Wednesday, 29 August 2012

1) AKITA - Legends of the Namahage (秋田 の なまはげ)

"Namahage are the embodiment of the loneliness inherent in snowy lands. Raising a terrifying voice, they seek out and attack living things. If you cross paths with one, you should play dead. They regard the lazy as friends and are lulled into a false sense of security.

They say you should play dead if confronted by a Namahage, but it can be quite fearsome to hide in plain sight of an armed foe. A legend tells of a samurai that tried to banish the Namahage. He attacked its blade with a nearby brush while it was distracted. Without its weapon, it grew afraid and left, promising to reform."
-Okami (Nintendo Wii)

Once upon a time, I came across this creature in an excellent video game. And so, I decided to search for where it came from and find out more about it.

That somewhere is Akita prefecture: specifically the Oga peninsula, an hour north of Akita city by train.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Narrow Rails to the Deep North: Hokkaido and Tohoku, 11-26 August 2012

(This is my second series of posts in this blog concerning travels around Japan. For the first, on Hiroshima, Nagano and Nikko in Dec-Jan 2011-2, click here, and see the January 2012 archive for the full series.)

As the mounting heat and humidity of summer slowly turns Tokyo into an insufferable people-oven, the time is ideal to make haste for the cooler, fresher climes of the north.

This two-week voyage, on local trains as the previous one, led in the opposite direction in more than geographical terms. Tōhoku, the northern region of Japan's main island of Honshu, has a reputation for being rural, remote, and – unfortunately – the leading victim of the March 2011 Triple Disaster, when the earth's unrest, the rage of the sea, and the sordid incompetence of politicians and the energy industry over the Fukushima nuclear plant wrought devastation.

My expedition began on the other side of Tōhoku, up the region's western flank via the rice fields of Akita. Only later did it conclude in the east around intensely history-conscious Sendai and the prefecture of Miyagi, whose tsunami-stricken coast was among the worst to suffer.

The real goal of my voyage, however, was the northern island of Hokkaido. For so long Japan's wild frontier, virtually Siberian, and only really absorbed into Japanese society over the last hundred and fifty years, Hokkaido's distinct and exotic experience still exerts a strong lure today.

So it was that my trail led through the prefectural capital of Sapporo, the beautiful farms and fields of Furano, the city of Asahikawa beneath the glorious Daisetsuzan national park, and the great historical port of Hakodate. In each I found remarkable reflections of Hokkaido's unique story, so distinct from that of Japan as a whole but irrevocably intertwined with its Japanese colonization – and so too, in a breathtaking blend, with the influences of foreigners; the heritage of its original Ainu inhabitants; and of course, the vast untameable nature and climate which, though merciless in its wrath, is what has made Hokkaido so bold as a challenge and spectacular as a land.

Having returned to Tokyo, I shall be documenting and reflecting on the huge range of things – experiences, discoveries, tales – this voyage imparted, right here in this blog. Their magnitude means that I will require no fewer than ten posts to cover it all, which I will add here progressively over the coming days and weeks.

I hope these will be as exciting to read about as they were for me to witness, or in some cases partake in. They include some of Japan's more bizarre examples of deep traditional culture...

...consideration for Hokkaido's indigenous people, the Ainu, and their long struggle with contempt and mistreatment like most of the world's indigenous peoples have had to endure...
...perspectives on the joys and sorrows, courage and fears, heroes and villains, triumphs and tragedies that mark Hokkaido's distinctive historical journey...

...and of course, the roaring essence of Hokkaido: its nature. Thundering, wild, unconquerable, that which was there before us humans and which we can never overcome, but only respect, make peace with, and enjoy, with admiration and awe, for the awesome privilege by which it lets us make our homes in its presence.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Oze trekking

Those up for a slightly more ambitious destination than Meguro to hike in the sweltering Japanese summer may want to consider the Oze national park. These elevated mountains, marshlands and forests can be found about 150km north out of Tokyo, across the quadruple boundary of Gunma, Tochigi, Niigata and Fukushima prefectures.

The photos in here come from a venture from the Gunma direction, through a forest whose bird songs and thick green foliage give it an air not far off a tropical rainforest, and at present the sun here is certainly scorching enough. Then the terrain opens up onto a splendid marsh, vibrant with bizarre plants and creatures sheltered from the rest of the country by looming peaks.

What you'll see is highly seasonal. This is reputedly a superb place to come for autumn colours; but now in the midst of summer, expect the lushness of green from every direction. Click the expander below to see.

Oh, and watch out for bears.