Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Usuki / 臼杵

(Better Know a City)

Monday, April 27, 2009
Before I get started on Usuki, a quick bloggy note: The past couple weeks I've not gone out because heavy rain was forecast. And, in spite of the forecast, we had moderate weather only mixed with showers. I totally could have gone out, and I ended up losing 2 more weeks on this project.
As I am now making plans to leave Japan, I'm worried I will not be able to finish this little project if I keep up my current pace.
Therefore: new rule. No more excuses. Instead of waiting around for perfect weather, from this point on I will be setting out no matter the weather is like. If it rains, I'll bring an umbrella.
Heavy rain will of course mean I won't be able to take as many piAdd Imagectures, but so be it. Something is better than nothing.
And if I ever manage to finish this project before I leave Japan, I'll then try and make return trips to any city I didn't to justice to because of the rain

All this is to explain why I headed out to Usuki despite the fact that it was raining all morning.
Now, actually in this case, the rain ended up stopping by about 10 or 11, and it turned into a beautiful day. So it ended up not mattering all that much. But keep this new rule in mind, because I'll probably be invoking it again in the near future as rainy season approaches.

Now as to the city of Usuki: I've never spent time in Usuki before, but I had a couple associations with it.
Five years ago, Shoko and I went down to Nagasaki for the weekend. We took the express bus, and on the way back they showed a movie called, "Nagori Yuki" (IMDB). Shoko and I had been ignoring all the other movies, but when this movie was announced Shoko suddenly said, "Oh, I want to see this. I've heard about this movie. It was filmed down in Usuki, in Oita Prefecture."

Oita Prefecture is pretty out in the boon docks, and you don't hear about many movies being filmed in these parts. So a movie coming from Oita seemed like a big deal. I plugged in my ear-phones, and listened along to the movie.

The movie is based off a Japanese pop- folk song of the same name from the 1970s, which is one of those really popular songs that keeps getting recorded and re-recorded by different artists, until someone decided the song was popular enough to make a whole movie out of it. And although movies based on pop songs are usually pretty cheesy , I actually enjoyed it.
For one thing, all of the dialogue was in clear, slow spoken, easy to understand Japanese. Which is always a plus for me.
I also found myself getting absorbed in the story.
The basic premise is that a tragic car accident brings some high school friends back to the small town in which they grew up. The main character recalls in flashbacks his high school love, a young innocent girl who had been totally devoted to him, but who he had let slip away when he went off to college.

I was later to find out that all of these elements were cliches in Japanese cinema. The Japanese film industry cranks out tons of sappy movies about a tragic young love story told in flashbacks from the prospective of people who are now middle aged. But at the time, I was moved by it (perhaps because it was my first exposure to the formula). I was touched by the idea of all these people reflecting on their lost youth and what might have been.

I've since asked many other Japanese people about this movie, and almost none of them have heard of it, so it must not be that famous in absolute terms, but I'm told the people of Usuki are very proud of it.

My second association with Usuki: this is where William Adams first set foot in Japan. William Adams was the first Englishman in Japan and his story was immortalized in James Clavell's novel "Shogun". After having read "Shogun" last year, I thought it would be neat to see some of the areas where the story was based.

So, I started out from Nakatsu. I drove through Usa, through Ajimu, Yamaga, Hiji, and Beppu. I drove into Oita city and followed the signs for Usuki, taking route 21. This was a fairly major road, and I expected it would stay that way, but to my surprise it turned off abruptly into the mountains. After driving through the mountain for a while, I began seeing signs letting me know I was in an Oita Prefecture nature preserve.
Somewhere up in the nature preserve, I crossed the boarder over into Usuki.
The nature preserve was very beautiful, especially since it was spring and all the green was in full force. But as there was no place to park the car, I simply admired it from the car without stopping to take any pictures.

Once I got back down the mountain, the first stop I made was at a pagoda along the side of the road. I'm not sure what the significance of it was (and in fact it looked so polished and shiny that I suspect it was newly built and not of any historical significance), but it's bright red colors caught my eye will driving, so I pulled over to take some pictures.

From there, I followed the signs onto central Usuki, and kept driving until I got to the ferry port.

I'm not sure where this particular ferry was going, but I got out of the car long enough to take some video of the port.

Next, I followed the signs to the city hall, where I loaded up on sight seeing pamphlets for Usuki city.

I decided to leave my car in the city hall parking lot, and went out on foot out to explore central Usuki. And in fact since I did not return to my car until several hours later, I ended up being on foot for most of the afternoon.

The rain was still drizzling down when I left my car, so I took my umbrella with me. However within 10 minutes of setting off, the rain let up. This meant that throughout all of my wanderings through downtown Usuki I was now carrying along a useless umbrella. And as it hung uselessly by my side, I did all the things you normally do when holding an umbrella you don't know what to do with. I used it like a walking cane, I tossed it from one hand to another, I threw it up in the air and caught it again, and I swung it through the air in pointless flourishes as if illustrating speaking points, and I used it as a sword on invisible enemies. It was a slight annoyance most of the afternoon, but that's the risk you take whenever you carry an umbrella with you.

My first stop was the ruins of Usuki castle (w). It was just a couple blocks from the city hall.
Without a Japanese friend to explain to me the significance, I didn't know much about the history of Usuki castle. But I certainly did appreciate the fact that it was a beautiful spring day, and enjoyed the walk around the castle park. Also from the elevated castle plateau I got a great view of downtown Usuki.
The hanging wisteria flowers (w) (called fuji in Japanese) are very popular in Japan, and they were in full bloom in this park.

After the castle ruins, I made my way over to the Gekkeji temple. Again, I didn't understand the significance of it, but it was a beautiful temple on a green hillside.

I continued down the road. I was intending to turn down into the historical district, but while fooling around with the map I got distracted by this beautiful little river.
It seemed to me to envelope all of the charms of small town Japan. Like all rivers in Japan, it's banks had been concreted over, but the actual river bed itself was still natural and filled with small islands of green grass and wildflowers. It was lined closely on both sides by old Japanese country style houses, and looking upstream you could see the river winding through the valley and then disappearing up into the mountains.

I was so enamoured with this little idyllic scene that I forgot about the tourist areas and followed the river for a while instead.

Along the way I spotted a small sign pointing up the hill to some sort of unseen attraction. The sign was in Kanji (I think it was pronounced ooiwa), so I wasn't sure what it was. I suspected it was some sort of temple, or maybe a historic statue, or a special rock, or something. Since it was right along my path, I decided to take a minute to check it out.

I followed the sign up the path. And kept following it up the path. And kept going. And pretty soon I realized I was being lead on a hike up the mountain through a bamboo forest.

As I'm a bit out of shape these days, I was really huffing and puffing up this mountain, bitterly regretting all the chocolate donuts I've eaten the past couple weeks. And because it had started out as a chilly morning, I had on several layers of clothes which I was now sweating through. I stopped half way up the trail to swap clothes for the shorts and T-shirt I had in my backpack. (The trail seemed deserted enough that I figured I could get away with a mid-trail clothing change). When I took off my long sleeve shirt it was completely drenched with sweat.

At one point a Tanuki (W) ran across my path. Or rather he leisurely walked across it, not seeming to be bothered by me at all. He disappeared into his hole before I could get my camera out, but it still represented the second time I had seen an actual Tanuki since Taketa.

Eventually I got to the the top of the mountain, where there was a large rock jutting out the side of the mountain, and from which you really got a great bird's eye view of all of Usuki below.

After this I returned down the mountain. I returned to following the stream for a while, but eventually I got bored with this and returned back to the center of town.
I followed the map to the historical areas of Usuki, and walked up and down places like the Nioza historical road.
Along this were supposed to be many famous historical buildings, such as the houses of the Inaba-clan (w). And there were various other (supposedly) famous temples such as the Shinkouji Temple.
I neither saw entrances to any of these buildings, nor, to be honest, did I really look too hard. Instead I just wandered up and down the roads and enjoyed the beauty of the old historical city in the spring time.

I followed signs down to the Ryugenji Temple 3 story pagoda (built in 1858) and took a picture of that.

Then I circled around back to Haccho Oji--the "shopping street".

This street had a lot of traditional Japanese shops selling various traditional foods and other knick knacks. There wasn't a lot I was interested in here, although I did see a couple posters up for the movie "Nagori Yuki", and at least one sign trying to use the movie to see local food. Clearly the shop-keepers of Usuki are still trying to milk this 2002 film.

On this street there was also a visitor center called, "Sala-de-Usuki". The name means "living room" in Portuguese, and was chosen to emphasize the Portuguese historical connection. Back in the 16th century Usuki was a center of Portuguese trading and missionary activity.
[And in fact if you've read "Shogun", you'll remember that when Blackthorne (the character based off of William Adams) first lands in Japan he is horrified to discover that his arch enemies the Portuguese are already well established there.]
The outside of Sala-de-Usuki was designed to look like an old Catholic mission, and the inside of it there were displays teaching about Nanban (w) culture in Usuki.

I've got to say though that this visitor center was the only evidence of Portuguese culture I saw in Usuki. Maybe I wasn't looking hard enough.

An old man sitting behind the desk gave me some more maps, and answered some of my questions about Usuki. "I understand William Adams landed here in Usuki," I said.

"Yes," the old man answered. "His ship came into Kuroshima island over here, just off the coast of Usuki, where the Japanese people came and helped him."
"Is there any sort of statue or monument?" I asked.
"On Kuroshima Island, there's a placard," the old man answered.
And this was apparently the extent of William Adam's fame here in Usuki.
(Although William Adams has become famous in the West thanks to the novel "Shogun" and the TV miniseries, his fame has not caught on in Japan. Although the novel was apparently translated in Japanese at one point, no Japanese person I've talked to has ever heard of it. Nor do any of them know who William Adams was. This old man was first Japanese person I'd met who even knew what I was talking about, and that was probably just because he ran the tourist center.)

There was, however, in the visitor center a small replica of Liefde, the Dutch boat William Adams and his crew mates arrived on.

"Also," I continued, "I understand the movie 'Nagori Yuki' was filmed here. I don't suppose you could tell me where the scenes were shot?"

I considered this a bit of a long shot on my part. I didn't really expect him to know, but he reached under the desk and gave me a "Nagori Yuki" sight seeing flier, which had pictures of different scenes from the movie corresponding to different numbers marked out on a town map.

Looking at the map, it turns out I had already walked through several of the places where scenes had been filmed, although they hadn't rung any bells when I was walking through them. (Then again, it was 5 years ago since I saw the movie, so it's probably not as fresh in my mind as it could be).

After this, I felt like I had seen most of what I wanted to see in central Usuki, and began walking back towards my car so I could drive out to some of the outer parts.

Once I got back in my car, I started driving out to see the Usuki stone Buddhas.

The stone Buddhas (w) are Usuki's main claim to fame. Many times in the past, Japanese teachers or other cultural coordinators have organized group tours of foreigners to go out and see Usuki stone Buddhas, but I've always passed on these before. But, now I was finally going to see what all the fuss was about.

As with any big tourist trap, there was a lot of development outside of the stone Buddhas. There was a big parking lot with several buildings including a restaurant, a visitor's center, and a few small shops.

I was a bit parched from hiking around all day, so my first instinct was to head for the visitor's center and buy a drink.
One of the lady's from the ticket booth saw me walking in the other direction, and apparently thought I was trying to escape buying a ticket. She ran out to flag me down, and told me I needed to buy a ticket to go in. And, she added, I could also get a combination ticket that included the museum as well.
"The museum's all in Japanese, isn't it?" I said.
"Mostly in Japanese," she admitted.
"I think I'll just get the normal ticket then."
"But the normal ticket is 530 yen. The combination ticket is only 700 yen."
Well, for an extra 170 yen, why not? So I got the combination ticket.

I went over to the vending machines and bought an Aquarius sports drink (w). As I sipped on the drink, an old man and a woman walked past me. The old man did a double take, stopped, and then shouted out, "Hey, where are you from?"
"America," I answered, doing my best to be friendly despite the fact I've had this conversation a million times before.
"Where in America?"
"I've been there."
"You have? Hey, no kidding. Where in Michigan."
"You know, Chicago, all around that area."
I decided to let this go without correcting it.
"And she's from China," the old man said, indicating the woman next to him.
Because her face had been hidden by her sun-hat, I had assumed the woman next to him was the same age he was. But now as she looked over at me and smiled, I saw she was actually a very beautiful lady, probably 30 or 40 years his junior.
My entire attitude towards this conversation immediately changed. Instead of simply just putting up with the old man, I suddenly made an effort to be much more charming and friendly.
"She's from Hunan," the old man continued. "Do you know Hunan?"
"No, I'm afriad I don't."
"Hunan. Chairman Mao," the girl said.
This jogged my memory a bit. "Oh, right, Hunan. Actually I do know where that is. That's in Southern China, right?"
The girl just gave me a blank look instead, so I switched languages and repeated myself in Japanese.
She replied with a series of words that I couldn't fully put together. "Hunan. Hotel. Work. TV. Study. Japan."

"She works in the hospitality industry in Hunan," the old man told me. "She's in Beppu now to study the spa industry."

"Oh, right. At Beppu University. Hey I know some people there."

"No, not Beppu University," the old man said. "A smaller private school. I'm a teacher at that school, so I thought I would help take here sight seeing."

The girl smiled at me, and I wanted to continue the conversation with her, but as usually happens to me in these situations I suddenly found my mind blanking on anything to say. "So, is this your first time to Usuki?"

"I'm a native of Beppu. I've been down here tons of times," the old man said. "It's the first time for her of course."

When the old man walked away to take some pictures , I tried to strike up a conversation with the girl again. "So, um, have you been in Japan long?" I asked first in English, then in Japanese. She didn't understand me either time, and finally she called the old man over to translate for her.
I repeated my question to him. "No, she's only been here for one month, and she's only staying for one more. It's difficult to talk to her because she hasn't learned much Japanese yet, and she can't speak English."
"Do you speak Chinese then?" I asked him.

"No," he laughed. "The whole time we've been out today we've had such a hard time communicating."

The girl said something to me in a language that sounded vaguely like Japanese, but was so heavily accented I couldn't make it out.
"She asked if you can speak Chinese," the old man said to me.

"No, no I can't," I answered.

"Welcome," she said in English. And when I didn't respond, she repeated the word again, "welcome."

"I think she means you're welcome to come to China anytime," the old man said, again helping me out.

"Oh, right, well thank you very much," I answered.

After that, we kind of went our separate ways. I got the sense that the girl would have liked to talk to me more, but the conversation seemed to have run its course, and I wasn't sure what else I could say to her. And, although I am always reluctant to leave a pretty face, I sensed it would be increasingly awkward if I intentionally hung around them, even though they were both very friendly. They were observing the stone Buddhas at a slower pace than I was, so I eventually just left them behind.

The stone Buddhas themselves were, in my opinion, nothing special and seeing them was a bit anti-climatic after everything I've heard about them.
I'm probably just a bit numb to this kind of thing after living in Japan for so long. One sees statues of Buddha all over the Japanese countryside, and I'm not sure what was so special about these ones. I mean they were nice for what they were, but it's nothing I would organize a group to go down and see.

The pamphlet indicated that these statues were from the Heian (w) and Kamakura (w) period. And so in that sense, being in the presence of statues that are a 1000 years old is kind of cool I guess.

I followed signs up the path to see the Gorinto (Holy Tower), which was also a bit underwhelming, but apparently had some history behind it.

On my way back down the path, I saw 4 caucasian faces coming up the other way.
Oita Prefecture is far enough off the beaten path that it doesn't get any foreign tourists. No one goes sight seeing in Oita who doesn't live in Oita. So I suspected this was a group of English teachers from somewhere nearby, and it would be a good idea to introduce myself and make their acquaintance.

"Hello gang!" I called out in what I thought was my friendliest voice.
In response I got back a couple mumbled grudging hellos, and what I interpreted as the "we don't know you, so why are you talking to us" look. I didn't pursue the conversation after that.

Once I got back to the bottom I went and used my ticket to the museum. Again, I was slightly underwhelmed by it.

I got back in the car and looked at the various maps I had acquired to try and plan my next step. The Hakubei valley sounded like it might be pretty scenic, so I drove in that direction.

The Hakubei valley turned out to be another hike up the side of a mountain, but instead of being simply a dirt trail it was interspersed with, small temples, wooden pavilions and stone bridges. Someone had obviously taken care to integrate parts of a temple into the beauty of the mountainside, and it was a very pleasant walk.

There was a small river trickling down the valley, which the stone bridges would criss cross over at different points. And, at the top of the trail was a small pond which was the source of the river.

It was now after 5 o'clock, and I hadn't stopped to eat all day. Despite having had a pretty big breakfast, I was beginning to feel pretty hungry.

I went back in my car and drove towards central Usuki. I stopped at Joyfull (my favorite chain restaurant in Oita) to get some food and enjoy the coffee and soda drink bar.

By the time I left Joyful, it was after 6 and fastly approaching the twilight hour.

I took a different road out of Usuki than the one I came in on, leaving by route 217. This road went by Kuroshima Island, so I stopped the car briefly to take a look.

Kuroshima Island was just barely off-shore. I could easily have swum over if I felt like getting wet, but short of that I didn't see any way over. There was no bridge, and, despite seeing tons of boats in the vicinity, I didn't see any passenger ships.

At 7 o'clock in the evening, they would probably have stopped running the shuttle boat anyway. But the way the port and car park looked so run down, it made me wonder if they still ferried people over to the island at all these days.

There was a small sign at the car park indicating that four hundred years earlier William Adams had come to that Island, and there was a park there in his honor. You could also go camping there.

With that, I bid farewell to Usuki and headed back home.

Usuki Links
For more information on the film "Nagori Yuki" see here.
And the song Nagori Yuki on youtube. (Actually there are more versions of this song on-line then you can shake a stick at, so if this one ever disappears due to copyright claims just do another search.)
Portuguese Culture in Usuki: This guy obviously did a much better job of ferreting out Portuguese connections in Usuki than I did.
Usuki sites,
Usuki web page

Link of the Day
Chomsky Speaks
and What we talk about when we talk about torture

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Incredible Hulk

(Movie Review)

I never read a lot of Incredible Hulk comic books. (I was, for better or for worse, exclusively a DC fan during my comic book collecting days).
But to the extent I knew about the Hulk (via cartoons and pop culture), I was always kind of fascinated by the idea of a comic book anti-hero--someone who was neither really a good guy or a bad guy, but completely unpredictable. Also, I thought it was interesting to have someone who would transform into a superhero against his will.

However there's a downside to this as well. It means that Bruce Banner is more interesting than his alter-ego the Hulk. The Hulk himself is just a big green brute that smashes everything in his way. And, while it may be fun for 12 year old boys to watch the Hulk jump around and smash things, it's not 2 hours interesting.

Also, with any Hulk movie, there's the problem of believable special effects. I know the 1970s idea of having a body builder in green make-up was a bit cheesy, but to be honest, this CGI animation isn't really doing it for me either. The technology is just not there yet. It sill looks cartoonish to me.

Those two things together are my biggest criticism of the Ang-Lee movie. In particular, a lot of the fight scenes were pure CGI. Not only was the Hulk Computer generated, but his adversaries (the 3 mutant dogs, for example) were computer generated. And, I hate to say it, you could tell they were computer generated. The fight scenes were just like watching an overly violent cartoon.

I don't hold this against Ang-Lee. In my opinion, these are just the natural dangers inherent in making a Hulk movie. He's a difficult character to write for.
So, what about the reboot version?
Well, the cast is top rate to begin with.
I'm a big Edward Norton fan, and I was happy to see him in this film. I like Eric Bana, but Edward Norton is an actor who can just bring angst to a whole new level. Nobody says, "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry" like Edward Norton.

Add to that another brilliant actor, Tim Roth, as the villain, and you suddenly have two great actors who I never thought I'd see together in a dumb comic book movie. And both of them really bring a lot to the film.

The writers also made the correct decision to focus more on Bruce Banner than on the Hulk.

...And yet, I did still get a little weary of watching a computer generated image smash things. And, I thought that in the final fight scene it was once again obvious that both participants were animated.

I think the film makers did the best they could with the Hulk in this movie. Perhaps the Hulk wasn't really meant to star in his own franchise. Perhaps he works best when he's a supporting character that the rest of "The Avengers" have to occasionally reign in.

If so, the end of this movie (and the super-cool-fan-boy-nod tie in to the Iron Man franchise) indicates that the sequel might be on the right track.
That is, if the film makers can get everyone together and hold true to the promise they indicated in this film's closing minutes.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on justice, law & the state
and Former S&L Regulator Tells Moyers: 'Absolutely' A Banking Bailout Coverup
and Elegant non-simplicity or communofascism? You be the judge.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Taketa / 竹田

(Better Know a City)

Monday, April 6th, 2009
Because I had been busy the last couple weeks, I didn't have a chance to go out exploring, and thus missed the short two week interval in which the cherry blossom trees are in bloom.
This might not seem like a big deal, but the entire country of Japan is designed around cherry blossoms. Every temple, shrine, school ground, and walkway is covered with cherry blossom trees which bloom into beautiful flowers for two weeks, and then go back to being just boring brown trees for the rest of the year.

This year, because we had an unusually warm winter and an early spring, the cherry blossoms came into bloom a few weeks early (throwing off everyone's scheduled "cherry blossom viewing parties" (W)). Every year the cherry blossoms seem to be blooming early. I really hope this is not a sign of an eminent global warming apocalypse. (Everybody knock on wood just in case, and go turn off a couple electrical appliances.)

A Japanese friend suggested that if I wanted to see what was left of the cherry blossoms, I could go down south to Taketa City. "There are ruins of an old castle there, and there are lots of cherry blossom trees around it," she said. She even volunteered to go with me.

Since I've started this project at my home city in Nakatsu and have been gradually working my way out, up until now the farthest town I've been to has been about an hour and a half away. Taketa is much further away, down south near the boarder with Miyazaki. "Even if we take the expressway," my Japanese friend said, "it will take about 3 hours to get there."

However, one of the rules I made for myself on this project is to only take local roads so I can see more of the scenery. I was reluctant to take the highway, and we agreed to try and take the local road down.

I woke up early the next morning at 6:20 AM. This might not seem very early to those of you with normal jobs, but when you usually start work at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, let me tell you 6:20 is the crack of dawn.

I showered, breakfasted, collected my things, and met my friend outside the station at 7:30. We headed down south towards Taketa.
We took the road through Usa, then into Ajimu, and into Yufuin. We stopped at Yufuin to study the map and see which road to take next.

As a tourist city, parking in Yufuin is notoriously difficult to find, but after driving back and forth a couple times we found a supermarket with a large parking lot. We parked the car, and snuck away. "If someone yells at us like the last time, this time I'm just going to pretend I'm a foreigner too," my Japanese friend said.

The cherry blossoms in Yufuin were still in bloom a little bit, and my friend wanted to go to eat breakfast by the river and look at the cherry trees. I, as usual, wanted to spend as much of the day as possible in my designated city, so I argued to drive on straight through to Taketa, but I ended up compromising on this. We sat by the river in Yufuin, and ate a breakfast of french toast and coffee which my friend had prepared.
I took a couple pictures of the river in Yufuin, because I've always thought that my photos never really captured the town's beauty in my previous Yufuin post. Hopefully this does it a bit more justice.

There were several other people out and about enjoying the nice day and the cherry blossoms. There were some mothers and children playing by the river, and my Japanese friend was asked to take a photo of 3 older women standing beneath the cherry trees.

We got back in the car, and followed the Yamanami highway (not really a highway) winding up and down the mountains. Along the way we passed the Kuju Flower park (where I had gone last year as a school excursion with Beppu University).

In fact, it was not until 11:30 that we finally rolled into Taketa. ("I told you we should have taken the expressway," my friend chided me.)
So, unfortunately, I only had about half a day in this city, and I can't say I explored it thoroughly. But we did what we could.

Our first stop was one of the rest stations along the road where we picked up some maps, and I took a picture of the mountains in the background.

We then drove through the town of Taketa on the way to the castle ruins.
We took a series of narrow side streets, in which Japanese houses and gardens were pressed up between steep mountain cliffs and a small river below. I was stunned by the beauty of the city, and would have loved to stop the car just to take in the small valley if there had been a place to park. I don't get down to Southern Oita prefecture often, but whenever I do I'm always amazed by the beauty of it. I'll have to get down there more in the future.

As we put the car into the parking lot, my Japanese friend tried to explain the history of Oka castle. "In the old times this was a very big and famous castle," she said. "But they lost a battle, and it was burned down by the enemy."
I mentioned that all the Japanese castles I had seen so far had always been looking out over the ocean, and I thought it was unusual in Japan to have a castle so far inland. "No, that's not true at all," my friend said. "The idea is to have a high point on a mountain to build a castle. It doesn't matter so much about the ocean."

We went and bought tickets for admission to the castle grounds, and the lady at the ticket booth gave me an English pamphlet explaning the castle. (It appears my Japanese friend had been wrong about the fate of this castle. According to the pamphlet it wasn't burned down after losing a battle, but was voted to be torn down during the Meiji Era).
As we walked up the road to the castle, a song came on over the loud speakers. "This song, 'Kojo no Tsuki', was written about this very castle," my friend said. "It's very famous."

Over my years in Japan, I've learned to be skeptical whenever someone tells me something local is famous. "You mean, really famous, or just famous around here?" I asked.
"Really famous. This song is well known all over Japan. They even print it in the school textbooks."
(And in fact it turns out that this song is at least famous enough to have a wikipedia article dedicated to it. And according to wikipedia, the song was even covered by Thelonious Monk. Which I guess counts as being legitimately famous).

The cherry blossoms were already past their peak, and beginning to fall down from the trees. Whenever the breeze would blow, the blossom petals would start falling down like snow. (I tried to get a picture of this, but the tiny petals didn't show up very well on my camera.) The ground underneath the trees was blanketed in petals, and occasionally the wind would blow through and pick up all the petals, twirl them high in the air briefly, and then drop them down.
It was the very sort of picturesque day to view cherry blossoms on top of the castle ruins. And in fact my friend commented, "You could take a picture of this scene and put it into a Japanese tourist brochure."

In addition to being further inland then I was used to, the castle grounds were much wider than I was used to. I was used to Japanese castles occupying a small space, but the grounds of this castle were very large, and in total it took us an hour and a half to walk through the ruins.
At the risk of repeating myself, it was very picturesque. From the mountain plateau I could look down below to see rivers and green rice fields, and out in the distance there were more green hills rising up. The spring sun was shining bright enough to bring out all the colors.

We walked around a bit haphazardly. At one point my friend pointed to a sign showing the recommended path to take around the castle grounds, and told me we were heading in the opposite directions. "This is the first one of those signs I've seen," I grumbled. "How were we supposed to know where the right path was?"
My friend insisted the signs had been there from the beginning, I just hadn't seen them.

However, although we did everything in the wrong order, we managed to walk back and forth over all of the castle grounds.

At one point, a furry animal about the size of a dog ran across our path and ducked into a whole in the castle. It was a Tanuki (W), my friend told me, the famous raccoon type dog so popular in Japanese fairy tales and children's stories.
"You know," I remarked, "I've heard a lot about Tanukis since I came to Japan, but I think this is the first time I've actually seen one of them."

"In the old days, when people lived in farming villages, they used to interact more with people," my friend said. "But they stay away from modern cities."

Further on, there was a plateau where you could stand on and look down the steep sides of what had been the castle foundations. As we peered over the edge, I made stupid jokes like saying, "Would you be angry if I suddenly pushed you over?"

There were many people out enjoying the cherry blossoms and having picnics beneath the trees. As we walked past one group, an old man yelled out to me in English. "Hey! Hello! Where are you from?"
This type of man, crazy old man with slightly wild eyes who wants to practice his English on a foreigner, is a bit of an archetype. I seem to encounter at least one in every city I visit.
And I knew his type well enough to know that he was going to say something to create awkwardness between me and my female friend.
"Is this your wife?" he asked.
"No, no, just friends," we quickly answered.
"She's very lovely," he said.
"Yes she is," I agreed.
"You should make her your wife."
"Yes, well, you know," I said, trying in vain to think of a witty response.
"Do you like beer?" he asked. "I love beer. Have some beer with me."
"Sorry, I'm driving today," I answered.
"That's no problem. Just get your friend to drive instead."
My Japanese friend came to my rescue. "No, he's a gentleman. He wouldn't do that."
The old man changed the subject. "Wow, you're tall," he said to me. "You'd better watch out for lightening." He turned to my friend, who was significantly shorter than me. "You don't need to worry about lightening," he said to her.

We politely said our good-byes and back away, and continued on our tour of the castle grounds. "He was right, you know," I said to my friend after a while. "You don't need to worry about lightening at all."

After all the walking around the castle grounds we did, my Japanese friend was complaining about being tired, and wanted to get something to eat. I too was feeling a bit hungry, as it was now close to 2 in the afternoon. We drove down into the city. She had an errand she had to run at the bank, so I amused myself briefly by looking around the downtown area.

There was a history museum nearby. It was closed, unfortunately, since Monday is its day off. But there were steps leading up a hill nearby which lead to a Japanese garden, and a view of the city from the top of it.

I descended down from the hill, and my friend and I began discussing where to get some lunch. We decided to just walk around the streets and see what we could find.
At one point, we stopped to consult a map just as an election car was going by, and the noise was painfully loud.
Taketa was gearing up for a mayoral election, and they had election cars going back and forth through the city all day long that day.

To fully describe how much I hate these election cars would probably be another post in itself. It is a mild annoyance, maybe even slightly amusing when it is in a city you are only visiting. When there is an election in your home city though, it is extremely irritating.
They go non-stop from 8AM to 8 PM. They blast their message with such volume that in my own apartment I can't hear my TV or talk on the phone. It's extremely irritating if you're sleeping in/ taking a nap/ trying to talk to someone/ or watching TV. And if they just stuck to the main street that would be one thing, but they weave in and out of residential areas (like where I live). In any other country these election cars would not be tolerated for an instant, but the Japanese have become resigned to them, and whenever us foreigners complain they just shrug and say these things can't be helped.
(And then on top of all this, I'm told to turn my stereo down because, "Japanese people are very sensitive to loud noises.")
And 90% of the time, all they do is repeat the candidates name over and over again. It would be like in the US if a car just went down the street blasting out, "Obama. Obama. Obama. Obama. Obama. Please be kind to him. Obama. Obama. Obama. Obama. " Et cetera.

However, love them or hate them, they are part of Japanese culture. So I decided to try and capture one on video the next time one went by. I didn't have to wait long. Five minutes later another car drove past, and I fumbled through my bag to get out my video camera. I started video taping, much to the bewilderment of an older Japanese couple behind me. "Why in the world is he bothering to video tape that?" the old woman remarked to her husband.

We went into a Japanese restaurant, where I got the chicken nan ban set (which filled me up nicely) and we planned out our next move as we ate.

Not far from the restaurant, there was a long stairway leading up a hill to a shrine on top. I wanted to check this out, mainly just because I'm always kind of intrigued by a long stairway. Part of me doesn't feel satisfied until I've climbed it and seen what is at the top. My friend graciously agreed to go along with me and check it out.

At the base of the stairs there was a short sign explaining the shrine. My Japanese friend did here best to translate it for me in her limited English. "His name was Hirose Takeo (W). He was a soldier. And he had a, um, a bad boss. This boss was very strong. He was always forcing other people to do what he wanted them to do. And one day, Hirose Takeo said to his boss that he shouldn't act in such a way. Later, he asked forgiveness from his boss. He said, 'I'll earn my forgiveness by cleaning up the dirtiest area' and he started by cleaning up the toilet. Later he died in the war with Russia, and because he was from Taketa, the people of Taketa built this shrine for him."
Also on the shrine was a cartoon picture of a Japanese boy (who bore a striking resemble to Nobita (W)) presumably on the sign to act as a narrator. And another cartoon figure of Hirose Takeo in military uniform standing underneath a statue.
There was nearby a bust of Hirose Takeo's head in full military uniform.

We ascended the stairs.
From the top of the shrine, we did get a pretty good view of the city down below.

We didn't spend a lot of time at the actual shrine itself, although walking through it I remarked that many of the Shrines in Japan were much older than this, going back several hundreds of years. And yet, even though this Shrine was relatively new, my eyes couldn't tell the difference. It seemed just as old and worn down as the shrines several hundred years older.
"Yes, but this shrine is already over 100 years old," my friend said. "That's more than enough time for it to look a bit beat down."
"I suppose," I answered.

Suddenly, the whole idea of this shrine seemed ridiculous to me. A whole shrine built in honor a guy who had an argument with his superior? We've all had disagreements with our bosses before. It struck me that if you could build a shrine about this, you could build a shrine about anything.
I chuckled to myself at the idea, and my friend asked what was so funny. I did my best to try and explain why I thought this shrine was so ridiculous.
"...For example," I said, "Remember when you parked in that parking lot in Kunisaki, and the old lady got so mad at you, and you apologized to her over and over again? Why, that's a shrine right there."

My friend corrected my memory. "I didn't park there. You were the one driving the car. I had to apologize to the old lady on your behalf."

"Oh yeah....Well, hey, that's even better. You didn't even do it, and you still apologized to the old lady. That's definitely worth a shrine."

"Alright, then what would your shrine be about."

I had to think on the spot a bit, and so naturally went with the first story that came into my head. (If I had more time to think about it, I probably could have come up with a better example.)
"Okay, well once a co-worker and me were arguing about when the war ended. He said the war ended in 1948. I said it ended in 1945."
"It ended in 1945."
"I know. But he wouldn't believe me. So we had this long argument about it."
"Why didn't you just look it up?"
"We weren't near a computer at the time."
"But you could have still accessed the internet with your cell-phone."
"I don't know why, we just didn't look it up at the time. So, anyway, you could build a shrine to the fact that I was right and he was wrong. You could have a sign down below with the little Nobita kid retelling the story of our argument, and a cartoon picture of the two of us arguing, with word balloons saying '1945!' and '1948!'. Finally there would be a stone bust of my head, and I would have a smug little, 'I was right' smile on my face."

We discussed our next move. My friend wanted to go see the former house of Rentaro Taki (W), which had now been turned into a museum in his honor. We set out in the direction of Rentaro Taki's house, but we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because we ended up at another hill with a temple on top of it. This, it turned out, was the Jurokurakan leading to the entrance of Kan'non-ji Temple.

My friend was at this point getting a little tired of climbing up temple stairs, but I wanted to see what was at the top, so she agreed to follow me up. I could tell she was getting tired by way her feet plodded down heavily on each of the temple steps, and I commented how it was interesting how much you could tell just from the sound of a footstep.

The temple was, like everywhere else, covered with cherry blossom trees. And the petals were falling off now, completely covering the stairs in a blanket of blossoms.

The top of the hill lead to a look out point. My friend didn't want to go all the way to the top, so she sat on a bench and waited for me as I ran up to have a look all by myself.
From the top of the hill I got a good view of the city, and the river below.
I also surprised a junior high school couple, who had presumably come up to the top of the temple in an effort to find a little bit of privacy.
And, there was some graffiti on the pavilion wall which said in Japanese "maitsuki nanoka wa unko no hi", which I believe translates as "The 7th of every month is poop day," something I had been previously unaware of.

I came back down the mountain, met up with my Japanese friend, and we proceeded to the Rentaro Taki museum.

This time we followed the signs a bit more carefully, and were able to get to the correct location. Although we weren't even sure it would be open. We had already discovered that the Takeda history museum was closed on Mondays, and in my travels around Oita I often found that Monday was usually a day for places to be closed.

"I think it will probably be open," my friend said.
"Hmmm, I think it's about fifty-fifty myself," I said, "but just to make things more interesting, I'll take the proposition that it will be closed. We'll see who is right."
"And what do I get if I'm right?" she asked.
"I'll pay for your admission," I answered.

The museum was indeed open, and so I paid for her admission as we had agreed. Although I did grumble a little bit that, now that I thought about it, it hadn't really been a fair bet, because if the museum had been closed there would have been nothing for her to treat me to.

We went into the house, and the lady behind the desk gave us a couple of pamphlets and told us that the tour became with a 15 minute movie. "Other people might come in half-way through," she warned, "so please sit near the front so that they can come in."
I started walking towards the front row, and then thought better of it and said, "Actually I'm pretty tall. I'd better sit near the back."
"Oh, yes, good idea," the lady admitted.

The movie was all in Japanese. There were no subtitles, but the museum lady had a couple sheets of paper with the English translation of the movie written out. She lent it to me on the condition that I give it back to her when the movie was over. (Apparently there was only one copy).
It was nice that they had been thoughtful enough to make an English translation for foreign guests (which is a lot more than most places in the Japanese countryside). But the idiomatic English used on it indicated to me that they hadn't run it by a native speaker for proofreading.

The pamphlet begins:
"A hundred and a few years ago, there was an artist who heartily loved the nature of Taketa. Speaking of Taketa, Rentaro Taki is well known. Perhaps this scenery has not changed so that he looked, has it?"
And it goes on like that for about 3 pages.

The video played several songs by Rentaro Taki, and I was surprised that I even recognized a few of them that I had often heard in Japanese schools.
It turns out that Rentaro Taki had only lived in Takeda for a few short years from the age of 12 to 15, but the ruins of Oka castle had obviously made enough of an impression on him that he wrote a song about it.
As the museum caretaker had predicted, some people did come in halfway through the film. They all took seats at the back as well (probably due to my influence, and probably to the distress of the caretaker).

After the movie finished we looked around the house at the various exhibits. This included the garden outside, and a secondary storage room also filled with Rentaro Taki memorabilia .

After we left the house, we came to "The Rentaro Taki Tunnel", a short pedestrian tunnel in which the music of Rentaro Taki was played over loudspeakers. (There was even a sign with diagrams that was, I think, was explaining how the tunnel and the angle of the loudspeakers had been designed for maximum acoustic effect, but I didn't look too closely at it.)

On the other side of the tunnel was a small shop selling Rentaro Taki music boxes and other memorabilia.

A little bit further down the street there was a shop specializing in soft serve "Soy Sauce" ice cream.

One often sees bizarre flavors of ice cream in Japan. It's like a game to them. They try and take the things which you would least imagine as an ice cream flavor, and make ice cream out of it. And then you end up buying it just out of sheer curiosity. "This can't possibly taste good, can it?"
Since I've come to Japan, I've eaten green tea ice cream, sea-weed ice cream, wasabi ice cream, crab ice cream, et cetera. Surprisingly, they were all pretty good once I tried them.

So we had the soy sauce ice cream. And, surprisingly, it wasn't bad at all, although my friend commented that the soy sauce flavor was so slight as to be almost unnoticeable.

Next we went to see an old Samurai house (presumably similar to the ones I had seen in Kitsuki). But it was closed on Mondays, so I just got a shot of the outside.

Next, we went along to see Kirshitan tokutsu reihaido, which I was told translates as "Christian Cave Praying Place".
My friend translated the sign for me. "Long ago there were many Christians in Takeda. Francis Xavier (W) came to Takeda to set up a church here."
"Really? Francis Xavier came here to Takeda in person?" I doubted this slightly, because I figured if Francis Xavier had physically been in Takeda, we would have seen a statue or monument or some sort of historical marker to him.
"I think so, we. Anyway, at first the Daimyo allowed them to be Christians, because the Daimyo of this area was himself a Christian. But, as you know, during the edo period Christianity became outlawed. And after that the Christians in Takeda would come to this secret cave to hold their prayer services."

(I had already seen two different churches in Takeda, unusual in the Japanese country side, so perhaps this area did have a strong Christian history).

On the way back towards the car, we also went up to the house of Tanomura Chikuden (W), a famous painter from the area. But his house was also closed on Mondays, so we didn't get to see it.

My friend wanted to eat Kojo-no-tsuki manju, a speciality manju (W) of Takeda. We went into one of the shops and my friend ordered Kojo-no-tsuki manju, but they were fresh out. Although they did have a couple manju's laid out as free samples, which they said we could snack on. So we did, as we planned our next move.

It was getting onto 5 O'clock, and my friend needed to get back before 8 to take care of some errands. We had time for one more stop.
Up until now we had stayed within the downtown area, but there were a number of rivers and waterfalls just outside of Takeda. We wouldn't have time to go to all of them obviously, but we did head out to Nakashima Park water pool.

At the parking lot there was a fresh water spring where the water was supposed to be especially tasty. Many Japanese people had come here just to fill up there bottles with this spring water.

Up stream a bit was a fishery, with all sorts of fish in small ponds. Like a lot of small town areas in Japan, it had a bit of beauty just because it blended in with the trees and the garden around it.

Down by the river there was a huge waterslide which emptied out right into the main river itself. I'm sure the kids must have a blast with this in the summer.
We walked up and down the river for a while, skipping stones off of it. Then we decided to call it a day.

We decided to take the highway on the way back. The highway itself doesn't link up with Taketa, but we took the main road into Oita city, and then took the expressway back from Oita. We ended up making it back to Nakatsu in just over two hours.

Taketa Links
Taketa castle ruins sunset, - photos
On youtube: Kojo No Tsuki cover by Scorpions and by Alcatrazz and the Thelonius Monk version. (Actually many more versions of this song on-line for anyone who wants to search around by themselves).
Oka Castle,
Japan National Tourism Page on Taketa

Link of the Day
Democracy Now: Noam Chomsky on Everything