Travel Reports

Midlands Renamed

By Rich T. Posted on December 27, 2013

Objective: To spread the word about the plethora of attractions, both important and just good fun, far and wide.

Day 1: Iga-Ueno and Yokkaichi

Companions for three days, Ann, Mickey and I, met at 9 am-ish.

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We ceremoniously bought tickets for Iga Ueno via the Mie Kotsu Bus Co., took photos under Christmas Nanachan, and set up our Wi-Fi while waiting for the bus.

Come on Ueno Castle and Ninja Museum!

Our English-speaking guide told of Iga Ueno’s history as a check post to check (in both senses) the flow of arms and weapons across the country.

On the way, 2000-plus-meter-high Mt. Gozaisho, not yet snowy, scratched the sky above bold, autumn colours.

We gulped down a local-specialty lunch-set (fortified rice, healthy vegetables, succulent pork, wakame soup and choice of ‘rare’ cheese cake or other, perhaps more local, dessert), still tasty even though it barely had time to touch the taste buds, before we left on foot and raced by a locally born haiku-poet’s statue (Matsuo Basho, who died aged 51, just a year older than I am), getting only a glimpse the castle in order to be on time for the ninja show at the Igaruyu Ninja Museum. Pause for breath.

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The ninjas went out of their way to make sure we experienced the full impact of their skills and trickery. As well as their kindness. We were told that, unlike samurai, who were loyal to one master or family, ninjas and their clans hired themselves out to whoever paid. But they didn’t seem especially mercenary to me. As well as, of course, martial arts skills of high order, ninjas, more surprisingly, depended on moving round incognito as street performers, and so the clash of swords and zing-thud of throwing stars were interspersed with amazing displays of dexterity, balance and coordination. They made use of every kind of ordinary implement available back in the ninja heyday.

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We got to throw ninja stars, which was fun, even though I only struck the target properly once. After that, we checked out the museum section, with things like ninja mud-shoes (kind of like old snow shoes). I guess it would do no good to leave muddy footprints on the ceiling, eh? Finally, some of the secrets of a Ninja house were revealed, making me wish I’d got some concealed tunnels and invisible doors in my house. Thanks, modern ninjas!

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Next, feeling much more able to handle any attackers who might have a go, we new ninjas took a couple of trains from stations bedecked with ninja mannequins, through fields of golden stubble, set off by a lowering sun, to Yokkaichi. 

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We arrived after dark, which had served to soften the transition from countryside to conurbation. A chill had descended. We were heading for a night cruise in the harbor, so some edible central heating was required. At Ichiraku restaurant in Yokkaichi, a hearty meal of juicy ‘tonteki’ (pork steak), fried gyouza (Chinese dumpling-packets of minced meat) and rice did the job. Mickey, one of our company from Taiwan, was happy at its similarity to Taiwanese food.

Replete, we took a short bus ride to the wharf. The bus was as full as we were and we had to stand, indicating the popularity of the harbour night cruise. Indeed, there had to be a kind of shift system by which half the people stood on the open-air viewing deck for the first 45 minutes and then went below to the windowed, warmer area, to be replaced by the other half.

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The attraction was industrial plumes and lights show times two, reflected in the profound, dark harbour waters.

The cruise started off amidst the smell of something that I couldn’t quite identify. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I didn’t want to take deep breaths of it. I wasn’t sure what kind of chemical it was. Only when we were told did I know that it was the aroma of sesame oil from the nearby plant. Love was afloat and in the air, too. The cruise was perhaps more suitable for courting couples, of which there were many.

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Mainly the installations were just silent, isolated huddles of illuminations surrounded by deepened darkness. It was a subdued initial overture, seemingly sensitizing us to something more subtle. Towards the end of our 45minutes up top, we entered a section of the harbour in which the water was glassy and sheltered from waves. Then I saw it; A magical display, in the reflections trailing the languid wake of our boat A sort of aurora in the water! Rather than competing with dark nature, the electric lights were now mixing with it, causing constantly changing, dynamic interference. Hypnotic, shifting shapes danced.

It was a shame that my companions had gone below to escape the cold, because they missed those defining moments. Too soon, the boat turned back and the effect didn’t really return. And it was the turn of others to take the viewing deck, for their romantic, petro-chemical harbour cruise.

 

Day 2: Futami, Toba and Irago

Up with the sun and our hotel already had the full buffet breakfast on the tables. It was very nicely cooked and helped ease the shock of the new day. We hurried for a Kintetsu train; an hour to Ujiyamada for a Mie Kotsu bus to Futamiura.

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We were safely delivered to Futami Sea Paradise. This is an aquarium along the coast of Ise, towards Toba, and it was stuffed to the gills with all manner of sea creatures, from tropical fish to enormous walruses. It was an opportunity to get face-to-face with playful seals and fearsome, fanged, moustached walruses. I was able to touch their incredibly muscular necks, wondering if they might somehow feel some of my empathy towards them.

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Meoto Iwa, in Futamiura, is the Couple’s Rocks, just a short walk past a small shrine, along the shoreline from the aquarium. The Rocks, one small and one large, are joined by a ton of rope, as if in a loving relationship. It is another photo op for couples from all over Japan. They are, indeed, picturesque and iconic. And to ensure all return safely, there is a large statue of a frog, as well as many miniatures, for people to rub smooth; 'kaeru' meaning 'frog' in Japanese as well as ‘return’.

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We hurried further along the coast to Futaminoura Station and took a seven-minute train ride to Toba. There, courtesy of Kaito Yumin Club, we experienced one of the highlights of our jaunt: the Toba Food Sampling Walk. An enthusiastic guide, Tanaka-san, walked with us and introduced us to some normally hard-to-find local delights. Tanaka-san’s family’s sazae (spiral shellfish, or spinning top shell) business, where delicious sashimi of the shellfish was prepared before our eyes, was fascinating and very welcoming. A hidden sashimi restaurant, where samples of the freshest fish of the day were presented to us along with decorations especially made by the artistic and entertaining sushi chef. We rounded this off with samples of locally-grown rice and vitamin-rich vegetables at another accommodating little restaurant. I was blown away at just how friendly and helpful everyone was along this trail. It was like having instant family and neighbours! We carried our chopsticks around with us as a rite of passage.

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Our packs were oh-too-soon back on our backs for a ten-minute walk to Mikimoto Pearl Island for yet another main attraction: the ama-san women pearl divers' demonstration. Women of all ages free-dive from a boat in the frigid waters close off-shore, to collect sea cucumbers, spiral shellfish (also called turban shells) and, of course, pearls. They wear ghostly white gowns, which possibly used to ward off sharks (?!), and tread water hyperventilating and whistling as they do so, in order to dive and be able to hold their breath for up to a minute. They return to the surface invariably with a prize shell or other. They must do plenty of frog-rubbing to be able to return so surely.

We were then shown, by a very high-ranking, but humble, executive, round the pearl museum, where hugely expensive ornaments, encrusted with the fruits of the amas' efforts, dazzled us. Particularly mention-worthy was the globe with the countries in pearls.

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Back to Aichi.

Again, way too soon, it was sayonara, Toba and the beautiful people there. An Isewan ferry conveyed us, under a lovely, sunset-tinted sky, an hour or so, to Irago Port. We longingly looked back at Toba, though.

richard_mieaichi_21.jpgrichard_mieaichi_22.jpgTo soothe our sadness, though, our hotel, Irago Sea Park and Spa, was top notch! The staff, all seeming to perform multiple tasks (from driver to desk clerk and from waiter to information officer), made us feel perfectly at home, even though it is a huge building with hundreds of luxurious rooms. And each room had a wide balcony overlooking the beach and the ocean. Both the buffet dinner and breakfast were sumptuous, with selections so wide that I couldn’t try everything. More superb sashimi, awesome omelets, chocolate fondue fountain, Italian, French, Japanese….ooh la la! In the evening, I had to let that all settle before I could then truly enjoy the spa bath and sauna. If I could have a Groundhog Day, this would be a good choice.

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Day 3: Irago, Himakajima, and Tokoname

The next morning was windy and a little rainy. The ocean was moody, but magnificent. I ran on the beach and also a little inland, looking for a way up a small mountain, though I failed. Then I had the spa bath all to myself before the gorgeous breakfast.

We took a walk together, wanting to find the famous lighthouse not far away, then we turned back to take the ferry to Himakajima (Himaka island) that day.

You can walk around Himakajima in about half an hour.  Light rain swept the island that day, so we were fortunate get a ride to the restaurant where we had lunch. We were driven past such sights as the octopus style police station and the only traffic light on the island.

Himakajima is famous for its octopus and pufferfish (fugu). Taikairou served us some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted. We tasted octopus cooked in a number of different ways as well as terrific tempura and sea eel (anago) on rice. Mr. Suzuki, the owner of the restaurant, was bountiful with his hospitality. Thanks, Mr. Suzuki!

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We took a speedboat to the mainland again, Kowa.

There we took a Meitetsu train to Tokoname, ceramics centre of Aichi. They have been very imaginative with a walking circuit there, posting lots of funny and fun, ceramic ornaments along the route, many of them cat-themed. We saw a little of it, before stopping in at a large ceramics shop, Tokoname-yaki Marufuku, to spend an enjoyable, focused hour or so painting ‘shop welcoming’ or ‘good luck’ maneki-neko, a pottery cat each; a souvenir of our visit.

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Another, short, five-minute train ride later, and we were in the bustling, thronging, modern world of Central Japan International Airport, spoilt for choice for quality eateries and gift shops. The Shoryudo Tourist Information Center is a must-visit place for info and your all-important discount card with its accompanying, comprehensive booklet of available discounts across the region.

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The frog finally worked its magic for us, as we were returned safely and comfortably home to Nagoya by the Limousine Bus — right into the heart of Sakae. I hope that that isn’t its last work, because I really want to return to all these places again some day.

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Before I undertook this trip, I called this region the Midlands of Japan. Now, though, after having been the recipient of so much tremendous and generous hospitality and friendship, I have to change that name to the Heartlands. This is more fitting.
 

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Rich T

Rich T has adopted Japan as his home. He decided to retire first and work later, so, during his youthful retirement he spent 14 years bicycling around the World, travelling through 43 countries along the way. An Aichi girl, met in Laos, became his wife in New Zealand. They now have two small daughters. His girls along with Japan's spectacular scenery and ever-surprising culturescape keep him from wondering off. He likes to be thought of as an English teacher. He hopes that Chubu will adopt him.

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