Books

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage- book review

My last book review was about my first Orhan Pamuk novel and this one about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is my first Haruki Murakami novel. It’s not like I never heard of this famous Japanese writer, but I just never got around to getting a hold of one of his books.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a 30-something engineer who designs train stations in Tokyo and lives a fairly simple and somewhat dull but satisfying life. But in his teen years in high school in Nagoya, he had a fantastic friendship with four others, two guys and two girls, during which they basically spent time only with each other. They were so close they never cultivated friends with others nor did they even date anyone, because they didn’t want to break the group by bring in outsiders or changing the friendship dynamic if they dated each other. However after going to Tokyo for university, on a trip back to Nagoya, Tsukuru suddenly gets a call from one of his friends telling him to stay away and to never contact them again. Tsukuru is so stunned he accepts it without questions and from then on, never sees them. While this weighs on his mind, he cannot bear to figure out why it happened. However, now in his 30s, his girlfriend senses that the sudden breakup and ostracisation still haunts Tsukuru and she urges him to find out the reason why it happened, by confronting those former friends.

It says something about Murakami that while Tsukuru may live up to his “colorless” description, which he agrees with but actually stems from the fact all four of his ex-friends have colours in part of their surnames while he doesn’t, the story is still compelling enough to keep you entranced to find out just what was the reason for Tsukuru’s expulsion. However, while Tsukuru’s life may seem a little sad and empty, he has come to accept it and even when he was part of the group, he felt like an interloper at times, being self-conscious of his unremarkable personality. The melancholy mood of the story is softened by the key presence of music and art, from the piano piece favored both by a college friend and one of his former female friends to the pottery created by another one of his female ex-friends after her school years.

I won’t give away the rest of the plot, but I will say the reason was shocking and disturbing, and that in a sense, it did not resolve some of the underlying issues. Eventually, Tsukuru comes to understand that their five-person friendship was not healthy in some ways, for instance, the existence of pent-up romantic urges, though this could not be blamed solely on him, and may have contributed to the break-up. Tsukuru also gets a surprising revelation from one of his former friends about his own character which played a part in the breakup. It is significant that “colorless” Tsukuru was the only one among the group to leave Nagoya to go to university despite his reserved and unremarkable personality, showing sometimes breaking your comfort zone can involve doing something as simple as going to study away from your hometown. This also probably contributed to his eventual expulsion from the group of tightly knit friends.
There are a number of lessons one can draw from Tsukuru and his experience, including that human relations can be fickle and something which may seem strong can suddenly be ended seemingly without any warning. The ending may not be so conclusive either, which fits with the gray and ambivalent overarching theme of Tsukuru’s life.

Books · Travel

Grounded- book review

Christmas is one day away, so enjoy a photo of a very “Imperial” Christmas tree in Taipei, and a book review. Merry Christmas everyone.
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In Grounded – A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, a couple circumnavigate the world by train, bus and ship, without ever going on a plane.
They do this because, according to author Seth Stevenson in the detailed intro: “We despise planes and all they stand for,” (we being him and his girlfriend). As a result, starting from the US, they cross the Atlantic in a container cargo ship, take the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Siberia, go from Japan to China through SE Asia to Australia by ferry, bike, and train, cross the Pacific on a luxury cruise liner, then go across the US by train to where they started from.

The journey sounds like an ordeal but Stevenson pulls it off rather smoothly, despite relying on desperate last-minute luck a couple of times. The writer makes it sound so easy, so much that the main challenge is often pure boredom such as when they cross the Atlantic in a cargo ship and encounter a week of mostly unchanging scenery.

One drawback about such a journey is that they often stay in major cities for very short times, sometimes leaving on the same day that they’ve arrived. I know sometimes people say it’s more about the journey than the destination, and Stevenson emphasizes this as well, but I’d rather read more about Moscow and Helsinki than just a page or two. Stevenson does admit this problem later in the book, wishing that he could see more of Sydney for instance. Similarly, the two cross Japan and China in a blur. The book breezes by and before you know it, they are back to the USA.

Coincidentally, the most interesting part is also the longest time they spend in a country, when they take part in a biking tour that cycles across Vietnam in 2 weeks. It is the only time they travel with other people in a group and the group dynamics and camaraderie turn out to be quite positive, though not with a judgmental overview about the tour guide at the end that was a bit harsh.

There’s a lot of complaining during the trip, as you’d expect when trips involve overnight train rides on hard seats and dodgy freighters and crossing the Pacific by ship. Stevenson also doesn’t hesitate to be candid about his fellow passengers and is downright insulting about rural mainlanders visiting Beijing. Stevenson’s girlfriend Rebecca is a peripheral character throughout the trip but steadily reliable, and one can think he was lucky to have someone like her. Rebecca is so steadfast that even after Stevenson leaves her behind in Singapore to run onto a ferry going to Australia, Rebecca “bears no ill will,” Stevenson assures us, and she flies to Bali to rejoin him on the ship.

Having first mentioned it in the beginning, Stevenson further reiterates his disdain toward flying and stresses how doing that robs travelers of a connection to the world. He explains how the ease of flying has taken the charm out of travel and led to the demise of ocean liners and trains, at least in the US.
He is right on some counts, as air travel has actually become a less luxurious experience (mainly for us plebs who fly economy class) than the past despite becoming more common, such as cramped seat space, long pre-boarding security checks and mediocre food. But the accounts of his ferry and liner trips in this book do not make those modes of transportation sound any more attractive. Props to the author for crossing the Atlantic and Pacific by boat but I feel no desire to do it myself especially after reading how his experiences were.

But weirdly enough, despite all these issues, I enjoyed the book and I found myself wishing that it could have been longer.

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts

Tokyo has a lot of districts, but the most famous and busiest downtown ones should be Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Shinjuku is a large district where the city’s metropolitan government is located, and features some of Tokyo’s tallest highrises. I went up the Metropolitan Government Building tower, which is actually a massive highrise joining together two towers, to take advantage of its free 45th-floor viewing deck. The view was great, taking in neighboring highrises and a vast stretch of the surrounding districts.
At night, it becomes this buzz of luminescent activity including clubs, pachinko parlors, bars and even a red-light district, though this isn’t exactly out of place in Japan. Shinjuku subway station is huge, because it consists of different platforms for different lines, and I actually got a little lost – I couldn’t find the platform for the subway to go back to my hotel and kept walking around in circles – and had to ask an employee for help. He couldn’t speak English but he helpfully directed me in the right direction. It remains the one and only time I’ve ever gotten lost inside a subway.

Shibuya is a well-known shopping district but is famous for something weird – a street crossing that is the world’s busiest. That’s because when the lights turn red, pedestrians from several directions converge creating a special sight. I admit I went there in the evening specifically to see the crossing in effect. The intersection is surrounded by brightly lit stores, buildings and large ads that create a spectacle similar to Times Square in New York. I wasn’t the only one there taking pictures though, and there were even a few Western tourists recording it! This crossing was seen in Lost in Translation, the movie with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson as two American strangers in Tokyo who become close friends for a few days.
Those were also the only two downtown districts I visited since with only four days, I had to limit which places I went to in this vast city.

I also dropped by Akihabara, the famous tech and manga neighborhood, twice, but didn’t spend too much time there. I saw the manga and maid cafes, with girls dressed as maids handing out flyers in the streets, and I went into a couple of stores.
My flight back to Taiwan was on AirAsiaJapan at 7.45 am, so I had to race to take the subway and then the airport bus to make it on time or face having to take the taxi which would have cost about US$200. I arrived with just about an hour to spare, but I wasn’t the only AirAsia passenger to do so since the line at the counter was really long. The flight was uneventful but I remember the flight attendants were very, very attractive.
So, this is it for my 2013 Japan trip series. Thankfully, I’ve finished it before the end of 2015!

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Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, Shinjuku, which houses educational institutions
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Shinjuku at night
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Approaching Shibuya Crossing
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The lights turn red and this massive collection of humanity flows in all directions 
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Back in Shinjuku
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Tokyo Government Municipal Building, headquarters of the metro government
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Continue reading “Japan travel- Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts”

Japan travel · Travel

Mt. Fuji photo roundup

Here are more photos of Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko, which lies near the foot of the mountain.
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Almost as if I were soaring in the clouds
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Volcanic crater on the summit
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This is on the trail at the fifth station, where I started from
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Rock cairn on the summit
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Close to the top
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Looks like a grave  
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Heading down

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – climbing and conquering Mt. Fuji

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Japan’s most famous natural symbol is the mighty Mt. Fuji, whose almost-symmetrical snow-capped cone is a familiar sight in photos and pictures. Rising over 3,776 meters, its famous reputation extends far beyond the country.

Towards the end of my 2013 trip to Japan, in what is perhaps one of the few major achievements in my modest life, I climbed it. It was the perfect height – spectacular enough to be one of Asia’s highest mountains, but able to be climbed in one day. It wasn’t easy as it took me about 6 hours to reach the top, 1.5 hours to walk around the crater at the top, and 3 hours to get back down. I have to clarify that I didn’t climb it from the ground, but midway from the 5th station on the Yoshida Trail, the most popular of the four trails on Mt. Fuji. This isn’t cheating though, almost everyone who climbs it does it from that point.

After I got to Tokyo, I spent one day there then went to Mt. Fuji. Rather, I took the night bus to Kawaguchiko, a small resort town at the foot of Mt. Fuji which also borders a lake of the same name, and checked in at a hostel just across the station that I had prebooked. The next morning, I took the bus up to the Fuji Subaru 5th station, which is a large rest area on the mountain with several stores and washrooms.

I started off on a wide gravelly path along the Yoshida Trail, the most popular of the four different trails that go up from different directions and intersect near the top. However, coming down, you do need to be careful to go down the correct train. There were a lot of people, some of whom were coming in the opposite direction who’d probably climbed down after viewing the sunrise on top. Mt. Fuji was one of the few places I saw a fair number of foreigners during my Japan trip. There were even horses carrying lazy hikers further on to a certain point.

The path got steadily steeper, narrower and rockier and darker. The higher you go, the less vegetation there is until eventually it’s all bare soil and rock because Mt. Fuji is a volcano. I’d started from the 5th station so there were 3 more stations to pass until the top. At each one, there were benches, toilets (you had to pay to use but they were rather clean), and even huts that travelers could sleep in. There was always a lot of people, both Japanese and foreigners, along the trail. I even passed a few Hong Kongers including one family, who I’d bump into later.

While it was still summer and hot on the ground, it was a little cold on the mountain, which was the highest mountain I’d ever been on. The ground was desolate; there was no trees or vegetation and the soil was red. From far off, Mt. Fuji looks great but up close, it was ugly but majestic. Climbing the mountain is not technically difficult as there are clear trails and steps, but it was extremely tiring and I had to stop almost every 10 minutes or so. There were signs along the way and at each station showing how much more meters to go before reaching the top which provides a small psychological boost. It was a cloudy day and when I got high enough, the clouds were below me and often shrouded the land below so I couldn’t see it.

After what seemed an eternity, the top came into view. I told myself I’d soon be on top and I did, but that last bit was one of the hardest. It was great when I finally reached the summit; the sky was blue, the clouds formed an impenetrable layer around the mountain, and I was literally above the clouds. It was one of the most fantastic sights I have ever beheld.

The summit isn’t a single spot, but a large crater which requires over an hour to walk around. The absence of any vegetation and walking on red earth surrounded by bare rocky slopes almost felt like being on the moon or someplace not on this earth.

I’d started the hike at about 10 in the morning and I reached the top at 3.30, so by 5, I headed back down. The trail down was initially on a different path from the one going up, and at one point, it splits into two with one continuing on the Yoshida trail and the other to a different trail, but this is clearly marked by signs that explicitly warned climbers not to confuse the two trails. The trail down was very loose and almost sandy, so at times it was possible to jog down.

Lower down, I ran into a HK family of three who I’d met near the top and we passed each other several times again. It was a good thing because it was getting dark and just before we reached the fifth station, we took a wrong turn that resulted in me asking a park employee who spoke no English, and the family having a small dispute, shouting in Cantonese. It was a little desperate because we had to catch the final bus at the fifth station down to Kawaguchiko which left at 8.30, but we ended up doing so with some time to spare too.
We were actually staying at the same hostel too, but on different floors. After saying goodbye, I took a soak in the hostel’s hotspring spa. The next morning, I walked to Lake Kawaguchiko which was about 20 minutes from my hostel, did a short stroll enjoying the scenic lake, then headed back and took the bus back to Tokyo.

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View from the top
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Kawaguchiko bus station, with Mt. Fuji looming in the back

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5th station, the starting point of my trek

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The trail starts off nice and smooth
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It was misty at times.
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7th station

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The “8.5th” station, one more station and 900m to go before the top
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When the clouds shifted, you could see a bit of the ground below
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Summit
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The summit features large craters which take at least an hour to walk around.
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Weather station, where the highest point is

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The highest point on the summit
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The way down starts off on a different path (though it’s considered the same trail as the one up)
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The trail forks at this point, but luckily there are clearly marked signs like this

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Lake Kawaguchiko

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Ueno district

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When I was in Tokyo, I stayed in a hotel in the middle of two historic districts. To the east was Asakusa, and to the west was Ueno. Its main attraction is Ueno Park, a giant park in which the National Museum, Tokyo Zoo and several other museums are located as well as quite a few temples and shrines, including one dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great Japanese shogun who helped unify the country in the 17th century.

The park was actually built on the site of a major battle in 1868 when shogunate samurais (Shogitai) tried unsuccessfully to resist the new Meiji government, and the tomb of Shogitai warriors still lies inside the park. There is a large lotus pond at the south end, Shinobazu Pond, that looks out onto office buildings, providing a stark contrast. The photo at the top of this post is of Saigo Takamori, who was a samurai commander who led an imperial army in an earlier uprising (when the battle in Ueno happened) but then rebelled against the government in 1877 and died under mysterious circumstances in the climatic battle. According to Wikipedia, the plot in The Last Samurai, the Tom Cruise samurai movie, was based on his rebellion. I have to admit though that when I visited the park, mainly to go to the national museum, I was unaware of all this history and it was only after I stumbled onto all these sights like the Shogitai tomb and the samurai statue that I learned about it.

The Tokyo National Museum stands at the north end of the park and is divided into several buildings housing Japanese history, art, and Asian artifacts. While the Japanese section was good, with Japanese samurai armor and swords being a personal highlight, the most interesting section was the Asian building which featured Chinese, Korean, SE Asian and even South Asian exhibits, as well an Egyptian mummy.

Ueno train station is nearby, and if you saw the first Wolverine movie, it was featured during a chase scene. Opposite the park is a shopping area called Ameyayokocho, a busy shopping area wedged into a bunch of alleys. The “Ame” in its name stands for America, as it was a black market for American goods after World War II. At night, its numerous pachinko (a popular Japanese pinball-like game) parlors really light up the area.
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Shrine to Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s greatest shoguns
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Ameyayokocho

 

Shinobazu pond, below
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Tokyo National Museum
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Another of the museum buildings
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Wooden statues of the “twelve heavenly generals.” They look more devilish than heavenly to me.
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Samurai sword (above) and armor (below)
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Buddha found near Peshawar, Pakistan from the 2nd-3rd century. The lean figure looks much different from the chubby, bald Buddhas you usually find in China and SE Asia.
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Seen in the Wolverine movie!

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Tokyo’s Asakusa district

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Tokyo is one of the great world cities that everybody has heard about. But to be honest, I liked Osaka better. Perhaps it’s because Tokyo is so big and multifaceted, so modern and such a mega-metropolis, that I wasn’t able to feel that much affection for it. I only spent three days there and maybe that wasn’t enough. It was the last stop of my Japan trip in 2013, with a trip to Mt Fuji bracketed in between, following Matsumoto.

I stayed in a rather old and cramped but passable hotel in a neighborhood between Ueno and Asakusa, two districts with a lot of history. Asakusa features Tokyo’s oldest and most well-known temple, Sensoji Temple, with over 1,300 years of history. It’s a pleasant white-and-red Buddhist temple, that has a front gate, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate, with a giant paper lantern hung in between and a small shopping street, Nakamise-dori, leading up to it, with stores selling snacks and souvenirs. Passing that street brings you to another gate, a large two-story one, with three giant paper lanterns, that you pass through before entering the temple proper. The main temple hall also features a giant paper lantern. The temple grounds is a nice place to walk around, with a pagoda, smaller halls, a 300-year-old bell and two rather stylish sitting Buddhas. The temple was busy with worshippers and tourists when I went there on a drizzling afternoon, and the shopping street was packed.

Weirdly enough, there is also a street near Sensoji that is well-known for … kitchen utensils. I passed by it and I saw a few stores, some of which had very large colorful kitchen cups as decorations, but passed up the chance to browse.

Asakusa has Tokyo’s oldest temple and its tallest tower. Tokyo Skytree is further east of Sensoji on the bank of the Sumida river. Standing 634 meters tall, the Skytree is the second-tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. However, I didn’t bother to go up the Skytree, mainly because I planned to go up a skyscraper in downtown Tokyo that was free. I did walk up to it and appreciate how tall it was. It doesn’t have a fancy design as it is a fully functioning TV tower and only a small part of it is used for regular human activity, which is the observation deck.


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Main temple hall
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Looking back at the second entrance gate to Sensoji
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Shopping street that leads up to the temple
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Stylish Buddhas on the temple grounds
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A statue of a mother and children in the temple ground. I also saw little statues with bibs in Kyoto. These are called jizo and usually have something to do with children. This statue was erected to comfort the spirits of mothers and children who died during World War II.

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Tokyo Skytree. I don’t know what the hell is that golden “horn” perched on the black box on the left.
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Oldish wooden houses on a side street in Asakusa

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel – Tateyama

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On my trip to Japan in 2013, between Kyoto and Tokyo, I stopped at Matsumoto. Now, Matsumoto is a nice town with a very impressive castle, but the main reason I stayed there was to go to nearby Tateyama, one of Japan’s holy mountains in the “Japan Alps.”

Tateyama features a giant dam and a scenic lake halfway to the top, which is surrounded by mountains. This route, called the Kurobe Tateyama Alpine Route, consists of a series of different modes of transportation – buses going through tunnels, cable car, and an uphill tram – which allow you to stop at certain points. At the highest stop Murodo, you can hike a couple of hours to the top of Tateyama or other mountains. Getting to Tateyama from Matsumoto first entailed taking a train to Shinano-Omachi station, then getting onto a shuttle bus to the Tateyama visitor center, where the actual alpine route started.
I’d gone to Tateyama many years before when I was in university as part of a tour group with my brother. Back then, we’d had to rush and we didn’t have much time to spend at each point, but I knew I wanted to come back.

This time, I was determined to get off at the top station and hike to the mountaintop, but unfortunately the weather didn’t play along. When I reached the dam, the sky was blue and calm though there were a few clouds. When I got out at the top station, the clouds had gotten thicker and there was slight rain. I walked around hoping the sky would clear, but instead it got worse. This was in late July but there was still some ice and hardened snow. I did go on the trail and passed numerous people coming down and I had to stop and go back when I could barely see up ahead.
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Starting off on the way up, as you can see here at Kurobe dam, the weather was fine.
Visitors can walk across the dam in the middle to the other side to continue the ascent to Tateyama.
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The top station has a wide “meadow” and a small lake as well as trails to get to several mountains including Tateyama.
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Starting off the actual hiking to the top of Tateyama
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Passed a lot of people coming down, including these schoolkids

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Going up, it looked good at one point but then the clouds came back again and it got really bad (see below).
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Coming back down, the weather was like this.
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One of the several forms of transport up and down the mountain
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A last look at the dam on the way back

The following photos are in random order:
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Saw these guys going down a slope from the cable car
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Probably the most amusing non-native English sign I’ve come across
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Field (rice maybe) on the way back to Matsumoto

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- Matsumoto’s Crow Castle

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My next stop after Kyoto was Matsumoto, a small city in the “Japan Alps.” The name says it all – a mountain range in central Japan that some people liken to the Alps in Europe. I didn’t go to Matsumoto to visit the city itself, but for Mt Tateyama, one of Japan’s holiest mountains and the site of a mountain dam. I’d actually been there before back in my university days when I went with my brother on a short tour through Japan and it was so beautiful that I knew I had to go back.

I’d arrived in Matsumoto by train from Kyoto, but not before the journey was doubled by the train being stuck for almost two hours in a station because of a truck accident on a bridge, which I found out about after emailing the Japanese office in Taiwan ( they contacted the train company) later on. The train ride to Matsumoto passed through lush rice fields, attractive rural villages and alongside a river in a valley.

Matsumoto has got something famous too – one of Japan’s most impressive old castles, Matsumoto Castle, also known as the Crow Castle. The nickname name is derived from its all-black walls which give it an imposing, menacing appearance. The castle, which was built in end of the 16th century, sits on a stone base surrounded by a moat. I went to see the castle at night and then the following day.

When I went to view it at night, there was a youth taiko drumming concert going on inside the grounds and afterwards, a light projection show (Digital-Kakejiku Art Project) that illuminated the entire castle in funky colors. The next day I went back and into the actual castle. The inside is mostly hollow with wooden floors and stairs, and a small museum with samurai armor and weaponry on display. The top floor provides a nice lookout over the entire city, which is more like a rural town, and the surrounding hills.

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Here’s the castle at daytime:

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Ancient rocket. Looks like a toy doesn’t it?
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Nearby shrine
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On the way to the castle
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View from the train to Matsumot

Japan travel · Travel

Japan travel- farewell to Kyoto

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On my final day in Kyoto, I took a trip to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the hillside shrine that features paths lined with a lot of orange torii gates. The famous Shinto shrine is in a quiet area to the east and I had to cross a train track and passing some old-style stores to get there.

After the entrance lie the main shrine and small pavilions, each red and white. Behind the shrine are concrete footpaths behind it that lead up a hill Mt Inari framed by hundreds of torii gates and surrounded by forest. There is even a small lake with fish. The gates are paid for by donations from individuals and companies; the larger the gate the more expensive it was.

Going higher up, there are concrete “altars” with mini torii gates and statues of gates and foxes. This is because Inari is the god of rice and foxes are his messengers. The top gives you a good view of Kyoto, but it was hazy that day so the view wasn’t that nice. It was a nice walk though I got tired of the torii gates after passing so many of them. However, the gates make the place a favorite for some Taiwanese who visit Kyoto.

The Inari shrine wasn’t the last site I visited in Kyoto. Kyoto Station was, and the reason I mention it is because it was a very attractive station with a massive arched glass roof atop a metal grid and a spacious interior. The station overlooks the Kyoto Tower, an observation tower on top of a 9-story building and the only tall structure in the entire city. I took a bus to the station, bought a ticket to my next stop Matsumoto, with a transfer at Nagoya, and then that was it for Kyoto.
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One of the numerous altars along the trail
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Trailside restaurant
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Main shrine at the base of the hill
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Torii gate prices, starting at 175,000 yen or $1,412.25 
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Crossed this to get to the shrine
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I couldn’t help noticing a “battle” between wasps and beetles on this tree. The beetles had this really nice color scheme on their shells of green alternating with red.
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View from the hill
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