Ukai – Cormorant Fishing on the Nagara River, Japan.

We stayed in Gifu for a few days while touring Japan, yet again because we love the country. Watched the traditional river fishing technique (Ukai), although now mostly a tourism activity it has a long history. Ukai is a unique fishing method using cormorant birds to catch sweetfish (ayu). This fishing method has a history of some 1300 years, with a description of Ukai fishing on the Nagara River appearing in an ancient history book compiled in 702.

In ancient times, Ukai was generously protected by local and then national governmental agencies, who gave the Ukai fishermen extensive authoritative control over activities on the Nagara River.

Through the Edo Period (1603-1868), there were at any time a maximum of twenty one Cormorant Fishing Masters (usho) working the river.

An usho catches fish with the help of ten to twelve cormorants, operating from an ubune (Cormorant fishing boat). 
The ubune has a crew of three: the usho, a nakanori (assistant), and a tomonori (helmsman).

Ubune (Cormorant Fishing Boat)
  • Ubune … A 13 meter-long cormorant fishing boat with a crew of three: the usho, nakanori, and tomonori.
  • kagari-bi … The fire which supplies light both to work by, and to attract fish.
  • Kagari … An iron basket which holds the kagari-bi
  • Kagari-bou … A pole from which the kagari hangs.


Wasabi Farming in Japan

Visited the largest publicly viewable wasabi farm in Japan, located a short train ride north of Matsumoto in the central area of the country.

Fresh mountain water flows over every plant root in this elaborate wasabi farm

The wasabi plant occurs naturally in rivers in Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and New Zealand. Wasabi grows in wet areas, and attempting to recreate its environment can be very difficult—some experts consider it the most difficult plant to grow commercially.

To ensure that every root gets a fair share of the flowing water careful grading of the growing areas is required.

Real wasabi, until grated from the root, isn’t spicy. When grated in a circular motion, a paste is formed and hot vapors are released, and traditional Japanese restaurants will grate fresh wasabi to order. Wasabi loses its pungency after a mere fifteen to twenty minutes, so it needs to be served immediately after it’s turned into a paste.

The “wasabi” consumed in restaurants around the world is almost always an imposter: a green dyed blend of horseradish powder and mustard, two similar roots that are far cheaper. A pound of wasabi can sell for up to $100.

Actual wasabi is smoother tasting than the horseradish-mustard medley we commonly consume and instead of creating a sensation in the tongue and mouth, real wasabi impacts the nasal passages more.

Wasabi is extremely delicate and must be grown in a place that is cool with plenty of pure, clean flowing water. As wasabi is vulnerable to high temperatures and direct sunlight, a cover of trees or black cloth is employed to provide shade.


Nikko Grand Procession

The Grand Procession at Nikko is held to reproduce a stately parade held in 1617 which  enshrined the spirit of the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had died the previous year.

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The portable shrines play a prominent role as Shinto followers believe that they serve as the vehicle to transport a deity while moving between a main shrine and temporary shrine during a festival.

And they are heavy!

Other images from the procession………

Monkeys were believed to be sacred messengers between gods and humans and therefore good relationships with monkeys were essential. To reflect this old belief, young boys dressed as monkeys wonder within the procession and receive money thrown to them by the crowd.


Yabusame in Nikko

As part of the grand spring festival in Nikko horseback archery, or yabusame, is performed. A yabusame archer gallops down a prepared track at high speed. The archer mainly controls his horse with his knees, as he needs both hands to draw and shoot his bow. As he approaches a target, he brings his bow up and draws the arrow past his ear before letting the arrow fly with a deep shout of In-Yo-In-Yo (darkness and light). The arrow is blunt and round-shaped in order to make a louder sound when it strikes the board.

If the board is struck, it will splinter with a confetti-like material and fall to the ground. To hit all of the three targets is considered an admirable accomplishment. Yabusame targets and their placement are designed to ritually replicate the optimum target for a lethal blow on an opponent wearing full traditional samurai armor which left the space just beneath the helmet visor bare.

Blessing honored guests at the shrine.Blessing the most honored guests – mostly old men in dark suits.

Shower of rain at the shrine main gate.

The most honored guests shoes have to be properly aligned during the ceremony.

Souvenir seller.

Checking the images of the day.


Had a short trip to Hong Kong and Japan

Having worked in both these places several years ago, and so with friends to be visited and some new places to discover set off for two weeks of touring. It turned out that the touring could have been improved upon by taking a little longer, but all the goals were met – we enjoyed the company of friends, had fun along the way, and took plenty of photos, some of which are displayed here. Japan images will wait until the next post.

The Hong Kong skyline is truly dramatic, with the highest density of skyscrapers in the world.

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Arrived in HK after 16 hours from Newark – in economy class, not too bad, still able to focus as we approached HK.

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For some relaxation from the craziness of Kowloon, went over to Stanley on the Southside of the island. Visited the Pak Tai temple, built for the Taoist god “Pak Tai” by local fishermen in 1805.

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Local fisherman, actually a fisherwoman, of today.

Causeway Bay early morning;


20171105-02210.jpg Sunrise over  Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.


Kyoto Morning

Sunday morning and walking up Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, around 3 miles and 2 hours up hill, in the rain.

Thousands of torii gates, originally dating from 711 AD.

If you look carefully you can J’s umbrella which takes a turn for the worst only a day or so later – stay tuned for further episodes.

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Last few days in Tokyo

Spent the last couple of days in Tokyo winding down.

Visited Kamakura, old city close to Tokyo, Geoff had lunch and dinner with old colleagues, Jean spent time visiting our old friend Kyoko who had suddenly been admitted to hospital, but is now improving. We had planned to stay with Kyoko but fortunately our other friends Christa and John stepped in to fill the breach and put us up for a couple of days.

At the main temple in Kamakura, there was a bonsai exhibition, so congratulations to Yamamomizi-san for what appeared to be a prize winner.
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Detail from bonsai tree root.
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Also, it was 3,5,7 day at the temple, when children who will reach ages 3 or 5 or 7 during the year get a special blessing.

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Had dinner with friend Fuji at his selected spot, great food, here the chef is putting steak on the grill. This was preceded by several Japanese delicacies. Jean only balked at the angler fish liver.

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We didn’t get the perfect timing for fall colors in Tokyo, but in two weeks time this will be a nice photo.
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Some Tokyo scenery

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The weather was beautiful when flying out of Tokyo so had good views of the mountainous landscape, including Mt Fuji.

A very nice note on which to leave.

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Back to Tokyo

Takayama to Tokyo consists of two portions –

one is a 2+ hour single track train journey which follows the course of the Hidagawa river, and is one of the most scenic rail trips in Japan. We went through steep wooded valleys with leaves just showing fall colors, crossed numerous bridges high above the rugged rocky river below before finally arriving at Nagoya.

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The other segment from Nagoya to Tokyo is more conventional, using the Shinkansen, or bullet train, with the highlight being passing relatively close to Mt Fuji. Unfortunately we had reserved seats on the wrong side of the train, but the young female ticket collector saw that I was ready take photos, and she lead me to a spare seat further down the train. She also told me that the train would pass Mt. Fuji at 3:20 approximately. Of course nothing is approximate about these trains, and at 3:20 Mt. Fuji appeared. It would have been too big to miss but it was very good of her to give me warning.

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From Kanazawa to Takayama

One last look at Kanazawa before leaving the following day – this is Kanazawa castle at dusk.

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The following day we had two train changes, each of 5 minutes, to make the trip from Kanazawa to Takayama. So in a few minutes, with heavy baggage, need to find elevator/escalator, find new platform, find escalator/elevator again. Made the first connection with only a few seconds spare but the second was easier – small station with only two platforms.

The train line was single track, and with my excellent command of the Japanese language I was able to persuade them to let me drive!

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The fall scenery was lovely as we made our way by train to Takayama;

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Takayama was/is an isolated community so it developed its own culture and skills, notably carpentry, and sake.

The beef from nearby Hida is also renowned so we tried some and can now vouch for its reputation. The area is also famous for apples, and we tried those also – excellent. We stayed in a ryokan in the middle of the town so it was very convenient for examining one of the other notable products of the area – the sake. It too proved excellent – Jean is sampling;

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The Hida beef was very very tasty!

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Both Still standing after sake sampling.

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Looking for breakfast on the river at Takanawa

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Overview of the city of Takanawa.

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Our Ryokan hosts.

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More in Kanazawa

Kanazawa Castle plus Modern Art Museum for the day.

Unfortunately the Modern Art Museum was mostly closed because they were preparing for a new exhibition. So we saw an exhibition/interpretation of Gaudi’s life which was rather good. There were a lot of original materials such as this document for a proposal for a university facility, prepared in 1870.


Jean then went to try some local crafts, including locally made parasols.


Then to the famous Kanazawa castle. Rebuilt a number of times, of course, because Japanese castles were almost always made from wood, and, guess what, they all burned down several times over hundreds of years.Japan blog b 6

Jean could not control her umbrella in a gust of wind, so here it is, on its way to the moat at the castle. Fortunately there were no officials around or she might have been told to dive in remove it.

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The good news is that is was a $5 umbrella, not a $500 parasol!

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Finally some sushi, at a small place owned by a husband and wife couple. Great sushi from smiling hosts.

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Off to Kanazawa

Off to Kanazawa via the “Thunderbird” train, seen here arriving at Kyoto.

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After arriving at Kanazawa we went to Kenrokuen, a garden developed from the 1620s to the 1840s.

The story about Kanazawa is one of gold – 1,200 years ago a peasant named Togoro stopped to wash his potatoes at the well. Suddenly, flakes of gold began to bubble up from thewell, giving Kanazawa – meaning ‘Marsh of Gold’ – its name. The garden has been open to the public since 1874

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Even the streams need to be cleaned regularly.

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Heron poised for evening snack.

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I guess we missed a good show!

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Old gaslight still in use in Kanazawa.

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The five storied pagoda of  Kōfuku-ji in Nara, at dusk.

Founded around 700AD, an important buddhist temple.

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 Horseback archery in Kyoto

Yabusame is a type of mounted archery in traditional Japanese archery. An archer on a galloping horse shoots three special “turnip-headed” arrows successively at three wooden targets. We were lucky to find it coincided with our Kyoto visit.

This style of archery has its origins at the beginning of the Kamakura period. The original shogun leader from Kamakura, who ruled around 1195, became alarmed at the lack of archery skills his samurai had. He organized yabusame as a form of practice. The archers ride at full speed past three targets over a 250 yard track, controlling the horse with their knees as they try to hit all three targets.

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It seems women also take part in this ritual, and actually seemed more successful than the men. I doubt they were given the same opportunity by the old Shogun folks.

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Another good chance to meet up with old friends in Tokyo


 Dinner with Friends at Elio’s

Had a great dinner with old friends at one of our old favorite places.


This poor guy didn’t stand a chance

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A couple of pics from wondering around Tokyo

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Had a brief stop at the Yasukuni shrine, which lists the names of almost 2.5 million people who have died in the service of Japan from1868 until 1947, mostly military, and where the following notice was displayed.

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Inside the Yasukuni shrine museum there are a few artifacts including this plane.

Japan blog 4More disturbingly there were a number of pictures of military stuff, done by visiting schoolchildren. Not good for this to be part of the educational process. For me it fell under category 4 of the forbidden items above, “Any other activity making other visitors feel uncomfortable”, but I kept quiet.Japan blog 2

There are no quick banking transactions in Japan

When we lived in Japan, Jean would save any 500 Yen coins in her change in a metal money box. When we left Japan, it weighed several pounds and we forgot about it, and the box was shipped to Hong Kong and then eventually to Philadelphia, and was then lost in the basement for a year or more. But this time we found it, carried it to Japan, and I took it to a bank to change to paper.

They asked me what the total amount was, and I said I had no idea but please check for me in your counting machine and I will accept your answer. But no, they insisted that I count it myself first and then gave me a nice cubicle in which to work, (also so I didn’t annoy the local customers). After counting and completing the paperwork 4 times, mostly the banks fault, not mine, they then counted the money, and so almost exactly 1 1/2 hours after entering the bank I walked out with the equivalent of $1300, wow..

The 500 Yen coins – after counting.

And the bullet trains still keep going, with an average delay of around 20 seconds – here one is passing over a restaurant under the tracks. A nice quiet spot for dinner!

Restaurant under the bullet train tracks.

Arrived in Tokyo on Monday evening.

Immediately started to have enormous excitement – waiting for baggage at Narita airport. Unfortunately we were missing Geoff’s bag.

Waiting for baggage – without success.

It was lost/delayed in Chicago. After traveling for 20 hours or so, we have been promised baggage delivery on Wednesday evening – 3 days after starting off. How long can one go without buying underwear? Well in Tokyo getting extra-medium is not so easy so maybe just one more day…….

Friendly sushi chef!

We also arrived in the middle of a typhoon, which seems a common occurrence here these days. The city was very quiet, seems most folks just stayed home to wait out the storm; but we braved the torrential rain to go out for some sushi!

The sushi was great – just reinforced how average (at best) the stuff is in the burbs of Philadelphia. The sushi chef was welcoming, as always.