Two Years Later: Fuji Five Lakes

Although I no longer live in Japan, Japan is still very much in my life. It never seems to leave you once you’ve been there. The draft posts I made from my last year in Japan niggle at me, because I want to remember them the way I do the novelty of my first year. This blog was never meant as a travel guide, it would become dated too quickly, but as a way for me to memorialize my experiences. So I hope, dear Reader, you won’t mind the time lag.

In November 2015 my aunt came to visit my sister and me, and as well as visiting Tokyo and Kanazawa, we took a trip to Fuji Five Lakes, where we could take in the scenic views of and around Mount Fuji. We stayed in Fujiyoshida, a sleepy Showa-era town at the base of the mountain.IMG_5750 (800x600)IMG_9025 (1024x768)IMG_8997 (800x601)Although most climbers start the trail at the fifth station where Fuji starts to get steeper, the journey through the lower elevations is supposed to be quite picturesque. Fujiyoshida is the start of the popular Yoshida trail which begins at the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. When we visited, it was around the time of the Shichi-go-san Festival which celebrates the ages of seven and three for girls, and five and three for boys, so we were lucky to see families with their dressed-up children visiting the shrine too.

IMG_8990 (800x600)IMG_9005 (800x600)IMG_9010 (600x800)IMG_9019 (800x600)The area has quite a few odd little museums and attractions, such as the Herb Hall and Music Forest (devoted to music boxes), but we visited the Kubota Itchiku Museum. This museum is dedicated to its namesake kimono designer, who revived or recreated the craft of tsujigahana silk dying. The museum complex feels larger than it is because of the variety of styles and atmospheres. The entrance is through an elaborately decorated portal consisting of a large wooden gate and metal shapes resembling bog-wood atop white stone steps. The outdoor space is very much a part of the museum, with its garden designed by landscape architect Yasuo Kitayama, metal sculptures, and connection to the surrounding natural landscape. Autumn is the most recommended season to visit this area because of the colourful leaves. The New Wing, a rustic Gaudí-esque one-storey building contains the ticket office, shop, cafe and gallery of Kubota’s collection of glass beads.

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The kimono are displayed in the Main Hall, a pyramidal structure that still recalls the atmosphere of temple honden with its large cypress beams. The ‘Symphony of Light’ a series depicting a continuous landscape of the changing seasons, is displayed around the sides, and individual pieces or smaller sets are displayed on the central platform. There is no glass in front of the kimono, which shows the museum’s confidence in the self-control of the visitor, because it is the texture, rather than the colours, that makes these kimono so breathtaking. Multiple techniques are used to create the effects; tie-dying, embroidery, gilding and painting. The splendour of the colours can be seen from photographs, but the fabric comes alive in person with variations of light and shade, creating movement even in pure white.

Kubota (700x417)The day we walked around Lake Kawaguchi was cloudy and blustery, so we really enjoyed our local dinner of hōtō, thick noodles in a miso broth with lots of vegetables. It was definitely hearty enough to keep us warm for the walk to the station. Since darkness had fallen we could see the onsen hotels on the other side of the lake, giving us the feeling of seeing the bathhouse appear across the water in Spirited Away.
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Every year, the second-year students at my school take a trip to Okinawa, and I’m always envious (although I don’t envy the teachers who have to look after the 280 students!).  I finally made it there during spring vacation this year and I had ten days to explore the main island of Okinawa.  Not only that, but my friend from Italy was visiting Japan, and although our original plan was to visit Ishigaki Island in the south of the archipelago, near Taiwan, flights were quite expensive, so we decided to fly to Naha on the main island and then get a ferry to Zamami island to the west.

We were both fans of Megane, a Japanese film about idyllic Okinawan life (set on the island Yoron, technically part of Kagoshima prefecture).  We definitely felt like we were in that film on Zamami Island.  We took a two-hour ferry (though there is a faster one that only takes 50 minutes) and stayed for two nights at Nakayamagwa Guest House, and even though the weather was really windy or rainy for most of our stay, we were blessed with beautiful sunny weather and a gorgeous view for our first morning there.IMG_4452IMG_4437We explored the tiny island, searching for shells and dry coral on the beaches.  Time was different there.
IMG_4454Zamami is famous as a place for whale watching from January to March when Humpbacked whales come down from the Arctic to mate or give birth.  It was at the end of April so the season was ending, but we were lucky that when we took the whale watching boat tour, there was a mother and her calf who were then joined by a male escort.  Calves can’t hold their breaths for as long as adults so it meant that the whales had to stay close to the surface.  I couldn’t take good pictures, but we were close enough to see the whales without getting too close for their comfort.  Although by the end of the two-hour tour I wasn’t feeling very comfortable, so I would recommend taking something for sea-sickness, because the waves got pretty choppy.  I was reading Moby Dick at the time, which made an interesting prediction about Japan – “If that double bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold” (Chapter 24, “The Advocate”).  A few years later when Commodore Perry arrived in Edo, he demanded that American vessels (whale and merchant ships) be allowed to access supplies at some Japanese ports.

IMG_7622IMG_7624We also got to go snorkeling, despite the strong wind, and the sea was just amazing.  The water was a little too cold for swimming so we wore wetsuits which were made of a kind of foam that also added to our buoyancy, and it was incredible to float on the waves, looking down at the coral and fish below.  When we went to the famous Churaumi Aquarium on Okinawa Island, I saw many of the fish I saw in the sea at Zamami.IMG_4448IMG_7726IMG_7729When my friend flew back home, I stayed on the main island for a few more days with friends from Ishikawa, and we rented a car so that we could enjoy the spectacular scenery in the north and the historical war monuments in the south.  We went to Ryukyu Mura in the centre of the island, a tourist village that is dedicated to the culture of the Okinawan islands before they became part of Japan.  It was a strange mix of lush vegetation, hidden speakers playing music, reconstructed traditional houses brought from all over the island, performances and craft workshops.IMG_7693IMG_7709IMG_7707IMG_7720I drank some sugar cane juice and tried my hand at bingata dying.  The pattern was  surrounded by a dye-resistant substance and painted over.  It was wrapped in newspaper and after about a week, when I was back in Kanazawa, I washed it to reveal the dyed image.  The patterns used in bingata are very different from Japanese ones, and definitely show a southeast asian influence.IMG_7702IMG_7704IMG_4547It was great to be able to travel around the island by car, it gave us a lot more flexibility and freedom, because the public transport system is not the best outside of Naha.  The island of Okinawa is quite long, so we drove up north one day, visiting the Ryukyu Village, the Aquarium and passing vast stretches of US military bases, and we stayed at a shack-like hostel on Kouri Island, that can be reached by bridge.IMG_4483The next day we drove up Cape Hedo along beautiful coastal scenery, to the northernmost tip of the island, and did some light hiking at Dai Sekirinzan that had some really interesting karst rock formations.IMG_7742IMG_7776The next day we explored the south of the island that was just as beautiful, but very sad.  In the Battle of Okinawa, when the US army arrived at Zamami (one of the Kerama islands) to attack Okinawa, the Japanese army pulled out of Naha in order to wage guerrilla warfare from the caves in the south.  The Japanese army in Okinawa were under orders to keep the US troops bogged down on the island and away from the mainland.  Not only were they prepared to fight down to the last soldier, but they were prepared to sacrifice as many civilian lives as they thought necessary.  


The pictures below are from the Peace Memorial Park which commemorates the people who died, and there’s a museum, which we unfortunately didn’t get to visit because we wanted to go to the Himeyuri Monument and Museum before it closed.  It told the sad story of 240 students and teachers of a high school, who were mobilized to act as nurses for the Japanese troops during the battle.  The museum explained the nationalistic education the students had received until then, their wish to serve the army and their false expectation to be able to continue their studies.  In the Battle of Okinawa, there was no defined battlefield and no distinction between civilians and soldiers.  The girls lived in caves with wounded and dead soldiers, performing surgeries and fetching water as war was waged around them.  Near the end of the battle, they were dismissed by the Japanese army, many were given grenades and told to leave the caves and fend for themselves.  104 survived.