Travelogue Japan: Nagoya Castle, Nagoya

You know the saying ‘time flies when you’re having fun’? I couldn’t have agreed more – our five days in Japan felt like it was coming to an end too soon! Our last overnight stop before flying back to Tokyo was Nagoya, the country’s fourth largest city and a major maritime port.

Takayama/Nagoya

We caught a mid-morning train from Takayama, a three-hour ride away. Mariko-san bought us these adorable sarubobo (baby monkey) -shaped lunchboxes for lunch. Every meal in Japan that we’ve had so far was meticulously presented – bentos bought from any regular convenience store were no exception.

I had the stir-fried beef with shredded egg and fried fish cakes on a bed of fluffy white rice, served with half a boiled egg, some pickles, boiled prawn and some kombu (kelp).

Takayama/Nagoya

View as our train cut through the countryside. We saw swathes of green paddy fields and vegetable farms, quaint villages and in some parts of the journey, beautiful river gorges running through valleys and hills.

Takayama/Nagoya

Takayama/Nagoya

Arrived in Nagoya in the afternoon.

Compared to the small towns and rural cities on our itinerary, Nagoya was massive and very modern. We stayed in the city centre, which was surrounded by tall buildings, malls and offices.

Takayama/Nagoya

Had a quick rest and then it was off again to Nagoya Castle! Built in the 16th century, it was the ruling centre of the Owari clan, one of the three branches of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, and therefore ranked among the grandest castles in Japan during the Edo era. Unfortunately the original structure was bombed to bits during World War II, so the building we see today is a reconstruction made from concrete, built in 1959.

Takayama/Nagoya

We were lucky that we got to visit in the summer,because the Japanese government decided to close it in November this year for a major undertaking – to restore the main keep to its original wooden state. As such, the keep will be closed until 2020.

Fret not though – the castle’s palace (Honmaru Goten), which is in front of the main keep, will be completed in Spring 2018 , and will be open to the public for viewing. The palace, which was also destroyed during World War II, was rebuilt using traditional construction materials and techniques.

Takayama/Nagoya

Mythical golden tiger-headed carps called Kinshachi are a symbol of the castle and two of them, one male and one female, top either end of the castle roof. They were believed to be talismans to prevent fires… ironic, seeing that the originals were destroyed in a fire (can’t win against the evil of man) and their gold colouring, a symbol of the wealth and prestige of the Tokugawa empire. The carps we see today are reconstructed models, each weighing over a tonne with 40+kg of gold plating.

Takayama/Nagoya

Although we knew it was a reconstruction, we couldn’t help feeling awed at how majestic the castle looked! It must have been even more impressive during its heyday. Sitting atop a high stone wall and surrounded by a moat, it would have made mounting an assault on the keep exceedingly difficult. The main keep towers five storeys-high, with curving green roofs and white walls.

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Interesting tidbit: Building of the castle was not done by the Tokugawa family alone. Instead, they portioned it out to daimyos (lords) under them, each in charge of one section of the castle. The lords would leave carvings of their crests so there would be no dispute over who built what. Pretty ingenious.

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Since it’s a popular tourist attraction, visitors will find costumed-actors roaming around the courtyard, like ninjas…

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And historical figures.

Takayama/Nagoya

The inside of the castle has been converted into a museum, where you will find exhibits like the above, which details how the giant slabs of rock were hauled to the site by labourers.

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We climbed to the top which has a small observation deck with 360 degree views of the city! Surrounding the castle are the imperial gardens, a huge green lung in the midst of all the developments.

GETTING THERE 

From Nagoya Station, hop on the Higashiyama Subway Line to Sakae Station. Then, change to the Meijo Subway Line to Shiyakusho Station. The total journey time takes 10 minutes. From the exit, it is a three minute walk to the castle.

By bus, the castle’s main gate is accessible by the Meguru tourist loop bus (25 minutes).

Admission : 500 yen (RM18 – USD4)

Hours: 9AM – 430PM (last entry 4PM)

Travelogue Japan: Fresh, Local Produce @ Miyagawa Morning Market, Takayama

Want to shop like a local? Stop by Miyagawa Morning Market in the city of Takayama in Gifu, where you’ll find fresh local produce, crafts, souvenirs, food fresh off the grill, regional specialties, and more.

Takayama/Nagoya

The market is one of the largest morning markets in Japan with over 60 stalls stretching a length of 350m next to the roaring Miyagawa River which cuts across town. On a sunny day, you can walk down to the river bank and soak in the sights of the clear, rushing river water, in some parts stocked with koi fish.

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Takayama/Nagoya

The early bird gets the worm – or in this case, the choicest goods! The market starts at 6.30AM, and 8AM in winter until noon.

Takayama/Nagoya

Undoubtedly a tourist spot, we saw many travelers from China, Korea and even some Western tourists, which is pretty rare beyond the confines of large cities like Kyoto and Tokyo.

Takayama/Nagoya

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Seller sorting out some beans.

There is another older market in front of Takayama Jinya, called Jinya-mae, which dates back 300 years! Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to pay a visit.

Takayama/Nagoya

Some sort of colourful corn that I’ve never seen before!

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Vivid displays of vegetables in bright hues. Everything looked so fresh and tasty!

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Aside from vegetables and fruits, there were also stalls selling snacks. Got a bottle of non-alcoholic sake as a gift for the fam.

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Local specialties.

Takayama/Nagoya

Finally got to try the famous Hida beef! It was quite pricey (like RM15 for a skewer) but good – juicy, flavourful and tender.

Takayama/Nagoya

While waiting for the guys to finish their shopping, Mariko-san and I had some dango (glutinous rice balls on skewers). One was basted in a sweet-savoury miso, while another had been wrapped in a seaaweed before being grilled. The texture was chewy like mochi with a smoky, slightly charred flavour. Not my cup of tea; I prefer them to be sweet. 😀

Getting There 

The Miyagawa Morning Market is a 10-min walk from the JR Takayama Station.

 

 

Travelogue Japan: Rail Mountain Bike @ Gattan-Go! in Hida City

They say that once you know how to balance yourself on a bike, you’ll never forget how to ride it. While that’s partially true, the last time I tried re-riding one after 10+ years almost ended up in me being flattened into a pancake (read  story HERE). I was understandably wary when our guide in Japan, Mariko-San, announced in the car that we’d be heading to a ‘mountain biking’ place next. I mean, it’s already difficult for me to ride on flat ground, and now you want me to bike on a mountain!?

image credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

…… Oh. 

Turns out it was ‘sort of’ flat land after all, and the bikes she was referring to were railroad mountain bikes – basically bikes that have been attached to a railroad track on rollers! 😀

This unique activity in the Hida region of Gifu was the brainchild of illustrious locals, who decided to convert part of the disused 2.9km track (which formerly served the Okuhida-Onsenguchi station in Hida and Inotani Station in Toyama) into a tourist attraction. And so, in 2006, the Rail Mountain Bike Gattan Go (a Japanese term similar to ‘clickety clack’ in English) was born.

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

There are several ‘models’ to choose from, including family-friendly ones that have a carriage at the back for the little ones.

Since we were a group of four, I took the front with Mariko-san, and the two guys followed from the back. A safe distance needs to be kept between the bikes so the instructors let us gain some ground before releasing the next set.

Before we set off, there was a safety briefing and a brochure to read (in simple English, if you can’t understand Japanese). We also had to wear protective safety helmets. Loose items need to be stored as it will be difficult to retrieve if they fall onto the track. You CANNOT jump off or stop during the ride (kind of like the motorised jeeps in Jurassic Park – and we all know what happened when they stopped lol).

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

And… off we went!

The bikes rolled faster than I anticipated! Every now and then there was a loud “CLANK!” as it went over a notch in the railroad track, but the ride was anything but bumpy. If you’re lazy to walk but would still like to enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery of Hida, I 100% recommend riding the Gattan-Go. As the wind rushes through your hair, you’ll see verdant green landscapes on both sides, sometimes passing through high ledges that offer sweeping views of the quaint rural Japanese towns below.

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

A vivid red bridge spanning across a roaring river. I couldn’t stop the bike so I precariously balanced the DSLR on my arm while taking 10x shots hoping one will turn out good lol (don’t try this at home kids).

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

Riding past the backyards of some homes.

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

Some parts of the track passed through tunnels that cut across the mountains. The tunnels were pitch black, and I could hear rushing water in the darkness even over the loud clanks of the bike roller against the rails. We also passed by several disused stations, some of which have small shrines next to them dedicated to local deities.

Kanazawa, Japan

End of the line! We had to stop so that the staff could turn the bike in the other direction. There was a basin nearby which was filled with fresh mountain water. Cool, refreshing and sweet!

Hida Takayama & Hida Furukawa

Heading back to the starting point with more gorgeous scenery.

The entire trip took us about an hour, but it sure didn’t feel like it!

Kanazawa, Japan

This ‘tunnel’ cookie was almost too cute to eat.

Almost.

Due to Japan’s changing seasons, RMTB Gattan-Go! only operates from April to September from 9AM – 4.30PM (8 slots per day) and October to November from 9AM-3.30PM (7 slots per day).

Price is at 1000 yen per pax.

RAILROAD MOUNTAIN BIKE GATTAN GO 

〒506-1147
Azumo, Kamioka-cho, Hida City

Getting There 

The attraction is accessible via buses and taxi from JR Takayama Station or Okuhida Hot Spring Villages (55-60mins).

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Things To Do in Kanazawa, Japan: Gold-Leaf Art

Gold leaf, which is gold hammered down to an extremely thin sheet (sometimes 1/10,000 of a millimetre!) has been used in decorative art for centuries. The process of layering it over a surface is called gilding. One might find examples of these in European art, on statues, mirrors, small objects and jewellery, or as part of a building’s architecture on ceilings and window frames.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

While there is no definite account of when gold leaf first made its appearance in Japan, some say that it came from China together with the influence of Buddhism. In the 16th century, the Maeda clan (who ruled what is now Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures) attempted to turn Kanazawa into a renowned center for gold leaf art – but the Shogunate, in an effort to curb the influence of powerful daimyo families, restricted gold beating to only Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. The art was only revived in the 19th century, and has since flourished into a major industry. Kanazawa now accounts for 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production, and visitors will find numerous craft centres and shops selling items such as gold leaf lacquer boxes, cosmetic masks and even gold leaf ice cream!

Our guide had arranged for a gold leaf art class for us in the city’s artisan district. Unfortunately I forgot the name of the shop, but since its a popular activity here I’m sure there are many places where you can give it a go.

The front of the shop had numerous gold leaf products on display, including cosmetics like masks and creams. Not sure if they have any beneficial properties, but it sure feels luxurious!

At the back of the store were two partitioned ‘classrooms’, where materials had been laid out for our small party of three. These included delicate tweezers, forceps, glue, paper cut outs, glitter and more.

Our (pretty) sensei for the day. Communication was a bit difficult since she didn’t speak English, but we made do with hand signs and gestures lol.

We were each given a lacquered plaque. I picked out three animal shapes for my ‘design’. The first step was to gently lay the thin gold sheet onto the cut out. Easier said than done. I’ve never had the most patience or a steady hand, so I ruined two sheets (!!) before getting it right.

Pressing the cut-out designs onto the plaque. The swifter you pull it off, the more likely it’s going to turn out nice. Definitely requires a lot of dexterity !

Before cleaning off the extras around the sides. I thought of picking an earth-sea-air thingy hence the three animals. Also added some colourful glitter to give it some pop.

Another class in session.

It was really fun trying our hand out at gold leaf art, and I find it more meaningful to make my own rather than simply buying a souvenir off the shelf. If you’re ever in Kanazawa and have the time to spare, consider joining a class in the city’s artisan district. There is also a Gold Museum nearby. 🙂

 

Kanazawa Attractions: Fresh Seafood at Omi-Cho Market

Markets are one of the best places to experience the local way of life, and Omicho in Kanazawa is no exception. The bustling, colourful hub is the largest in the city and its oldest, dating back to the Edo era. Its modern form may be a far cry from how it originally looked like – but as you stroll through its neat layout, it’s not difficult to imagine traders in traditional costumes hawking their produce and wares to prospective buyers. Today, there are about 200 stalls selling everything from fruits to vegetables, kitchenware, clothing and more. Of course, being by the sea, Kanazawa is renowned for its fresh seafood, found at every corner of the market.

 

One of the entrances to Omicho.

Like everywhere else in Japan, the market is exceedingly clean. Spacious walkways are flanked by stalls, with goods laid out in an inviting display. The place is busiest in the mornings, but there was a fair number of visitors as well during our visit in the afternoon.

Every colour looked exceedingly vivid. Displays are made to look as attractive as possible – no rotting or less-than-satisfactory fruits/veges would have made the cut. This is quite a contrast with some wet markets in Southeast Asia (or maybe just in Malaysia lol)  where you’d find a bunch of wilted greens piled unceremoniously in a dirty-looking wicker basket in a corner.

The seafood selection is nothing short of impressive. Fancy some hairy crabs for 13000 yen (RM480)?

Why wait til you’re home to savour the seafood? Have it on the spot, like this group of youths who picked out their favourites and chowed down with some soy sauce and condiments. Can’t get fresher than that!

A worker shucking some giant oysters.

 Assorted shellfish and squid.

There are several restaurants within the vicinity. To attract customers, they sometimes put their ‘catch of the day’ on display, like this one which had a giant tuna head on ice.

One of these days I’d love to witness the auction process at the Tokyo market.

  Had a nice unagi on skewer fresh off the grill!

GETTING THERE

Take a bus from stops 6,7,8 or 9 at Kanazawa Station East Gate Bus Terminal and alight at Musashigatsuji. Alternatively, the Kanazawa Loop Bus (Left Loop) also takes you there, alighting at stop 7. Tickets are 200 yen for single fare.

Opening hours: 8AM – 6PM (shop hours may vary)

Closed (varies from shop to shop), but usually Wednesdays and Sundays, as well as public holidays.