Saturday, 26 April 2014

Walking the Fukuchiyama Line

One of the things that Jules and I have always enjoyed while living here in Japan is getting away from the usual tourist spots and discovering some of its lesser known attractions. We recently experienced one such place when looking for an interesting local walking trail on a beautiful spring day. Jules had read about an abandoned stretch of railway line between Namaze and Takedao that had once run through mountains between Kobe and Kyoto. The former Fukuchiyama line had began its service in 1899 but had ceased to operate during the 1960’s, leaving behind the remnants of what must have been one of the most scenic short railway journeys in Japan.

After arriving by local train to Namaze station, we made our way past timber houses, lined vegetable gardens and then eventually under a series of massive cement pylons that holds the giant multi-laned freeway high overhead. While this is quite ugly, you can’t help but marvel at the engineering involved in creating such a monolithic structure that allows a perfectly straight road to pierce its way through the picturesque mountains. Shortly past this point the remnants of the old railway track began to emerge and we soon found ourselves entering a valley of lush green trees clinging to sheer cliffs, while a boulder filled river flowed below. Although the iron railway tracks had been pulled up years ago, the old sleepers that had once held them still remained and as we were to discover, so too was much of the stone and rusting metal infrastructure of the old line.

As we continued, we came across quite a few signs reminding hikers not to walk the line. However, this seemed more like of a notice of discouragement and a means of denying legal responsibility rather than an enforceable demand. After all, this trail had become increasingly popular with both locals and visitors over the years, so it was unlikely that access was going to be denied in the foreseeable future. There was evidence that the welfare of ‘line walkers’ had also been considered, with plenty of safety barriers erected since the closure. We guessed that the major concern was the six long tunnels that hikers would pass through during the trek. Being well aware of these, we came armed with our torch, as we had read that some tunnels are often pitch black in the middle and they were! Probably the most spectacular of the tunnels led directly onto a large riveted iron bridge that spanned the valley. Looking like something straight out of ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’, it provided some spectacular views both upstream and down, particularly with added water from the melted winter snow now dramatically increasing the flow of the rocky rapids below.

As we walked the track we would occasionally pass other hikers heading along in the other direction. In long dark tunnels our paths would cross in torch light with polite greetings of “Konichiwa”. Not being able to be seen, we wondered whether our accent would give us away as being foreigners … probably! As we got closer toward Takedeo, we increasingly spotted family groups sitting by the banks of the river, admiring the views and being at one with nature, as is the Japanese way. The demise of the track had now provided a very convenient inroad into some of the most spectacular countryside this region has to offer, as well as providing a permanent reminder of simpler days of rail travel that have now long since passed.I imagine that if this stretch of railway line had closed today, it is unlikely that it would ever become a walking trail. No doubt a candy coloured steam train or something similar would be running tourists back and forth between the two towns. It would indeed be a spectacular short journey for those onboard, but nowhere near as peaceful as it is today. Instead the Fukuchiyama line remains a beautiful hidden gem, known by the locals and just a few visitors who make the effort to seek it out. Its attraction is not just as a gateway to the spectacularly scenic mountains, but in providing a reminiscent insight to this amazing stretch of railway that was, for a time, the everyday commute for the locals who once live here.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Spring Break in Kanazawa

It has been three years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that caused devastation across northern Japan and since that time, the country has been working vigorously to encourage the return of overseas tourism back to its shores. Encouraged by the gradual devaluation of the Japanese yen, sightseers have begun to return, although there remains determined competition between the various cities to attract its share of the tourist dollar. One place that continues to make positive strides in generating local and overseas interest is the city of Kanazawa. Positioned north east of Osaka, it is nicely nestled between its picturesque mountains and the Sea of Japan. With a population of less than half a million people, this ‘castle-town’ offers a very manageable alternative to many of the larger and more familiar destinations. It is also one of the few locations in Japan that has not suffered from the ravages of war or natural disaster. So with Kanazawa only a few hours away by train, Jules and I thought that we might indulge ourselves with an over-night stay to celebrate the beginning of Spring.

Emerging from the impressively modern railway station, we could feel the warming sun and while there was still snow on the mountains, there were signs that Kanazawa was beginning to thaw out from a particularly cold winter. Council workers were beginning to dismantle maypole-like structures often used as supports for tree branches laden with snow, while the first signs of pink and white blossom could just be seen. Of course the best place to observe the transformation into spring would be at the famous Kenrokuen Garden, which is widely regarded as one of the best in Japan. It sits alongside Kanazawa Castle Park, which is also a pretty impressive sight, with each capturing perfectly the symbiotic relationship between traditional Japanese culture and nature. As we wandered around the fastidiously manicured gardens, we constantly came across beautifully harmonious tableaux with visitors sitting on benches quietly absorbing the scene. A bride and groom in traditional dress were being photographed amongst the blossom of the Japanese plum grove, while close to the Meijikinen monument an old man could be seen balancing a spinning plate on a bamboo stick. There were quaint wooden teahouses jutting out over reflective ponds that narrowed into winding streams as well as the occasional gently flowing waterfall. Kenrokuen Garden was certainly living up to its reputation and with such perfect spring weather, we couldn’t imagine it looking much better.

Another reason for visiting Kanazawa was to have a look at one of the most cutting edge art galleries in Japan. The 21st Museum of Contemporary Art was opened in 2005 and has already attracted over 1.5 million visitors. As we approached the impressive low lined circular glass building, we sensed that this minimalist environment would provide us with some interesting encounters with modern art. With permanent works from artists such as Leandro Erlich, James Turrell and Anish Kapoor, the gallery gained a reputation for innovation and has openly set itself the mission of ‘awakening Kanazawa’s creative energy and becoming a compelling regional cultural attraction’. Sadly, our creative energy was left a bit flat when we discovered that the majority of the gallery was actually closed due to preparations for its next exhibition. All we were able to do was just wander around the buildings outer perimeters, catching sight of the odd piece of art here and there. Still, we remained positive, as we have learnt over years of traveling that there are occasionally such disappointments. It certainly didn’t dampen our enjoyment of the city, after all there were plenty of other things yet to see in Kanazawa before heading home.

Kanazawa has quite a few historic districts and over the two days we were there, we spent quite some time wandering through backstreets exploring them. To the east, the Higashi Chaya area is still regarded as the geisha district of the city, with a streetscape of wooden houses that wouldn’t have changed too much since the feudal-period. To the west, the Nishi Chaya district is known for its traditional tea houses, while just a short walk away is the beautifully preserved walled residences of the Nagamachi area that allowed us to see where the samurai once lived.

Over the past few years, Jules and I have seen many Buddhist temples, but we hadn’t seen quite as many in such a concentrated place as we did in the Teramachi district (meaning ‘temple-town’). With over seventy temples packed into just a few streets, we could easily imagine how in feudal times this district would have been regarded as a major religious centre. While most of the larger temples on the main street had been well preserved, we felt that the smaller, less maintained structures in the back streets also tended to provide a valuable insight into how this area might have once been many years ago. Clearly Kanazawa was becoming more mindful of its past and was now making every effort to preserve what remains of its historic districts. By revitalizing its artistic and cultural traditions, it was not only celebrating the city’s unique place in Japanese history, but would also ensure a strong economic future through tourism.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Dining with the Sumos

This years Grand Sumo Tournament was back again in Osaka and Jules and I found ourselves in the fortunate position of being invited by one of the sponsors to come along to view the big event. We had attended a couple of years ago but had found ourselves quite a way back in the upper seats, toward the back of the stadium. This time we would be viewing from what is referred to as a private box, but is in actual fact a small, tatami matted area with cushions to sit on. In any case these were very sought after cushions indeed, as they would be quite a bit closer to the action. However, the biggest bonus of the invitation was the opportunity for us to attend a post tournament dinner hosted by the Sumos themselves. This was a customary event held by the various Sumo ‘stables’ as a way of thanking sponsors and supporters, while also allowing them to meet some of Japan’s most revered sportsman in an informal setting.

It was mid afternoon on the final day of competition when we took up our positions in the box. The tournament had been running for two weeks and it was now approaching the final events that would decide the ultimate grand champion and the all important rankings. While our seats were very much sought after, it was still quite a tight squeeze, leaving little room for leg adjustment when the pins and needles eventually began to set in. However, the position was terrific; close to the action, but not too close as to have a Sumo land in your lap after being tossed off the dohyo (the raised wrestling ring). Being a sponsors box, we were being well looked after too, with drinks and a generous supply of bentos to keep us nourished between bouts. As is tradition, we were also presented with gift bags containing several nicely wrapped presents as a mark of appreciation of our support for the event…at this point Jules and I were beginning to feel a little guilty, but of course graciously accepted them rather than offend.

With the final bout having been fought and the grand champion decided (Kakuryu, with 14 victories and only one loss) it was time to head off to the Sumo dinner, but with absolutely no idea what to expect. We imagined sitting in a traditional wooden building steeped in the traditions of this ancient sport, but what we found was a surprisingly modern high rise environment, much like you would find for any corporate organisation. Sumo is after all a very professional business these days and so, much like any other corporatised sport, they too have moved with the times. We were however, pleased to be greeted by several Sumo, complete with the traditional ‘chonmage’ styled hair and dressed in their post-tournament robes. These gentle giants looked slightly out of place in this contemporary environment, but they were more than happy to act as hosts by leading us to the elevators and eventually to our seats at the front of a large conference-like room.

The formalities and award giving were about to begin, where each Sumo in the stable would be presented with an envelope of varying size, commensurate with their achievements during the tournament. With the speeches well underway, bowls of noodles, cold meats and sushi began to be served by the Sumos who, despite their size, worked their way around the tables with the graceful ease of a ballet dancer. With the formalities soon over it was time for some fun. There was passionate singing, some impersonations of famous Sumos and several rounds of audience games, all adding to a very relaxed atmosphere. The drinks and conversation flowed while small groups took their turn in having their photographs taken alongside a sizable Sumo.

Clearly the sponsors and supporters who had been especially invited to the event were all very highly regarded by this particular stable of Sumo wrestlers. They had expressed their appreciation with good humor and through the generosity of their hospitality that night. As visitors to the country and as invited guests, we too felt very special for being there. As we stood to leave, they presented us with framed signatures and other momentoes as a reminder of the evening. It had been a remarkable night and yet another one of those unforgettable experiences that Jules and I will cherish from our time here in Japan.