Monday 26 January 2015

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 5 (Nagareyama)

By this point the year of 2014 was almost over, we had reached New Year’s Eve. I had been looking forward to this day in particular as this involved the first visit of the new year to a shrine/temple. Of course, before the bringing in the new year we did still have an entire day left of the previous year.
There had been much discussion and debate regarding exactly what we were going to do during the day and the evening. Initially we had intended to visit the Meiji Jingu to see in the New Year. In the end we decided that this wouldn't be a very good idea. There would have been no way to get back to Saitama until the morning and all the hotels in the area would be either fully booked or charging extortionate prices. This left sleeping in McDonalds as the only available option, I can’t say I found that to be a particularly appealing option.
Another option available to us was Minami Nagareyama. Kyle’s former colleague Sato Sensei suggested that we try the temple in her city (Minami Nagareyama), Kyle hadn't been to that temple before and Nagareyama is walkable from Misato. Because there was still time to decide exactly what to do in the evening we decided to go to Omiya for the day and make a decision about the evening later.
Of course, before going to Omiya there was a very important matter to attend to. To borrow the old Japanese proverb “Never go in to battle on an empty stomach”, we needed to grab a late breakfast/early lunch. LaLaPort was to be our venue, Ryan had never been to the food court in LaLaPort (Misato Kitchen) and with time running out this would be one of the last opportunities this trip.
I won’t go in to detail about Misato Kitchen, I've written about it before.
With our stomachs filled, it was time for battle (okay, not quite a battle although the crowded trains
can seem like a battlefield at times).
Parts of Omiya have something of a… reputation for certain… “Services” if you know what I mean.
The thing that seems a little odd is that these establishments share the same general area as many
of Omiya’s restaurants. So if you’re exploring Omiya try not to be shocked if you stumble across such
establishments when looking for food. Poor Ryan got the shock of his life upon seeing the “Omiya
Girls Academy”.
I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that's no educational institution
Given that we had already eaten and had no interest in frequenting the seedier side of Omiya we had no reason to stay in that area so we moved on to the shrine visit.
As always, we managed to get a little lost when navigating our way to the shrine. Leading up to the shrine there is a long, wooded, path. While this can be bypassed, I recommend walking along it as
it’s a nice walk and if you’re visiting in summer it provides a nice little bit of shade. The difficulty in locating it is that we needed to traverse a small residential area. It’s pretty much a matter of much whether you find the side road you need of a cul-de-sac.
Upon arriving at the shrine we found that most of the food stalls had already been set up but there were still a lot of preparations being made. Besides stalls offering Daruma and other assorted trinkets there are also stalls offering a wide variety of snacks including ones which are only available at new year.
Kyle, with his almost inhuman appetite, sampled as many different foods as possible. I, on the other hand, was still largely full from the fried noodles (I can’t remember off the top of my head whether it was Yaki Soba or Yaki Udon) so I was a little more limited in what I could try.
Chocolate covered banana - and no, that's not a euphemism!
One of the foods I did try was a rather unusual New Year speciality – chocolate covered banana. I admit, it sounds like a crazy combination that really shouldn't work but it actually works pretty well. The stall selling them had a fun system for ordering, the vendor challenges you to rock paper scissors. If you lose then the price you pay will get you 1 banana. If you win then the price gets you two bananas. Kyle lost the game so he bought one for himself. I was fortunate and won so I gave a banana to Ryan (that sounded better in my head!).
Beyond that I sampled a little bit of some Yakiniku that Kyle bought and tried some Taiyaki. Ryan opted to sample some Tako (octopus) on a stick. You see these a lot in anime. By this point we had reached decision time. One option available to us was to stay in Omiya and bring in the new year at the shrine there. We would still be able to make it back to Saitama in time (just about) and the shrine would be busy but not as busy as Meiji. I wasn't looking forward to the crowded trains on the way back so we opted for the temple in Minami Nagareyama.
Kyle phoned Sato Sensei to confirm a time to meet, we then found that there was a twist to the plan. Besides going to the temple with her she had also invited us to her home for some Osechi Ryouri (New Year food). Bearing this in mind, we stopped off on the way back to buy a gift (it is tradition in Japan that you bring someone a gift if they invite you to their home) and some local sake to bring with us.
From Misato, Nagareyama is just across the river which forms part of the boundary between Saitama Ken (prefecture) and Chiba Ken. By crossing the bridge, your city tax increases by 30%. Nagareyama is a nice city but Misato is comfortable and not particularly expensive.
While waiting for midnight we enjoyed beer, sake and osechi ryori while chatting and watching the New Years Eve programming on NHK. Think of it as being a little bit like the New Year programme in the UK with Jools Holland. That’s probably the closest thing I can think of. There’s a contest between various singers and music groups (AKB48 win every year, so there’s no accounting for taste) and various interviews and light entertainment.
As we entered the year of the sheep it was time to go to the temple. Even though it’s a small, local, temple it was still very busy.
One slight error in judgement was picking up some more sake to drink at Kyle’s. A gentleman whom Ryan and I got talking to at the 7-11 recommended a particular bottle from his home prefecture of Akita. Although nice, it was also rather potent. Given that Ryan and I managed to finish off the entire bottle between the two of us… it’s hangover time!

Thursday 15 January 2015

Japanese New Year Trip 2014 - Day 4 (Kamakura)

Apologies reader, I've delayed writing this a little (I've been back in the UK for nearly 2 weeks) so the details aren't quite as fresh in my mind. I'll summarise as best I can.
Day 4 was by far the busiest day. We went on a road trip which Yamashita San had kindly arranged. Those of you who followed my trip back in August will know that a Yamashita road trip means seeing a bewildering amount in a small space of time (see road trip from August).

When carrying out our planning of what we wanted to see during the day, we used, they have a page about Kamakura here:

After studying the guide we decided that the 2 most important sites to see were:
  • Hachimangu Shrine (The most important shinto shrine in the area)
  • Daibutsu (Giant Buddha)
  • A beach (Ryan hadn't seen the coast in Japan before so we thought that would be something nice for him to see)
There was plenty of time to see other sites so Yamashita San included a few other places.


The first stop on our tour was the Hachimangu Shrine.

Hachimangu is described as Kamakura's most important Shinto shrine.
There's plenty of information available in English, for those who don't have a complete grasp of Japanese. Fortunately for us, we had Yamashita as a guide so we didn't have much need for the English information plates.
For those of you without a local guide, there's plenty of information available
Our journey appeared to be less than fortuitous, we bought Omikuji (paper fortunes) but I recoiled in horror as Yamashita informed my that mine was quite cautionary. To ensure that the ominous premonitions of the Omikuji would not come to pass, I quickly wrapped it up and tied it to a tree branch. So much for good fortune!
Whilst looking for somewhere to park, we soon realised a slight flaw in our plan - Kamakura isn't the easiest place to travel by car. The roads are narrow and often congested. There's not much parking and the car parks are pretty expensive. Add on to that the cost of toll roads and the cost of a road trip to Kamakura can soon add up. Yamashita's advice is to use the train and hire a bicycle at the station. This will give you far more mobility (and not lose time in traffic), allow you to experience more of the area and keep your costs down.
I'm sure I've seen this character before!
Once again, Yokai Watch!

While exploring the surrounding areas we also came across some new years decorations called Kadomatsu. You seem them all over at that time of year, it's nothing out of the ordinary but it's probably worth mentioning as I didn't really mention them in earlier blog posts.
Kenchoji Temple
Next stop on the tour was Kenchoji temple, a very important Zen temple in the area.

As to be expected, Engakuji is beautiful and tranquil place. For those who do visit, remember that it's still a functioning temple so there are plenty of areas that are off limits to tourists. These areas are clearly indicated so they aren't difficult to identify.
Oooh! Triforce!
Kamakura is also well known for the Daibutsu, a large bronze Buddha statue. The statue is quite amazing in both size and complexity of construction. The bronze statue was cast around a series of interlocking molds. The structure of the molds is visible from inside the statue along with additional information about their construction.
Kyle, Yamashita (and the Daibutsu in the background)

There wasn't much of a queue to see inside the statue and seeing the inner structure is something I can strongly recommend, incredibly advanced for something cast in 1252
The molds

Construction details
I figured I'd have to upload one of me sooner or later
Also available while visiting is a copy of "The Teaching of Buddha", available in both English and Japanese. This was something that Kyle was quite exited about but, alas, he'd already spent most of the money he'd bought on more omamori for his collection so I made this the present for him. In addition, I decided to pick up a copy as it should be an interesting read (and might do me some good).

Hase Temple 
The last major stop on the tour was Hase temple. This isn't a Zen temple (the area has a number of Zen temples), instead Hase is Jodo (a widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan, traditionally associated with farmers)

Before heading back to Saitama we went out for an early dinner. Being near the sea, we felt like getting sashimi (raw fish which you dip in soy sauce mixed with wasabi). Ever the font of knowledge, Yamashita was able to recommend a nice little restaurant near a local market (he was quite keen for us to see what markets are like around new year).
It's safe to say that we were all absolutely knackered by the time we got back but it was certainly worth it. The best way to describe Kamakura is "Nikko in a day". For this and other outings, I'm certainly going to have to find something nice to bring Yamashita San next time I'm in Japan.

For those who are interested in Kamakura, we used the following website for our planning:

Sorry for the brief nature of this entry (I drafted the others on the plane so they are a little more details), see you next time.