Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Day 1 of sight seeing. Successful.

July 18, 2004

I got up at 7.30 am because we had to get to the bridge on the intersection of the road I normally take to Sojo and road to downtown Kumamoto. Ben got up later after I got done with my shower and got ready. We walked down to our meeting place at 8.30. We got there a few minutes early and saw Masao get there right on time.

We walked to the Kumamoto castle. It was about 15 minutes away with most of the walk being uphill because the castle is built on a hill. The surrounding areas near the castle are flanked by stone walls and a moat. While walking, it started pouring! I was getting wet and was worried about my camera. We hurried to the KKR Hotel Kumamoto, and Masao bought us a couple of umbrellas to use. That was good so that we could still keep walking. The castle walls were multi-tiered. The outer walls with the towers were original and not renovated. We entered the tower and had to take out shoes off and carry them and our umbrella in a plastic bag. We were not to soil the floors with dirt from outside. We saw the different rooms and the wood from the time the tower was built. The castle is 400 years old. We then went to the main tower. This was destroyed in a fire in the 20th century. We could keep our shoes on to enter this tower. There was a girl in a samurai costume at the gate who was sitting still the way the guards in London stood. The tower was air conditioned! But it felt good after the humidity. There was a museum of sorts inside about the castle. I took a couple of pictures inside the museum without flash. We made our way up to the top to see a spectacular view of the city. The city seemed to spawn out from the castle. It had a wonderful view of the green hills nearby too. Masao told us that there are more Japanese tourists in Japan than foreigners. I think it sounds about right but even in India there would be some other nationalities around.
Here�s an excerpt from the official Kumamoto City website about the Kumamoto Castle:
�Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto-jo)
Dominating the center of town is Kumamoto Castle. It is considered to be one of the three most famous castles in Japan along with the Osaka and Nagoya Castles. This castle was built by Kiyomasa Kato, a feudal lord of Kumamoto, about 400 years ago and took seven years to complete (1601-1608). The castle is approximately 8 miles in circumference, with a main tower, a secondary tower, 49 turrets, 29 castle gates and numerous other structures, such as extremely steep walls with a backward curve called 'Mushagaeshi'--thus preventing even a skillful warrior from climbing it. The castle was reconstructed after it was damaged by the Seinan Rebellion in 1877
Uto Yagura (Turret)
Considered the third donjon of Kumamoto Castle, Uto Yagura (Turret) is the only tower to escape destruction during the castle's 400-year history. All of the structural materials inside date back about 400 years.�

We then decided to visit the residence of Lord Hosogawa which was nearby. While walking there, we saw a good picture taking area where we could see both the towers of Kumamoto Castle clearly. We took a couple of funny pictures. In a span of 20 mins, the sky went from cloudy to clear. Now, the humidity was even worse if that�s possible. We heard Japanese folk music with percussion instruments nearby from a museum. We would have investigated it if we had more time.

The entrance to the house was surrounded by Japanese style gardens with wave impressions in the pebbles around the walkway. There was a small entry fee and we got our own English tour guide. We had to take our shoes off again and they took our umbrellas. They explained the structure of the house and the history of different rooms. They had two entrances, one for the Lord and his important guests and the other for the rest of the people coming to the house including the ordinary guests with lower titles. The floors were made of a high quality bamboo woven mat. She took us around to the room and explained the functions of different rooms. All the rooms have low beams which thwarted sword attacks because the attacking style of the Japanese swordsmen was vertical. We saw some cool and interesting things especially the blanket that people wore to sleep to prevent the shoulders to get cold. It�s pretty ingenious actually. I put up a picture of this on my picture blog. We also saw the servant quarters which was located on a lower level to the rest of the house signifying their low position in the house. So, we could clearly see the hierarchical class structure in play. We also saw the inequality between men and women in the styles of the rooms and approach to the house. In the end, we had to get a quicker tour because we had to leave soon to the Kami-Kumamoto station to take the train down to Kagoshima. They called us a taxi and while waiting we took a picture outside the house as well for keep sake and proof that we were there. The girl who gave us the tour spoke good English. We asked her where she was educated and she said that she had been in Berkeley, NY for a couple of years for business school. The job market must be bad in Japan because she was working as a tour guide of this house instead of working in a business firm or something.

We took our taxi and got to the station in time for the Relay-Tsubame down to Kagoshima which changed trains midway. We used the brand new Shinkansen line which was just constructed a few months back. It was a very luxurious ride down to Kagoshima. Most of the journey was in tunnels unfortunately, so we couldn�t see much of the scenery. Some of the journey was by the ocean which was pretty cool. The country side however momentary was beautiful.  The operating speed of this Shinkansen was 280 kmph as well! It was moving fast alright.

When we reached Kagoshima, we took a tram to the bay area. There were some nice shopping areas in the downtown area along with some big shopping plazas just like the ones at Kumamoto. When we reached the bay, we just stood and watched Mt. Sakurajima. It was a great sight with a perpetual cloud of ash over the crater. We walked over to the ferry station to get to the Sakurajima Island. Before getting on the ferry, we had a quick lunch. I had fried pork on noodles along with a soup. It was pretty good and I finished most of it using just my chopsticks. This ferry carried both people and cars across to the island. We stood out in front to check out the view. It was nice and sunny and the wind was cool. It was a relatively short and inexpensive trip to the island. It took 15 minutes and cost 300 �.

Once we got to the island and the humidity brought us back to the harsh reality of the weather in Japan, we decided to walk alongside the sea on existing pathways. We ate some yellow and red watermelons when we made a rest stop. There were a lot of ladies sitting and handing them out to people walking by. They were really sweet and juicy. This is also something that I would do only in Japan because everyone can be trusted. It�s unthinkable to eat anything from a stranger in any other country even the US! We walked on a bit more while Ben took his shirt off as he was getting sunburned on his neck and decided to get burned everywhere. hehe. We got to take some very nice photographs and I attempted my first panorama on the A80. I have to see if it worked after I install the panorama software on my computer. We saw an interesting looking tree which seemed like bonsai but we were sure it was growing naturally. We walked a bit more when we decided that it was best to turn back and get back so that we could reach Kumamoto before it got too late.

After the ferry ride back while sipping on fluid refreshments, we took a last look at the volcano. I wish we could have gotten closer to the mountain but we didn�t have enough time. You need more time to do these things! We asked Masao how much of time did people get for advance warning before it erupted and he said a day or so. It has a big eruption every 50 years or so. He didn�t see the last one but he was young when it happened. I think it would be exciting to see the volcano erupt from a distance of course. We walked back to the train station because we wanted to check the shopping centre out. They had some nice shops. We met an Israeli who had just gotten there the last night and she was already peddling cheap jewellery. I wonder how she communicated with the Japanese who didn�t know any English. We saw people from all classes and walks of life. The punk style must be catching up here because I have seen a lot of girls and guys with black styling along with spiked hair. People kept staring at us because I was brown and Ben was white. Sometime it got a bit old and I felt like embarrassing them by sending them flying kisses or something to say that I could notice them looking at us weird. By the time we got back to the station; my feet were aching because my shoes weren�t built for long distance walking as it doesn�t have as much cushioning as sports shoes. But hey, we saved 140 �. I wonder if Masao made Doc and Barbara walk around this much. Somehow I seriously doubt it. It however did help me to tone up my muscles from all the exercise I got during traveling and stuff.

We talked some more on the way back. We asked him to give us recommendations for the Japanese alcohol we could carry back with us. He said that the shochu and sake were the best things to take back because they were distinctive Japanese. And after Masao showed us the sizes best to carry, we decided to walk back instead of the taxi to save 12 bucks. We also went through the shopping plaza so that Ben could see what it was like. It was pretty late so most of the shops had already closed. However there were a few handful stores open, so we ended up browsing for weird things. We went into a jewellery store which had an interesting mishmash of fashion and scaled down jewellery. I liked some of the stuff I saw and almost bought it. But I resisted. We walked back using the side of downtown where the trams ran.

When we did get back, we decided to do a small dinner and then sleep early. So, we went down to the handimart to get some sandwiches and stuff and didn�t find any. So we went to the bigger store and didn�t see any there either. So when we got back to the handimart, we just had some more curry stuff with couple of fried things. We watched some Sumo wrestling while eating. We discussed the next day�s plan of attack to sight see. We thought about stopping at Hiroshima and going to the spot where the bomb was dropped because it has now been converted into a tourist center. It called the peace memorial park or something of that sort. And then we contemplated about stopping in Kyoto for an hour or so. But we cancelled that out for tomorrow because he had already been there. So I planned on doing it on the way back to Kumamoto. And finally decided to try Mt. Fuji for a few hours and do the gondola ride and take the scenic route. I had also thought of the stuff I needed for the trip in the next couple of days and decided to take a change of clothes, a book, and my camera with batteries in my back pack. I wanted to travel light because I thought that we might do a lot of walking and stuff. So with some idea in mind, we went to bed around 11.30 because we had to get up really early to start the long journey.

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