Trying (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to escape Tokyo’s humidity, I headed north to Akita this weekend. Here’s the condensed photo album with the pictorial highlights.
On the way up to Akita, I sat next to an interesting guy who is an author/publisher. He is the representative of an organisation called “Adobencha Kurabu” (Adventure Club), and writes classic “Boy’s Own” type illustrated books with tips and instructions on things like different methods for lighting fires without matches, making lanterns and stoves out of drink cans, and all that sort of outdoor adventure and survival type stuff.
When I got to Akita, I discovered that it has a very nice park. One of the best 100 urban parks in all of Japan, according to someone’s ranking system. (Japanese love ranking things.) And, a few museums. And that was about it.
As I looked wistfully at the view across to the mountains outside the city, I realised that the best thing about Akita is getting out of Akita. There are lots of spots to go, up and down the coast, into the mountains. Hot springs, hiking tracks, world heritage listed wilderness (Shirakami). All within easy reach if you have wheels.
I didn’t have any wheels, except for those provided by Japan Rail or local bus companies. So a lot of what was on offer wasn’t easily accessible unless I had a lot more time up my sleeve to get to and from places.
Easily accessible, and well worth a visit, was Kakunodate, a town about 45 minutes up the train line on the Akita Shinkansen, which is an old castle town. The castle has long gone, but remaining are lovingly preserved old samurai residences, called “Buke Yashiki”. There are a few streets of them – these streets are wide, tree lined, and have beautiful old houses with well established and maintained gardens. They’re now open to the tourists. One of them, the Ishiguro family residence, is quite grand with a thatched roof.
Given its old rustic feel, you might think that the city planners ought to restrict other incompatible developments. However, the Jetsons arrived at some time (perhaps the 1960s?) and built this monstrosity of a revolving restaurant atop a ferro-concrete number in the heart of the town.
Here it is on the map.
Not to be outdone, NTT decided to build a major communications town on top of a beautiful ferro-concrete box, again in the heart of town. At least my mobile phone had a strong signal. I’ll never understand Japanese planning laws.
Here’s one for the train nerds. I managed to record the Komachi shinkansen arriving at the platform at Kakunodate station on my way back to Akita.
Once back in Akita, I found some activity starting to happen around town. In a public square, a TV Akita crew was just finishing filming a group of locals demonstrating their techniques for next weekend’s Kanto Festival. This is one of Japan’s biggest festivals. There is a big parade with floats, and community groups carry bamboo poles with rows of lanterns. The technique is to balance the pole on your palm, on your waist, or even on your forehead.
Apparently the largest lantern stands weigh around 50kg. Imagine balancing on your forehead a 10 metre high bamboo pole with 50kg of bamboo lanterns. Well, see it for yourself. I took a short video of the groups I came across. The quality of the video is a bit grainy because it was dark, but you’ll get the idea.
I found another group doing the same thing in another part of town.
The Akita City website has a good explanation about the Kanto Festival. Click on the links within the site to see the various carrying techniques.
I spent Sunday having a look around two of the museums. One was a museum about the Kanto Festival, and the other was the Akarenga-kan, an old red brick building (as the name suggests to those of you who understand), which was a western bank building built in Akita in the early 20th century. It now houses some exhibits about local artists (including a woodblock print artist, Katsuhira Tokushi) and about Akita. As the City of Akita says, “You will be an expert in Akita for sure after your visit”.
I wanted to visit nearby Oga Peninsula, with its coastline, lighthouse and onsens. I could have got there on the train and local bus, but would virtually have had to turn straight around and come back to Akita, for fear of not making it back to Tokyo this afternoon. So, at least to see the sea, I took another train to the beach at Shimokawa, on the Sea of Japan about 20 minutes south of Akita. The train was a little two-car train that ran about once an hour. Miss the train back to Akita and I would still be in trouble getting back to Tokyo. Again, a car would have been handy. I found that all the locals were there in their cars (including some that were the subject of my earlier post). It was a hot day and the sea was quite calm, so I sat at one of the beachside stalls and had a beer whilst I watched the scenery – then bolted for the train back to Akita.
The flight back was spent dodging big thunderstorms. At one stage, there was lightning out the window, which was quite spectacular, and mde me remember our flight being hit by lightning over the Japanese North Alps a year ago. A distant sunset view of Mt Fuji between the thunderstorms was also spectacular, but you’ll have to take my word for it, because I couldn’t reach for my camera when the seat belt sign was turned on. Getting off the plane and onto the Monorail took all of about 7 minutes – I love how easy Tokyo is to get around.