October 23, 2011

Hachiman Festival

After an eventful Saturday, I was in need of a good night's sleep, so the next day was as easy as the famous Commodores' song. Monday was Health and Sports Day, a national holiday in honor of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, therefore I had been thinking about a one-day trip to a smaller city outside of Nagoya. My first thought was the town of Gifu but browsing through Lonely Planet I stumbled upon Takayama, where "one of the three most beautiful festivals of Japan" was being held on that weekend. Therefore we decided with Noora to do an ex tempore visit to Takayama and the Hachiman Matsuri.

Hachiman shrine.

Karakuri marionette performance on the float.

Takayama, situated some 120 kilometres North of Nagoya in the Japanese Alps, is a small town compared to Nagoya and the change of landscape was a breath of fresh air. The initial peacefulness, though, was about to change as we got closer to the old town and the crowd of tourists. The old town was very beautiful with traditional Japanese wooden houses and walking through the small alleys we eventually found our way to Hachiman shrine, the center of the festivities. The shrine was on a hillside enclosed with tall trees and in front of it, in the plaza, we saw a traditional Karakuri marionette performance.

The floats and at the end of the road Hachiman shrine is barely visible.

The yatai were sumptuous.

Most of the tourists were elder Japanese people and standing in the middle of the crowd I was head and shoulders above everyone else, which amused some of the older people who were trying to guess my height. The marionette performance was quite spectacular and I really have no clue as to how they managed to move the marionettes on the float and in the air. Leaving the temple we found the famous yatai, lavishly ornate floats, that are only displayed and paraded in the town during the Hachiman matsuri and its spring counterpart, Sanno matsuri. 

Ramen and Hida beef, yum.

The next step was to eat and thanks to Lonely Planet we found a good ramen place where we could also taste Hida beef for a reasonable price. The meal was, and I'll probably never get tired of saying this, delicious. On a full stomach we went to see the procession that displays the mikoshi portable shrine, dancers, musicians and lion-dance performers, who purify the streets and rid them of devils. Instead of describing the parade any more precisely, here is a short video I took with my mobile, enjoy:

After the parade and some souvenir shopping we headed back to the train station to eat something and wait for our train to depart. The matsuri was impressive and definitely worth a visit to Takayama. I can recommend it!

October 17, 2011

My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels

Saturday morning (8th of October), I woke up with that startled feeling you have when you realize you just overslept and missed something important. My mobile phone was in my left hand, next to the pillow, and I have no memory whatsoever of waking up to the alarm. It was 10:21 and I had a rendez-vous at 10:30 with the lab's assistant professor, Obata-sensei, her friend Noriko-san from Tokyo and Noora. Luckily for me, that particular morning my bed hair was truly awesome and after getting dressed I was ready to go. Since I live on campus I was barely late at the meeting point in front of the lab.

Our intention was to eat at the renowned Atsuta Houraiken restaurant, which is specialized in one of the local delicacies, hitsumabushi or grilled eel with rice, seasonings and a special tea-based sauce. We also wanted to visit the sacred Atsuta shrine located in the same area.

Everything went according to plan except for the part where we wanted to avoid the long queues at the restaurant. At 11 o'clock the queue was already an hour-long and we decided to go see the shrine while waiting to be summoned by the waitress, who was calling out names in an annoying and endless high-pitched voice in front of the restaurant.

Atsuta shrine. The sword was nowhere to be seen...

The path leading to the shrine, overshadowed by 1000-year-old cypress trees, was filled with families and tourists, most of whom were Japanese. The shrine is one of the most sacred in Japan and holds one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, literally meaning "grass-cutting sword". According to the legend it was handed to the imperial family by the sun-god herself and is only viewable by the Emperor and a few selected Shinto priests. Having said that, I really think I chose the wrong profession... We also witnessed a traditional Shinto marriage ceremony. The shrine was quite modest, resembling all the other shrines I have seen so far. That was a little disappointing since I was expecting something spectacular after reading about the legendary sword.

Exiting the refreshing shade of the temple area we were greeted by the blazing sun in front of the restaurant - and it did not make the waiting any easier. Once inside Atsuta Houraiken we took our shoes off and sat down at a traditional Japanese low table. The food arrived quickly and we followed the three-step custom to eat hitsumabushi: the first serving with eel and rice only, the second with added seasonings and the third with seasonings and the special sauce. The savor matured with every new ingredient and the final serving with all the ingredients was by far the most delectable. The only thing tempering my delight was my utterly numb left leg that I had to get out from beneath the table midway through the meal. I really thought I had lost that leg for good but it would have totally been worth it.

Hitsumabushi. We were so hungry we nearly forgot to take a picture of the meal.

After the meal we all headed back to downtown Nagoya to take a peek at Osu Kannon, the temple I described in my earlier blog entry, and eat some dango for dessert.  The next stop was another Japanese peculiarity, namely a cat café. Because the homes are small and local people spend a lot of time at work, it is often not possible to own a pet. But there is a cure for that: at pet cafés you can cuddle, stroke and play with cats, dogs and most probably other types of pet cafés exist too. Confined in the small room were a dozen cats and as many people, all girls and one couple. Admittedly, had I been alone or in a different party, I would have most likely been frowned upon.

View from the ferris wheel.

It wouldn't have been a perfect day without some karaoke, so we rented a little karaoke room for an hour and sang our lungs out. The singing session's highlights included My Neighbor Totoro's ending theme song and the popular South Korean girl group Kara's song entitled Mister. It was really a lot of fun, but it didn't end there. We rode the famous ferris wheel on the department store façade (picture in one of my previous posts) and enjoyed the magnificient views over the city.

The karaoke room.


Before calling it a day, we had to taste another speciality of the local cuisine, tebasaki or spicy chicken wings. According to our guides, one the best places to eat tebasaki is Furaibou so that is where we went although it was very well hidden. All in all I really can't praise the day enough... luckily I didn't oversleep in the morning! High five everyone!

October 09, 2011

Where East Meets West

Sunday dawned bright and sunny so the weather was perfect for more sightseeing. My plan was to visit Osu Kannon, a Buddhist temple situated in central Nagoya and then take the shortest route home passing by the grocery store. As it turned out, the plan was perfect but the execution was poor. Lead by my insatiable curiosity I walked the streets rudderless, following any scent that arouse my slightest interest.

After taking a right turn from Osu-dori, I imagined that the temple would be right there, visible to the naked eye. Instead all I saw was office buildings one after another. For a second I thought I had already missed the turn but after checking my map I was convinced I was in the right place. A hundred meters further and there it was, hiding in the shadow of the taller buildings. This is something I really love about Japan, that at each turn, you can find something unexpected whether it's a small peaceful temple, a narrow backstreet packed with tiny shops or just something that looks totally out of place.

Osu Kannon.

A statue at Osu Kannon.

The temple area was quite crowded and people of all ages were making offerings, praying in front of the shrine and burning incense sticks. From the eastern side of the temple area starts a maze of small walking streets crammed with tiny shops from ramen booths and vegetable stalls to electronic retailers and clothing stores. Some of the shop names where quite amusing such as the m/c clothing store, with a motorbike parked in front of it, called Skooter or the coffeehouse chain Café de Crié ("café of shouting"). Somehow beauty salons had managed to got their names right such as Beauty Salon Cuore ("heart") or Beauty Salon Dandy House but still most of the attempts to sound original were horrible. It's like Hollywood stars naming their children, it's not their forte.

Lost in the labyrinth.

If you can find your way to the other end of the labyrinth you arrive at the edge of Sakae. Not as colossal or breathtaking as for example Shibuya in Tokyo, the district has more of a Western feel to it. For example Hisaya Odori, one of the main streets in Sakae, has the same kind of mellow atmosphere as Esplanadi in Helsinki with a park in the middle of trafficked streets. But the similarities end there. Especially at night, when all the neon signs are lit, Sakae is the unresting heart of the city with its numerous restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

View of Hisaya Odori from the Galaxy platform.

More Sakae.

After marveling the city for a few hours I had lost track of my position, but owing to the grid-like structure of the city, I was quite easily able to find my way into the right direction and eventually got to the grocery store. After spending a few days more or less just wandering in the city, I'm really starting to like it. Eager words of a newcomer? We'll see...

October 03, 2011

A Walk in The Park

Friday we took advantage of a day off to go visit Nagoya Castle and Sakae, the city's buzzing shopping and nightlife district.

Noora and I took the subway at the nearby Tsurumai park to the western edge of the city centre, JR Nagoya station, which is a small city in itself packed with department stores, hotels and skyscrapers. Although the morning rush hour was over, the atmosphere was quite hectic compared to the surroundings of the university.

Nothing is impossible in Japan, like this ferris wheel accessed from the department store.

We decided to go by foot all the way to Nagoya Castle and have a better look at the city. As soon as we left the immediate vicinity of the station, the mood suddenly calmed down and one or two blocks away from the station you could barely notice you had just left the main station of Japan's fourth largest city. And this applies to most of the busy, heavily trafficked roads too. As soon as you take a turn between the big company buildings bordering the main streets, calmer, sometimes even eerily quiet small streets unfold.

Wandering through the streets and gazing around us, we arrived in no time to the moated Nagoya Castle sitting pretentiously in the middle of the park. The castle was reduced to ashes in World War II bombardments but has since been reconstructed. The exterior resembles faithfully the old castle, but the interior is made of concrete and holds a museum with paintings and a few samurai armors and swords. 

Nagoya castle
On Saturday the laboratory held a BBQ party at Shounai Ryokuchi park to welcome the new members and bid farewell to those who were leaving. We arrived around noon and after a short speech and a little organizing the grills were ablaze. A Japanese BBQ party is very similar to a Finnish one: there's meat (including sausages), beer, chatting and ball games (yes, yes). The mood was very cheerful and relaxed from the beginning and there was an overall sense of fellowship. The day culminated in a drinking game and to my astonishment even the professors partook. And no one was spared. All in all I was very happy with the BBQ party. I got to know most of the laboratory staff before starting to work on Monday and I was able to slip some Japanese here and there in the conversations.