The main reason for the recent dearth of posts has been that we have been busy entertaining and guiding members of my family who came to Japan for a holiday.

Last week we packed the car and headed into the mountains of neighbouring Gifu Prefecture for a short break with them. We took the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway, which runs from Nagoya on the Pacific coast through the Japan Alps to Toyama on the Sea of Japan coast. This expressway is an incredible display of Japanese engineering. There are 54 tunnels along the route, the longest almost 11km in length. There are also numerous bridges spanning deep ravines, some with piers over 100m tall. The road itself tops out at 1,086m above sea level.

One of the 54 tunnels on the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway

We stayed in Takayama – a picturesque and largely unspoiled traditional Japanese city of some 100,000 people. (Even the small cities aren’t all that small in Japan.) Takayama is a tourist mecca. It is often referred to in travel books as “Little Kyoto” because its narrow streets of traditional shops, temples and residences are similar to those that one can find in Kyoto, but Takayama is compact and easily traversed with a pair of legs and a small amount of physical stamina. Despite only having one of these two properties I enjoyed Takayama very much.

Takayama street
A sleepy street along the riverside in Takayama
boys in Takayama
Unusually cooperative with the parent-photographer.

takayama museum

The mountains of Gifu are onsen territory. (An onsen is a public bath supplied by a natural hot spring.) If you stay overnight in the region I highly recommend booking a hotel that has an onsen. That way you can enjoy bathing naked with strangers of the same sex and then creepily sit next to them at the breakfast table the following morning. Our hotel had a completely natural onsen – the water was not treated in any way, nor was it artificially heated. It included indoor and outdoor baths. Our party visited the hotel onsen every evening and most mornings too – they are a great way to relax and ease those muscle pains we all get from time to time. They also magically make beer taste better.

Takayama features daily morning markets with gnarled farmers selling lookalike gnarled vegetables. Right behind the markets is the Takayama Jinya Historic Government House which was in official use by the prefectural government right up until 1969. It has been beautifully restored and is now open to the public.

Some of our group visited the Hida Folk Village which features traditional steep thatched-roof houses once common in this area due to the volume of winter snowfall. Nicewife and I had already visited the UNESCO World Heritage site at Shirakawa-go which is the same kind of thing, so we gave it a miss this time.

government house
Part of the Takayama Jinya Historic Government House. Not a bad spot to be a public servant, provided you can deal with the occasional violent farmer’s revolt over excessive taxation.

On our final day Nicewife and I took the kids to the Hida Daishonyudo Caves. They’re a 30 minute drive east from the centre of Takayama. They were truly bizarre. Coloured lighting, piped “music box” melodies, rusting infrastructure, and loads of shinto idols. Every stalactite formation was classified as a god, and there were numerous small shrines including a bizarre fertility shrine at the furthest cave exit. If you decide to visit the caves, be sure to get a discount coupon from their advert in the local tourist brochures.

Nature meets religion meets tacky cheese.

Life in North Korea

Many areas of rural and semi-rural Japan have a public address system operated by the town council. Multiple loudspeakers are installed on tall poles that are strategically located to ensure that all houses that fall under the council’s jurisdiction are covered. This is the one nearest our house:

The Mind Controller
Mind Controller

The system serves a number of purposes:

  1. It is used to relay announcements in emergencies – such as during the landfall of Typhoon 15 in September when the system kept us notified of the water level of a major river that runs nearby. Several years ago when I was living in a much more rural part of Japan (in northern Shiga Prefecture) the system was used to warn us when bears had been spotted about the town.
  2. Much less usefully the system is used to play “music” at noon and at 6pm. Town councils are seemingly oblivious to the fact that Japan practically invented the modern electronic wristwatch.
  3. Finally, it is used to broadcast announcements about civil events, often at a very uncivil 6.45am on a Saturday morning. Any hypothetical interest I have in attending a council event on a Saturday would quickly evaporate once I am woken up at 6.45 by a loudspeaker imploring me to do what I have already decided to do, albeit now with an hour less of sleep.

So in order, these three different purposes are: practical, unnecessary and annoying.

Some of my friends who live in more rural areas actually have loudspeakers installed in the kitchens of their homes so that messages can be delivered from the town council directly to their brains. The speakers can’t be switched off, nor can the volume be adjusted. The messages are broadcast anytime the council feels like it. This helps councils to enforce a suitably flamboyant style of mourning with respect to the recent and unfortunate passing of our Dear Leader. Is anyone else reminded of a crazy little country on the other side of the Sea of Japan?

Rice Harvest 2011

Over the last week or so we have been harvesting this year’s rice crop on Nicewife’s parents’ farm. We’re now almost done – only 1 field to go. Once the harvest is complete there will be enough rice to supply the extended family and a large circle of friends with their staple food for the next 12 months.

This year Nicewife’s dad is using a new compact combine harvester. This one is almost twice as fast as their old unit, although it is still significantly slower than the large models now being used by the Agricultural Services companies that do contract harvesting. That said, using even a small machine is of course much faster and easier than harvesting by hand. The main involvement I’ve had this year has been harvesting rice by hand around the edges and corners of each field – these areas are too tight for the combine to enter.

Rice Harvest Combine

The combine harvester cuts the rice at the base of the stalk, lifts the crop from the ground, separates the grain from the straw, deposits the grain into bags, and either cuts and scatters the straw in the field or collects and bundles it with string before ejecting it out the back like a dog delivering a nicely packaged projectile turd. (Did that lower the tone?)

At home we have two other machines to process the grain. The first separates the grain from the chaff, creating genmai (玄米) – brown rice. The second polishes the genmai creating hakumai (白米) – white rice. The byproduct of the polishing process is rice bran, which in older times was used to make soap but nowadays is more commonly used as an organic fertiliser. At home we usually polish the genmai to about 60%, which leaves the rice with a yellow tinge but gives it a higher nutritional value than white rice.

Nicewife’s family’s fields are some of the last in this area to be physically worked by the family that owns them. Many other landowners are getting too old to undertake the work themselves, and most are finding that their children do not want to return to the countryside (despite it being relatively urbanised nowadays) to take up the reins.

Harvesting by Hand