Saturday, May 23, 2015

Floral and green delights at Daikonshima's Yuushien

Puppet Ponyo posing with a few of Yuushien's 
eyecatchingly large Japanese peonies

Oher beautifully cultivated flowers found at the garden

 Of course, as I've come to expect of Japanese gardens, 
there are lovely views to be had

Yuushien's the kind of place where I like to linger for a while
to enjoy the calming as well as pretty sights :)

As some of this blog's readers may have gathered, I like to plan my vacations.  At the same time, I don't strictly stick to the itineraries I make.  For example, I had hoped to hike from Iwami Ginzan's main (mining) area to one of the two port towns that the silver had been transported to and, from there, to the rest of the world.  But the copious number of "beware of snakes" -- and in some cases, "beware of wasps too" -- signs that I saw the day that I went there caused me to abandon my idea to go along the (also noticeably overgrown) old transport routes between the mining area and the coast! and this especially since I additionally observed way fewer visitors about than I thought there'd be at 

Opting for something tamer the morning after my excursion to Iwami Ginzan, I decided to head out from Matsue once more; this time to Daikonshima (Radish Island!) to spend some time strolling around Yuushien, a Japanese "circuit style" garden famed for its peonies -- some of which were in bloom when I visited.  And although the weather forecast had been for a largely cloudy day, it was beautifully sunny for much of the time that I was there -- something which added considerably to my appreciation of the place!

A small volcanic island located on Nakaumi (a brackish lake that is Japan's fifth largest), Daikonshima appears to be a giant plant nursery -- and is famed for being where prized ginseng as well as peonies (Shimane's prefectural flower) grow.  Near the entrance of Yuushien, women offer up free cups of ginseng tea and in the facility's main buildings, there are exhibits on ginseng and areas where one can buy all kinds of ginseng products.

But my focus was on the garden's flowers and landscaped areas -- which I had a lovely time checking out.  For although I hadn't quite realized it when reading its brochures and such, Yuushien's actually my favorite type of Japanese garden: i.e., those designed for strolling around and revealing different vistas as one does so.  And while it's neither as old nor large as the likes of Okayama's Korakuen and Kanazawa's Kenroku-en, it still struck me as pretty lovely and impressive!

The morning that I was there, there were lots of senior citizens enjoying the garden's offerings.  Some of them were wheelchair-bound while others could get about pretty well on their own two feet.  Close to all of them, male and female, had floppy hats on to ward off the sun -- something I've come to see as characteristically Japanese! -- and quite a few were snapping photos of the sights and their parties.  

At no point though did I see anyone brandish a "selfie" stick.  And I have to say that I hardly saw any on this Japan trip -- unlike the case when I visited South Korea last September or when I'm in more touristy parts of Hong Kong (e.g., the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront). Actually, the general impression I get is that "selfie" sticks actually aren't that well known or prevalent in Japan.  And yes, I consider this state of affairs adds to Japan's charm! ;b 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Iwami Ginzan's silver mine, woods and cultural landscape (Photo-essay)

In what can seem like another lifetime, I was a tourism planner whose job involved meeting with government officials and telling them what getting the area where I worked on the UNESCO World Heritage list would mean.  I remember being shocked and horrified by one senior government official ignorantly asking if getting on the list really would have much impact -- and recalled our discussion as I made my way to Iwami Ginzan (by train and then bus from Matsue, as had been the case the previous day for the Adachi Museum of Art).      

For the fact of the matter is that I wouldn't have known of the existence of this historically important silver mine and its distinctive cultural landscape -- which includes a small town with roots back into the Edo period (Omori) where, unusually, samurai, merchants and craftsmen (and their families) would live on the same street rather than in separate neighborhoods -- if not for it having been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2007; this despite this one mining area being said to have supplied one third of the world's silver in the 16th century.

Beginning from 1526, silver was extracted at Iwami Ginzan for close to 400 years.  Despite all this mining taking place and such as mountain fortresses to protect the silver as well as mining towns being built in the area, today it is largely wooded -- thanks to forestry management that, in the past, ensured a steady supply of the vast amount of timber used for fuel when refining the silver and such. 

While no visit to this site could possibly be considered complete without going down a mine shaft, it's also very much part of the experience to make the hike through the woods to one of the two mine shafts that are open to the public -- and also to check out the other human-created sections of what feels these days like a most bucolic area...    

On my woodland trek, I expected to have my third 
Japanese snake spotting (after ones in Ogimachi and Bitchu-Takahashi
-- especially after seeing signs like that pictured above! :O

The Shimizudani Refinery Ruins got me thinking

Inside the Ryugenji Mabu Mine Shaft which dates back to 1715

Dedicated to Kanayamahiko-no-mikoto, the god of metal refining,
Sahimeyama-jinja is one of Japan's largest mountain shrines
-- and completely (and eerily) deserted when I visited!

 The town of Omori's so picturesque it can look like
it's part of a historical theme park rather than a place
where people still live and work!

 Eisen-ji's one of a number of Buddhist temples and
Shinto shrines to be found in Omori (and yes, there also 
are many places where flowers grow within the town)

 It's hardly the largest or most historic building in Omori but I like 
how this house looks, with its pretty lace curtains and unpainted wood

Puppet Ponyo by one of the wooden bridges to be found 
in this town that comes across as an attractive place 
to live in, bar for its distance from other human settlements! ;b

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Plenty to see and admire at the Adachi Museum of Art

The Kikaku Waterfall and other aesthetically pleasing 
garden elements to be found at the Adachi Museum of Art
 Prepare to be awestruck when you click on the above photo 
and view an enlarged version of it! :)
 Puppet Ponyo says that you also should feel free to click 
on the above photo of her to see a larger version of it (and her)! ;b

Back in 2006, I chanced on an exhibition of works by Yokoyama Taikan when I visited the Fukuoka Art Museum that was by far the most impressive museum exhibition that I viewed that year -- and may well be the most impressive museum exhibition I've seen in Japan to date.  (It's either that or the also pretty breathtaking Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs special exhibition that was on at the Ueno Royal Museum when I visited Tokyo in 2012.)
So when I found out that the Adachi Museum of Art is home to the largest -- and, many believe, best -- collection of works by the distinguished Japanese artist (whose real name was Sadai Hidemaro), I had one more big incentive to visit this museological institution located on the outskirts of the small Shimane Prefecture city of Yasugi, whose biggest claim to fame is its breathtakingly beautiful Japanese gardens.   And yup, those of you who know me will be able to easily guess what was Shimane Prefecture's top attraction to my mind!

Thus it was that on the morning of my first full day in Shimane Prefecture, I made my way by train, followed by free shuttle bus, to this museological establishment whose layout makes it so that one spends time mainly feasting one's eyes on its six gardens (which are approximately 165,000 square meters in total) first before venturing upstairs to view the major works of art that can be found inside the museum buildings.
Although I had imagined that people would be able to stroll in these amazingly landscaped gardens, the truth of the matter, of course, is that visitors are only allowed to view them from a distance -- and mostly only through the glass of admittedly large windows.  After getting over the disappointment of this discovery, I thanked the stars that at least photographs are allowed of these wondrous gardens -- so I could capture images to remember them by, and share them with others.
On the other hand, no photography is allowed of the interior of the museum and the art works on exhibition.  So I'm glad to have found images online of the pieces I saw there that I ended up spending the most time admiring: namely, Yokoyama Taikan's Mount Fuji (1932) -- which actually is a pair of paintings: one of the snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji peaking out from the clouds and another featuring a reddish-orange sun peaking out from another group of clouds floating above the foothills of the sacred mountain -- and the lesser known Shunkyo Yamamoto's Good Omen (1931), whose azure colors (for the water, flowers and roof tiles) I found striking along with the very idea of a mythical landscape as though it was one which humans could readily visit.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Matsue's castle, Lafcadio Hearn connections, and sunsets

Puppet Ponyo poses in front of Matsue Castle ;b

One of many tributes to Lafcadio Hearn 

-- and I hope this photo gives an idea why! :)

For many tourists and travellers, "Japan" is pretty much just Tokyo and Kyoto -- and the first time I visited the Land of the Rising Sun, back when I was 14 years old, with a tour group led by an uncle who worked as a tour guide), those two cities were indeed on the intinerary.  
But even on that first visit, I realized that there's so much to this amazing country than just those two famous destinations; not least due to the tour including stops at Mount Aso (though it wasn't until years later that I managed to get up to the top of the active volcano) and Nagasaki (which is inextricably associated with the atomic bomb that was dropped on it).  And in the years since, I've visited a number of other parts of Japan that many people outside of the country have never heard of (e.g., Shirakawa-go) and whose mention causes more than one Japanese person I've said it to to laugh out loud, seemingly in disbelief (notably Kokura and Dazaifu).
Although Matsue is reputedly a favorite travel destination for many Japanese, it is apparently another unlikely place for non-Japanese to venture to.  One reason for this is that this city on Honshu's San-in Coast is not the easiest to get to for international visitors. To give an idea of what I mean: after flying into Kansai International Airport (the nearest major airport to Matsue) on a three and a half hour flight from Hong Kong, I spent five and hour hours on three different trains -- a Limited Express train from the airport to Shin Osaka, the shinkansen (bullet train) from Shin Osaka to Okayama, and another Limited Express train from Okayama to Matsue -- to get to my main base for this vacation!
When asked why I had chosen the capital city of Shimane Prefecture to visit this time around, I mentioned Matsue-jo (which, like those at Himeji and Bitchu-Takahashi, is one of just 12 original castles left in Japan) along with Matsue's relative proximity to places such as the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Iwami Ginzan silver mine and its cultural landscape, and the sand dunes of Totorri. And Matsue's castle was indeed one of the places I visted on the first day of this recent Japan trip.
Constructed in the early 17th century by a local lord after the last great war of feudal Japan, Matsue-jo never saw battle despite being designed for warfare (rather than primarily as a residence, as was the case with many other castles).  Although its keep looks deceptively "squat", Matsue's is the third tallest as well as second largest of the 12 original castles, with splendid 360 degree views of the city and is surroundings are to be had from its top floor -- accessible via increasingly steep wooden stairs.
Two other places I visited on my first day in the castle town (really just a half day, since I got in after 1pm) had associations with a man who wasn't born in the city, didn't die there and, in fact, only lived there was around a year.  Greece-born Lafcadio Hearn is nonetheless considered a favourite son of Matsue -- with tributes to him to be found in many parts of the city that he loved and wrote about, including the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum (curated by his great-grandson Bon Koizumi) and the local craft brewery (whose brews are labelled Beer Hearn!), both of which are within walking distance of Matsue-jo.
At Matsue Castle, I noticed that there was a board on which the time of the day's sunset had been posted -- and got to gathering over the course of my stay in the city that sunset viewing's a big deal in Matsue.  In particular, viewing sunsets on the banks of Lake Shinji, the larger of two lakes that the city is situated between, is something which many people -- locals and visitors -- make a point to do.  And suffice to say that I loved the sunset views on Lake Shinji so much that I ended up checking them out on not just one but two days during my stay in this city that I now associate with its impressive castle, an interesting man who was born European but died Japanese, and truly glorious sunsets. :)

Monday, May 11, 2015

From Tai Lam Chung Tsuen to Ho Pui through Tai Lam Country Park (Photo-essay)

It's a running joke among my some of us who regularly hike in Hong Kong that sometimes, getting to the official hike start is the most difficult part of the trek.  Among the reasons is that there are official trails that seem to have trailheads seemingly in the middle of nowhere: i.e., with official directions stating something like "Walk 45 minutes from X bus stop to the starting place for the hike at Y"!  (For an example, check out the Transport Information page for the War Relics Trail.)

Then there are those hikes, like the one a friend and I went on that took us from Tai Lam chung just to the south of the Tai Lam Country Park to Ho Pui over to the north of the country park, where it took us to a few minutes to realize that the trail we were looking for was several hundred meters on the other side of a guard post of a couple of correctional facilities (i.e., prisons!) from the minibus stop we had got off at, and that the guard knew to cheerily wave bewildered hikers past!

After the surreal -- to us -- start, things settled down and my friend and I spent a pleasant few hours hiking past the kind of sights we have come to expect to see while out rambling in Hong Kong country parks: i.e., a reservoir (or two), green fauna, some cool critters (human as well as non-human) for a bonus! :)

 Just passing through, thanks! ;b

 Don't the red and white splotches on the leaves
look like they've been painted on? :O

Tai Lam Country Park attracts its share of wargamers
(along with hikers and mountain bikers)

It also appears to be home to a healthy number of grasshoppers!

Who says hikers and mountain bikers can't share a trail?

 To those freaked out by these creepy crawlies,
bear in mind that they'll turn into beautiful butterflies (or moths)! :)

It wasn't autumn but some leaves were beautifully red :)

 I didn't write that -- but I do agree with its expressed sentiment :b

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Commemorating the birthday of Tin Hau (AKA Mother-Ancestor) (Photo-essay)

In many -- but not all -- countries in the world, today's Mother's Day.  And as it so happens, tomorrow's the birthday of Tin Hau (the Chinese goddess of the sea who also happens to be known as Matsu, A-Ma or other linguistic variations of the title Mother-Ancestor).

In Hong Kong, where there are over 100 temples dedicated to her, the festive celebrations have already begun in various locations, including the Tai Miu at Joss House Bay which is the territory's oldest and largest -- and which I've visited a few times post-hike and also on Tin Hau's Birthday in 2010.  And in the goddess's honor, here's a photo-essay consisting of snaps taken of and at Tin Hau temples in various parts of the Big Lychee taken over the years... :)

 The Tin Hau temple on Peng Chau has beautiful 
decorations on its roof and above its front door

Joss incense coils hang from the make-shift roof covering
of the Tin Hau temple at Lei Yue Mun

  Inside the Tin Hau temple at Ham Tin Ka Tsuen, Lantau

 Tung Lung Chau's Tin Hau temple is one of the smallest 
I've seen -- but in a nice location in front of a hill and by the sea

 Tin Hau represented as a young woman at the
Tin Hau temple on Po Toi

  Thick and thin joss sticks burn in front of Stanley's Tin Hau temple
I love the door ornaments on -- and color of --
the main door of Joss House Bay's Tai Miu!
 At the Tin Hau temple on Tap Mun

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Vestiges of the past at Yam O and Luk Keng Tsuen

On the way to and from Hong Kong International Airport,
I've passed by Yam O and resolved to visit one of these days
 And yes, I wanted to take a closer look at 
the logs sticking out of the water
 ...and also Luk Keng Tsuen, the village located by the bay

Even before I moved to Hong Kong more than eight years ago now, I've been intrigued by Yam O. Mind you, it wasn't until after I moved to the Big Lychee that I knew the name of the area -- and it was only recently that I learnt that the forlorn-looking logs that caught my eye on my trips from and to Hong Kong International Airport are the remnants of a vast "log pond" in use by a lumber mill located at Luk Keng Tsuen.
An area frequented by shutterbugs and fishing enthusiasts, there also are those who are drawn there by its cultural heritage (as noted in a scene in Dot 2 Dot, Amos Why's love letter to Hong Kong which topped my 2014 Hong Kong movies list): for in addition to Yam O having been the site of pretty substantial lumber operations as late as 1983, Bronze Age and Tang Dynasty artefacts were found by archaeologists at Luk Keng Tsuen in 2007.
However, contemporary visitors will be able to see little evidence of this as, shockingly, the authorities have built barbecue pits on top of the ancient historical site!  And, to be honest, I found Luk Keng Tsuen a largely sad sight when I went there last week; with my distinct impression being that the village -- kaito service to which has been discontinued -- had become not much more than a collection of dilapitated shacks whose residents appeared to be elderly, impoverished or both.  (A couple of old ladies, both of whom must have been at least in their 80s, were the only people I saw when I visited -- and I sincerely hope that the small pieces of salted fish drying under the sun at the now disused public pier isn't their primary source of protein.)
It's not just that Yam O's best days appear far behind it.  It's also that scant respect looks to have been given to the area -- and its residents -- by the authorities.  All in all, the sense I got was that the authorities had pretty much left the place to rot -- with garbage collection appearing to not be close to non existent in the area and the village looking particularly run down when compared to the state of the shiny Sunny Bay MTR station that serves it and also lies on one end of the plush Disneyland Resort Line.   

And yet, it's hard to deny that there remains a haunting allure to Yam O which obviously attracts people to check out and, in some cases, hang out the area.  So even while part of me regrets having not visited until recently because the area -- including its remaining logs -- looked to have become more worn with each passing day, week and year, another part of me is glad that I did finally visit -- if nothing else than to satisfy my curiosity about the place and get a closer view with my own eyes.