

As it stands now, Kei cars are still limited to 660CC and 64horse power. The same as they were in 1990, though their maximum external dimensions are now allowed to measure up to 3.4M long, 1.48M wide and 2M high. To give you an idea of what those sizes mean (lets be honest, you have NO idea what length your car is) a Mazda 2, a Hyundai i20 and a Toyota Yaris all exceed 4 Meters in length, a full 60 CM longer than the longest allowable Kei car. They are all also at least 20cm too wide to fit into the kei car class. Despite their tiny exterior dimensions though, I find most kei cars to have significantly more interior room than those cars due to their more efficient lay out. Though in the past few decades they have been getting heavier,  almost every kei car weighs in at well under a ton, making them at least several hundred kilograms lighter than the above mentioned cars. The average cost of a brand base model in today’s market (at our present exchange rate) including 3 years registration is about $10,500. before the Australian dollar fell late last year, they would have been about $8,000 or so.

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Suzuki Kei Works. A four door turbo Kei hot hatch. you are likley to see a lot more of this and similar than any fast and the furious style ricer.

When I first saw kei cars, I thought they were some kind of bad joke. How could ANYONE want to drive such a horrid little box of a thing. The more I have learned about them though, the more I have come to appreciate the significant advantages they have over regular cars. Their small size makes them very easy to navigate tight spaces with. I have driven a normal car here, and while on the open road there isn’t an issue, threading a regular car down a 2 meter wide, supposedly 2 way road, filled with blind corners, bollards,  and lined with the occasional old lady and pot plant can be a nerve wracking experience. Their interior to exterior space ratio is a benefit I have already mentioned, but seriously, they are like the tardis, bigger on the inside than the outside. You know when a delivery company uses a car it can haul a lot of junk, and here they all use Kei vans for all but the largest of deliveries.

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Japanese delivery trucks. For the true utilitarian style, most Kei vans are available with optional unpainted bumpers, saving the company and thus you about 100 dollars in paint.

Despite their boxy shape, they get excellent fuel consumption in the environment they operate in. Average speeds in japan are quite low. Outside of expressways you would be lucky to cover more than 50 kilometers in an hour, and in my experience its more likely to be 30. Though high speed probably isn’t their thing (never tried) most Kei cars easily travel 100 kilometers on less than 5 liters of fuel. Newer turbo Keis increasingly can do it on less than 4. We aren’t talking clean driving at a set speed here, nor some calculated test a manufacturer can plan for (looking at you VW). That’s clambering up and down windy mountain roads in between being stuck in stop start traffic. Dull most may be, but due to their light weight and small engines their efficiency in this operating environment easily matches and often exceeds hybrids and eco-turbo cars catering to the west costing more than twice as much and specifically engineered to save fuel. Sometimes, you just cant beat simple.

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A Kei “utility truck” in Its natural habitat. These little AWD utes tractor around boggy rice paddies in summer, lug firewood up frozen mountains in winter, carry as much stuff as you could reasonably want, will run on the mere thought of petrol and will last decades with even negligent maintenance. Price brand new is less than $9,000

I could go on for a while longer listing the benefits of the domestic motorised biscuit tin. There really is a lot to like, but I will stop after talking about this last point, which is a particular peeve I increasingly have with normal cars, visibility. Anyone who has driven a car from the last few years and compared it to 20 years ago will have noticed that while cars of the past were glass houses you could clearly see out of, modern cars feature increasingly enormous blind spots and vision obstructions which make them difficult to see out of. The part of this is an attempt to make them more safe during an accident, but also comes down in large part to more emphasis being placed on exterior styling than visibility. Apparently this is a common complaint, seeing as many manufacturers are now equipping such cars with blind spot monitoring systems, reverse cameras, corner cameras and proximity sensors in an attempt to let you know where other objects on the road are. I am often shocked by the woeful blind spot visibility, and it makes me steer well clear of modern cars on the road as I know folk have NFI where I am or if i even exist. This to me is a bizarre situation where by we have made cars safer to crash…. by making them more dangerous to actually drive. Kei cars, much to my delight, while now also having all the electronic warnings and beepers, boopers, cameras and other assorted bollox required to navigate in a normal car, almost all retain the revolutionary concept of windows you can actually see out of! Something i wish was engineered into all cars. Rear and side visibility is excellent and this makes navigating tight areas, changing lanes and pulling out of obtusely angles intersections significantly safer. Not only that, but your chances of hitting unseen objects or more importantly, people, is significantly lower.

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Oh hi there Mr Blind Spot….. you sure have gotten fat since the 90s….

For all this positive talk though, there are significant draw backs to these little home grown wheely mobeelies. Probably the most paramount being safety. While most new kei cars now feature plenty of airbags, motors that fall out rather than squish your feet, impact protection and whatnot as found in a regular car in an attempt to make them safer, they have traditionally been significantly less safe to have a crash in than a regular car. part of this is due to their weight, or lack of it, meaning that they typically come ogg second best in accidents. Similarly, the design of many with an exceptionally short bonnet means that in front on collisions they have very little crumple zone. Many manufacturers now crash test Kei cars against International standards as a way of marketing their cars domestically and they increasingly are returning passable (though rarely stellar) results, with many now being safe enough to sell in other countries. However simply due to the nature of their design, they are not where you want to be while crashing. The low average speed on Japanese roads means that perhaps safety standards required for save travel at 110kph + on a German autobahn are a bit excessive here, but none the less, please don’t crash one unless its very slowly and into something soft.

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Modern Kei cars are improving safety in leaps and bounds, but a small tin can is just inherently a worse place to be in a crash than a bigger can….

The second issue is performance. While their tiny motors may be great for fuel consumption, and their tall narrow shape may be great for interior space, they rarely are particularly exciting cars to drive. Very short gearing helps them clamber their way up mountains and potter along in traffic, but rarely would their sprint times to 100Kph thrill you. Many are equipped with a turbo that help them get moving and stay moving, but few are likely to win any races (unless against other kei cars or some form of slow animal.)  Similarly, their light weight means there is a possibility of good handling, but with a focus being placed squarely on comfort over performance, most handle like a limp soggy sponge and are considered as entertaining as wallpaper paste to drive… sort of like all economy cars then.

Occasionally though, manufacturers throw all of their usual sensibleness to the wind and develop a truly sports focused, fun to drive kei car. Though the days of those “ABCs” are long over and only Honda has launched a spiritual successor so far, peppy little Kei cars do still exist. Typically based on a small hatch, they get given the suspension, tyres, steering and power they need to be genuinely engaging cars to drive. This combined with their low weight and small size makes makes them excellent drivers cars despite their limited power (64Hp). Their retention of  Kei class status still makes them significantly cheaper to own and operate than even the most cost effective non-kei car. One of the most popular of these is the suzuki alto-works, which Suzuki recently resurrected after a 15 year absence. Using the alto as a base, the alto works gets a turbo, an inter-cooler, adjustable suspension, a reinforced chassis, lighter wider wheels, nearly a thousand dollars worth of tyres, performance brakes, an entirely new interior, an upgraded clutch and gearbox and many other things I forget, it comes out the other side of the factory looking like this.

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These cost about 16,000 dollars new, and to me seems a much better option than anything on the market in Aus for that price.

This little car, including insurance, registration and all on roads, comes to a sum total of slightly less than a base model Honda Jazz or Toyota Yaris. Ongoing running costs such as registration are about half that of a normal car and insurance, thanks to it being a Kei car, is the equal lowest of any car in Japan (interestingly, all Kei cars regardless of type cost the same amount to insure for third party fire and theft.)

So that sums up a short history of the Kei car. What started life as the only vehicle most could afford, has over the years evolved into the only vehicle most people will ever need. My own reservations about why they exist have largely been laid to rest and I now genuinely believe a lot of issues about automotive transport globally could be solved with adoption of a similar mentality of car building. They inherently use less fuel, generate less emissions and due to their compact dimensions make a better city car than a regular “sub compact” could hope to. Over the years they have increasingly inherited the interior quality and features of their larger automotive peers, making them as pleasant to be in as a regular car, and thanks to their simple and largely uniform engineering (most manufactures only have less than a handful of engines for their entire kei line up, so parts compatibility across different models is amazingly common) parts and maintenance costs are extremely low.

A Kei is the ultimate in affordable and practical transportation, they are the econo-box perfected.

 

AND SO THAT’S WHY I BOUGHT ONE!

Now I’m living in the countryside, I obviously need transportation. No public transportation system, not even Japan’s wonderful and varied one, is able to service the entire nation. Rural and semi-rural areas with low population densities are obviously the areas of the most minimal coverage. There are busses that run quite close to the house that I am in, but they are too infrequent to base a life around for more than a week or two. similarly, the closest rail station is a 6KM walk, and the closest super market is located not far from there. On top of this I hope to use my time here to see things that tourists of limited time and means are forced to miss, and to get to many of japan’s most wonderful sites still requires use of the good old fashioned automobile.

The story of going to get my little automobile is a long and interesting one (more interesting than you have likely found this post anyway) that I will tell soon. But for now, I will just harvest photos from that journey and tell you about the car.

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Sunrise on “mount akina” (of initial D fame) with my new little set of wheels.

If you know about me beyond my name, then chances are you know i love things that say vrooom, that’s why I just spent a good several thousand words of so writing to you about them, even though you probably don’t care. (Actually, a few people now have expressed to me that they enjoy reading about how things are different here to other places, that has something to do with it too.) This love of cars, combined with my desire to drive many of the mountain roads Japan is famous for, meant that a typical car or regular Kei car was not what i had in mind. Perhaps I have been spoiled by my Australian car, but I strongly dislike wallowy, mushy cars that most of the industry produce for the masses and believe I would be a regret choosing something sensible and pedestrian in the long run. As a result I started hunting and soon realised that with the ever declining Australian dollar, I couldn’t afford much. When the dollar was worth 100 yen or more, as it had when i started saving for this trip, my budget would have allowed me to slip into a tidy, mid 90s rear wheel drive sports car such as a Silvia, a Suzuki cappuccino or something else of comparable sportiness. Unfortunately with the dollar having dropped more than 25% since that time, all these ended well outside any budget i could sensibly afford.

Things i can’s afford!

After a brief look about I decided I would opt for one of the few cars I both at least wanted to try, and could afford.  I have mentioned this car a few times now, but its a Suzuki Alto works. A tiny, 3.25 meter long hatch back, that has been given the proper sports treatment from the ground up before leaving the factory. After more than a week of trying (they sell really fast if in even half decent condition it turns out) I managed to get to see this one, and secure Its purchase for a sum of about $4ooo including 18 months rego. So what does 4 grand (about 3, without the rego) get you? A 15 year old, 160,000Km hot hatch with a 3 cylinder, double overhead cam, all alloy, turbo inter-cooled motor and AWD, (yep, its turbo and AWD, just like a GTR! :P) wrapped up in a sub 700Kg body with a large side serving of fun and a dash of “I don’t take myself too seriously”. It’s also somewhat surprisingly, quite spacious inside and comfortable to drive for long periods, both things I didn’t really expect of this particular car.  Given it meets the Kei class requirement of no more than 64 ish HP, it isn’t a rocket, but due to the turbo and the massive torque it generates, it feels as quick or faster than most relatively modern cars by the seat of the pants it feels faster than my MX-5, I could be wrong. It trucks along at 80KPH perfectly happily, and will pull up fairly steep hills in fourth gear as long as you keep the turbo on the boil (below 2200 RPM though it couldn’t pull the skin off a custard. The interior is a very nice place to be, with a silly amount of storage, (seriously, it’s ridiculous to have this many spots to put things in such a small car) and most importantly to me, its fun to be in and operate. You don’t even need to do anything silly in it to have fun. Thanks to its light weight, tight steering and responsive chassis, even just doing pottering up and down mountain roads at the speed limit makes you feel like a rally driver (especially the up hill, where you need to work to keep up to the speed limit.)

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Suzuki i believe once had the marketing campaign, “Every drive is a rally drive.”

So far fuel consumption is quite good. My trip home consisted of tight, steep winding  mountain roads mixed with stop start traffic averaging 30Kph in 50-60kph zones, but so far its only drunk about 20-25 liters on nearly 400KM of driving. I call that pretty good. It also has an ECO mode that unlike many actually does something…. limits your power to that of a base alto…. and doesn’t automatically turn off if you put your foot down like many do. I imagine if I made better use of it, that would improve my fuel consumption further still, but on the way home I usually turned it off on uphill sections and when getting moving in traffic as i couldn’t be bothered rowing the gears when i could just ride a wave turbo torque up the hill.

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The previous owner seems to have really loved this car. despite its age and milage, its clean as a whistle, well serviced and has a very nice, probably rather expensive steering wheel.

I suppose i haven’t spent enough time with it to find its narks and issues yet, but at least for now I wish we had these little cars in Australia. Its the best mix of fun and practical I have ever found, is good on fuel, and comfortable to drive distance in… I guess that probably makes it, at least objectively speaking the best car i have ever driven… I might leave it at that.

Time to drive to get some dinner….. what a chore 😛

(I promise the next one will be more interesting!)

 

Breaking Chronology; A Quick Update Of Me and My Life.

Hi all, It’s been AGES since the last post, mostly due to my attempts to learn the lingo, as well as my general laziness and incompetence. I plan on being more frequent with my updates in the coming weeks, partly by actually doing some, and partly by keeping them smaller and more manageable than the past ones have been.

With that in mind, this post will be a quick update of my current circumstances, after which i will get back to posting about things i did WAYYYYY back when the past was still the present.

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After which the blog will go back to the past! It’s a strong independent time traveler that don’t need no car.

First of all, I am no longer an inhabitant of the worlds largest metropolis. Its hard to believe, but I have already lived in Tokyo for 3 months, the longest period my visa permits me to stay in any one locality. I plan to write a more lengthy post in the coming weeks about my general feelings on city of Tokyo, as well as the impressions life there has left me with, but this can wait until after i cover all the major happenings of my time there. For now I will simply say that Tokyo, like most of Japan, is completely different from the international persona created for it by the international community. Its not the ultra-modern metropolis projected on silver screens the world over, nor is it the congested mess that one might envision when told it harbours more than half the population of Australia in an area the size of Perth. In a single word, Tokyo is comfortable. Its not a city from the future nor is it particularly beautiful. However it is a calm, convenient, efficient and over all enjoyable place to live and I encourage anyone with half a chance to explore the city further than one is able to on a short holiday stop over. If you are anything like me, you will be surprised and delighted as you unwrap this quietly magnificent city that.

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Tokyo by night. Quiet, comfortable and pretty.

 

 

So, the question you must be asking (unless you don’t love me, in which case you wouldn’t ask nor care) is that if I’m not in the King Kong of megalopoli anymore then where exactly am I? Well, I will give you a hint, by way of photo.

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So, as you can see I have moved to a place where the prevailing colour is EYE SCORCHINGLY INTENSE GREEN, intersected by the occasional road. More specifically, I have moved near Hakuba, in Nagano prefecture. I don’t expect you to know where that is, so have a convenient link to a map which should give you a rough idea where I currently am.

Click me for a map yo!

I wont give you my exact location in case one of you decides to come and murder me in my sleep…. and also because I am staying in a house which is not my own. Many thanks to the owners for being kind enough to let me stay in this beautiful area, who shall remain anonymous unless they read this and tell me its OK to divulge more information on said residence. I guess this is a good way to see if you read these posts my dear mystery people! What I CAN give the rest of you though, are a few photos i took around my general location over the past 3 days. It is a truly magical little spot.

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Not where i live. But i wish it was.
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A local Shinto Shrine. I dont know what its for but when i do some research and find out, i shall inform you as if i know what i’m talking about.
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The local area has a plethora of small walking tracks, most have signs warning you to not get eaten by bears…. if that happens, at least i got eaten in a nice place!
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you may have noticed by now, but i like the colour of chlorophyll in this country.
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There is the fast road, but I prefer the little one I’m standing on.
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The area is full of waterways like this. Many flow into rice fields owned by locals before continuing on their way down hill. Even during the dry months they flow thanks to the snow thawing on the highest peaks.
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“Kei” utility vehicles like this are wildly popular up here. When I told a local i was looking to buy a car, i was asked if i was after either a use or a van, as if no other vehicle type existed.
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4-5 months ago this would have all been frozen and dead. Now, there is so much life half the greenery jumps away as you walk past. Simply a stupendous amount of insect life.
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Small scale farming seems to be the occupation of choice for many up here. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of automation and most days you see owners out manually pulling or buzz cutting weeds.
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a local hotel. A lot of the buildings up here take their designs from Europe and the Americas.

All of these were taken within walking distance of my new place of residence. In the next few weeks i should be getting a little Japanese domestic market car of my very own (a long term dream), at which point I plan to go on many grand adventures around the countryside, visiting places inaccessible  by rail and thus 99% of tourists. Until then though, I think the local area will keep me busy enough.

Hakuba is famous for its Ski fields and related infrastructure. The area hosted parts of the 1998 winter Olympics, and is popular with local and international winter sportsters alike. As someone who has never seen real snow (half melted sludge not withstanding) the idea of being here in winter certainly appeals. I find it hard to believe though that i would find it as spectacularly beautiful as the summer

Thats it for now. Hopefully you will hear from me again in the near future.

A Trip To Kamakura

So, its been a million years since my last update. Well, not quite that long, but at least 3 weeks, which is pretty poor form for a blog I intended to update at least weekly originally. This post comes with the aid of D.J.Nickle-Pickle (Nick Ballantyne) because after sitting down and writing almost the entirety of this in one sitting, I honestly had zero desire, motivation or time to read it all again several times over to edit it. Nick crossed my Is and dotted my Ts, or rather fixed my amazingly sporadic capitalisation and then made fun of me when sentences i wrote at 3:00am and never read again made no sense. So many thanks to Nick otherwise this would likely be another week in the making.

For the past month, I have been attending a language school to get my lingo up to scratch. Its kind of working, though I still have trouble with just about anything involving language. I’m learning to build more complicated sentences slowly, though with few Japanese friends to practice with, I’m becoming increasingly book smart without having much chance to apply it in real life and thus get it nice and lodged in my noggin. I’m hoping to attend some social/language exchange activities this month so I can practice more. School runs for about 3 hours a day on week days, and because one of my many flaws is that I struggle with rote learning (which is about 80% of language. SO MANY WORDS!!!!), I spend a similar length of time each night on revision trying to pound the content into my grey matter so I can remember it the next day.  The result of this is that I haven’t done a massive amount of super happy fun times activities this month, though I have been trying out many of Tokyo’s increasingly diverse selection of cafés, many of which are spectacularly good. Expect a blog about coffee at some point in the future!

Now, onto the photo stuff.

More than a month ago now, I headed off for a trip to Kamakura, the one time capital of Japan situated about 70Km south-west of Tokyo. Kamakura is often referred to as the Kyoto of the East, due to its high concentration of shrines and temples as well as its cultural significance. Between 1185 and 1333, Japan was primarily ruled by the Kamakura Shogunate. While the North and West of Japan retained a level of autonomy and the old court/emperor still resided in Kyoto, the primary seat of economic, social and political power rested here with a military government for about 150 years. Today Kamakura is a fairly small city of 170,000 odd people surrounded by the sea on one side and steep hills bearing dense forests on its east and west flanks. Its cultural heritage, fairly low density and pleasant beach make it a popular day trip location for Tokyoites and a renowned tourist destination both domestically and internationally.

I have visited Kamakura once before, and thus had already done a smattering of the more famous sites in the city. As a result, this time I decided to focus on the eastern side of the city, which I previously spent little time in. If I get a chance, I would like to return and see what I can find in the west and north of the city.

Somehow on my previous visit, I managed to miss one of the the number one most visited spots in the city: the shrine complex of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Originally founded in 1063, The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine was expanded and moved to its current location in 1180 by the Kamakura Shogunate due to the temple’s worship of deities linked to this governing family. The primary focus of worship at the shrine (as I understand it, at least) is to the Shinto deity of Hachiman. Hachiman is said to be the ascended spirit of Emperor Ojin, who after his reign ascended to the role of patron deity of the samurai class and protector of Japan. I don’t claim to be an expert of East Asian religions, but it’s my understanding that as the influence of the shogunates spread across Japan during this period and increasingly supplanted the governance of the imperial family, the worship of Hachiman amongst the general population skyrocketed. Today, Hachiman shrines are the second most prevalent of all Shinto worship sites nation wide.

If you are confused about this or it flew over your head as your eyes glazed over, you aren’t alone. I know little about either the Shinto or Buddhist religions, and though I would like to learn more, I have found Japanese religion and much of its early history largely impenetrable despite my best efforts. If I ever learn enough to speak reliably on the subject, I will do my best to write a ‘Japanese religion and history for dummies’ post. For now it would be a case of the blind leading the blind, I fear. [Or the blind leading the more blind – N]

One thing that I CAN tell you, though, is that this shrine complex remains at the heard of Kamakura, both geographically and spiritually. The approach to the shrine is a wide walkway which begins near the central station and extends to the north east for nearly a kilometre. Visitors taking this path pass below three large Torii gates, the large red gates you have probably seen in photographs of Japan that signify the entrance to a sacred space. The approach to the shrine contains 3 of these gates, but I believe the shrine complex itself holds several more (I didn’t count those, so no specific numbers from me). The walkway is lined with freshly planted trees (Sakura, I believe) as well as hundreds of stone lanterns donated by local companies. I believe the whole walkway has recently undergone modernisation judging from the size of the trees and the spotless lanterns. Right now, it looks a bit sparkly fresh for me, but I’m sure in a few years as the trees grow and the stone ages, it will be quite a lovely place to walk.

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The一の鳥居 (Ichi-no-Torii or outer most Torii) of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu approach looking towards the shrine.
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Stone lantern so shiny and new, you don’t even need to light it at night!!!
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The walk to the shrine isn’t exactly short.

After a fairly long stroll, visitors once used to cross this bridge; nowadays you walk around it and take photos of it instead. I am interested to know how old that tree is… Its trunk looked well aged to the extreme, and I would not be surprised if someone told me it was centuries old.

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Curvy bridge, Feat.[oldtree]
After passing through the third great Torii and entering the temple grounds, one finds several small walkways branching off to the right that lead to gardens and auxiliary shrines and another large central walkway that leads up to the shrine proper. This second stage of the central avenue is now lined with food vendors, though, rather than trees. After a short walk, the climbing of stairs begins. The topography of Kamakura is unusual from an Australian perspective, being fairly flat for the most part, but being intersected by often incredibly steep hills that jut out far into the city limits like a lush green arterial system. The Hachiman shrine sits part way up one of these hills, significantly above the surrounding city, thus commanding a nice view of the area. This means… stairs! While this particular shrine wasn’t too bad, some shrines in Kamakura may leave you with lovely 6-pack abs on your thighs as a reminder of your visit.

In front of the shrine proper, and well below it, stands this building. Named ‘Dancing Maiden Stage’ which is used for various performances throughout the year relating to festivals and worship at the shrine.

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Dancing Maiden Stage: A stage where I presume maidens dance from time to time.

Behind this are the stairs leading to the shrine proper, as seen below.

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Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine.

Photography inside the shrine is prohibited, as is usually the case with Shinto buildings. This combined with the fact that the building appears newly refurbished, and thus lacking in the texture and detail that I like photographing in Japan, meant that I took surprisingly few photos. I did finally discover the answer to a question I had long asked myself though, what is this symbol.

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The symbol of Hachiman.

During my previous adventures in Japan, I often saw this symbol and wondered what it was. It adorns many shrines I have visited, as well as several other buildings and many roof tiles. As it turns out its the crest of Hachiman, and because he is such a popular dude, his crest is not only used on buildings used for worshiping him (as I mentioned before, second most popular fellow in the country as ranked by number of shrines made for him) but has become rather ubiquitous nation wide.

As a small aside from today’s adventure, lets talk a little about something I DO know about Shinto. Near many shrines in Japan are small shops that sell charms and other assorted religious (and often not so religious) paraphernalia  to visitors. These typically take the form of small paper envelope style charms, inside which a small prayer is written. As I understand it, these are carried for a period of 1 year, after which the owner should replace them with a new one. Shinto, as a religion, places a strong emphasis on renewal. The strongest example of this is perhaps Ise Jingu. This, the most holy site of the Shinto religion, is completely rebuilt to the exact same specifications as the original building every 20 years. This undertaking requires decades of planning and is colossally expensive due to the scarcity, quality and size of timber required. This tradition of rebuilding has persevered for well over a millennia, with the building now in its 62nd iteration. This mindset of replacement is so integral to the functioning of the shrine that two identical plots of land exist side by side so the new shrine may be erected before the old is torn down. (Remember boys and girls. That’s a different shrine, not this one)

This particular day, however, I saw something I have not noticed before. Small slabs of wood being sold, onto which visitors write a message before hanging the token by the shrine. Perhaps I am wrong and these are everywhere and always have been, but I have never noticed them at a Shinto site before.

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Dreams and wishes are more likely to come true if you hang them in plain view, perhaps?

From the shrine, you can look back over the whole central approach corridor as well as central Kamakura. I wont lie, after a month of Tokyo, it was nice to see some green and a blue sky.

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LOOK!!!! SUNSHINE!!!!

Behind the shrine was a smaller auxiliary shrine, with FOXES!!!! I like foxes. Not so much in Australia where they don’t belong and cause significant damage to our habitat, but I do think they are a lovely looking animal and have a soft spot for their behaviour as well. Why was there a Fox shrine? I honestly have no idea. I believe that foxes are often messengers for the gods in many Shinto fables, so perhaps that’s why. Perhaps one day, I shall discover why, and at that time, I’m sure I will say, “AHHHHHHH!!!!!” as everything starts to make sense, hopefully along with the raccoon men on the side of the road often chilling next to vending machines.

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It looks like its telling me to fox off….
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Not my picture, i stole this from google as I was too lazy to walk outside at 11:30PM to get a photo of one of these dudes. if i get a good photo of one i will post it later. 

After this, I set off towards another temple complex, Kencho-Ji. Kencho-Ji is the most important of several Buddhist temples scattered around Kamakura. Though much smaller than it was during its heyday, this temple still holds several world heritage items and is one of the most visited sites in Kamakura. The site of this temple complex was some way north east from Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. While the city center of Kamakura is relatively flat, I soon discovered that the outlying parts are often far from flat. What I expected to be a fairly easy walk ended up being rather sweaty given the unusually warm weather and continuous uncomfortably steep slope. Houses lining the side of this road were often as much as 10 meters above the level of the road with the only visible access being via absurdly steep steps. Perhaps the reason for Japan’s population’s longevity is all the cardio exercise they get walking up and down cliff faces… If it weren’t for the fact that there was a major road carving its way through the area, I imagine this route would actually not be traversable by foot.

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Somebody’s ‘drive way’. Looks significantly less steep here than in reality. There were 7 flights of stairs to reach the house.

After a while (and lunch, and beer) I arrived at Kencho-Ji. Forking out my dosh and entering the grounds, I was immediately met with the sight of Sanmon, the main (now internal) gate to the complex. At this point, I guess it’s a good idea to go read a bit about Kencho-Ji from the information pamphlets because its been AGES and I have forgotted [sic, in the sense this is just misspelt for MAXIMUM COMEDY – N] most of the information…

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Sanmon Gate, walking beneath it is said to purify visitors before they approach other buildings. Note: people for scale, that’s a lot of wood!

RIGHT!!!!! So, Kencho-Ji was founded in 1253 during the Kamakura period you read about above. Zen Buddhism, while often thought of as traditionally Japanese, actually originated in China, and adoption of its teachings only started relatively late in Japan compared to other religions. The first records of Zen Buddhism in Japan appear around 1191, long after Buddhism was adopted and incorporated with Shinto to form the native Japanese religious structure. However, soon after its arrival in Japan, the Zen sect of Buddhism gained favor with the Samurai class, the most influential class in Japan’s society at the time. As a result, financial and social support were strong, and its influence spread rapidly through Japan.  Within only 60 odd years of it being introduced, some of the largest temples in the nation were devoted to the Zen faith. Early Zen Buddhism and the rule of the Hojo Clan from Kamakura were closely linked. Apparently, Zen Buddhism and many of its affiliated temples were used by the Shogunate to monitor happenings in the nation distant from their seat of power in Kamakura. Monasteries, and those who worked in them, were often far more effective at dispersing social norms, ideology and laws to distant regions than direct attempts by the Shogunate. Many monks who trained at Kencho-Ji and other such temples in Kamakura took on the function of translators, advisor and diplomats all over Japan, extending the reach of the Hojo’s influence despite their rather modest resources.

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The family crest of the Hojo clan, who ruled for much of the Kamakura period.  Also, the Tri-force, created by the gods of wisdom, courage and power…. in Hyrule…. in Zelda…

Kencho-Ji is the oldest remaining Zen training monastery in Japan. At its peak, it housed some 49 major structures as well as various sub temples. Today it’s much smaller, but not so small that I had the time (or notion) to visit all the sites it has on offer. It makes me wonder just how large the complex was during its heyday. Moving further into the complex, I found the Butsuden, which houses a large statue of Jizo Bodhisattva. You may remember from several weeks ago stone statues with red hats devoted to the souls of lost children. At that time, I believe I talked a bit about a Bodhisattva that guided those souls to heaven. That was the Jizo Bodhisattva. He has many other roles as well, and was said to have taken a vow not to ascend to Buddhahood [dope – N] until he succeeded in emptying the various Buddhist hells. To my understanding, he is one of the primary points of worship in the Buddhist faith. This Building originally stood at Zoujou-ji in Tokyo in the 1600s.

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Butsuden exterior. Note the detail on the everything, sorely lacking in most modern buildings here.
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The Jizo Bodhisattva carrying the two tools he is often portrayed with. A staff to prize open the gates of hell and a wishing stone, to light the way in darkness. (Also note the wooden carving to the right hand side.)

Its worth mentioning that unlike many Temples in the Tokyo region, almost all the temples in Kamakura are still made of wood, having been spared the firebombing campaigns that destroyed much of Tokyo’s heritage. To me, this is important because for all its benefits and convenience, I find concrete very soulless. I feel this is especially true when used to recreate heritage locations where it often completely kills the magic of the buildings. To me, the aging of the wood and paint in the above picture adds character that concrete and fresh paint never could. For this reason alone, Kamakura is well worth the side trip, in my opinion.

Behind the Butsuden is a building named the Hatto. This houses a small (comparatively) statue of Kannon, another figure from Buddhist history and a lightning dragon themed roof. I found out after my visit that this is actually the largest Buddhist structure in eastern Japan and is amongst the most important buildings at this complex. Unfortunately, I was ignorant to this at the time, and due to it holding less intricate statues than many of the other buildings, I sort of scooted through it. Mistaking its age for modesty is something I now regret, and I may return soon to see if I can do more of this complex.

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Kannon and the thunder dragon. Both things I don’t know enough about to talk about intelligibly.

Nearby was the Karamon gate. Which, because it’s late and I know nothing much about it, you can read about from the sign below. It was well impressive with its intricate design and shiny, shiny gold.

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You know… usually people build big gates to keep people AWAY from your rich person gold… its amazing none of this was stolen over the years really. 
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shiny shiny gold. 
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SO MANY TRI-FORCES!!!!! (more seriously, the Hojo clan emblem can be found all over Kamakura due to their prominence during its more notable historical period)

By this stage in the day, I was beginning to get a bit templed out. A combination between my lack of knowledge on the topic, a lack of understanding of what the various buildings significances are and the number I have seen in the past means that this is something that happens more often than not if I visit several sites in a day. Luckily, Kamakura is more than just a series of temples and shrines. For those interested in escaping dense poulations and human constructions, Kamakura also offers a series of hiking trails between sites that provides a welcome escape from the concrete jungle of Tokyo. One of these trails begins behind the Kencho-Ji complex and leads through the mountains to the east of the city, offering access to some of the smaller shrines on offer. After completely missing the point of the Hatto, I decided it was time to get out of the sun, and escape along this forest trail.

Getting there meant walking past many small, active shrines and temples within the complex. Many of which, due to their smaller size and natural setting, were, to me, more picturesque and likeable than the grand structures talked about so far. The fact that I kept stumbling upon lovely locations meant that the 10 minute walk to the hiking trail ended up taking almost an hour…. The up side of this? Pretty pictures to look at, which I imagine is something you are more interested in than all this text. (It’s ok, I like the pictures better too)

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Tree lined avenues, a time honoured way of making things feel special.
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Someone must spend a lot of time pruning here.
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There be childer here!

Behind the temple complex, I was surprised to find there was what appeared to be a small town. Why was this surprising? Well, because I had to pay several hundred yen to get into the complex, but there must be some kind of access in here if these people live here. I wonder how it’s all set up. Also, while we are looking at one, a note on Japanese roads. They are often incredulous tiny, and I’m almost certain no sort of rational planning ever went into residential road design in many of Japan’s cities. Many roads (like the one above) are barely wide enough for a single Kei car (a Japanese subcompact sized car which makes Australian small cars look about as compact as the Death Star) but are in fact two-way roads. Similarly, I have found several minor roads in Tokyo which wind through high-density housing areas, and somewhere along the way, have either a dead end or a power pole slap bang in the middle of the road, making them impassable for even the twiddliest of cars. I imagine if you were to stumble upon one of these while operating an automobile, it would rather ruin your day as you reverse your way some 100 meters up the road to the last intersection so you can escape. An outcome of this appears to be that many people simply ride bikes or walk to destinations that Australians would typically take a car to. And don’t get me started on Japanese cyclists. They typically share the sidewalks with pedestrians and are amazingly skilled. Even granny has the ability to weave between pedestrians with ease while sending a text on her flip phone. On the first day, it was unnerving to have a mother and two children on the same bike whizz past me with only centimeters to spare.  However after the first day, I quickly stopped paying attention to the bicycle born commuters as I came to realise that they were more nimble than I and better able to avoid me than me them.

Further up the hill, past a house I really would like to live in, I found the hiking trail, and one of my favorite locations from the trip so far.

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I don’t mind Japanese cities, but it’s sites like this that make me love the country.

I really enjoyed the hiking trail. I have always liked nature, though I don’t get out into it as much as I would like. After spending a month in Tokyo which under the mostly grey sky was starting to feel like a literal interpretation of the title ’50 Shades of Grey’, getting far away from man-made things was a very welcome change. The map estimated the walk would take about one and a half hours, but between my photoing, stopping to explore and occasional stops at spots I liked just because, I ended up being in there for nearly 4 hours.

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With 4-6 kilometers of magical path to explore, I was in a very green heaven.

Many of you who know me will know that I have a fondness of insects/bugs in general. While it was a bit early in the year for bug hunting at this point, I stumbled upon a new friend. He, like most of the path, was VERY green.

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Green bug of many shines!

While he looked beautiful, he was a crotchety little fellow. Any time I came remotely near him, he decided that instead of trying to escape into the greenery, where he would be all but invisible, the best way to protect himself from this thing several hundred times his size would be to charge at it and try and eat it, or in this case, my shoe. I’m sure he could give you a nasty nip, as he left tiny marks on my shoe, but self-preservation doesn’t seem very high on his agenda. After convincing him to stop nibbling my shoe and distracting him with a nice tasty leaf, I set about trying to google what he was. I didn’t have much luck though, as “shiny green bug that likes eating shoes” isn’t much to go on.

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My new friend, chilling with his lunch leaf.

Just up the road from my little 虫(Bug) friend, I came upon a clearing which is supposedly the highest spot in Kamakura. Strangely, this sign is not at the top of the hill, but at the bottom of a set of natural stairs carved into a rock face… So, either the mountain has grown, or sign positioning man takes a very “close enough is good enough” approach to his job.

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Nice hand written sign… in not the right place.

Regardless of the signage (and its accuracy), though, the view was rather swell.

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From here you can see what I was talking about before, with Kamakura city center being flat and located on the coast, while the surrounding area is intersected by land too steep to build on.

As you can see from the sun, it was getting late in the day. I had intended to visit a small temple at the far end of the hiking trail, but with over a kilometer to go I decided that I would be better to return for that another day. This ended up being a good plan, because just down the path I found this.

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A “tea” house. If by tea you mean beer. I didn’t see any tea anywhere.

Located in the middle of the forest, with little to no access other than on foot as far as I can tell, stands a rest house/tea house run by a nice little old lady. What with it being a hot day and all, and my having had almost nothing to drink all day, I decided it would be a swell idea to drink a beer in the middle of a forest. This ended up being an even swellier idea, as not only was the beer spectacularly cheap (basically bottle store prices, about $1.80 for the can) but the lady wanted to talk with me, so I got some Japanese practice to boot. (I say Japanese, but really, my Japanese is so poor its more interpretive dance and key words when its my turn to speak.)

After this, it was getting dark at a mildly alarming rate, so I decided to head for civilisation as fast as I could before I had to sleep in a damp forest. Not much of note happened during this period, except I stumbled upon some kind of small eagle which took offense to me interrupting its river water drinky dink time and decided to swoop me. Location photo below; no photo of said bird, as I was busy fleeing!

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Where I met the second grumpy animal for the day.

I escaped the forest maze finally (I say maze, but if it were a maze it would be a crummy one) and headed for the train station. Walking through the outer districts of Kamakura left a nice impression of the place with me. Its got a lot more greenery than Tokyo, and has a much more small town vibe about it too (probably because it is a fairly small town). It’s also pretty, in a suburban Japanese way. House prices here are pretty astronomical from my brief look at a realtor’s window though.

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Nice road. Much green. Do like.

I shall leave you with two pictures I find amusing together. I found these two cars within a few hundred meters of each other. The first is an original Austin something or other, sorry, I don’t do old British cars. The second is a Daihatsu Gino, a Japanese Kei Car designed to look a bit like a Mini or Austin classic car, while costing a fraction of the cost to own and maintain to try and row the novelty boat and tempt buyers. While it might sound like I’m down on that idea, I’m not. Compared to most Western markets, where every car maker is competing to make the most futuristic and modern looking cars possible with little variation between brands, I think working an existing design into an oldschool throwback is a great idea. I know I would much rather drive some cooky looking retro micro hatchback than a Hyundai-Yaris-Spark….

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Real.
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Copy.

 

This brings us to the end of my mad adventure in Kamakura where as usual i didn’t get to see everything i wanted to, but enjoyed myself all the more for it. Hopefully some time soon you will hear from me again with another exciting (hopefully shorter) story. But until then have fun!

Part 2, Tokyo-Edo Open Air Museum.

Seeing as I’m still talking about the past here, I figured I would give you all an update on the real world current happenstances of myself currently.

Really not a whole lot is new, save for the fact that i am now attending intensive Japanese language school 5 days a week. The classes seem to get through content rather fast in the beginning of the week, then slow down towards the end to focus on revision and embedding what you have learned in your grey-matter well enough that it wont fall out as soon as you don’t use it every day. As always with me and language, my main struggle is memorisation of vocabulary. It takes me forever to learn new words, and significantly longer before I can conger them up from the bowls of my memory fast enough to form coherent sentences without boring the listener to death in the process. I’m very much enjoying being back in a learning environment again though. Over the past 18 months or so i felt my brain was getting a bit mushy from lack of use. Pouring coffee, though very enjoyable, isn’t exactly mental gymnastics. Hopefully after a few weeks of school my brain will start playing the memorisation game a bit better again, though to be honest, rote learning was never my strong point.

The class is small, 4 students plus one teacher, which makes it a great environment for learning where any faults in your language ability get picked up and put right very quickly. I seem to have been lucky and everyone in my class is lovely. Only complaint i have is that there isn’t enough homework, and that’s something i wont say too loud as the spare time it affords in the afternoons is lovely and is giving me a surprising amount of time to head out and explore Tokyo. I have taken up running again in the evenings, and most afternoons after school i either have lunch with my fellow students, or head off to one of Tokyo’s parks to explore. I’m slowly learning to be a bit less stingy with my money. I still don’t intend on blowing massive quantities of cash every day, but now I have  productive tasks to do that take up a lot of my time, I don’t feel so bad about spending money on experiencing the city I currently inhabit.

Recently I have been taking a bit of video footage around Tokyo. A lot more than i usually do. I’m finding that video is a better way of capturing this often messy city which more often than not looks rather poorly in photographs. Because you have been very good and read about me this far without any pictures to keep you entertained, I will share with you a short clip I captured this week at Rikugien, my favorite Tokyo garden, famed for its maples. I’m hoping to amass enough footage from this trip to make a short video focusing on Tokyo and the aspects that i find unique about it, but we will see if that ever eventuates. Until then, I hope you enjoy the colour green as much as I do!!

Click here for video.

Now that we all know what it is that I’m up to, lets get on with the recent history of my shenanigans in Tokyo’s tourist destinations.

So, picking up after my conversation with the nice old men I headed off, still strongly smelling of pine wood smoke, to the Residence of Hachirouemon Mitsui. This is one of the larger and more modern structures on display at the museum, having been built in 1952. The building incorporates several rooms from former buildings in Kyoto which were relocated to Tokyo after the war and kind of Frankensteined together with newly built rooms to construct this rather large residence. Unfortunately I don’t have many photos of the outside as the side facing the path was basically just a flat slab of wall half hidden behind trees waking up from winter. I discovered upon returning home that one may enter the houses gardens through a side entrance and get rather splendid photos this way, at which point I kicked myself. Luckily the view from inside out to the gardens is similarly pleasant. Especially from the second floor.

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I know little about this building, as I didn’t see an information plaque as displayed at other houses. I’m sure one existed and I just missed it. From my understanding this house belonged to one of the heads of the Mitsui Zaibatsu (one of the largest corporations in Japan.) The significant wealth is difficult to miss as its scale and furnishings were the grandest of anything on display. It has for example, a three story storage outhouse filled with cultural artifacts (which one may not photograph) as well as this little twinkly thing dangling in the upstairs hallway. (Jokes, it was ludicoursly enormous.

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gargantuan chandelier, for when its imperative that your guests are know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are ridiculously loaded. 

 

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And in case the chandelier gets missed, stamping the guest room wardrobes with real gold should ensure you are not mistaken for a simple peasant.  

Downstairs is a little bit less grand, and thus more to my taste than upstairs. The downstairs area is largely comprised of the rooms relocated from Kyoto, linked through a series of hallways etc. The traditional tatami room was particularly to my liking, with great views of the garden, lovely soft light and a beautiful colour palate.

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Late afternoon light, the scent of tatami and an intensely green garden outside made this simple room my favorite of this most grand building. 

Turns out that i lied to you, i DO have some photos of the outside of this house.

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I daren’t venture any further into the garden than this as there was a scary looking sign full of Kanji i couldn’t read that appeared to be forbidding it. I guess i was wrong. 
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Despite the obviously expensive interior, the outside of the building, particularly the more exposed northern side seen to the right, was nothing to write home about. 

After this I headed to the house of Korekiyo Takahashi, a man of whom I first learned of during my studies of contemporary Japanese history in University. As I mentioned while I bored you all with my ramblings on Tokyo Tower not long ago, while there is strong tourist interest in centuries old traditional culture, such as samurai artifacts, shrines and castles, little is explored by tourists in the way of modern history much more relevant to the formation of the Japan we and love today. As a result, while most people interested in the history of this island nation could likely tell you all about the warring states period, the unification under  a centralised government etc, very few will have even heard of this man. Despite my having briefly covered the turbulent Japanese political scene of the 1920s and 30s at university, I knew little about Mr Takahashi other than his being one of the many leading moderate politicians assassinated by right wing militants in an effort to remove military authority from the civil government’s hands. Further research however showed him to be a fascinating man, as impressive in personality as he was in his achievements and someone I have quickly grown to admire.

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I didn’t take this image, unfortunately i dont have a time machine.

Despite being born an illegitimate son of a portrait artist and a 15 year old maid before being immediately put up for adoption, through his work in economics Mr Takahashi went on to be one of the driving forces behind Japan’s massively successful modernisation following the Meiji restoration and may have formed the foundation of a set of macro-economic principles we still use today. His achievements include drafting the original set of patenting laws for Japan, many of which remained unchanged to this day and becoming governor of the bank of Japan by the mid 1910s. This is not to make mention of the fact that he was the 20th Prime minister of Japan, nor the fact that his at the time futuristic policy response to the great depression lead to Japan returning to growth within a year of the crash, while the rest of the developed world struggles with colossal unemployment for the better part of a decade.

While much of Japan’s political class followed the doctrine of “Fukoku kyōhei” (Strong country, strong military) in the Post Meiji restoration era in an effort to avoid becoming a western colony, a fate that by this point had gripped almost the entirety of Asia, Takahashi-San strongly promoted the concept of “Rich country, Prosperous people”, arguing that Japan would never have the natural resources at home to sustain a war against the Western Imperial powers. Rather, as early as 1885 he promoted cooperation with western powers and economic measures strengthening the purchasing power of the Japanese populace through competitive trade as the most effective way to further the state, remain autonomous and become a prosperous nation. He pushed for universal suffrage (the right to vote), a greater role for local governments and for members of government to be elected rather than posted. He was also deeply against military expenditure, which he saw as both non productive for Japan’s long term goals and wasteful in economic terms. In parliament he worked to redirect upwards of 50% of its military expenditure into economic development, a goal he never achieved due in part to the structure of Japan’s political structure at the time. He also had the foresight to see issues with the legal structures within Japan’s relatively new democratic process, which made Japan’s military largely autonomous from civil government, and afforded the military powerful rights in the civil process. He and lobbied hard to have the Army and Navy general staffs abolished and civil ministers appointed in their place as to limit this military autonomy. Perhaps if this latter desire had of been realised, and the structural flaws in Japan’s governmental structure rectified, the history of Japan in the 1930s and 40s may have looked considerably different. Never the less, in the post war years japan followed a model of economic expansion remarkably similar to that championed by this man. focusing on cooperative economic expansion with little to no military expenditure along with increasing the population’s prosperity and purchasing power to expand Japan’s international influence. Given Japan’s rapid recovery during the post war years and swift rise to being the worlds second largest economy following these principles, its hard to argue he was entirely wrong in his beliefs.

His response to the great depression in 1930 showed a striking resemblance to Keynesian economics, which would not be “invented” until several years later.  By having the central bank of Japan purchase bonds directly from the government (rather than issuing them publicly as is traditional) Takahashi-san funded additional government infrastructure expenditure without removing any existing investment capital from the economy. This greatly enhanced the multiplier effect of fiscal stimulus at it was truly new money entering the economy rather than just redistributed savings. He also unpegged the Yen, and aggressively deflated the currency over the short term in an effort to make Japanese exports more competitive than those produced by western colonies within Asia. This had the double effect of increasing employment back to close to 100%, as well as bringing in new capital from international customers. Though these counter cyclical practices are seen as commonsensical now, these were revolutionary at the time and proved highly effective. After an 8% contraction in 1929-30, the Japanese economy went on to grow more than 5% per year over the next 6 years. These measures were so successful that Korekiyo Takahashi soon felt it necessary to reduce the quantity of stimulus spending, a move that outraged the increasingly radical and violent military of the period who had quickly identified these bonds as a great way to fund their militaristic expansionist ideals.

Unfortunately the thing that Mr Takahashi is perhaps most remembered for, is the fact that on the 26th of Feburary 1936 he was murdered in his home by a group of young military officers  in an attempted coup. This event, referred to as the 2/26 incident and involving the assassination of three prominent moderate members of parliament, effectively paralyzed the function of Japan’s civil government  through a combination of fear and the veto like powers afforded to the military. This inability or unwillingness to regulate the military, amongst other factors, played a large role in the rapid military build up that resulted in the pacific theater of the second world war.

 

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Unsurprisingly for someone so influential (and with a knack for finance) Korekiyo Takahashi’s house was in no way small. It is a large structure and particularly tastefully designed on the outside. Its complicated F shape breaks up the lines of the walls, and the inclusion of a second floor significantly smaller than the first breaks the roof up into many smaller sections. This leads to a building that is very pleasant to look at, despite its large size. This is in contrast to the Mitsui building above which from the outside was rather ugly, with large expanses of flat white wall. Much of the southern face of this house is made of large glass panes inserted into sliding doors, something that came at considerable expense in 1902 I’m sure. I’m not usually a fan of glass in older buildings, but because of the house’s close proximity to the garden, this glass reflects the surrounding trees which makes it look all the more special.

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A lovely garden reflected in the glass. 

Despite its size and obvious expense however, this building was not particularly lavish inside, being quite plain and cleanly decorated in a rather traditional style. With the exception of the carpeting in the western style room, the obviously expensive glass sliding doors, and the high quality of the fit and finish in this building, inside it appeared to be quite understated with little in the way of furnishings. Downstairs is primarily made up of 4 large tatami rooms that can be connected or segregated by sliding screens, as well as a bathroom, storage room and several hallways to connect these together. Now, a small history room outlining the life of the owner sits in what i believe was the western style room. Unfortunately no English translation was available.  Upstairs, lies the bedroom and more commonly used living quarters. Photography here was not permitted upstairs due to the unfortunate history of those rooms. To the south of the  building lies a large garden which combined with those glass windows affords a lovely view, particularly upstairs where you look out into the canopy of mature maple trees.

 

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The Lower tatami rooms, looking out over the garden through a wall of glass. 

Following the 2/26 incident, the grounds this building originally stood at were transformed into a public park commemorating Korekiyo Takahashi’s achievements. This building was apparently moved to the cemetery where Mr Takahashi  was buried and used as a rest house for visitors before being relocated to this museum several decades later. The garden outside is a recreation of the original garden from location this house originally stood.

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Part of the recreation of the garden where this building once stood. 

After looking around this house, I found I was rapidly running out of time to see the rest of the items on display. So I tottled off quickly and basically just rushed around the rest of the buildings having a quick look, but not really researching or stopping to find interesting interior shots. As such I don’t know a whole lot about the rest of these buildings other than whats on the signs I took photos of.

The next place I stopped by (briefly) was the farm house of the Tenmyo Family, who apparently were the administrators for a large farmland area in what is now tokyo, the building was constructed originally in the early 1600s, and was grand enough in design and style that i thought it was significantly more modern, perhaps from the 1800s.

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The house looks pretty healthy for something that is over 400 years old. 
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Somehow i suspect that the glass may not have been there in the 1600s. However, they had a lovely front door no?

The remainder of the park is set up as a traditional shopping street, with a wide variety of shops relocated to the museum having been set side by side on either side of a central road to form a street scape. Like I said, I don’t know a whole lot about these buildings as I didn’t have time to explore them as much as I should like, so to make up for my lack of knowledge I will just put up the signs displayed with each building I lack information for.

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The traditional shopping street.

Unlike many of the other buildings on display, these buildings were all fully furnished and full of stuff. This was great at it made the stores look and feel lived in, I would love to return some time and spend more time in this area.

Murakami Seikado Cosmetics.

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The cosmetic manufacturer “Murakami Seikado”

Built in 1928, this building is a good example of what i was talking about last week, with Japan becoming increasingly modern, affluent  and westernised in the 1920s with a strong growth in consumerist culture before the political climate changed. Inside this building one could see the processes the company used to produce and refine its various products, most of which were made in fairly small batches in house.

Maruni Shoten Kitchenware shop.

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Half house, half shop, I really like the copper plating on the front. 
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Information about the above building. 

Kawano Shoten Umbrella Store.

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Inside this store was a diarama explaining the process of making traditional Japanese umbrellas, typically constructed out of a heavy waxed paper and wooden slats. All the umbrellas on display were beautiful and the construction process was very intricate and long winded, requiring each slat to be shaped by hand using only rudimentary wood working tools. A far cry from the cheap and nasty 100 yen plastic umbrellas of today, these each of these umbrellas must have cost a considerable amount given the amount of man power they took to make. That said, I would imagine that because of their craftsmanship and cost, they would have been much better maintained and longer lived than their contemporary replacements.

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Lovely hand made umbrellas. Now likely costing several hundred dollars each. 
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Information Plaque.

The Bar Kagiya.

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The bar Kagiya, inside looked very inviting and i can easily see why this became a popular spot for locals to spend their evenings. 
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Information plaque for the bar Kagiya. 

Kodera Japanese soy works.

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The last building i got to see on this trip, the local soy works built in 1933.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to get a photo of the information plaque on this building before a member of staff asked me very politely to please go home. However to the best of my knowledge and googling prowess, I believe this to be a soy refinery which produced soy sauce, as well as miso products and apparently liqueurs as well.

After my expulsion from the museum I made my way home, and had a rather uneventful night studying in my apartment.

Hope you are all doing well wherever you are, and hopefully this time next week I will have something else interesting to report, I honestly cant remember what comes next so your guess is as good as mine!

 

Tokyo Edo open air museum.

well thats it folks, Cherry blossomb season is over for the blog, at least for this year. maybe there will be a bit more variety on here after this 😛

With my regular Japanese subject of the unofficial national flower having up and vanished on me, I finally had a chance to head off to somewhere not sakura related! So, google maps in hand I decided one morning to the Tokyo Edo open air Museum housed inside Koganei Park one of Tokyo’s most expansive open areas. (This is not to be confused with the similarly named and similarly superb Tokyo Edo Museum, located in central Tokyo) This is about an hour ride from my apartment and a further 20 minutes on foot or so.

I have decided to split this day into two separate posts as it was a long day with many photos and i don’t think most of you want to read close to 5000 words all in one sitting. the second half should come pretty promptly as i have already written about half of it.

One thing I have increasingly noticed in Tokyo is that while quite a few of the inner city residential areas are looking somewhat worn (“Surely not!” I hear you cry. “A city of more than 20 million people looking lived in? MADNESS!”) many of the outer regions are spotlessly clean well vegetated and very modern. With a lovely blue sky above it was nice to wander through quiet streets and sneakily gaze at peoples gardens as i passed. They also appear to have communal garden patches!

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A thirty minute ride from the heart of Tokyo lies a nice little vegie patch.

 

 

Tokyo Edo Open Air Museum was founded to house a variety of rare and unusual buildings from around the Tokyo area, saving many of these buildings from destruction in the face of modernisation, as well as ones once common place that are now all but non existent in the ever changing metropolis. Buildings included in the collection display many generations of building methods used in Japan, from traditional thatched roof constructs dating from the 16th century to Pre-Meiji restoration manor houses and many buildings from the 1920s. These latter buildings come from a largely forgotten piece of history, build in period of peaceful modernisation/westernisation sandwiched between the chaotic events of the Meiji restoration, and the rapid increase in militarism of the 1930s.

The grounds of the open air museum are expansive, providing a garden for every building so that they are shown in a context that fits their original purpose. Knowing the relative scarcity of such buildings in other locations, i decided to head to the western exhibition area first as it housed the majority of the early 20th century buildings. The first building i came upon was house of Koide, constructed in 1925 and designed by architect Sutemi Horiguchi, a major player in the Japanese modernist movement at the time. The building combines contemporary (at the time) dutch elements, of which he was fond of, and more traditional japanese elements including the frontal tatami rooms overlooking the garden.

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The house of Koide, The frontal tatami rooms are just visible through the lower windows. 

Inside the building is interesting. The majority of the rooms are fairly traditional for the period, however occasional you come across an impressively richly decorated western style room, which strongly juxtapose the simplicity and gentle colour palate of Japanese design with the the simplicity and soft shades of Japanese design with grand colours and textures entirely foreign to the island nation. The best example of this is the guest room, where the creams and browns of Japanese design make way for rich crimson velvet couches, heavy oak tables, deep red curtains and a thick, plush carpeted floor. the room was rounded off with a piano tucked away in a corner, and a large inbuilt western style hearth taking central place in front of the seating area. To round all the is grandeur off, the walls were coated in a textured gold coating.   There appeared to be more furniture in this one room than in all the Japanese rooms combined. Unfortunately with the curtains closed and the dark colouring of the room, I found once i got home that none of my photos of this impressive space actually came out. The majority of the house however was much more modest though still obviously built for someone of stature and significant wealth, with a great deal of detail worked into most rooms including an unusual dividing of ceilings into lattice like structures using wooden cross beams and a series of wooden boards skirting many rooms up to nearly hip hight, something not usually seen in Japanese houses. This latter detail amongst many others was apparently inspired by the architects experience with and interest in dutch architecture.

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Off the main entrance, note the wooden boards placed over the typical white walls. These were cut in an intentionally rough pattern to add texture to the room. 
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The front tatami rooms overlooking the garden.  the colours here matched beautifully. 
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A genuine 1920s Japanese toiletries cupboard door! I love the slightly imperfect textures on many surfaces in these older buildings and how they give the feeling of hand crafted care. 
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With the exception of its having been relocated. This house has not had any structural work done to it since being constructed over 90 years ago. All the wood in this building dates from that time and it appears to have worn the test of time extremely well. 

My next stop was at a similarly unusual house. One built during 1942, a period when construction materials were all but impossible to access in Tokyo and much of Japan. The building was constructed by Kunio Mayekawa for himself and though fairly modern in its layout, was simple and designed with a focus on utilising a minimum amount of materials.

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The house of Kunio Mayekawa.

Inside the house is dominated by a large, open central living room, including a small second floor, with a bathroom and bedroom off to one side, and a study off the other. I really liked this house for its simplicity and the feeling of relaxed spaciousness it gives, something rather missing in many other buildings in the collection. Of all the buildings here, i think this would be the one i would want to live in.

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The main living area, the high roof and simple furniture combined with subtle colours make it a very pleasant place to be. 

The study had been decorated with a small selection of war period and post was every day items, including a desk lamp, a small original Sony television set, a phone and clocks. The result was a room that felt lived in and used, like the owner had just wandered off and might return to complete his drafting work at any time. the inclusion of the antiques was a nice touch as many buildings here felt a little sparse.

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Apple Iphone, 1950s edition. 
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I wish my T/V had cool buttons and switches like this one. 
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The clock was well and truly wrong. 

Next visit was to the House of George de Lalande, who despite his very french sounding name, was a renowned  architect hailing from Germany. He expanded an existing structure to produce this rather grand three story western style house around 1910 and lived there for some time. He must have gotten nice and fit climbing all the stairs as the centrally located staircase and relatively narrow profile of the building means that despite its impressive stature, there isn’t actually a huge amount of room on each floor. From 1956 the inventor of the Japanese beverage “Calpis” (often renamed Calpico for English speaking markets) lived in this building.

The ground floor and terrace are now used as a small, rather classy looking restaurant. Waitresses wear period era clothing and most modern ameneties are well hidden, giving the whole operation a rather old worldy feeling. Despite the location and lovely decor, prices were reasonable, so i decided to take a quick break and have lunch here. Im glad i did because not only was the food rather good, but it came out with silver platter service and made me feel like a member of the landed gentry.

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The house of George de Lalande
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A rather swell spot to have a fine luncheon 

The last of the “modern” houses that i visited was that of Okawa in Denenchofu. This was constructed in 1925 and stood in the Ota ward of tokyo, then an outer suburb. This house was unusual for its being a western style building outside the central area of Tokyo. Unlike many of the other buildings on display from this period, this house had little in the way of Japanese design on display, and that which did exist was largely confined to things that would be required for every day life. The day i was there the outside of the building was being worked on, so i got no photos of the outside. However, please enjoy this stock photo i have blatantly plagiarised.

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The interior was similarly western, and looks lovely and quaint. It seemed a very livable house and felt very cosy, though rather cluttered compared to Japanese houses of the time.

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Would you know it was a Japanese House if i didn’t tell you?
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Most of the houses were strewn with “please don’t touch anything” signs. A bit of a pity for photos, but i suppose they need to do something to preserve these now extremely rare and largely irreplaceable buildings. 

Moving on from here, we get to the only none enter-able structure of on the grounds, the Jisho-in Mausoleum. Originally constructed in 1652, this building was constructed in the honour of Lady Ofuri at the request of her daughter, who married into the ruling family of the period. Crafted by some of the preeminent carpenters and artisans of the period, including the designers involved in Edo castle. Though buildings such as this were once not so uncommon, the vast majority of these structures were brunt to the ground during the firebombing campaign targeting Tokyo in 1945. As a result, this building has been listed as a special heritage asset of JapanDSC06714

From here i entered the area focusing on significantly older buildings, dating from the 1600s and featuring mainly thatched roofs.

The first was the house of the leader of the Hachioji guards. The Hachioji guards were retainers of the Tokugawa shogunate family who were posted to the Hachioji region in the early 1600s. I took a photo of the sign explaining the history of the building, so i will let you read that instead of explaining exactly the same thing myself.

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The exterior of the Hachioji Sennin Doshin is very simple in construction, and was in fact smaller than many of the farm houses that surrounded it. 
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Have a sign because I’m lazy!

The interior of this building is rather interesting. True to the fact that it is effectively a farm house design, the entrance is little more than a dirt floor where one removes their shoes before stepping onto the raised wooden floor of the house itself. This intermediate space is a form still used today in many buildings in Japan. Typically the initial entrance area to a house is considerably lower than the inhabited area and the difference in elevation is used as a visual stimulus to signal that the removal of footwear is required before proceeding. This is even  true of my apartment. Once inside the building, the lay out is fairly simple, with a set or two tatami matt floored rooms used for living areas, and a number of polished wood floored areas used for passageways, the kitchen and storage rooms amongst other things. The living areas can be divided or conjoined through use of sliding doors. There is a bare minimum of furnishings in the building, though every day items do remain. i find it rather amazing how little the people here use to live with, seeing as i have managed to make my apartment well messy with the contents of just one medium sized suitcase!

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The living area, located the furthest from the entrance way. 
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The entrance after removing one’s shoes. 
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Hallway to the back door. 

One of the most interesting things about this building was actually not the floor plan itself, but when one stopped and took the time to look up. The central spine of the building was made of a single tree trunk, retaining much or its natural shape, to which support beams for the rest of the structure were connected. The spanning beam structure shown below supported more than half the building, while the other half had a smaller tree trunk connected up in a similar way. Interestingly,very few of the beams appear to have been carved down to a uniform size and like the main beam retain their natural shape from their days as a tree. I don’t know a whole lot about carpentry, but i imagine it would take no small amount of skill to build this way, as opposed to using contemporary techniques using almost exclusively straight and uniformly sized lengths of wood. DSC06642.jpg

While i was here these older buildings were being manned by a number of older men who were volunteering their time for the preservation of these cultural artifacts. during the colder and wetter months, these men light fired in these thatched roofed buildings on a daily basis to drive away insects and kill off mould, vastly increasing the longevity of the roof itself. In this particular building one of these men approached me and gave me an explanation of the process, as well as a short description of why these buildings had two small alters in them, one for the native Japanese religion of Shinto, and one for the later imported religion of Buddhism. These two religions have been co-worshipped in japan for centuries and have become somewhat interlinked over the years. As such, most buildings of this era will have two small alters within them, one for each religion. Compared to most religions that take a much more “our way or the highway” approach to those of other beliefs, i find this idea of a population co worshiping two religions and their peaceful and symbiotic co-existence very interesting. This man also showed me a traditional grain grinder, seen below. grain is poured in the circular hole, and the top half rotated by hand, this grinds down the grain which is then deposited out a second hole in the lower half.

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This grain grinder was actually hidden from sight under a woven bamboo shroud, the nice man got it out to show me how it worked. judging by its weight you would get a rather impressive set of biceps using one of these one a daily basis. 

The next house from this period was largely similar in construction, though somewhat larger and more grand. I am including a photo of the information provided inside for visitors below. Inside this house i stopped by the fire for a chat with two of the volunteers who seemed eager to talk, we had a merry old time for about 20 minutes, and i can confirm that the fire would drive away insects, because once i was outside I discovered I smelt strongly enough of pine wood smoke to make me not want to be near myself either!

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Information about this building. 
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Super friendly and cheerful guys who i had a very pleasant time with. They will definitely need to wash those clothes then they get home though. 

below is the fireplace in the katte as described in the information page. As well as a detail photo of the connection between the interior and exterior spaces in this traditional building. I love tatami mats for the aroma they give off, as well as the feeling underfoot that they provide.

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Kitchen fireplace. 
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Detail work on the tatami, it’s the little details and textures that make Japanese spaces feel so special. 

 

 

 

 

The long awaited (or perhaps just overdue) next post!!!!

Hi all, sorry its been so long since there was an update on here. I ran out of space on my computer to store images and had to wait for simulated pay day (I run a self enforced budget over here, where I get “paid” every fortnight on Wednesday) before I could buy another external hard drive to be able to store my stuff on.

Just quickly, a big hello to those of you who have picked up one of my cards from V-burger bar Floreat and made your way here. I hope you are all well and that the coffee and service there are as good or better now that I have gone. Thank you for visiting this page and I hope you enjoy seeing what I am up to. Sorry those cards are so spectacularly dark, they are poor enough that I am embarrassed by their quality. I got them printed internationally on the cheap and while the image looks fine on a computer screen, when printed like that it comes out significantly darker.

I have been up to quite a bit over the past few weeks, enough to mean I’m now talking about events almost two weeks old, so lets get started and I will see if I can clear the back log.

First, a picture to break up all this text!

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Wooden ladles used for the purification ritual at many temples before aproaching the buildings. I need to get someone to show me how to do this some time as I would love to learn the cultural and spiritual reasoning behind it. 

 

Friday before last I decided to make the most of the last few days of the Sakura season and headed off in an attempt to get a Sakura flavored image of my favorite structure in Tokyo, Tokyo Tower. You might remember from several weeks ago my trip to see Tokyo SkyTree, the recently constructed worlds tallest freestanding tower and most advanced broadcasting platform. Well some 50 years earlier, Tokyo Tower was similarly the Brand new iconic architectural highlight of the Tokyo skyline. Completed in 1958 and measuring in at 333 meters in hight, Tokyo Tower was the worlds tallest self supporting steel tower, a title it still holds to this day. Until the Skytree project nearly half a century later, this tower remained the single tallest structure in Japan. The significance of Tokyo Tower stretches far beyond its physical form though. It is a cultural landmark as much as a physical one, one that underscores a period in time that is still defining and shaping much of modern Asia. The construction of Tokyo Tower during the 1950’s, a period when much of Japan was still reeling from the effects of the war, was seen by many as a Phoenix project and turning point symbolising the rebirth of Japan as a modern society and nation. After decades of natural disasters, rule by brutal militaristic authoritarian regimes followed by utter devastation during the closing days of the second world war, the construction of Tokyo Tower symbolised the emergence of Japan as a thoroughly modern democratic society and economy. To this end, it was decided that some 30% of Tokyo Tower’s construction materials were to be made from former military hardware such as tanks, smelted down and recycled into an this iconic landmark. It’s physical function may have been as a broadcasting tower, however the socio-cultural significance of this structure as the premiere celebration of Japan’s miracle economy was, and remains to this day just as just as important as its practical purpose.

Plus, its a pretty sweet looking building all dolled up in air safety orange. It has to be that colour, because according to Japanese regulations all broadcast towers over a certain hight must be painted air safety orange and white, lest someone fly into the heavily illuminated building.

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Like most self supporting steel towers, Tokyo Tower is reminiscent of the Eifel Tower. Tokyo Tower however, as a virtue of being more modern, is slightly taller, weighs roughly half as much and is engineered to resist a magnitude 8 earthquake. 

Think think im just making up all this gobblety gook about its cultural status? I don’t blame you. It’s not the kind of thing that we often stop to think about, nor is it the kind of thing that is often explicitly stated (like this). However this often unspoken socio-cultural significance is most easily demonstrated in the way it repeatedly manifests itself in Japanese media. For example in post apocalypse settings, Tokyo Tower is time and again used as a metaphorical symbol of “the good old days,” depicted as a crumbling relic of better days gone by, or as a gleaming landmark of hope in the distance. Below are a handful of examples off the top of my head that i could easily get images for.

In a clockwise direction from the upper left.

1: Fragile Dreams. Long after the downfall of humanity Seto wanders through dilapidated city to reach Tokyo Tower, which gleams brightly in a world of perpetual twilight hoping to find other survivors. 2: Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. When Tokyo is struck by a large earthquake, the damaged state of the tower is used to visually convey the vulnerability of humanity to nature despite all our advancement since the last Kanto earthquake in 1923. 3: Always San-Chome. A Japanese Academy Prize winning film set in the late 1950s exploring the rapid development of Tokyo at the time and subsequent improved living standards of the population. Tokyo Tower is a frequent motif used to underscore the advancement of Japanese society and wealth at the time.

So yeah, while Japan is full of hundreds of mind boggling, centuries old buildings made all the more amazing for their construction without any form of nails/screws. I find tokyo tower the most relevant to japan as we know it today. It talks of the rise of the society and culture that I love about Japan and stands as a reminder of a period of great change in which modern Japan was forged. It is a building of far greater relevance than most realise. Its also pretty and orange!!!

Tokyo tower also has some mascots. Why? Because its Japan and apparently just about everything needs, or rather has, a mascot here. No spectacular feat of modern engineering would be complete without a few of whatever these are meant to be!!!!

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Mascots for Tokyo Tower. They are kind of cute, but i fail to see the point really… 

Tokyo tower is also semi surrounded by public parks. Most of Tokyo’s public and open parks seem to be have very little ground cover. I’m not sure if that’s because we are coming out of winter or not, but they have a tendency to look pretty bare in photos. Especially now with half of the trees looking dead. Still, this park just down the road from the middle of one of Tokyo’s busiest areas provides many people with a nice little escape from the hustle and bustle. I had lunch here looking up through the half sprouted canopy of leaves at the big orange tower. A crow stole someone else’s lunch because they tried to feed it next to a sign that says don’t. I found this most amusing

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The entrance to the garden. As I mentioned before, most paths are simple dirt tracks. They get mucky when it rains. 
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The burble of this stream was very calming, and easily audible despite the busy road only a dozen meters away. Japan must have magical noise blocking technology that they aren’t sharing. 

 

This day being fairly miserable and overcast with poor viability I decided not to go up Tokyo Tower, but it was really nice to go see the building again. I would have liked to have waited for a clearer day, taken more striking photos and have shown you the amazing views from the observation deck. but that can wait for another time. The reason I went this particular day rather than wait, was as I said before, because of the Sakura. By this stage warmer areas were almost completely finished and I knew I couldn’t wait any longer if I wanted majestic shots of Tokyo Tower with Sakura in the frame. In front of Tokyo tower, almost perfectly placed for photos together, is Zozo-Ji Temple. I don’t know a lot about Zozo-ji, there wasn’t a lot of information on display there so I will need to research it, however there were lovely views.

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The old, the modern and the natural all together. 
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The detail on old buildings is hard to beat. This is a smaller sub temple that’s part of the Zozo-Ji complex. 

Im very glad I came here when I did. The trees today were losing flowers at a phenomenal rate and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me they were completely bare the next day. The constant rain of petals made the gardens around Zozo-Ji temple particularly nice. I imagine they wouldn’t be much to write home about on a normal day, but this day with the dense pink matt of fallen flowers, they were beautiful.

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There is moss under the there…. somewhere…. I PROMISE!
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I take a lot of photos of stone lanterns, in case you haven’t already picked up on that. 

Around one side of Zozo-ji complex, is an area dedicated to unborn children. Here, countless stone statues of about a foot tall line walls to commemorate children lost to miscarriage, amongst other things. Many of these little graves have been decorated with small hats, jumpers, scarfs  and other still have small toys left with them. The result is a beautiful display of colour and a moving monument. Along with the presents for the child I am told there is often a small gift left for OJizo-sama, the Buddhist deity who watches over the souls of lost children. Others have a small mound of stones, which are said to ease passage to the afterlife. I feel strange including a picture of a grave yard, and I originally was going to leave this out as a result. However I love the way this is done and the feeling you get from being there. It feels to me to be a much warmer way to treat the deceased than I am used to in Australia and a part of culture here I would love to learn more about.

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The graves of souls not born. Bright and colourful, like i somehow feel they should be. 

A sunny day in Koishikawa-korakuen

Last Tuesday was a pretty sad day weather wise, quite cool and persistent on/off drizzle all day. With the weather man promising sunny happy days ahead, I took the opportunity to stay indoors and get busy learning the local lingo so i can communicate through means more efficient than interpretive dance. I truly feel sorry for anyone who encounters me at the moment so improving my language skills has become a high priority. That means that this could well be the last you see of the Sakura for this year as they are now almost completely gone from the inner metropolis of Tokyo and i haven’t had many more exciting outings since this one. Unless some remain on the outskirts I’m planning to visit tomorrow, then that could be it for the season.

However!!! Last Wednesday for the first time since i arrived, there was a blue sky! I decided to head off to one of the oldest parks in Tokyo, one that i had always meant to visit but never quite got around to, Koishikawa-korakuen. Built by the Tokugawa clan starting in 1629 it is considered one of the best preserved remaining examples of an Edo period clan garden, most having been destroyed during the fire-bombing campaign targeting tokyo in 1945. Koishikawa-Korakuen is a Japanese landscape garden, which typically aim to recreate the sights and sounds of far off places in miniature. In this particular case Inspiration for several sections of the garden was drawn from “West Lake” in China’s HangZhou region, while others are inspired by the Kiso valley, the main highway at the time for connecting Kyoto in the west with Tokyo in the east.  This variety makes the garden a very interesting place to meander through, and kept me much longer than i expected (a good 6 hours.)

My mode of transport for the day, as per usual, was by foot. Through the 6Km plus hike either way was not massively entertaining for its entirety, i did find quite a few little places along the way that grabbed my interest enough to stop me. including this, tucked away down a back alley off  minor suburban road.

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A old shrine tucked away in the center of the worlds largest megalopolis, from inside the grounds you wouldn’t believe it. (Note the gently falling Sakura petals.)

One thing i find odd about Tokyo is that it some how always manages to be significantly less noisy than it should. You would imagine that having 34 million people living in a geographical area not a whole lot bigger than Perth would lead to a perpetual deafening din, or at least a drone of activity wherever you go. But actually, step off a main street and into a side road like this one and all those people may as well be a world away. obviously places like Shibuya are crowded and noisy, that’s half their draw card, But outside of the entertainment and work districts peace and quiet is always only an alley-way away.

Anyway, after much walking i arrived at Koishikawa-korakuen and after handing over my 300 yen to a very friendly lady in a ticket booth, i headed into the gardens to be greeted by this.

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The central lake of Kioshikawa, said to be inspired by the famed West Lake of Hangzhou.
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Despite the garden not being famed for its Sakura, the late blooming trees that were here were at their best, and their relative scarcity made them feel all the more special. 
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“Please don’t feed the birds.”

Despite the plentiful signs asking visitors not to feed the birds (apparently its a “major risk to aviation safety”) this gentleman was having a right old time doing just that… right behind a sign telling him not to. This grounds keeper went over with the apparent intention of telling him off, but instead seemed to get drawn into a conversation lasting some 10 minutes. Afterwards as soon as she was out of sight, the old man pulled out more bread and continued as he was. what a mighty rebel!!!

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Old man’s still up to his shifty bird feeding, a true menace to the flight path!

I’m going to include a map of the garden so you can keep track of where i am. This seems easier than wordy descriptions.

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(Note, the above shots were all taken from just north east of the weeping cherry tree.) 

From here, i headed north east around the outskirts of the lake up to the rice patty area. I could tell you about the rice patty area… or i could just show you a picture of the sign i took, which is easier for both of us!

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I think we need more guys like this dude in our political class now days. Also, there seems to be a rule in Japan that no native English speaker may proof read signs before publication. This particular sign is pretty O.K. but others are far from great. 

The rice patties have a large Sakura at their western end, and now the warmer days have breathed a bit of green into the area, the scene was very picturesque.

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A single cherry tree stands at the western end of the fields, somehow i feel these trees are more striking when in small numbers, than grand quantities. 

In this area i was approached by a rather elderly gentleman intent on using his English. He, like me previously, was bemoaning the poor weather this year and warning me that today was likely to be the only good day of the whole Sakura season this year. Similar to him, i was intent on using my almost non existent Japanese. So, in reversed mother tongues we talked about the weather, how beautiful the Sakura are and what out favorite seasons are. His is spring, when the Sakura blossoms and foretells of the approaching warmer weather. Mine, despite all i have seen this year, is still autumn when the Momiji (maple) leaves turn intense reds and yellows. My trip in the autumn of 2011 left a lasting impression on me, and i’m looking forward to this year’s autumn season when i’m better equipped to follow those colours as they progress.

The sunshine and subsequent warmer weather today started to bring the abundant insect life i am used to back to life. Much like its strange semi silence, Tokyo has an amazing abundance of living animals within it for a place constructed almost solely out of ferro-concrete. This allowed me to photograph a few things i feel more capable of shooting than wide garden shots and busy street-scapes. I EVEN FOUND A JUMPING SPIDER!!!!

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Some form of hover fly. He was very patient while i photographed him. I guess he is still sleepy from the cold weather. 
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This guy was the variety of jumping spider that likes to jump on lenses and climb on their owners. It took some 15 minutes to get him off me / convince him to pose for me, and right after this he hopped back onto my lens. 

From here the trail traces the northern outskirts of the rice patties before heading through an area of well shaded by maples. This trail, up until the maples, was swarming with gardeners this particular day who were busily weeding, pruning and generally preparing the garden for summer. Because of the number of people in blue mulling about. i didn’t bother taking any photos. This was half because their bright clothing would have largely spoilt any shots, and half because i didn’t want any of them to think i was taking photos of them incase they might get grumpy. In hindsight i should have taken photos of them on purpose to show you all, because their uniform incorporates cool baggy pants and interesting flexible rubber boots with individual toes, both of which are highly unusual outside japan. Luckily the maples were pretty so you can look at those instead.

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The sign reads “irohamomiji”. i have no idea what iroha means, but Momiji is maple. 
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I love the way Japanese Maples layer. 

Following this the path doubles back and continues towards the central lake area, revealing sights that (after a bit of googling i realised) are more reminiscent of the west lake than those that are presented to you as you enter. There are also several small buildings in this area, including a small tea house. It seemed to be a popular picnic spot as despite the lack of cherry trees, there were several blue mats rolled out.

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The eastern side of lake’s island appears to be modled after the west lake in china. 

Following this, the path leads into a section of the garden modeled on the old Kiso trail which connected Kyoto and Tokyo through Japan’s middle ages. Having been to sections of the Kiso trail before, this certainly did remind me of it on a miniature scale, though a bit less vegetated. A small winding trail paved with stones threading its way around obstacles through a lush forest. If you ever are so lucky as to be in Japan, try and make time to visit the old post towns of Tsumago and Magomo which lie on this trail. Both separately are worth the trip, but the fact they are close enough together to walk between (with a bit of time) makes them a truly superb destination.

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A nice shady path on the first day it was warm enough to break a sweat. 

This path led me to a second lake area, one significantly smaller and more intimate than the first. By the time i arrived the area was a hum of activity with more than half a dozen men with tripods, cameras and lenses the size of a leg. It appears some kind of king fisher has made its home in this section of the garden and that these men were eagerly waiting for it to take flight in hopes of majestic shots of this (i assume) rare bird. Luckily this group was concentrated in one area and seeing as i had little interest in the bird, had very little effect on my time here. I was always aware of when the bird was flying though, because of the chorus of camera shutters flapping followed by the cries of excitement from those that had nailed a shot. The bird was quite a pretty little thing, and i can see why everyone wanted to grab a photo of it. it would have made a stunning shot. However i was just as happy snapping shots of his slower, more cooperative neighbours.

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Turtles are much more my kind of thing to photograph, because they are slow, like me. 
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The second lake area. Not as grand, but i feel nicer than the first. 

This area had several cherry trees close by, but by now these ones were well and truly past their best. I would imagine this being in the center of the tokyo metropolis that this would be one of the first places to see, and thus lose the flowers. Luckily this also meant much more green than i had seen previously in other places. There were several small trails leading off from the main path that took visitors to a landmark of interest before returning to the lake side, these points of interest included one of the cherry trees, as well as a small rest house and what appeared to be a small shrine. I had a grand old time exploring.

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A small rest house, tucked away up on a hill. 
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Almost no flowers were left here on this early blooming variety. By now it probably just looks like any other tree happy little green tree. 
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The up side of the closing days of the Sakura season, is that they decorate the area around them beautifully. 

From here i headed to the exit, or rather i was on my way there when another small trail past a tea house caught my eye. “I wonder whats down there” thought I, expecting it to be another small path with not much but a single point of interest down it. Expecting it to take a matter of minutes i decided to quickly head down it and see where it could lead. Turns out this was a good decision as it lead to roughly a third of the park which i had missed. Wandering past the tea-house i was met with another laked area, which i of course stopped to take a multitude of photos of, a winding path leading up the the site of an old lookout, a small temple built to house religious statues and a multitude of lovely paths winding through the hills between these. This has been a long post already, so i will spare you the details and let you read through images yet again.

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A lantern near the tea house which hides this splendid section of garden. I was very lucky to find both the Sakura and maple spilling over it. That’s both uncommon and fortunate. 
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The third and final lake area is much more enclosed than the other two. I was very lucky that the weeping cherry here is a late blooming variety and thus was still flowering. This was a lovely place to sit and let the world go by for a time. 
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As i mentioned before. Traditional Japanese gardens are often miniaturised impersonations of far off places. Rocks sticking out of the water like this are often used to symbolise islands in an ocean or great lake. 

Finally i stumbled upon what is apparently one of the most famous features of the garden, the Full Moon Bridge. This bridge is so named as it’s perfect hemisphere makes a full circle when reflected in the water below. It is a lovely structure and so well maintained its difficult to believe its almost 400 years old. Unlike many things in Tokyo, someone obviously gets a lot of employment preserving this historical icon.

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The full moon bridge doing its full moon thing. 

With this i checked the map and saw that, unlike earlier in the day, i had in fact covered the entirety of the park and decided it was about time to head home. After walking down and spending some 5-6 hours on my feet in the park, the idea of a 6 km walk home was not overly appealing, but i opened up my map to plan a foot bound route home none the less. Looking at the map i realised i was only about 1.5 km from Chidorigafuchi, the moats i visited the previous week with no batteries. I decided seeing as the weather was still being kind, to head back and see if i couldn’t take some better photos. If i felt it was a little crowded last week, i take that back, this particular day being the single day of good weather for the whole Sakura season this year in Tokyo, was especially packed. I was lucky i decided to be stingy and walk rather than catch the train, because there was a lengthy queue to to simply exit the station. Still, despite all that the experience was overall a very pleasant one. Slowly waddling with the crowd through the Sakura lined street was greatly improved by the sunshine and most people weren’t persistent enough to make it to the far end, where i really wanted to get to.

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Rental boats were much more popular today with the threat of sunburn at opposed to a sudden downpour. 
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But just like everywhere in Tokyo, if you are happy to go even slightly further than everyone else, you can always find a peaceful place. 

After this i turned tail and headed home via a 100 yen shop. Not much to report about that other than i still love 100 yen shops and would live in one if i could. I got a set of kitchen utensils, a towel, finger/toe nail clippers, body soap, washing detergent and a set of sponges for less than 10 dollars. Just don’t buy shampoo there…. its not shampoo…. its just acid.

More to come soon. Next stop, Tokyo Tower surrounds.