Kanazawa

EXPERIENCE THE INTRICACIES OF JAPANESE CULTURE IN A TOWN LINED WITH ANTIQUE SAMURAI HOUSES

Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

kanazawa2

During the Edo period, under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, Kanazawa thrived as a castle town under the exceedingly influential Kaga Domain. It was the most populated city after the three large cities of that era (Edo, Osaka and Kyoto) alongside Nagoya. The streets of Kanazawa still largely maintain their historic feel as they were fortunately spared from any American air strikes during World War II.

Despite the many attractions Kanazawa has to offer, its location on the Sea of Japan side of the country meant that international visitors seldom visited the city since many travellers tended to start their adventures from Tokyo or Osaka, on the opposite side.

However, the situation has changed, with the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in March 2015, improving access to all the major cities along the Sea of Japan side of the country. With the convenience of the city being located only an hour away from Nagano Station – the entry point to holiday resort destinations popular amongst ski-goers such as Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Highlands – Australian skiers, and other foreigners alike, have started to flock to Kanazawa for short trips during their extended stays over in Nagano.

kanazawa1

The wonder of Kanazawa can be described in a single sentence; it has all the beauty of historical Japan concentrated into one single place. It is a city with multiple facets of beauty – a samurai town structured around the centrally located castle; a lively town of merchants; and a town of temples to protect the area. Just merely walking through the streets of Kanazawa will give you a sense of how gorgeous the city is.

Alongside Asano River and Saigawa River, which flow through the city, are 3 historical places with well-preserved streets of old known as the Chaya Districts (tea house district). Chaya districts used to refer to red-light districts where geisha and courtesans gathered, however, nowadays it merely notates an area comprising of establishments where geisha experiences can be had. Of the three Chaya Districts, the largest and most glamorous of them all is Higashi Chaya District (East Chaya District). Delicate, lattice-roofed tea houses beautifully line the streets of the district. When night falls, it shows its other enchanting side as the lamps illuminate the streets to bring about a mysterious allure. With an array of stylish cafés and accessory shops scattered around, it can be easy to spend a whole day leisurely shopping and seeing the many sights. Some places also offer geisha experiences aimed at international tourists, which are definitely worth looking into at tourist information centres.

The sight of water flowing freely through the city is another distinctive characteristic of Kanazawa. Water is taken from the upstream flow of Saigawa River and brought down before using the inverted siphon method to funnel it up to the castle. This technology was said to be the highly advanced during its time.

Mud walls and cobblestone streets take you on a trip back in time over at Naga-machi Buke Yashiki District, where middle-class samurai of the Kaga Domain once called home. The district allows you to see how the samurai of the time once lived. A walk down through the samurai town also wouldn’t be complete without stopping by the Tera-machi Temple Area, one of the many temple areas in Kanazawa. As a defensive strategy against farmers rebelling against the ruler of the time, temples were erected in the areas surrounding Saigawa River – giving rise to the birth of Tera-machi Temple Area. In a similar fashion, Utatsuyama Temple Area on the eastern side of Kanazawa Castle, and Kodatsuno Temple Area to the south-east at Kodatsuno were also constructed. Myoryuji Temple, a ninja temple famous for its numerous ninja traps, headlines the list of almost 70 temples in the Tera-machi Temple Area.

tokyu-kanazawa

KENROKUEN-EN – ONE OF THE THREE GREAT GARDENS OF JAPAN

kanazawa3

Standing proudly alongside Kairaku-en in Mito and Kouraku-en in Okayama, is Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en to make up the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Kenroku-en has rich history as a renowned daimyo tei-en (feudal lord garden) and was constructed throughout many generations of Kaga feudal lords. Located in central Kanazawa, visitors from within and outside of Japan converge on the garden to enjoy the beautiful seasonal scenery.

Kenroku-en is not a “compact style” garden like the ones which are viewable and to be enjoyed from the abbot’s quarters or temples or drawing rooms of castles. Instead, it takes full advantage of the vast area it occupies with a large pond dug into the grounds, tsukiyama (man-made hill), as well as mansions and tea houses dotted around the place. You are able to stroll around to these various attractions in this “go-around-style” garden.

Although the garden was constructed throughout many generations of feudal lords over an extended period of time, the basic vision for the garden stayed consistent all through the years. This was known as the Shinsen Shiso, or the
“Taoist Immortal Vision”. It is the idea to construct a pond to emulate an ocean with an island inside of it to symbolise the immortal island of Taoist belief. The feudal lords were said to have constructed the garden to promote longevity and timelessness.

More details about the origins of Kenroku-en can be found in English on their official website, so it is highly recommended to read up on the history before seeing it in all its glory. The carefully though-out, man-made garden offers a unique sense of charm contrasting with the beauty of Mother Nature’s creations.

HANDS-ON WITH GOLD LEAF AND KIMONO

kanazawa4

The increase of international visitors to Kanazawa in recent times has led to the expansion of various programs for tourists to have cultural experiences relevant to historical Japan. Whilst there are various experiences to be had all over Japan, there are some that are unique to Kanazawa. Noh experiences are one of the more unique ones. The Noh style of Kanazawa was developed from the ceremonial song and dance of the samurai Maeda clan in the Kaga Domain. The style was protected, nurtured and encouraged amongst the masses, leading to the establishment of the Kaga Hosho style. This is why Kanazawa came to be known as, “the town where Noh chants rain from the sky”.

This vast history led to the construction of the Kanazawa Noh Museum to house and display the precious Kaga Hosho Noh masks and costumes. Visitors to the museum can also partake in the actual wearing of a Noh mask during their visit.

Kanazawa is also well renowned for its Kaga Yuzen (Kaga-style dyed textiles) and gold leaf. In fact, almost all of the country’s gold leaf is produced in Kanazawa. Experiences that allow you to don kimono made of dyed fabrics and make your own chopsticks using gold leaf are highly popular. Try out the unique experiences for yourself and take home memories to cherish.
Another spot not to be missed, is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.
It is one of the few leading ontemporary art museums in Japan and is located right
next to the Kanazawa Noh Museum, so there really is no reason not to go!

THE RABBIT HOLE OF KANAZAWA FOOD CULTURE

kanazawa6

Last, but certainly not least, is the deep food culture of Kanazawa. Along with the plethora of Kaga grown vegetables (Kaga yasai), Kanazawa is also known for how distinct its food culture is from the rest of Japan. The seafood found around the area is especially worth bringing to the spotlight. The location of the city on the Sea of Japan side of Japan means that it has access to a variety of seafood which cannot be obtained from the Pacific Ocean side of the country, this also leads to a unique foodie experience to be had. Of the unique produce found in Kanazawa, nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) is particularly sought after by Japanese and international tourists alike. It is a white fish with generous fatty deposits, making it utterly delectable.

Nodoguro, along with various other delicious types of seafood, can be found by visiting Omi-cho market in central Kanazawa. Locals visit the market for their grocery needs, however, a large number of tourists also drop by in order to experience life as a local and see all the marine produce on offer. The epicure in you will want to jot down this locale as a spot to check out. You can also taste local produce at one of the many izakaya (Japanese-style pub) located all around the city. Drop by the reception desk of your hotel and ask the concierge for recommendations about which izakaya to visit.

It goes without saying that Nagano provides a great central base to visit Kanazawa, however, now that the city is accessible from both Tokyo and Osaka with a single trip on the shinkansen, why not have a little visit over to Kanazawa on your next stay in one of the major cities of Japan?

tokyu-kanazawa2

FUKUSHIMA KIDS DIVE INTO DOLPHIN ADVENTURE

fukushima-top

The children wept as they said goodbye to their new friends, friendships that are likely to last a lifetime because of bonds forged during a special week of camp. Yes, it was an emotional scene at the Takeshiba Ferry Terminal in Tokyo. One I will never forget, but one I hope repeats with other children in years to come.

This group of children from Fukushima, Japan, had just returned from the Fukushima Kids Dolphin Camp that was held August 15 to 19 on small, friendly Mikura Island. The group spent the week exploring nature, facing fears, sharing feelings and, yes, swimming with wild dolphins.

Longtime friend Toru Fujita and I held the first FKDC in 2014. It is a radiation and expense-free camp for children whose families were affected by the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant following the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Four years after the earthquake and tsunami devastated Fukushima and surrounding areas, there are still some places where radiation levels are checked regularly. In fact, some kids even carry a special device to keep an eye on the radiation level when they go to school. And some areas closer to the power plant are simply off limits. Houses are abandoned, and only the occasional stray
animal frequents those neighborhoods.

photo5

Concerned about the radiation, even in those areas where people live and work which are considered safe, many parents in Fukushima have cut down the time they allow their children to play outside. And even though a couple of beaches in Fukushima are now open to the public, many families avoid them. So children like the ones who attended the recent camp no longer swim in their hometown.

That’s where FKDC comes in.

But before I go any further, I have to answer the question asked most about the camp: why do you hold a camp that features swimming with wild dolphins?
I spent two years working as a dolphin swim guide in Hawaii about 20 years ago.
I was amazed by the effect these wild, yet approachable creatures have on humans. I believe swimming with dolphins cannot only bring one closer to nature, but also it can bring out courage and confidence.

That’s what the camp is all about: giving children the courage and confidence to live a positive and fulfilling life. And let’s be honest, swimming with wild dolphins is a pretty cool thing to do.

So, Toru and I and other volunteers set up a four night, five day excursion to Mikura Island, located about 200 kilometers off Tokyo. It is also the stomping grounds of about 150 friendly bottlenose dolphins. It is one of very few places in the world where you can swim with wild dolphins under the watchful eye of professionals.

This year we had 13 children attend the camp. The campers, ranging from second to seventh graders, were selected based on essays they wrote about Fukushima and why they should attend the camp. We had dozens of applicants and it was extremely difficult to select who would attend. We didn’t want to turn anyone down, but the budget and space in the facilities we used were limited.

For those selected, it was quite the adventure: one that didn’t include their parents. They took a bullet train by themselves from Fukushima to Tokyo, rode a ferry with our camp staff and stayed in a bungalow with other children they had never met.

And they swam with wild dolphins.

Upon arrival and getting settled in, the campers were given a snorkeling lesson in shallow water. And then we boarded a boat and headed out to sea in search of dolphins. After ten minutes, the captain yelled, “Dolphins!” There was a pod of 30 swimming toward to us.

To say the campers were excited is an understatement. Jumping up and down and eyes almost popping from their heads as they stared at these friendly and approachable creatures of the sea, the kids were ready to jump in. So they grabbed their snorkels and masks, donned life jackets and jumped into the unknown.

“I am doing this“to give children the courage and confidence to live a positive and fulfilling life. Because children are our future.”

In the clear blue water, the dolphins slowly approached, checking out the excited children. I could hear the high-pitched sounds of “yeeew, yeeew” that dolphins made. They swam slowly and got within ten feet of our group. They stayed with us for less than a minute before swimming away, but it is a time that will forever be etched in the minds of these children.

“I saw a baby dolphin!” one of the campers yelled on the surface.
“Their eyes are bigger than mine, and they swam super close and I thought I was going to touch them,” said super stoked third grader Kanta Terauchi. “They were very gentle and I want to swim with them some more.”

During the entire camp, the children had a blast. They played to the max. They ran in their bare feet, snorkeled in the clear water every day, hiked in the mountains and helped cook meals. But most importantly, they bonded with one another.

But the reality of the life they live and the fears they face in Fukushima popped up on occasion.

One day during the camp, a local fisherman gave us a good-sized bonito he caught at sea. We made sashimi out of it.

“Is it safe from radiation?” one boy asked. Only after he was assured that indeed the fresh catch was safe to eat, did he chomp down on the raw chunks of bonito.

As I sat there and took in the scene, I was saddened that these children have such worries and can’t enjoy the sea or the seafood around Fukushima. For the past four years they’ve lived with the constant fear of radiation.

I have heard many stories of the healing power of dolphins. And I believe in them. The children traveled far to see dolphins and it took a lot of courage to swim in deep waters with these creatures of the sea. But the trip was more than just swimming with dolphins. It was about exploration, discovery, conquering fears and learning that it’s OK to dream.

photo5

During the last night of camp, each child stood up in front of everyone and announced his dream.
“I want to be the strongest man in the world!” a boy screamed.

“I want to be a nurse,” a girl said with pride. “I want to be an Olympic swimmer,” chimed in another camper.

“I want to be a volunteer leader,” said another.

After each declaration, the other children yelled back in force, “You can do it!”

The campers were no longer timid and shy like when they arrived. They expressed their feelings thoughtfully but vigorously, shouting into the night sky. They had grown. They had formed their own pod.

FUKUSHIMA KIDS DOLPHIN CAMP

The camp is run with donations received from the crowd-funding websites Indiegogo and Readyfor. More than $8,000 was raised for this year’s camp. Folks from around the world donated, including from the US, France, Holland and Australia.

Funds for the 2016 camp are being accepted now.


To find out more about the camp, visit our website.
Web: www.kidsdolphincamp.com
Email: futurekidsadventure@gmail.com

WAKAYAMA

JS1312_KUMA_LWAKAYAMA_Hongu-Taisha-1

Above: Kumano Hongu Grand Shrine

Wakayama and the Kumano River

The main shrine of Kumano, Kumano Hongu Taisha, has been a focal point for travellers for hundreds of years. The modern shrine sits high above the Kumano
River for good reason. In 1889 the river broke its banks destroying the original
shrine, except for the 30 metre high stone gates which can still be seen today.
Pilgrims once rafted down the mighty Kumano River and modern day travellers can follow in their wake by boating, rafting and kayaking along the world’s only UNESCO World Heritage listed river pilgrimage route.

The Mount Koya Temple Precinct

The scared temple precinct of Mount Koya, the home of esoteric Buddhism, is located on a plateau almost 900 metres above sea level. The deeply forested terrain is dotted with hundreds of temples and temple lodgings. Staying at these lodgings provides an insight into the daily life of a monastery and the chance to sample beautifully prepared vegetarian shojin ryori (temple food) traditionally eaten by pilgrims because of its cleansing properties. Visitors can also learn calligraphy from a Buddhist monk or attend morning services at the temple.

Waterfalls and Beaches

Another must-see is Nachi Shrine, located at the base of the spectacular Nachi Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Japan. The southern part of Wakayama prefecture faces the ocean and the coastal town of Shirahama not only boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in Western Japan, but is also one of the oldest hot spring resorts in the country. When not enjoying glass bottom boat rides and visiting aquariums, visitors can sample delicious mandarins, persimmons and ume plums, for which the prefecture is famous, not to mention the local seafood.

wakayaa-set