Journeys in Japan – Nagoya & Mie prefecture
This is a post on my trip to Nagoya and Mie a week after the events of March 11th. Originally I was supposed to go to Kyoto but with everyone fleeing to Kansai, it was impossible to get any train or even bus tickets. A night bus to Nagoya was practically the only option. I have been to the city only once before on a business trip that was so short I couldn’t even try Nagoya’s famous “tebasaki” – chicken wings. So, I took the opportunity to visit it again and since I was in that area – also see the attractions in the neighboring Mie prefecture.
Japanese night bus is a great way to travel when you are on a budget. It is three times cheaper than Shinkansen – bullet train and it is less affected by heavy snow, rain or earthquake that almost always make the trains stop. The buses usually depart in the evening and stay at the highway rest area for a couple of hours to arrive to it’s destination in the morning. I used to ride those a lot back in the days when my husband was studying at Kyoto university.
They are quite comfortable especially for female travelers that have designated single seat area with curtain partitions that guarantees privacy. Each seat can recline to an almost horizontal position and there is also a support shelf for your feet and ankles that you can lift, turning your seat into a bed. The only downside is the lack of sufficient space to actually use the chair to it’s full capacity. If you recline all the way to the back and a person in front of you does the same, you become completely trapped in your seat for the rest of the trip. If you need to go to the toilet, well.. let’s just say you either have to demonstrate some gymnastic abilities or wake that person in front of you and ask to let you out. ^-^
So, we arrived at Nagoya station early in the morning. I already had my iphone GPS searching for the nearest Starbucks. Unfortunately at 6 in the morning nothing was open yet so we had to settle on a station based Denmark cafe instead. I’m writing about it because even though Denmark cafe is a chain, this one was selling an apple pie that you can buy only in Nagoya. I love these kind of discoveries like gazpacho soup in Spanish McDonald’s or caviar roll at a Russian sushi bar. ^-^
However, after renting a car and driving a little bit toward Mie, I finally found Starbucks and it conveniently had a drive-in booth – something I haven’t seen yet in Japan. So we had a second breakfast! ^-^
Our first stop was Seki (now part of Kameyama city) located in northwestern part of Mie prefecture. Seki is famous for it’s well preserved portion of Edo-period Tokaido road between Tokyo and Kyoto.
The old road runs the length of town and it has been kept intact till the present day. It has many shops and restaurants that have been there since their opening hundreds years ago. The products they sell are all very traditional like candles, braided silk cords, wooden crafts, ceramics etc. There is one mochi shop that has been making mochi for the Emperor family for 14 generations!!
The next stop was Iga Ueno town that is a birth place of the haiku poet Matsuo Basho and Hattori Hanzo – famous ninja of Iga-ryu ninjutsu school.
During the feudal period of Japan’s history, ninja were the principal agents of espionage hired to gain intelligence, disrupt or assassinate enemies. The art of Ninjutsu focuses mainly on stealth and intellectual solutions to combat rather than on arms. They studied and perfected not only martial arts but also psychology, astrology and medical agriculture. Their compound in Iga was disguised as a farm. It contained traps and secret passages as well as revolving walls, hidden doors, lookout rooms and hidden arms disguised as household items. Ninja were holding the secret to gunpowder manufacture (at that time the most sought-after military intelligence) so they went to all that trouble partly to hide their secret laboratories.
Part of the original house was relocated to Iga ninja museum. There, you can see the finest historical collection of ninja pieces in the world and also participate in a show where professionally trained actors demonstrate various ninja techniques.
After ninja museum we drove to Akame-shijuhachi taki (48 waterfalls) located in the valley of about 4km length at the upstream of Taki river. These waterfalls along with the surrounding forest are considered to be among 100 most beautiful places in Japan.
Since it was already getting dark, we didn’t see all of the 48 waterfalls but the ones that we did see were gorgeous. There was also a small salamander museum at the entrance were you can see various species of salamander and also purchase original salamander characters (Japan is famous for creating cute characters for everything even for the dust microbes and feces.. Maybe I should make another post on this subject..I have some weird photos to show! ^-^)
In the evening, we arrived at Tsu which is the capital of Mie prefecture. Because of the fear of radiation that was so eminent at that time, instead of eating dinner at a restaurant, we bought some oden and beer at combini and went back to our hotel to watch TV and catch updates on the situation at Fukushima.
On the next day, we went to the famous Ise jingu – the supposed highlight of our trip. I was a bit disappointed though when we got there because very little was open to the public and taking photos was prohibited anywhere near the shrine buildings. I of course snapped a couple before a man in a suit asked me to leave… They had the whole brigade of people in there whose sole purpose was to reprimand tourists for taking pictures…
Ise Jingu is a Shinto shrine complex composed of a large number of small shrines centered around two main ones Naiku and Geku – inner and outer shrines respectively. It is an old pilgrimage spot and one of the largest and most important shrines in Japan. The priests and priestesses of Ise shrine all come from the royal line even to the present day.
I always try to be respectful to the holy places regardless of my own beliefs but somehow that particular place made me uncomfortable. All I could see was money, money, money – priests selling private tours to the inside of the shrine, Miko selling fortune telling and amulets, people throwing tons of money in front of the altar when giving their prayers… I guess when you see 10 or so Mercedes Benz parked in a private parking space inside the shrine compound, you can’t help but wonder about the real purpose of these spiritual places… To me a Japanese Shinto shrine looks like a corporation that not only gets government waiver on taxes and generous support from their patrons and sponsors but also earn a lot by providing various spiritual services and selling goods. I mean people would have to save money for months to be able to afford a wedding at a Shinto shrine..
These are the two pictures I wasn’t supposed to take.
One is of a priests’ chamber in front of the shrine. I don’t know why they are sitting there but I spotted a Japanese family of three with a priest inside the closed area of the shrine walking around and praying at various spots so I guess they are the ones to go to if you need to get in. I am sure it costs extra… At the other shrine I saw a similar chamber and when I peaked in, I saw priests writing fortune telling “omikuji” while watching a baseball game on TV. I mean, common..really?
The second picture is of Miko – “God’s child” – a girl working in a shrine. She was selling “omamori” – Japanese amulets with prayers inside. 500 to 1000 yen can usually get you good luck for a year after which you suppose to go back to the shrine to return the old amulet and buy a new one – a pretty smart way to guarantee the constant flow of customers. ^-^ There are no general luck amulets – they are all very specific, targeting various areas like health, love, money. You can also get “omikuji” – fortune telling or make a wish by writing it down on a piece of wood – “ema” and then hang it at a designated place in the shrine. I must admit I always feel tempted to buy “omamori” because of their beautiful designs and silk patterns.. Many people are using them for their bags or mobile phones. They are very cute.. ^-^
This is a big harvest of sake offered to gods for their generosity or what I call a smart “product placement” inside the shrine.
This is the Geku part of the shrine with a beautiful pond and a part of forest that is open for a nice stroll. All the trees are ancient and many elements have their own special meaning. I liked that natural part of the compound. ^-^
Because of so many people, jammed streets and the lack of parking space, we decided to visit Naiku part of the shrine the next day. Instead, we went to Kawasaki-cho – a place along the Seta river where the old liquor wholesalers’ warehouses still remain intact since their establishments 300 years old. The biggest one was still operating till 1999 but then was turned into a museum where you can learn the history of Ise region and see the usage of many old things that ceased to be useful in modern days..
There are many traditional old shops along the river like hon-ya (bookstores), wagashi-ya (Japanese sweets shops) etc. We tried a really nice sakura mochi – rice cakes and then had a “kaki-fry” – fried ouster lunch at a local restaurant.
Then, we drove to Meoto Iwa – “loved ones” rocks that are famous for their representation of a union between man and woman. They are joined by a “shimenawa” – a heavy rope of rice straw that has to be replaced several times a year during a special ceremony. I wanted to see these rocks for a long time – they are considered to be a symbol representing that area so I often had to draw that image for a client..
The rocks are located near local Futami Okitawa shrine so shrine’s “ema” – wooden plates for making wishes also depict Meoto Iwa.
Our last stop for the day was Toba sea-folk museum – a huge complex of three angar-like buildings dedicated to the antique equipment from Mie’s fishing villages and to the lifestyle of Ama – women divers who were very skillful at catching abalones without scuba diving equipment. There are only a few of them remaining – mostly old women in their 60ties and 70ties because nowadays, it is very hard to attract a young woman to such a hard profession.
Although the displayed collection was interesting, we went there mainly for the beautiful modern architecture and tranquil atmosphere that the museum is famous for. After it closed for the day, we just sat outside and listened to the sound of birds and sea intertwined with a quiet sound of flute playing in the background.
For the second night, we stayed at Shima area at a resort hotel.
We could get a great deal for the room that unfortunately didn’t include dinner and since there was nothing around the hotel, for the second night in a row we had to eat combini food again. ^-^ This “Ise-ebi” ramen and Sinto beer are local specialties that you can buy nowhere else.
On the third day, we went to visit Naiku part of the Ise shrine and Okage-yokocho – a village built on Oharai-machi street in front of Ise Jingu by an old confection company “Akafuku” that has been successfully operating for 300 hundreds years (thanks to Ise Jingu hence the name “okage” – appreciation).
The village is a nostalgic reproduction of the old town that houses many traditional regional specialty shops and restaurants.
Besides various type of food, you can also buy really good quality scents and candles, silk accessories and pottery.
The festive atmosphere of these merchant streets was very uplifting. We tried the famous “tekone zushi” – a variation on katsuo-don – bonito fish with rice and the famous “Akafuku” – sweets made of red bean paste and sticky rice cake.
Then, we drove back to Nagoya to visit Nagoya castle and Tokugawa-en – a beautiful garden in the heart of the city. Unfortunately the castle was closed by the time we arrived so despite my desire to do some role playing “break into a castle” ninja game, we just saw it from the outside.
The Tokugawa-en garden was gorgeous. It was blooming so I could see various types of Sakura and Ume there.
In the evening, just before taking a night bus back to Tokyo, we walked around the center of Nagoya and had dinner at “Furai-bo” – Nagoya’s famous tebasaki restaurant.
I have to say, those chicken wings were the best I have ever tried in my life. Me and my husband ate like 30 of them. ^-^
This little trip was our getaway from all the stress we had in Tokyo after the earthquake. Although many companies were taking a week off, mine was working every day but thanks to three consecutive holidays, we also could enjoy a nice vacation like the rest of our friends. ^-^