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Japan General


Our next journey was to Gunma Prefecture to Haruna, the home of Mariko’s mother, and a town that no longer exists (or at least the name no longer exists).

The town of Haruna (
榛名) derived its name from the nearby Mount Haruna, which, incidentally, is the fictional Akina mountain in the manga and anime series “Initial D”. The town merged with the city of Takasaki in 2006, and the town’s name vanished. It was all a bit sad for the residents, but such is progress I suppose. I think most of the “old-timers” still refer to the area unofficially as Haruna. The name itself survives in the mountain, and in Lake Haruna, a beautiful lake at the foot of Mount Haruna. It was also the name of a major 37,000t battleship in WW1 that was sunk at the end of WW2, and an MSDF destroyer that was decommissioned in 2009.

Location of Takasaki

This map is taken from here and I’ve added the location of Takasaki, which is about the “e” in Maebashi, the capital of Gunma.

The area is primarily dry farmland, and is famous for its nashi pears and peaches. I can vouch for this because we’ve been there when they are in season, and the flavour is unbelievable. Freshly picked fruit (i.e. fruit picked that morning) is available at stalls on the sides of the main and back streets, and the fragrance alone is mouth-wateringly irresistible. Unfortunately, now is not their season.

The area tends to be hilly, and wherever you look, there are mountains, either in the background, or closer by. This photo was taken about 5 mins walk from Mariko’s mother’s home. Near the row of trees you can just make out one of the ubiquitous small cemeteries in farming areas. These dot farming districts, and each tomb contains the remains of generations of farming families who worked or are working that area.

Dry field farming in Haruna

And there are very old jizō (Ojizō-sama) statues everywhere.

Jizo statues

The general area is only about 100km from the centre of Tokyo, and quite a few years ago when money was more available than today, the local government was hoping to promote Haruna and the broader surrounding area as a possible commuting area for workers in Tokyo looking for some relief from the daily congestion. An attractive station was built about 10mins by car from here (Annaka-Haruna Station) for the Nagano Shinkansen Line, but the necessary residential infrastructure and facilities were not developed properly, and now the station is used little (apparently in 2010 it served an average of about 250 passengers daily).

Unfortunately it’s a Catch 22 situation: without the residential infrastructure, people are not going to move here, but unless people move here, building the necessary infrastructure can be very risky resulting in a lot of expensive white elephants.

Shinkansen heading into a tunnel

Here the Shinkansen enters one of the tunnels near Annaka-Haruna Station. The autumn colours of the trees in this area are breathtaking.

Azaleas were in full bloom while we were there, providing a colourful blanket to the hedges at the front of people’s homes.


There was also a glorious mix of other colours just sitting on the sides of the roads.


The garden at Mariko’s mother’s home was also alive with springtime birds and insects. The red leaves of the momiji (maple) were especially attractive.


The shaped trees of Japanese gardens are indeed beautiful, but they demand a great deal of care and maintenance, especially the matsu trees.

One of the special products for which Gunma Prefecture is well known is the
yaki-manju. These are soft and fluffy “cakes” roasted over a charcoal flame while being basted with delicious sweet miso sauce. Every Saturday and Sunday a manjuya-san sets up a stall at the front of the supermarket in the shopping centre about 10 mins walk from Mariko’s mother’s home, and whenever we head back to Haruna, he makes a huge profit from us. He’s very generous with his coating of sauce, and his yaki-manju are by far the best I’ve ever tried.

The best yaki-manju

Gunma is one of the eight (I think) “umi-nashi ken” (landlocked prefectures), so while the fish-based foods available generally can’t compare with the range of fish we had in Toyama while I was at the College, the flavour and the goodness of the fruit and vegetables are second to none. A wonderfully scenic prefecture close to Tokyo that is well worth a visit if you want something perhaps a little different from the more well-known touristy areas.

The website by the Gunma Tourism Bureau
here gives a much better description of Mariko’s home prefecture and my second home than I could ever hope to do.



A few days later we headed off to have a look at Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. A few months back we translated a series of magazine articles that include the Rainbow Bridge—one of the bridges connecting the island with Tokyo proper—and we wanted to walk across it.

A few stations from Daughter’s apartment on the Ginza line and we got off at Ginza. A short walk from the station was the recently renovated Kabuki-za Theatre—the “home” of kabuki in Japan. It reopened in early April after three years’ renovation work and the addition of a 29-storey office building attached at the back. It was the fifth renovation of the theatre since it was originally built in 1889.

Newly renovated Kabuki-za Theatre

From here we started on our long trek to Odaiba. Through the outer market area of the Tsukiji Fish Market where we tried a few delicacies, we headed southeast toward the “islands”. The overall Odaiba area itself is a series of artificial islands divided by canals and linked by bridges. The original idea of man-made islands in Tokyo Bay dates back to the 1850s when a number of island fortresses were built to protect against attack from the sea, especially with the arrival of the Black Ships under Commodore Perry. That obviously worked well.

After a few kilometres and a couple of bridges, Odaiba started to take shape. There’s an enormous amount of construction going on, mainly office and high-rise apartment buildings and some fairly impressive sporting facilities; it seems that this could be one of the facilities areas the Tokyo government is looking at with its bid for the 2020 Olympic Games. Japan may still be struggling to break free completely from the lingering recession, but there’s still a massive amount of capital investment money around. The bridge in the photo is still under construction, and the round thing in the background is a huge Ferris wheel.


We kept strolling around the area and came across probably one of the last things you would expect to find in Tokyo—a sandy beach.

Sandy beach on Odaiba

It wasn’t at the same standard as our beaches on the Gold Coast, but it was still clean, white and fine sand, and very pleasant to walk on. Swimming isn’t allowed, possibly because of the dangerous rips in the bay, but earlier on there were plenty of parents with small children building their sand castles and chasing each other across the sand. I don’t know, but this could be a likely place for beach volleyball if the bid is successful. The bridge in the background is the Rainbow Bridge.

After the beach, we found our way to the start of the Rainbow Bridge. There’s a promenade on both sides of the bridge, and the one you take depends on whether you want to see the Tokyo skyline or Odaiba. We opted for the Tokyo skyline side.

Rainbow Bridge

The bridge itself is a suspension bridge and extends for almost 800 metres. The bridge design had to satisfy two criteria—the span had to wide enough to allow large vessels entry to the harbour (it is 570 metres), and the pillars had to be below a certain height (150 metres I think) so as not to interfere with flights into Haneda Airport (the pillars rise 126 metres above the water).

The bridge carries two layers of traffic—the top deck is the expressway, and the bottom deck comprises a prefectural road, a rapid transit (rail) line, and the two walkways. We didn’t stay to see the bridge light up, but from the photos I’ve seen, it’s quite spectacular.

Two features we wanted to see from the bridge were Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Skytree is a broadcasting tower and was completed in early 2012. Its height of 634 metres makes it the highest tower in the world. There are also a couple of observation decks and a restaurant. Unfortunately the high cost to get to the observation decks will keep us away. The tower can be seen in the distance in the following photo.

Tokyo Skytree

It’s all the craze at the moment, and everyone’s taking advantage of the booming interest. This is a photo from the bridge of one of the many Tokyo Bay ferries with the Skytree image.

Tokyo Bay ferry with Skytree image

With Tokyo’s shift to digital broadcasting, Tokyo Tower (completed in 1958) at “only” 333 metres wasn’t tall enough to give full coverage for the region.

Tokyo Tower

Therefore, work on the Skytree began, and in 2010 it knocked Tokyo Tower off its perch as Japan’s tallest man-made structure. So after countless unsuccessful attacks by Godzilla and its various opponents, Tokyo Tower’s reign came to a close.

From here, and after a long hike of around 12 km, we finally dragged our weary selves back to Daughter’s apartment, and crashed. We slept well that night.


Tora-san and Shibamata

Wife and I headed out to Shibamata, Katsushika, a ward on the northeastern corner of Tokyo. Shibamata is a charming town on the banks of the Edogawa River, and still retains some of the character of the Edo Period, before Japan was dragged into the modern era in the late 1800s.

The town is perhaps best known as the home of Tora-san, the main character of the
Otoko wa Tsurai yo series, which continued for 48 movies from 1969 to 1995, and one special that was a tribute to the actor who played Tora-san—Kiyoshi Atsumi, who died in 1996. Tora-san is a kind-hearted peddler who every so often returns to his hometown of Shibamata, and his elderly and long-suffering uncle and aunt, who run a dango (Japanese dumpling) shop, and half-sister and her husband. After an initial introduction setting the scene, his return tends to mark the beginning of the movie and his adventure (and his troubles).

Statue of Tora-san

Tora-san has his own statue at the front of the Shibamata Station. There is also a Tora-san museum with every detail about the character’s life story you could ever want to know.

The town is well known for its
dango, and there was no shortage of shops selling them. This one (Toraya) was actually used for the first four Tora-san movies. We tried the dango there, and 10/10.


From here we had a walk through the Yamamoto-tei (Yamamoto Residence), a single-story house built in the late 1920s in the
sukiya-zukuri (teahouse) style, although it does incorporate aspects of a Western architectural style as well. It was the home of a businessman from the area, and was opened to the public in the 1990s. The house interior opens out on to a beautiful garden that forms a natural extension to the tatami rooms and passageways.

Yamamoto Residence garden

There are also some interesting shoji and tategu. This is one of the several small alcoves in the house.

Shoji with shokkō pattern

ranma is a beautiful carving of pine trees, and the shoji is a tate-shige kumiko arrangement with one of the many different shokkō patterns as a base. Most of the shokkō patterns require the jaguchi joint for the locking pieces, and I’ll be covering the jaguchi (and the special jig you need to cut it) and many of the shokkō patterns in Volume 3 of my ebook on kumiko patterns.

From there we had a relaxing walk along the banks of the Edogawa River, which is a scene that also appears regularly in the
Otoko wa Tsurai yo movies. As a Tora-san fan, I had a great time.

Interesting sign

Wife and I are currently in Tokyo visiting Daughter, and near her apartment is this wonderful sign. It’s obviously been done by a translation machine without too much human intervention.

I’m sure many of the things I’ve written to friends in Japanese have been the source of great mirth to them, so I can hardly be pointing the finger too much, but I thought this sign was special.


In case you were wondering, it’s a sign indicating a bicycle parking area for people using this particular facility (a public library), but the English version would require a fair bit of guesswork if the bicycle line drawing on the right wasn’t there.

In it, the last three characters (
駐輪場 chū-rin-jō) in that compound mean a bicycle parking area, but individually they mean “stop”, “wheel” and “place” — hence the English in the sign.