Thursday, September 24, 2009

Featured on Lonely Planet today

LP is featuring my blog post about cat cafes on their homepage today.
Here's a screenshot to prove it.

LP screen shot

I'd say, not bad for someone who bitches and moans about LP all the time.

Japanese Cemeteries

During certain times of the year (beginning of spring, Obon in August, beginning of fall) every self-respecting Japanese makes a trip to a cemetery to pay respects to his/her ancestors.

Cemetery 2

Now, I’m not a fan of cemeteries. I can think of a bazillion other, more important things that can occupy my time instead of cleaning graves, shearing bushes and pulling weeds. Like staying home and watching TV, for example.

But familial duties are familial duties, and since my family is mostly Japanese these days, I didn’t have much choice this morning. Armed with a set of shears and a camera, I joined my in-laws in the annual fall cemetery pilgrimage.

Bucketsbuckets to carry water to the graves

The first stop was a shinto-style cemetery to visit one grandfather. The next stop was a buddhist cemetery to visit the other grandpa. Though for the life of me, I can’t tell the difference between the shinto and the buddhist places. At both sites joss sticks were burned and prayers were said (although only at the shinto cemetery hands were clapped – twice). Fresh flowers were arranged, bushes were trimmed and both graves were tidied up and made to look pretty. I was told not to shear the overgrown mess at an adjacent grave, because the spirit would attach its ghostly self to me, come home with us and then haunt me.

Coffeewhere even the dead drink coffee (I'm sure they'd prefer beer, but we didn't have any)

I thought that perhaps if I pacified the dead neighbor with a snack and a drink I’d be left alone.
The buddhist cemetery was a huge place with a multitude of sectors and levels. And even an occasional christian cross. That’s religious tolerance for you.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

SL Trains on the Moka Line

Yeah, trains… Everybody loves them, at least as long as they’re on time, right? And when it comes to trains, Japan must be a train lover’s wet dream. Or pretty close to it. We have everything here, slow local ones, super-fast bullet trains, formerly national, private, electric, diesel and everything in between. And yes, even old-fashioned steam choo-choo trains.

Train driver 2

I’m not a train freak, I just occasionally ride them when I can’t get to where I’m going by car. But riding a train for fun and pleasure was a totally foreign concept to me. Until I met the SL in Moka. The steam locomotive (that’s what that “SL” stands for) belonging to the Moka Railway Company is what you might call a train celebrity in the area.

The Moka Railway Company itself has a long and convoluted history. It started in 1912 as a narrow gauge track between Shimodate and Moka, which was extended all the way to Motegi in 1920. The line went diesel in 1954 and its steam locomotives were relegated to freight transport, and then put into storage.

Moka railway

A regular Moka line train passing the SL in Motegi.

In 1984 the Moka line was closed. But it didn’t stay closed for long. In 1988 some brilliant head decided to reopen it and that’s how the Moka Railway Corp. became reborn. Then in the early 90s an even more brilliant head said, “Yo, why don’t we drag those two steam engines from storage and put them to work on the tourist circuit between Shimodate, Moka, Mashiko and Motegi?”  And as he said, that’s what they did.

The SLs were lovingly restored, shined till they gleamed, the carriages were refitted to conform to the modern safety regulations and standards and the set was put to work in 1994.

And then the head of heads, the most brilliant of them all said, “Why don’t we just go all out and build ourselves a funky train station shaped like a steam locomotive?” And the good people of Moka thought it was a splendid idea (and that’s why I love Moka, Mokans are not like your average Japanese, they have gumption) and backed the project. The new station was opened in March 1997 and quickly became a popular tourist attraction in the area.

Moka station building

But the number one attraction was, is and will be the SL train ride.

The Moka Railway Corp. currently owns two steam locomotive (SL) trains (C12 66 and C11 325) and one diesel train (DE10 1535, which despite looking like one is not a Deutsche zip code!). These two steam-ironmen-in-black are not only used on their own line (from Shimodate through Moka and Mashiko to Motegi) but are also being rented out to other third sectors (local lines) in Japan for special occasions.

Leaving moka

  • C12 66:

This Hitachi-made 50-tonne bloke was born in 1933, served his mission on mostly local lines, from Kagoshima (Kyushu) to Aomori (tip of the Japanese mainland) and retired in 1972. He was put into a retirement shed at Kawamata-cho, in Date (Fukushima prefecture). Later he was kicked out of the shed and stood outside in the rain and wind for a few years. But given the fact that he’d been a heavy smoker and an expert at spreading pollution, he was quickly forgotten. Until 1991. That was when the brilliant heads along the Moka line spotted him and cast him as the star of their area “show”. But first, the rusted C12 66 needed some serious “iron” surgery to bring back the handsome looks of his youth. The procedure was performed in Omiya city (Saitama prefecture) by incorporating tons of lost parts from his former iron colleagues.

C 12 66 sign

He debuted his new image in 1994 and became an instant sensation of the Moka line. Since then he’s been making one round trip from Shimodate to Motegi every Saturday and Sunday and on holidays. In 1999 he appeared in the NHK TV series “Suzuran”. Not bad for a 76 year old, wouldn’t you say?

  • C11 325

It could be the most popular and the last C11 version of SL trains in Japan. 381 brothers were made from 1932 to 1947. He belongs to the type IV that had 135 siblings born mostly during the WWII era (between 1943 and 1947). This 68-tonne fella was lucky enough to come to life in 1946 and thus avoided the war service and the B29 air strikes by the US Air Force. He served in Kanagawa prefecture until 1967 and then was moved to Yonezawa (Yamagata prefecture) where he stayed until his retirement in 1972. In May 1973 he migrated to Niigata and sat there doing whatever it is that retired steam engines do.

C 11 325

And here is when the story gets a bit convoluted.

You see, in 1995 the brilliant heads at the Moka Railway Corp started to look for an additional SL, but every town that already had one didn’t want to give it up. Suddenly steam locomotives became highly sought-after commodities. Enter Agano City in Niigata prefecture. Back in the olden days Agano City was known as Suibara and one of the most distinguished Suibarans was a dude by the name of Hanji Kumakura. That Hanji guy just happened to be a traveling sort and he passed by Moka one fine day about 200 years ago. “What a splendid town!” he exclaimed. “OK, let me settle down here for a while.” And so he built and lent his name to Kumakura-cho in Moka city.

Loading up with coal

Filling up with coal in Motegi

So when the city bosses in Agano heard that Moka was looking for an additional steam engine, they felt obligated to help that long-lost cousin of a town. And that’s how, thanks to Hanji Kamakura, in 1996 the C11 moved from Niigata to its present home in Moka.

Just like the C12 before him, he also needed a lot of iron work done. This time, Mokans decided to do it themselves and for more than a year (from March 1997 until October 1998) they were busy patching him up at the JR Moka depot.

And the rest is history. Now, the C11 is also being rented out to other municipalities for special occasions, and when the C12 needs a break, he steps in on the Moka line service.

  • Info about SL Moka line:

Ticket price: (from Moka to Motegi) for the SL train – 500 yen per person, one way.
Moka line surcharge (from Moka to Motegi) – 740 yen per person, one way.

Motegi tix

Schedule / Timetable:

Leaving Shimodate at 10:37AM, arriving at Motegi 12:02PM.
Along the way:
- leaving Moka at 11:12AM
- leaving Mashiko at 11:31AM

Leaving Motegi at 2:28PM, arriving at Shimodate 3:57PM.
Along the way:
-    Mashiko 3:03PM
-    Moka 3:29PM.

Turning around

In Motegi the locomotive rides up onto a round contraption, which rotates and turns the train around. All this happens while dorky music plays and small children clap their hands. Only fair maidens with ribbons in their hair are missing.

More photos from our SL train ride are here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Firest Staff

There are many joys of living in (or visiting) Japan - the food, the people, the technology, the culture, the convenience, the fashion, and the list goes on. And Engrish. Oh yes, Engrish.

Sometimes it can be downright embarrassing, as in "Have they ever heard of a spell-checker?":

Engrish la f

Sometimes, you're just not sure:

Hair saron

And sometimes, you simply have to scratch your head and go "WTF?":
Engrish again

But most of the time, it's really subtle. So subtle that if you've been here for a while, you don't even pay any attention anymore. It takes your freshly arrived friend to say, "Hmmm... I'm not sure I want to know what they do in there" for you to notice:

Man to man

And yeah, "Brain" IS a great name for an apartment complex. Why not?


And of course, no town is complete without its very own WonderGOO:

Wonder goo

Monday, September 14, 2009

Take Me With You!

This morning this little fella desperately wanted to hitch a ride with us, and actually, I was willing to take it with us to Moka. Unfortunately, the man wouldn't have any of it and so the frog was put back in a rice field where it belonged. Sorry frog! Maybe next time!

Take me with you

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Volunteering on a Budget - THE LIST

Since we’re in the midst of the worst recession in decades, I can only assume you are as pressed for cash as I am. So in order to help you out a bit with planning your volunteering vacation (and to prove to the high priced ijits that you can a fulfilling volunteer experience without spending thousands of dollars/euros/pounds) here’s a list of low cost volunteer providers.


Now, go out and do some good!