Travels in Shiga, Part 2

So, besides our ryokan stay in part 1, there was a lot of other things to do in Shiga Prefecture. Other things we did in and around Lake Biwa were…

The Katsube Fire Festival

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When Emperor Tsuchimikado fell sick sometime in the 13th century, a fortuneteller traced the cause of his sickness to a dragon living in a nearby marsh. The dragon was killed and burned, so every second Saturday of January, the Katsube Himatsuri (Fire Festival) is celebrated to commemorate that event.  Oh right, and yeah, the emperor recovered after that happened.

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Before…

So, to presumably represent said dragon, massive torches made of hay are constructed, hauled into the shrine grounds by men in traditional loincloths, and set aflame. As the torches burn, the men dance in circles and chant.

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During…

Small fireworks inside the torches go off just as the torches are spent, signifying their end. Then, their remains are hauled out through the shrine gates. Man, Japanese festivals are so cool.

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After.

Mount Hiei via the Biwako Valley Ropeway

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Biwako Valley Ropeway is Japan’s fastest, and it takes you to the top of the local Mount Hiei in five minutes. Activities included my first encounter with snow this unconscionably warm winter, and my first time sledding in over 15 years.

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We also spent what must have been an hour trying to get the perfect picture on the edge of the infinity pool at Biwako Valley Terrace. Perfect for Instagram! Too bad I don’t have one.

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Mount Hiei stands at a modest 2,782 feet (848.1m), which still makes for a great view above the clouds.

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The Michigan Cruise

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Nothing is more Japanese than an American paddle steamboat straight out of 1880s Mississippi River. You can take a 60, 80, or 120-minute cruise on the fantastic Michigan, four stories and also featuring a bar and live performances.

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Keeping with the American theme, the performers even sang in ENGLISH, which is always a surprise. It was mostly Disney music, including Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” Mary Poppins’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You.”

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Much like the Naruto cruise in Awaji, you can also feed the birds here, since they follow the boat the whole time and are pretty unafraid of humans. I had a perfect moment of symbiosis with one particular gull, who snatched my stick of Pretz right out of my hand. They flew a little too close for comfort a lot, even when we were just leaning on the railing looking out at the scenery.

Daiichi Nagisa Flower Park

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Conveniently located a several-mile walk next to turbid rivers, Communist-block architectural monstrosities, rice paddies, and homes from which getting to a train station in less than half an hour is only a dream, is Daiichi Nagisa Park, where you can catch over 12,000 early-blooming rapeseed flowers.

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An actual candid of me mid-taking off my scarf. Thanks to Stanzi for the picture!

So now, thanks in large part to Stanzi and others encouraging me to travel more, I’ve made a not-insignificant dent into the prefectures of Japan!

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LIVED: Hyogo, Osaka. VISITED: Kyoto, Nara, Tokushima. STAYED: Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Okayama, Shiga, Mie, Shizuoka, Tokyo, Chiba

To end on a more interesting note, Ogoto, the immediate area of Shiga that we stayed in, has a little bit of a seedy undertone and history to it. Our lovely 4-star hotel was right behind a huge pachinko parlor, and closer to it still was this:

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Thanks to Stanzi for this one too.

A “soapland” in the process of being demolished. Soaplands are essentially brothels that just barely, barely skirt by in the eyes of Japanese law. We saw them dotted all over our travels across Shiga and around the lake. Oh well, perhaps on my next solo travel trip ;^)))

Staying in a Traditional Hotel on Japan’s Mother Lake

“Have you gone to Kyoto? Have you gone to Tokyo? What about the mother lake of Japan?” nobody ever has often asked me. Sticking with my program of travelling only to places that people probably never Google, this last weekend I took a trip to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, one of the oldest on Earth at 4 million years, and located in the Shiga Prefecture, which is next to Kyoto. It’s shaped like a dog, apparently.

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First and absolutely foremost, this was a golden opportunity to stay in one of the nicest, most expensive hotels in my entire life, in a traditional Japanese hotel, or ryokan. My girlfriend Stanzi and I stayed at Kyo Oumi, located in Otsu, the capital of the prefecture, whose population numbers only 300,000. Very inaka!

A stay at a ryokan, especially a fancy one, entails the following amenities:

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Your own yukata robe, so you can walk around the hotel and bathe in style.

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Kaiseki (multi-course, ultra-traditional) meals, the local delicacies and specialties of the region. For Shiga, it is tai (red seabream); Omi beef, in the same class as Kobe beef; fried and smoked fugu (poisonous blowfish); and of course fresh sashimi, local umeshu (plum wine), and also apparently edible chrysanthemum flowers.

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My personal favorite was absolutely the third day’s course, shabu shabu hot pot, where you swish thinly-sliced meat back and forth in boiling broth with your chopsticks, and it cooks almost instantly owing to its thinness. Traditional-traditional Japanese cuisine is such a different animal from regular Japanese cuisine, where you go from fried meat cutlets, curry, and ramen to steamed, boiled, pickled, or uncooked… somethings from the ocean. Absolutely delicious and memorable, but my mind wasn’t blown all across the dog-shaped lake as one might’ve expected.

Finally, the most amazing thing about a ryokan is the room itself.

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It was absolutely massive, big enough that I could run laps around it (which I did upon excitement first coming into the room). It is all tatami, featuring the main room, a sitting room, windows with views of the lake, and an onsen-style (sitting) shower complete with a bathtub ACTUALLY big enough to lay down in!

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Without a doubt, the pièce de résistance of the entire thing, really the main attraction aside from the kaiseki, is your own. Private. Onsen! That is, your own private hot spring, overlooking Lake Biwa. Absolutely magnificent.

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One final note about ryokan hotels, is that there is no bedroom. You sleep on the floor, really wherever you’d like, on a futon. Each time we came back from our kaiseki dinner, the staff had already laid them out for us! Otherwise they are stored in closets, and you can lay them out yourself.

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And that was all just the hotel! Lake Biwa had much more to offer than just our accommodation of course, which will follow in part 2… and, unlike Fukuoka, I swear I totally will write one.

Travels Thus Far: Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle was built in 1333. Since then, it has never been burned down, and it survived the bombings of World War II, even as the city of Himeji himself was leveled twice, leaving it as one of only twelve “original” castles left in Japan. Apparently, at one point over 5,000 existed. Fret not, the Allies did not destroy exactly 4,988 castles. A lot of them were lost in, you know, regular war between shogunates in Japan back when that was en vogue, and utterly bizarrely, many were just straight-up intentionally destroyed as part of the Meiji Restoration, that period of modernization following Japan’s opening itself to the world again. Then, though yours truly has visited the area and park several times, this past Saturday was the first time that I actually went inside the castle.

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First off, the way up the castle is winding and rather steep– a way to force attackers to have to take as convoluted a route as possible, while at the whole time keeping them in clear/open sight from inside the castle. Those holes you see in different shapes are sama, their being different shapes for different ways to shoot at invaders: oblong for bows and round/triangular/square for different types of guns. I wonder if way back when, Tanaka-Samurai ever tried to fire a blunderbuss out of a arquebus hole or something and his friends made fun of him all day at work the next day. Just another day at the office!

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Said ventilation windows are on the right.

I also forgot to mention that Himeji Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. The all-wood interior is still intact, and you have to take your shoes off before traversing up all six floors to the top. Which, by the way, you are given a plastic bag for to carry in until you reach the other end, a pretty common practice in shrines, temples, and other such historical places. Even inside, you can still see how invader-centric the construction and layout is. Stairs are very steep and narrow, and there’s even rooms with “high windows” designed for the express purpose of allowing gun smoke to escape should there ever be such a melee. I hit my head on a low ceiling going up one of the floors, so I guess that’s where I would’ve died had I been invading. Much better than my unfortunate friend Stanzi, who had foolishly stopped to take a picture around one of the sama holes. Well, I did too, but I was much more ninja-esque about it of course.

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It’s finally cooling down from summer in Japan, so that may have contributed, but there was just amazingly refreshing, constant wind flow through the windows at the very top. It was definitely a lot more pleasant a temperature compared to outside, and I find it really fascinating to think about how things like summer climates affect architecture and building design, as well as what passive/electricity-less solutions existed before A/C was invented, such as the windcatcher towers of the Middle East. Re: the other point, older Japanese apartments and schools, for example, all doors directly communicate with large sliding, screen-less windows to create channels for airflow. I really couldn’t tell what exactly made the air so refreshing in the castle aside from us being so high up, but I’m sure there was more to it than just there coincidentally being a breeze that day.

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The interior was, again, all-wood, and pretty barren. Obviously, none of the original furniture or whatever else that may have decorated the inside remains. Just a lot of big, flat, empty wooden rooms. I really do wonder what this castle would’ve looked like in its heyday– there’s just so much usable space. What were the entertainment rooms like? What would most of the castle rooms have in them/be used for anyways? The only relic that remained was an incredibly well-preserved flat screen TV.

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One of the only rooms I saw for whose purpose was obvious was this armory.

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Another, located in the “west bailey”, another section of the castle devoted to living quarters, contained the only tatami room to be seen, and this very creepy statue of Princess Sen, famous resident and wife of the original owner of the castle, Honda Tadatoki.

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Besides the history, the castle is also amazing from an architectural standpoint. Above is the interior framework of the castle. And also, did you know, Japanese castles are built without nails? Instead, they’re completely made out of interlocking wooden beams. If I’m not mistaken, it was borne out of necessity because the quality of Japanese metal was pretty poor. I must admit, high quality woodwork is a lot more impressive than high quality metal… existing.

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I also wondered what the actual surrounding area of the castle would’ve looked like in its time, and there was a nice miniature scale model to answer that question, and a map as well. Neat!

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Anyways, at the very top floor of the castle had been a small shrine, which I totally forgot to take a picture of. It was apparently moved from somewhere else on site. For modern times, our tour ended with the prospect of making a wish to the protector of Himeji Castle, who’d kept it safe for nearly 700 years. In less modern times, who knows what awaited a plucky samurai who managed to make it past the moat, gunports, stairs, and ambush rooms and made it to the top?

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