Nuptials with Nanoparticles

Given that you usually only get married once, you want that special day to be memorable. One way to ensure this is to get married at this beautiful and expensive little wedding chapel in the south of Nagoya.

before
What a beautiful fake-sandstone wedding chapel....
after 1
.... just make sure your photographer knows how to crop his pictures.
After 2
A perfect setting for a special day.

ID Starts Nursery School

Our little man is all grown up…. sniff sniff.

The Japanese academic year starts in April and our eldest son, ID, will turn 4 this month. From tomorrow he’ll be attending the local nursery school. Today we attended his Entrance Ceremony. (Yes, there are ceremonies for everything in Japan!) He will be in a class with 15 other 3-4 year olds.

The United Nations of Nursery School
The United Nations of Nursery School

We were surprised and delighted to find that he’ll be sitting at a very international table. It’ll be just like the UN with Japan, Australia, The United States and The Philippines all represented. We anticipate his teacher uttering these famous words at some point in the term: “Do you kids wanna be like the real UN or do you just wanna squabble and waste time?”

Entrance Ceremony
Entrance ceremony - It apparently all got a bit too much towards the end of the morning!

The Origins of Ninja

For the many wonderful things about the previously-mentioned seishun 18-kippu train ticket, one slightly less wonderful thing about it is that it only comes in sets of 5. We only needed 4 for our December trip to Takarazuka, which left 1 trip expiring on 10 January. I used this for a little daytrip to the town of Iga in neighbouring Mie Prefecture.

Iga sits on a plain that is completely surrounded by mountains. This makes it relatively inaccessible despite being only 100km from Nagoya. The JR Kansai line servicing this area starts in Nagoya as a dual track electrified line with express trains and regular services, but as you get out into the countryside it turns into a single track unelectrified line with single railcar trains running only once an hour. This slows things down considerably and is compounded by the poor timing of connections at some stations.

Rural Mie
The JR Kansai Line running through the Iga Plains of rural Mie Prefecture

My prior knowledge of Ninja was gleaned entirely from a childhood watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so the trip to Iga was quite an education. (Who’d have thought that ninjas’ staple wasn’t actually pizza?)

During Japan’s feudal period factional war was rife. Ninja were principally agents of espionage and stealth warfare, available for hire. They spied, collected intelligence, instigated subversion and undertook assassinations.  As the Mie Tourism Website helpfully explains, “they had a reasonable way of thinking”.

I visited the Iga Ninja Museum which I thoroughly recommend to anyone planning to visit the area. The first part of the museum is set in an old Ninja house complete with revolving doors, secret hideouts and staircases, a hidden compartment for storing weaponry and an escape tunnel. A female city council employee dressed as a ninja demonstrates how each of these features could be used to avoid capture in the case of the house being invaded by an enemy, or for those features without any exits, to hide and quietly soil oneself before being found and killed. (She didn’t demonstrate that last part.) Given that the other major employer in Iga is a factory that makes toilets, I consider her to have a pretty good job.

Hidden Katana

The second part of the museum was more like a regular museum, with glass cabinets showcasing tools of the trade. These included floating shoes for walking across boggy castle moats, nail-like steel pegs for scaling stone walls, rope ladders, camouflage clothing and an assortment of weaponry including some very funky ninja stars. The museum also shed light on the survival and espionage skills ninja possessed such as the ability to tell the time by looking at the shape of the eyes of a cat (a fundamental flaw being that you had to have direct access to a cat whenever you wanted to know the time), communicating using a defunct Japanese script to ensure secrecy, and finding water using a variety of techniques like putting an ear to the ground to hear the sound of an underground stream. All in all I came away with the impression that Ninjas did indeed have “a reasonable way of thinking”.

In common with many Japanese towns, Iga features a reconstructed castle, however what blew me away about this one was the height of the huge original stone walls surrounding it, reputedly some of the tallest in the country. When viewed close up they are indeed impressive.

Iga Castle Walls
Iga Castle Walls

I had Curry Rice for lunch at a local eatery. It was very local – I don’t think tourists are supposed to be able to find it but somehow I did. The next-youngest customer after me was 70, and I must’ve forgotten to take off my gross space alien mask given the hush that fell over the room (and accompanying stares) as soon as I entered. Other highlights from the day included travelling on a train that was actually running late and helping an old woman off the road where she had been sitting after being knocked down by a car. Fortunately she was OK.

There ‘snow snow in Adelaide

Position of Adelaide and Nagoya
Relative Positions of Adelaide and Nagoya

Nagoya’s location almost exactly mirrors that of my hometown of Adelaide. Nagoya is 35 North, 136 East. Adelaide is 35 South 139 East. This means that if you draw a line extending directly north from Adelaide it will pass through this part of Japan, and it is the same distance to the equator from either city.

Given that we have relatively mild winters in Adelaide and we never get any snow, it always surprises me how much snow we get in Japan. In northern Nagahama in Shiga, where I used to live, the local residents woke up to 80cm of snow this morning. Here we only had about 15cm, but the boys still enjoyed their first experience of playing in the snow.

 

 

Images of Tsunami-Hit Eastern Japan on Streetview

The devastation has been visible through Google’s satellite images for some time, but Google has now released Streetview imagery of the Tsunami-hit region of North-eastern Japan. The images were taken in July this year and allow you to take a 360 degree virtual tour of the devastated area.

Although the images were taken some 4 months after the tsunami swept inland killing 20,000 people, the immense scale and horror of the disaster is still clearly evident, with mountains of debris, houses swept from their foundations, and cars upturned in the middle of fields.

Google Streetview of Sendai (Drag the yellow man to an area near the coast to enter Streetview.)

streetview
Tsunami devastation in Sendai, now visible in Streetview. (Copyright Google)

Autumn Colours

On Tuesday we took a trip to a small city north of here called Inuyama. What I like the most about Inuyama is that its name translates literally as “Dog Mountain City”.

Absurd juxtapositions aside, the most interesting thing about Inuyama is that it is home to the oldest original wooden castle in Japan. This trip we completely ignored that fact and instead spent the day visiting the grounds of Jakko-in (寂光院) temple, which sits atop a hill covered in beautiful deciduous trees.

There were a few minor disasters during the day. The half-hourly free shuttle bus from the train station only runs on weekends – we discovered so after arriving at the station and attempting to board the non-existant bus. The result was a long and precarious walk along a road sandwiched between the river and mountains. At some points the road narrows to just one lane and the footpath disappears completely, bringing goods trucks and infants in pushers uncomfortably close.

narrow-road
Precarious Mountain Road: Be careful if you're driving a truck, or are very very tall.

Half way along the 2.5km walk a wheel fell off our 3-wheeled pusher. To the amusement of passing motorists I spent 5 minutes imitating a primate, using a rock as a hammer in an attempt to fix it. (Appropriately, this area is also famous for its monkeys.) This affair was generally embarrassing, but not disastrous. However, these minor issues were soon forgotten when we arrived at the grounds and were able to enjoy Japanese Maples aflame in brilliant reds. We joined the throngs of very old people in tour groups and made our way up the hill.

Climbing the 300 steps to the top.
Climbing the 300 steps to the top. Incredibly both our 2 and 3 year old boys managed all the steps by themselves.

Great colours - no Photoshop required.

Viewing the changing of the leaves is something of a seasonal tradition in Japan, and with the beauty of the vibrant display of colours on offer, who can blame them?

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

Breakfast for the Price of an (expensive) Coffee

The traditional coffee houses on the outskirts of Nagoya engage in a business promotion that, as far as I am aware, is pretty unique to this area. The deal is basically thus: Order a regular cup of coffee before 11am and you will receive a free mini-breakfast. Not to be confused with the actual morning, this deal is called “morning”.

Given that a regular cup of filter coffee  (Italian-style coffee hasn’t really caught on here in a major way) at a coffee house in Japan costs around 350 to 400 yen ($4.70 to $5.30), this deal is not as cheap as it may first seem. But given the alternative of paying 350 to 400 yen at 11.05am for just a cup of filter coffee, it represents comparatively good value for money.

During our gap year I am working as a web developer on a freelance basis. Given that I can work from anywhere that there is a chair and a table (and even some places where there isn’t) I’ve been spending a few hours each day working from a coffee house. This gives me the ideal opportunity to do a “morning” review on this blog. Nicewife’s dad is pretty connected, so I will get financial viability info from him. Today I will look at a little coffee shop called “Hanamizuki”.

Hanamizuki

This coffee house is owned by Nicewife’s school friend and her mum.

Access: 10 mins walk.

Price: 350 yen (We bought a book of 11 tickets, which reduces the price to a very reasonable 290 yen per cup.)

Morning: Hard-boiled egg, a third of a piece of thick toast, small packet of rice crackers.

Viability: Barely breaking even. Undertaken as a hobby.

Atmosphere: Smokey, friendly (except if you’re not local).

Hanamizuki Morning
"Morning" at Hanamizuki
At 10.00am the very old local people arrived one by one on these wheeled walking frames. Here they are parked outside the front of the shop. (The frames that is, not the suddently-invisible old people.)