North and West of Tokyo

The past 10 days I managed to escape Nagoya and go up north past Tokyo. Yes, there is something beyond Tokyo and it’s actually really nice. I didn’t go too far, just slightly beyond the big city called Sendai. First I went to a place called Matsushima bay, supposedly being in the top 3 seascape views of Japan (Japanese love putting stuff in rankings). The main place to see the bay is, as is most of Japan, quite crowded, but it was a view with scattered islands out of the bay.

I stayed at a hostel in an area called Oku-Matsushima, basically the northern part of the bay, and in the morning (as it was really hot) I borrowed a bike and went biking around the island of miyatojima, which was far nicer than the main place. After biking through flat fields of green in the light morning breeze, you climbed through bits of pine forest (after all – matsu is the Japanese name for pine, and shima is the name for island) and after wrestling past the mosquitoes you got several stunning views… very local Japanese life, which is what you want, right?

The next part saw me heading back to Sendai for the tanabata matsuri celebration. The tanabata matsuri, or star festival, is a celebration on the 7th of July, but in Sendai it’s celebrated a month later. The story goes that a weaver girl worked so hard that she could never meet anyone to fall in love with. Her father arranged her to meet a cow herder with whom she fell instantly in love with. After they married, however, she stopped weaving cloth and her husband let his cows run free. The father was so angered that he separated them by a river, but his daughter’s tears convinced him to let them meet once a year. Because of this story, the most commonly seen decorations at this festival are streamers hung from a ball to represent her weaving strings.
I didn’t stay for the dancing but I saw the decorations which were really pretty. There were over 3000 of them! Some of them shops along which they were hung but others made by students etc from all over.

That evening I headed west to a place called Tsuruoka to climb up Dewa Sanzan. This is a group of 3 mountain peaks that is very important for the religious following of Shugendo. This religion was created in the over a 1000 years ago and combined Buddhism with Shintoism, with enlightenment being achieved by an understanding of the relationship between man and nature. In the Meiji restoration, at the beginning of the 1900s, Shinto was named an independent state religion from Buddhism and shugendo was banned, therefore it lost popularity. However, still today, you can see pilgrims who visit the 3 peaks in their white robes and conc shell horns.

I walked the what seemed like millions of steps up to the first peak on Haguro-san. It was sweltering hot. I wanted to head to the 2nd and 3rd peaks, which are close together and you get there by taking a bus into the mountains followed by hiking for 2 hours across marshy plains. The bus ride up was really nice, as the higher we got the cooler it got, and loomingly, the lower and thicker the clouds got. I thought that it was just because we were going into the moutains, but no, as we were almost at the top, the clouds opened up and it started pissing it down with rain, and the color of the clouds gave me the impression it wasn’t going away! Oops. So I ended up getting right back on the bus (which was an expensive ticket!) and ended up spending a total of 3 hours on the bus. Nice. Followed by waiting around in a mister donut for about 6 hours as I was waiting for my night bus back to Tokyo.

In Tokyo I did some shopping in Daikan’yama and Shibuya & Harajuku – everytime I go to Tokyo I realize how much I love it (I somehow forget being in Nagoya)… I wish I could live there.

The last 5 days of my trip I helped run a summer camp for 47 kids – 27 of which were mostly returnee kids (i.e. kids who’d lived abroad and understood normal English) and 20 who were beginners at English. We went into the mountains around Tokyo and we went on hikes, played sports, did a treasure hunt, had a campfire… It was so tiring because the kids wouldn’t sleep at night etc etc (being your typical 6-12 year olds) but I really really enjoyed doing it, maybe because of the nature, maybe because I was able to talk like a normal person to these kids, maybe because the other leaders were cool too… Either way, I came back to Nagoya on a high. If I could have, I would’ve liked to have done another camp.
But, instead, I’m leaving for Singapore tomorrow… It’s a pretty good life out here sometimes!

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