Monday, October 30, 2006

Random Photos from Santa Barbara

I just Returned after spending a week attending a conference in Santa Barbara, CA. The busy schedule did not allow me to post anything, though I did some sightseeing. I will post some random photos for now, leaving detailed posts for a later time.

Many of my friends wanted to take photos with this piece of art by the side of the State Street. It is said that the artist claims the letter here to be a 'W'. Hmm, I am not so sure... :-p

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Kurama Fire Festival

Kurama is a village located on a mountain valley North of Kyoto, and can be reached by train in about 30 minutes. However, owing to its location, Kurama is about 5 degrees colder than Kyoto city at night.

The train to Kurama, with seats facing the windows for viewing autumn leaves

The station

Kurama is famous for the fire festival, held annually on the 22nd October. These photos were taken in 2002 and 2003.

The fire festival starts at about 6:00pm and goes on until about 11:00pm (however, it is best to go early and find a good place to see the processsion from, and to return to the station by 10:30 pm to avoid long queues). During the festival, torches are lit and carried around the village in procession, to guide the gods who are believed to tour the region during this time. The roads, too, are illuminated with fires.

Even if it involves fire, Japanese children play their part as usual for festivals.

The elders wear half-shirts and loin clothes. The large torches can be as tall as 4 meters, and seem quite heavy.

Other things carried around during the festival include protable shrines and ornaments from the nearby shrines.

During the festival, the residents of Kurama display their antique possessions in front of their houses.

The festival ends at the entrance to Yuki Jinja Shrine, where most of the torches are mounted and left to burn. However, there are a few other places for mounting torches.

Some random photos.

I recommend the festival as a must see, if you happen to be around Kyoto on this date (well, so does Lonely Planet Japan :-p).

If visited on a different day, Kurama still offers a lot more to enjoy. Nice landscape, hiking trails, shrines and temples, and onsens (natural hot springs).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Cookie (Senbei) Bakery

Having decided to walk back to the railway station, I turned to a small road by one of the canals. There was a small shop selling Senbei (a type of biscuits; some vendors label them as 'Senbei Cookies'). I decided to have a look, as it was time to buy something for my friends back in Tokyo.

As common for many small souvenir shops in Japan, there was nobody to be seen in the shop. I inquired if anybody is inside, and an old lady came in from the back door. "Please come in, have a look!", she said in Japanese. I responded, and she was happy that I could talk in Japanese (according to her, Yanagawa does not get so many foriegn tourists). After she found out that I am a student, I was treated more like a kid.

"Today is a hot day. Please have some tea!", she said, passing me some cold tea. Then she explained to me the types of senbei they make, and insisted that I try at least one of each type. "You are a student, you dont have to buy. Just eat some!".

Suddenly, she remembered something. "You should try an oven-fresh one too. Please come in!"she said, and I entered the small bakery behind the shop.

After having a couple of senbei, I took a few photos showing how they are made.

Pouring the mixture into a mould. There are moulds with different shapes, so several types of senbei can be made at the same time.

After rotating one round, the cookies are ready for branding (which is done manually).

This type of senbei are pressed to give them a curved shape.

One of the finished cookies. This bears the symbol of Yanagawa, a boat cruising along a canal lined by willows.

We had a nice chat, which they combined with a short break, before coming out. They said they close shop and go on a short tour in some other country, every year. I sure did buy some senbei (which were much cheaper than in the shops near the station), but still received some for free. "These are for you, we know that you are buying those for the friends!"

The senbei were good. The experience, better. :o)

Friday, October 13, 2006

After the Boat Tour

The boat tour is one way, and is about 2.5 km along the road from the starting point. Since the boatman had a bit of time before heading back, I started a chat with him.

He told me that Yanagawa is famous for two more things. One, the delicious steamed eel dishes (a bit expensive, but worth the price). The other, is the weird-shaped fish and other seafood caught in this area. He took me into a nearby fish stall, and showed a few types.

I dont have many photos of them, since they were not all that photogenic and I was running out of space on my memory cards. But I think these few gave you an idea. From what I heard and tried, most of these things taste much, much better than they look. :o)

This wine shop is really old.

The main shopping street

The usual means of getting back to Yanagawa station is taxi. However, I decided to walk along the narrow roads by the canals and find my way to the station. This turned out great, as it enabled me to visit the "Cookie Factory", which I will write about in my next post.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

More Photos from Yanagawa

It seems that the videos have much lower quality after uploading. So, I am posting a few photos that I took during the boat tour.

We are supposed to pay 100 yen for renting a hat. However, I got one for free. :o)

There were many statues like this one, by the river bank.

One of the smaller-scale tour operators. Might be worth a try, if you are interesting in a tour off the beaten path.

A few random photos down the canals

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Yanagawa Canal Boat Tour (Kawa Kudari)

Yanagawa is located to the south of Fukuoka, about an hour and a half by train. The small town is famous for its canal system, which has a total length of about 450 km. The main tourist attraction of Yanagawa is the boat tour along these canals.

There are six tour operators conducting boat tours along the canals. However, the most popular one is located on the railway station building itself, and therefore is easy to locate. There is a free shuttle service from the station to the boat terminal.

The term "Yanagawa" means willow river. Most of the canals are lined up with willow trees.

The start of the journey

The canals had been built around the ancient castle and other building, so there were many buildings, monuments and shrines near the river bank. The boatment explained these to us, although I could not capture all of it with my Japanese.

They say the boat tour is at its bets during autumn, with all the colored leaves. One bad thing about combining travel with conferences is that I cannot select when to go :o(. But still, the town office and residents make sure that there are some flowers to be seen from the banks all year round.

There were many houses by the canal at the starting point. However, the surroundings becomes more natural as we proceed.

A traditional fishing trap.

Some bridges are quite narrow, just enough for the boat to pass through.

There are shops and restaurants along the banks, selling crushed ice, ice cream, and drinks. We stopped by one, to buy "Kaki Gori" (crushed ice).

Towards the latter half of the journey, the boatman sang a couple of songs. He singing was great, but I cannot guarantee that all boatmen sing :-p.

The tour took about an hour and a half, and was a great, relaxing experience.