Monday, June 30, 2008

Jenny Does Japan 9: Kites are Cool

The parade portion of the Hamamatsu Festival was a complete success on Friday night and totally made me fall in love with Hamamatsu. On Saturday I was pumped to check out the Kite Battle aspect of the festival, which makes this festival in Japan so unique. They even have an entire museum dedicated to the history of kite flying in Hamamatsu, so it's a pretty big deal. After getting a delayed start due to the fact that us and apparently all of the 2 million other visitors also needed to store baggage, we eventually got on a bus to head to the Nakatajima Sand Dunes.
This is where over 170 kites, each bearing the unique crest of a local neighborhood, are flown. Apparently the first ones flown are celebrating the birth of a firstborn child. It's said to be a 440 year old tradition, started by the Lord of Hikuma Castle. After those go up, the sound of bugles, drums, and peoples cheers encourage the others to go up.

Yay! My first glimpse of sand dunes in Japan!
We had to walk quite a bit to get to actual location of the kite flying field.
Fortunately, we had a bout 1 million other people leading the way.

All the cool kids were sportin' kites.

I think we're getting cllllllllllloooooserrrrr....

Time for a lunch break - mmmm, sushi and fresh corn on the cob!

And, we finally made it. The big field of kite fliers!

I give these guys SO much credit. It was ridiculously hot out, which was actually a nice change from the cold and rainy weather we'd been having, but these dudes were wearing dark blue linen oneies and working their butts off to the get the kites up, keep 'em up, and then lower them back down. Amazing.

Here's a video showing what a kite battle's all about.

In between the field and the dunes was this awesome shaded area where people were chillin'.

More festival food and game stands, but it was too hot to handle in the heat of the afternoon.

Tuckered OUT!
Yessss, The Pacific Ocean! The cool breeze was JUST the thing we needed - felt awesome!

And, we still had an awesome view of the kite battles.

As we were walking down to the dunes, some awesome Japanese guy insisted Jenny and I take some of his beer. I think anything cold would've hit the spot right then, but the fact that the can read, "Sheer refreshment! Open up the smooth taste that goes perfectly with good times. BREWED FOR GOOD TIMES." made it particularly delicious. I'm easily impressionable, obviously.

Time to head back.

When we got back into central Hamamatsu, we wanted to grab some more festival food before hittin' the road again that night. It was maybe the greatest surprise of the trip to stumble into the International section of the Festival. We got some souvenirs and sampled some grub from just about every country we wanted. It was all pretty delicious, but I'd have to say my Filipino fruity ice cream was the clear winner of the bunch. There were also some performances working their way through the crowds.

This dude was just creepy, though. But, a hilarious way to end the festival madness before we had to roll out, nonetheless.

Jenny Does Japan 8: Why Hamamatsu?

Hamamatsu is not exactly on any of the "Top Ten Places to Visit in Japan" lists, but it definitely should be. It's a pretty big coastal city half way between Osaka and Tokyo. Actually, the fact that it's not one of the huge tourist destinations (amongst foreigners at least) was one of main reasons it appealed to me. Luckily, Jenny was here for long enough for us to visit the major "Must See Cities" like Tokyo, Kyoto, and even Osaka, Hiroshima, and Miyajima... but I was really looking forward to visiting a city not on the usual foreigner destination route. I can't even remember exactly how I came about finding Hamamatsu, but I do remember reading something about a massive kite festival when Jenny was going to be here and deciding then that we WOULD witness said festival. There are a lot of things I love about Japan, but summer festivals are definitely at the top of my list, and something every visitor to Japan should experience. It was just our luck that this one was happening early enough for Jenny to enjoy, and it just happened to be 'on the way' back towards Maebashi... kind of;)
So, we had ridden all sorts of public transportation thus far, but Jenny finally got to have her first experience on the Shinkansen (bullet train). More comfortable than an overnight bus, smoother than a regular train, much less crowded than the buses, and by far the fastest option out there. Also like 5 times the cost, but to ride the world's FASTEST train, it was worth it. The views were incredible too; if only sleepy old man would've offered me the window seat, I'd have been in heaven!

So, we had been in the big 'ol crowded and developed cities of Tokyo and Osaka, done the sightseeing bits in Kyoto, historical bit in Hiroshima and Himeji, nature bit in Miyajimi, and now I wanted to share some more of Japanese traditional and modern culture with Jen with a look at a Japanese festival. Even though Hamamatsu isn't a huge foreigners destination, some 2 million people come to this 3 day festival every year... so I knew it'd be quite the spectacle. There are a ton of different events going on all over the city, but we planned it to get there in time to enjoy some festival food and beverages before checking out the float parade.

First came the parade of marching brass bands and people carrying their city flags.
Then came the paper lanterns held by the peeps chanting "oicho, oicho!"
And finally, the gorgeous floats. Over 80 neighborhoods compete to have the most spectacular goten yatai (palace-like float) in the float parades which illuminate the downtown area. Most of the floats had children playing flutes and drums, and even though I can't tell the difference, apparently the music played at this particular festival is different than other festivals because it's the same music performed in kabuki (traditional Japanese theatre).

Jenny went with the wiener on a stick...
and some pretty inedible cotton candy for dinner. This woman was workin' hard for the money. Too bad the cotton candy was nassssssssty!

Oooh - more floats!

This gives you an idea of how many people really were at the festival - check out that train!

Jenny Does Japan 7: Miyajima: Our Island Adventure

Alright, so we're up to Friday, May 2nd now. After arriving in Hiroshima at 5am on an overnight bus (Jenny's favorite accommodation/transportation) and taking that all in, we were on our way to the island of Itsuku-shima, more commonly known as Miya-jima. Hiroshima's got a sweet streetcar system, so that was mildly exciting, as far as transportation goes. Wide mo fo streets up in that city post A-bomb; an excellent time to be inventive and make the most of the situation.

We made it to the coast, but trying not to knock over small people is always a bit of a challenge. Look out!
And of course, lots of strenuous bag carrying and walking calls for a regional ice cream flavor break: this time around, sweet potato and grape.
Taking a short ferry ride to Miyajima. Namely, this island is famous for it's red 'floating' torii (Shinto shrine gate). It's considered one of Japan's three best views and is one of the most photographed tourist attractions in Japan (of which there are MANY!). But, I found out it also has some hiking and camping and tourists tend to see it as a day trip, so I thought it'd be a nice change from the crowded cities we'd been visiting. If you look closely at the picture below, you can see the red torii gate in the center.
Our camp site was on the opposite side of the island from where the ferry arrives, but the island is pretty tiny so we took an overpriced taxi to get there (probably negating the cheap accommodation we got in the first place). The camp grounds were really nice, with an immaculate beach (too early to swim yet though), huge pond, tennis courts, large open field, and flowers in bloom.

I reserved a tent ahead of time and expected to be pitchin' it when we got there - a pleasant surprise having it set up already! It was the first Friday of Golden Week Holiday in Japan, so I expected the grounds to be packed... we were one of three other tenters in the area. We were the only ones set up on the these wooden planks, and I'm pretty sure the only one without sleeping bags or real BBQ food. Instead, we came correct with Conbini food, canned cocktails, a deck of cards, my bike light, Jenny's wind up flashlight that was absolutely worthless, and lots of clothes for "warmth"/bedding. This is the location we "went to sleep" at around 10pm (a few hours past sunset), woke up at midnight at, got serenaded by the raucous noises of raccoons and deer at throughout the night, and "got out of bed" at like 5am at. Sleep deprivation made us two of the giddiest, slap happy girls on this island.
But before I tented it, I touristed it. I had to see what this view of the floating torii was all about. On the way, I got a glimpse of all the tame wild deer on the island. They're tame, but they doooo like our food!

There's one main drag of touristy shops on the island, cleverly located between the ferry drop off point and the floating torii. I was kind of looking for omiyage, but mostly I was just sampling the local treat of red bean filled maple-leaf shaped waffles! Mmm.
These guys were cute!
And because it's Japan, Miyajima had to display their "world's largest" item: a wooden rice paddle.
Itsukushima-jinja: yeahhhh, it looks cool.
But as the sun set, and the tourists all had to leave on the last ferry back to the mainland, I really understood why Miyajima is classified as one of Japan's top three views.

All lit up.
Oh yeah, and through my town site seeing, this was the welcoming entrance to the bathroom. I was almost tempted not to go, but when you gotta go...
Fast forward to the morning after a very cold, scurry, and sleepless night of camping (greaaaat idea on my part) when I convinced Jenny since we couldn't sleep anymore, the best thing to do was go for a hike.
Soooo worth it - the view from the top:
Awww, even though they surrounded our tent at night and tried to eat my bag (despite Jenny insisting they wouldn't!), I think I'll miss these guys!