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Haruna

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.

Azalea

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

Flowers

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.

Garden

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.

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