Destination: Miyajima and Itsukushima Shrine (Part One)

 One of Japan's three best views is about an hour from Hiroshima. This is Miyajima (Shrine Island), home to Itsukushima Shrine. The island is reached by frequent ferries. Mount Misen rises above the shrine.
 The shrine is most famous for the torii (gate) that appears to float above the water. More on this later...
 The island is home to several deer which have become accustomed to humans. They won't bother you and usually you can pet them, though you probably shouldn't. They expect handouts of food, none of which is good for them.
 As you approach the shrine from the ferry dock, you see plenty of shops selling food, omiyage (souvenir gifts), and other goods.
 You then continue through a covered area with even more shops. When you decide to go shopping, I recommend checking prices and taking notes. Most stores have the same or similar prices but values can be found.
 The area is known for its rice spoons, and the world's largest is freely visible in the shopping arcade. Be sure to get a picture of your family standing next to it - everybody else was.
 This is one of Japan's three best views. Unfortunately, a typhoon came through about a month prior to my visit and the torii gate was covered in scaffolding to be repaired and stabilized. The torii sits on the bed of the Seto Inland Sea, so typhoons and earthquakes can cause damage.
I visited during Golden Week, so despite the scaffolding the place was pretty crowded in the morning. This is the queue leading into Itsukushima Shrine itself.
 The shrine is built over the water. The island is considered holy land and was off-limits to normal people for centuries. To allow commoners to visit and pray, the torii was placed in the water and the shrine was built off-shore. Of course, now people can explore the entire island.
 I didn't go in the shrine because it was so busy. I'll have to make a return trip at some point to see the torii gate without scaffolding. However, I could see bits and pieces of it from outside the gates.
 On a hill overlooking the shrine is this, the Gojunoto (five storied pagoda). I didn't make it up this hill, where more shrines and temples can be found. I instead explored the other side of the island and Mount Misen.
 But first, another view of the shrine.
 Manju is a popular Japanese sweet with a flour, rice, and buckwheat-based covering and red bean paste inside. It's similar to mochi, and is cooked to brown the outside. Miyajima is famous for momiji (Japanese maple) manju, which is put into molds similar to waffle irons so the sweets take the shape of maple leaves.
 This is a fresh momiji manju. It was still warm from being cooked - you can't buy momiji manju as fresh as this anywhere else! The red bean paste filling is pretty sweet but there are other flavors to appeal to international tourists. I later tried some of the others - chocolate was really good too. Remember the deer? They know what the packaging sounds like being opened and about a dozen deer started walking toward me when I opened the package to get the picture and enjoy my treat. Be aware - they like manju! Don't worry, they didn't get any.
 Okay, it's time to take a hike. I followed this path toward the ropeway, which continues on to head up the mountain. If you're climbing Mount Misen, be prepared with plenty of water. There were a couple small shops selling drinks before the ropeway, but nothing else was available until you reached the top - where there are expensive vending machines. And you could pack a lunch to eat at the top.
 I crossed a nice bridge near the bottom.
 This looks promising.
 You follow the stream for a little while, but once the real climbing begins, you're on your own.
 There are lots of steps on this trail. It's a very steep climb, but it is shaded most of the way.
 Yes, it's a 2.5 km hike. And it isn't easy.
 Ahh, finally, I've reached the top. Kind of. This is a nice view, though!
 There are several levels of "top" starting with an area holding a couple shrines.
 This shrine was the most popular, and I believe it is the Misen Hondo Main Hall.
 That would probably make this the Reikado Hall.
 The top of the mountain has lots of little neat areas to look at or in. I'm sure they all have some religious importance, though, so respect is important.
 Am I at the top of the top? Not quite. But close. Most people take the ropeway, so I didn't realize how crowded the top would be until I got there.
 But again, the views are great. Hiroshima is off in the distance. At the top of the top, there's a viewing platform and another shop/vending machine.
 I then walked back across to the ropeway entrance to take the easy way down. It was getting late and I was exhausted. The view from the ropeway building back to the top of Mount Misen is seen above.
 And this is the "summit" station. It is a bit of a walk from the top of Mount Misen to the ropeway station.
 But views here are pretty nice too.
 Back at the bottom, I headed toward Daisho-in Temple, which might be the coolest temple I'll visit in Japan. It is one of the most important temples of Shingon Buddhism. On the way over I saw a couple snakes. Here's one slithering in the brush just off the trail/
 Here's the other, crossing the track. Signs were plentiful warning visitors to be on the lookout for snakes. There are poisonous vipers on the island, but these guys were probably harmless. Nevertheless, I kept my distance.

I'll take you to Daisho-in Temple and the rest of my trip tomorrow!

100 Posts! Some Funny Signs! And Other Photos!

Well, I've somehow finally reached 100 posts on this, my youngest blog. I suppose I'm not too far off course, though I haven't written as often as I'd like. It's interesting that my travel posts seem to be more popular than my other posts, mainly because I think visitors are coming to read my opinions from Google searches. By the way, if you're one of them and somehow came to this post, thanks for stopping by! Feel free to subscribe. There's lots more where these came from.

I have to say writing for Chaos and Kanji can be quite enjoyable, but it has the lowest readership of all my blogs. I'm going to keep on trucking, though, since I write for the fun of it. And who knows, I might get recruited to write for a travel magazine or have my own travel show or something! (If you're looking, I'm your guy!)

I enjoy looking at the signage here in Japan. Sometimes it has funny Engrish (English written improperly either due to poor grammar, poor spelling, or just poor fluency) and sometimes it's funny on purpose. Such as the collection of posters found below.


All of these posters are on the same wall, and they instruct riders how to behave. Japan is big on flock mentality and politeness. People who "buck" the system are heavily frowned upon. So what better way to help people learn social skills than sometimes humorous cartoons? Let's see - don't push or bump people on the elevators because you're late; don't wear red shirts if you're a lady and surrounded by faceless gray men (hmm, sounds like most weekday rush hour trains) - actually I'm not sure what the red-dress lady is doing; don't use your cell phone in the priority seats; and don't block the doors when people are exiting trains (queue in two lines so people exiting can walk between them).

Actually, I've seen lots of people break those two rules, the last one especially. I've taken to bumping into people on purpose who block the doors when I'm trying to get off the train, because they leave no other clear path for getting out. There was a blind guy getting off the train Tuesday afternoon who kind of had to push his way through. This wasn't rush hour, either - it was 12:30 in the afternoon on a well-traveled but not busy route. Anyway... Some other pictures.
Yokohama's Chinatown is the most famous one in Japan, but Nagasaki has a fairly nice one as well. You get there by entering through these gates, where you go from wide open streets to...
 a narrow alley surrounded by shops and lots of red paint. Why is it always red paint? Further in, you find food stalls as well. I had some harumaki (Japanese for spring roll) which wasn't bad. I also found champon here. Champon (or chanpon) is a regional noodle dish found mainly in Nagasaki. Unlike normal ramen, the noodles are cooked in the soup mix instead of in a separate pot. It was pretty good, though I'm sure I didn't eat a good representative of real champon flavor. If I return to Nagasaki, I'll be on the lookout for more.
 After watching the Hawks game in Fukuoka, I headed down to Tenjin, a popular part of town. This clock was built like a cuckoo clock, and you can see a couple of the characters out on the ledge. It was a fun show. I wasn't in Tenjin for shopping, though.
 I found this place, basically an izakaya (bar), with a tempting looking menu. Or something. I don't know. I was just hungry. I tried a bunch of stuff off the menu - various types of yakitori, mainly.
 Then I asked for some okonomiyaki, which I was pretty sure I saw on the menu (I was trying to translate Japanese writing). I'm not sure exactly what they were doing, but they had a long discussion about what they were going to do, and then said okay. Several minutes later, this plate came out. Let's see... there's a pancake-like crust at the bottom, some sort of miso (soy) sauce, meat, onions, mayonnaise, and what to you might look like bacon.

That's not bacon. That's fish. Tuna to be exact. You see, they do this whole big process with part of the tuna where it's dried, fermented, and smoked. Then they shave it off in very thin flakes and put it on okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and other foods. When prepared properly, it moves like it's alive, due to convection currents of the hot food it rests on. Japanese call it katsuobushi, and I've seen it a couple times now. It's also used to make soup stock.
Let's finish up with the back-end of the first bullet train I ever rode, from Fukuoka (Hakata) to (nearly) Hiroshima. The shinkansen is a really comfortable, nice way to travel, though without a JR Pass it can be quite expensive to get around on.

That's it! So after 100 posts, what's left to share? Hm. I have a trip to Taiwan to post details about. I've visited a lot of other places in Tokyo, I've explored some of Nagoya, and I'm heading to Korea in less than a month. And next year I'll be branching off to cities like Osaka, Sapporo, and Kyoto (finally). Plus, I hope to get down and dirty with some of the details of life in Japan. I'm always up for suggestions, so you can leave a comment or shoot me an email with, "Hey, Ryan, how do squat toilets really work?" or "Where are the crazy tentacle hentai videos?" or "Tell us about your electric bill." Or whatever else floats your boat.

Oh yeah, I actually forgot. It's my birthday! Yay! Happy me! Tomorrow, maybe I'll tell you how I celebrated (it's actually nearly 2 AM and my birthday hasn't really happened yet and I need to go to bed). It won't be that exciting, I promise.

Baseball in Japan: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

 Welcome to the Yahoo! Dome, home of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. The stadium is about a 5-10 minute walk from the closest station, and the walk includes traveling through a small shopping center. There is a Hawks team store inside the shopping center, and just beyond that is this overpass which leads to the stadium. This might be the best place to take a picture of the stadium from outside, though a nice shot is also available from the stairs next to the road (to the right of the overpass).
 Several of Japan's baseball stadiums are inside domes. Even in the middle of the day, it feels like you're at a night game. The stadium was packed and loud, though!
 The cheering sections are always in the outfield. I sat in center field under that scoreboard, pretty close to the green tarp.
 But first, I made my trip around the stadium to take photos. One thing I really didn't like was the ushers. Usually ushers allow me to stand in the back briefly to take photos from behind home plate, but the ushers throughout the infield absolutely prohibited entrance unless people had tickets for the area.
 Here's the view from my seat.
 Remember my trip to the Hiroshima Carp game? The Hawks also use these strangely shaped balloons. During the seventh inning, all the fans begin inflating these balloons but not tying them off.
 Then, during the seventh inning stretch, everyone raises them in the air...
 They sing the team fight song and jab their balloons towards the air.
And when the song is over, everyone's balloons go flying! I was better-prepared this time, having witnessed it just a week earlier. But I didn't participate. I can't see spending 300 yen (or more) on a pair of balloons that will be used for only a few minutes and then thrown away. It seems so wasteful and bad for the environment - I doubt they get recycled properly.

It's still really cool to watch.

The Hawks have been playing in Fukuoka since 1988, and have been owned by Softbank since 2005. Fukuoka Dome (Fukuoka Yahoo! JAPAN Dome) was built in 1993, and has a retractable roof. It was a nice day when I was there, so I'm not sure why it wasn't opened.

To get to the stadium and Hawks Town (the shopping mall and hotel complex) get off the subway at Tojinmachi Station and use exit 3, making a right turn to follow the river/aquaduct. Make a left turn at the major intersection to cross over the river, and the complex will be on the right. You can either enter the mall and head to the second floor where the Hawks store and narrow pedestrian bridge to the stadium is, or follow the road to the stadium (behind the mall) and walk up the stairs - either way, you shouldn't have trouble finding it. Tickets to Sunday games should be bought in advance (I suggest asking in a Lawson convenience store for some help using the ticket machines) but otherwise you should be able to walk up and get tickets on game day.

Location: Beppu Hells: I went to hells.

 What does this little furry guy have to do with this post? Well, he was the first picture I took upon arriving at the first of the hells in Beppu. Beppu is a tourist/resort town home to several hot springs, including some springs so hot you can't use them (the water is near or at the boiling point). Why are too-hot hot springs important? These particular ones are quite beautiful, with many of them having a unique color.

The hot springs are so hot they've been given the name hells in English - though that moniker is certainly used for attracting tourists as much as describing the temperature. In Japanese, the term is jigoku, and there are eight total. Six are clustered together in Kannawa,with two more side-by-side a short bus ride away.

Because the hells are such a big draw, they have become quite touristy, which can be a turn-off for some visitors. However, with a little constructive photo cropping and a blind eye, you can ignore most of it. One of the hells has a small zoo, but it certainly is hell for this elephant.
 I'm not sure if that cage is really big enough for this poor guy. There are other animals on display too, but it is kind of sad so I moved on.
 Steam! I must be near!
 This is Yama Jigoku (Mountain Hell), which is a "mountain" of mud made naturally by the spring.
 Hey, it's the official hells mascot! I told you it's touristy.
 This is one of the most beautiful, called Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell).
 Some of the hells have little shrines, and these gates lead to one of the shrines.
The Sea Hell from another angle.
 On to another hell, this one having a color similar to Georgia red clay.
 What's special about this one is some up-close mud pools. Every few seconds a bubble would make its way to the surface. It's called Oniishibozu Jigoku.
 Some of the springs have "interactive" areas such as this area where you can put your feet in the water. It felt quite nice to relax in the spring water for a few minutes.
 Another random small spring at the mud hell with mud-colored water and an interesting formation.
 All hail the great Beppu devil! The steam erupts from beneath his feet! Perfect for...
 Photos! This is the devil who cooks your food (see below).
 So how hot is hot? You can (try to) touch water of various temperatures.
 How about a steam facial? Careful, some of these hells have a strong sulfuric content!
 I'm not sure what's going on here. I'm hungry.
 You can buy eggs and pudding cooked in the hot springs. This is my hard-boiled egg with salt. You peel the egg, dip it in the salt, and enjoy. The flavor wasn't bad though some might not like it.
 A green hell known as Kamado Jigoku - Cooking Pot Hell. Yes, this is where the egg came from, and that statue above.
 At this point in the day, even the devils are getting tired and need to relax for a while.
 Quick, name the animal before scrolling any further.
 Yep. Crocodiles. We're at Oniyama Jigoku, the least-attractive of the hells in my mind.
 There are dozens of them! Don't worry, if you don't stick your finger through the fence they can't get you.
Where there are crocodiles, there are turtles sunning on the rocks. This brings back memories of San Francisco's Academy of Natural Sciences when I was a kid.
 Let's move on to the Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell), which is a white pond.
 What are all these people watching? Is it a trained bear show? Are tropical birds going to fly overhead?
 Nope, we're at Tatsumaki Jigoku, the spout hell. It's a geyser that shoots hot spring water in the air every 30 minutes or so for about eight minutes. This and the next hell are the two located away from the rest.
 And it's off! While people were originally polite and sitting in the seats, once the eruption had been going for a minute or so they moved forward to take a photo.
 So did I. The stone plate at the top probably makes it look much taller than it is (in this picture).
 Literally right next door is Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell). It's another reddish pool set right into the mountain.
 There's a small shrine in the back, and it might be the most photogenic of the hells. It also has a gigantic souvenir shop, so buy your goodies here.
The bus stop back to downtown Beppu is across the street next to a small convenience store. I recommend you buy a bottle of Beppu beer to drink on your way back to town. Yeah, you can drink in public here, though some people might look at you strange.

Beppu has a bit more to see and do. There's an amusement park in the hills (coming up in a future post), an aquarium, a monkey park, and plenty of hot springs where you can actually use the water. It's hotter than most hot springs, too. This building houses Takegawara, where I took my first public bath. I enjoyed a 10-minute hot sand bath followed by the actual hot water bath. The sand bath is really relaxing - hot sand compressing you in a comfortable hug. There are other places in Beppu to get a sand bath, though this might be the most famous. Expect a wait (I had a two-hour wait) and bring a towel (or buy one of theirs).

I'd like to return to Beppu or somewhere similar to enjoy another (hopefully longer) sand bath, a mud bath, and some of the other sauna-style treatments one can find in town. Beppu is good for a full day (or two if you really want to see it all and take several baths). Lodging will be a bit more expensive since it's a tourist town, but visitors can use Oita (a short train ride away) if only staying for a day and they don't want to stay in a ryokan or in town.

The hells are accessible by several buses which leave very frequently from the train station. Ask at the visitor center/tourist information desk for a current schedule (buses 5, 7, and 9 are fastest) and a map. Remember that two of the eight hells are a second 5-minute bus ride away (route 16 or 16A from the Kannawa hells). Each hell charges 400 yen for admission, or you can buy a souvenir ticket book for 2000 yen that admits you to all eight hells. They're open every day from 8 AM to 5 PM.