Monday, April 21, 2008

Visit to Nagoya and Kani

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so some recaps. I went to visit Ana and Damien in their new home in Kani City, in Gifu Prefecture at the end of March. It was good to see old friends again, and especially interesting to see another part of Japan. I’d pretty much assumed all of Japan looked more or less like Hiratsuka, with everything centered around a train station, and getting less dense the farther away you got. Kani’s not like that. There are two train stations, right next to one another, but they’re not near the center of the city. Really, Kani doesn’t seem to have any really defined center. There’s an older section, with narrow roads and old wooden buildings that probably was Kani back in the day, but the busiest places seemed to be the shopping centers located far away from the historic area.

Getting around by car was a unique change of pace. I rode in a car there more than I have in the past year in Hiratsuka. Damien commented that one reason he wanted to come to Japan was to escape having to drive everywhere. Now he drives 5 days a week to his schools. We drove out to a mountain to do some hiking and happened across a large group of mostly older Japanese folks, all of them out to view these little purple flowers that covered only a small area of the northern side of the hill. It was really odd since we’d rather expected it to be quiet and empty, only to be directed by people directing traffic viewing for small, purple flowers.

As far as sightseeing goes, we went to Inuyama Castle, the first time Ana had been on a train since she’d come to Japan. Inuyama is one of four or so original castles. All of the others had been burned down or bombed in the war and are concrete reproductions. Outside, you can’t really tell, but inside the difference is striking. Odawara Castle, near where I live, is a reproduction, and the interior is nice and wide, easy to access, with nice views from the windows. Inuyama feels old. Upon entering, the first thing you have to do is climb up a set of narrow, incredibly steep stairs into a confining room with nothing in it except another set of the same stairs leading to the castle. I don’t know the real purpose, but I’d guess it would be difficult for heavy, armored attackers to enter and move up the stairs. But my understanding is that Japanese castles were mainly for shows of power and keeping treasure and arms, so I’m not really sure.

The grounds of Inuyama are pretty, the castle’s perched on a hill over a river, giving you a fantastic view of the surrounding area. A good military vantage point, I suppose. Walking back we saw what I think is probably the prettiest tree I’ve ever seen. It was a cherry tree in full bloom in the garden of a little temple. It’s called shidarezakura, a kind of weeping-willow cherry tree.

While that was a beautiful tree, Inuyama has nothing on the grounds of Nagoya Castle. One of the guys in an English group I go to occasionally got his sister-in-law to show us around Nagoya. She took us on a walking tour to the castle. After walking a bit from the bustling station area, we walked about a block off the main thoroughfare and found a bunch of Meiji-era buildings and little, worn shrines. This area was a shopkeepers district back in the day. Coming upon the castle, it looks like it’s just a nice, peaceful pedestrian park, but once you get in the gates, you see the castle set back, peeking out through myriad cherry trees. That had to be one of the largest groupings of cherry trees I’ve seen, right up there with the famous Ueno Park area of Tokyo. One of the curious features was the moat. There wasn’t any water, it had long been drained and was covered with grass. The weird part was the deer in it. There was no visible way out, nor any noticeable water source or food, besides the Japanese tourists for whom feeding wild animals ranks up there as a pastime with baseball and eating anything they can put in their mouths.

Most of the castle and its gate towers were reconstructions, the originals were destroyed by Allied bombs. They did a remarkable job on the reconstruction, and the interior of the castle, while not very authentic, made a better museum than Inuyama did.

After the castle we headed to another random open-air mall, but a beautiful one with a roof that was essentially a giant glass oval with a pool on top. We had a coffee underneath it, then took the elevator up and watched the sun set. It wasn’t very high, but afforded us a good view of downtown and the taller landmarks nearby. It seems every major Japanese city has a large, orange and white radio tower modeled after the Eiffel Tower. Tokyo’s is the most famous, but Sapporo has one, as does Nagoya, even Hiratsuka has a smaller, gray version perched on top of Shonandaira mountain, that bizarre lump that I have to ride around to get to my schools every day.

After my friend, Toshiko left, the three of us had some greasy izakaya food and lots of beer and sake, a must whenever you’re in the party district of a city.

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