21 September, 1997
Dear Mum and Mary,
Well where to begin - the flight from Toronto to Japan was wonderful because it was completely clear over Canada and Alaska and I had a brilliant view of southern Yukon and the most amazing view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) the highest mountain in North America and all the glaciers flowing away from it. I felt I could touch the mountain - a rare experience. Plus, I was travelling in business class and it was quite luxurious. Narita airport is quite straight-forward so it was easy to find the bus to my hotel at the airport. The hotel room was very compact, but you get used to that in Japan, with the tiniest, most efficient bathroom. This one had a combined toilet and bidet. The next one I stayed in had the shower working of the taps for the basin. Dr. Nobuhiro (Nobu) Kaneko, my host, picked me up the next morning to bring me to Matsue, where he is at the University. He’s about 40, a sharp, dynamic soil ecologist. I always thought that our first encounter was when he was on a Post-Doc in Canada and came to visit me for a day with his wife, Mizuzu, in Ottawa. In fact he tells me that I had corrected his English for a paper much earlier - I had forgotten. He’s wonderfully opinionated for a Japanese, a joy to work with. There was a typhoon affecting weather and we were lucky to get the last flight from Tokyo to Matsue.
After getting myself sorted out at the hotel in Matsue, where his wife Mizuzu and son (2) came to meet me and Nobu, I asked to go to the lab. to meet his students (4) and some of his colleagues. But the typhoon hit, so he left me back at the hotel and rushed off to take care of his house. They have had 4 typhoons this September which is very unusual. The weather was lousy the following day and so we and his students discussed as much as I could with their very poor English.
Thursday we went collecting at Nobu’s ecological sites which are about 1.5 hours from Matsue in beautiful forest where there are bears - so hard to believe in Japan. On the way we picked up lunch - sushi and juice for me. Its amazing the range of ready-made food in supermarkets, both small and large. So let me describe the region. Matsue is on 2 brackish lakes that open to the Sea of Japan. The lakes are large and they raise shellfish in them and fishing in general is excellent. The population is about 140,000. This is one of the most unpopulated regions of Japan and there are vistas in the mountains where you see no houses and are in real wilderness. Japan is 70% forest, mostly on hillsides and mountains. Any flat land is for houses, rice paddies etc. and it is amazing how small fields can be - some smaller than the kitchen at home. Mt. Daisen is an old volcano close to Matsue and because volcanic soils are poor they grow buckwheat in this region and a local speciality are buckwheat noodles.
The area is very diverse; they have snow for 2 months in winter and so have skiing, they have beautiful coniferous forests (most of the species planted in gardens in Ireland and England are from Japan or China), beautiful deciduous forest and also evergreen deciduous forests. They get enough rain to be considered rainforest. So we had interesting collecting. I was introducing methods for collecting arboreal mites to Nobu, so we had a lot of fun. That day I was moving from an hotel with English and Japanese breakfast to one that had only Japanese breakfast. I find this breakfast: mizo soup, noodles, dried fish, seaweed, bean cake and veggies and green tea very filling and salty. In any case I solved the problem - I found one of Matsue’s most excellent coffee shops, which opens about 7AM and is on my walk to the University. They serve glorious western style sandwiches also - wonderful. The evening of our collecting there were few people in the restaurant at the hotel and I couldn’t see what they were eating - and the only thing I recognized on the menu were the prices - so I shut my eyes and pointed - it was good!
Friday we went collecting with 2 of Nobu’s students to a local park which is beautiful evergreen forest. Nobu says Japanese are wary of forests because of mosquitoes, poisonous snakes etc. and so it was a joy. there was no one around even though it was a city park. The road into the park though was lined with cars - salesmen taking an afternoon snooze before continuing their job. The students suggested that we all go for supper later which was quite charming of them as only one speaks good English; he’s from the Philippines.
Saturday we worked for a bit and then Nobu, Mizuzu, their son, Yoshiki, and Nobu’s mother brought me on the tour to the beach and then to Mt. Daisen National Park, described as follows: “Mt. Daisen is a volcanic mountain located in Tottori Prefecture, Sanin Region of Japan. It is the highest in the Chugoku region with an elevation of 1,709 meters. In addition to the colorful changes of four seasons, Mt. Daisen changes its shape vastly depending on which side of the mountain the viewer is standing on. It is designated a national park of Japan for its magnificent landscape. Mt. Daisen also has been chosen as the third greatest summits in Japan behind Mt. Fuji and Mt. Yari (Yarigatake) at "The Japanese Greatest Summits Ranking" held by NHK, Japan's National Public Broadcasting organization. The number of climbers in August 2010 was 11,900. Daisen has been regarded as a god itself since the ancient Jomon and Yayoi eras, and one of the most important mountain for Japanese Shugendo. Climbing the mountain used to be severely prohibited until the Edo period. As a result, Mt. Daisen boasts the largest beech forest in western Japan. There is a Buddist temple Daisenji in the middle of the mountain. Just above the temple is Ogamiyama Jinja (the shrine of the mountain of the great god).”
The scenery was amazing. Nobu and Mizuzu (an ex. nurse) are very environmentally conscious and Nobu was filling me in on the local green scene and politics. We stopped at a beautiful place for lunch made from local wood, which is a lovely rich yellow colour. Mizuzu and Nobu spent 10 months in western Canada on his Post Doc and though she has lost much of her English, she is a joy, devilish and warm, and unlike Japanese in general, she hugs. I went collecting in a glorious beech forest on Mt. Daisen which gave me a much needed hike after lunch. Later we went for a wonderfull supper at my invitation.There were about 10 dishes, each with a slightly different cuisine and containing 5 pieces representing that cuisine - quite amazing. We were served food that even the Kanekos did not recognize.
Today, Sunday, I had to myself. I had to change the soil extractors which took about 2 hours and then I was off exploring Matsue. I started with coffee and pastry at a beautiful French cafe and then walked the city and toured Matsue Castle, samurai houses, ancient cemeteries of the local rulers etc. As the guidebook says: “Matsue (松江) is the capital city of Shimane Prefecture, attractively located at the eastern shores of Lake Shinji (Shinjiko). Due to its location between Lake Shinji, Nakaumi (another lake) and the Sea of Japan, Matsue is also known as the "water city”. Matsue's attractions include its original castle and the former residence of Lafcadio Hearn. The city is also a good base to visit nearby Izumo Taisha, one of Japan's most important shrines and the Adachi Museum of Art with one of Japan's most beautiful landscape gardens.” Matsue, along with Kyoto and Nara were untouched by WWII and so the three are internationally recognized as world treasures. Matsue, being so far from Tokyo is mainly known to the Japanese. But there’s an Irish connection and Mary Robinson was here a couple of years ago. Also, Lafcadio Hearn (Greek mother, Irish father, who was partly raised by his aunt in Ardmore) moved here, and more than anyone it seems, introduced Japan to the West. I had a lovely day and even helped some school kids on their English assignment!
27 September 1997
Well I gave my first of three presentations today and it went really well - and my host in Japan, Dr. Nobuhiro Kaneko was clearly pleased. I presented at Kyoto University which is the major university in Japan for Ecology and Nobu’s alma-mater. So me doing well reflects positively on him, which is very important in Japan.
Nobu appreciates that I will try any kind of food and of course that I can use chop-sticks. I’m afraid the place I fail is sitting cross-legged throughout a meal. This evening we went (4 men and myself) to a wonderful meal of tofu and tempura in a restaurant at the edge of Kyoto. Kyoto has many Buddhist temples and the monks do not eat meat, so there are many tofu restaurants., for which Kyoto is famous. You take off your shoes at the entrance and walk on tatami mats to your table. There are thin cushions on the mats and you are meant to sit cross-legged on these. All the guys do, even the 60+ year old Professor Aoki, but I stretched my legs out under the table. The food as usual was superb.
So to recap, last Sunday I had a glorious day to myself in Matsue. On Monday I worked as usual and Tuesday was the Autumn equinox Holiday. Nobu and I worked in the morning and in the afternoon he brought me to Izumo Shinto shrine, about 1 hour from Matsue. Its wonderful driving the countryside - it’s rice harvest time and the rice combines are the size of a sit-on lawn mower. Japanese are very choosy about their rice - the early harvest rice tastes best, just as we think new potatoes taste best. Although the rice variety they like is grown in other countries, local growing is cherished. They grow grapes in this area so we stopped at a local winery - great fun, crowded with Japanese tasting the free wine samples. There was loads of local produce for sale, clams, eels and mushrooms, done every which way. All three I like, which is good cause the area is famous for them. By the way, until I reached Kyoto I saw no non-Japanese for 10 days! Of course I can’t read or understand the weather or the news and the only English on the TV is dubbed John Wayne movies!
This Shinto shrine is amazing; it is the oldest in Japan and thus with great status and power. It is the only 4-clap shrine in Japan. When you approach a Shinto shrine you rinse your mouth and wash your hands at a small fountain. Then you donate and clap your hands to get the Gods attention. All other shrines are 2-clap shrines. Also in the Shinto religion all the gods from all the shrines get together for a month (November). This is called the “month without gods” in all areas of Japan except the Matsue area where November is the “month with Gods”. Of course, areas without Gods are meant to be prone to bad luck. All hotels in Matsue are full in November with people celebrating the Gods being in one place. Of course, I bought my tarot and when Nobu had explained it to me, tied it to a tree along with thousands of others. There was a Shinto ceremony going on for a family and I watched that. Although Japanese are not religious they will have a Shinto ceremony for a new house, new car, etc.
That evening I was invited for supper to Nobu’s house - a great honor in Japan. so I got to see how a modern Japanese house is built. Even though 70% of Japan is forested, nobody has a fireplace or stove. Nobu tried to have a fireplace, but the builder refused. In the 1950s the country changed from charcoal to oil and gas for heating and its only in old Inns that you find a fireplace - weird for those of us living in Canada. We had a gorgeous meal of sushi - the most expensive meal in Japan, with about 10 different types of seafood. Of course vegetable soup, also followed by miso soup and fruit and cheese. I was going back to the hotel by taxi so we were able to drink.
Wednesday, we took the train from Matsue to Kyoto, met Nobu’s Professor there and then left by rented car to the Kyoto University Forest. This is a magnificent forest of about 4000 ha. close to Kyoto and in the highlands of Japan. That night I stayed in my first Ryokan, or Japanese Inn. Again, you take your shoes off at the door and use a pair of slippers supplied by the Inn. There is no bathroom attached to the bedroom, rather a communal female bathroom along the hall. And of course there is a communal bath with men separated from women. In these you wash yourself well first and then go into the hot tub. I couldn’t read the Japanese male and female signs, and so ended up in the male hot-tub area, but as a Westerner that doesn’t count. The meal was an amazing Japanese/western mix that had been ordered ahead by the Prof. I had the best beef ever, it was way too much for me, but it would have been the height of rudeness not to eat all. Padding to the toilet during the night is amusing - you avoid eye-contact and of course have to change to bathroom-only slippers while in the bathroom. All toilets are the floor-style. You only find western toilets in hotels and as the handicap toilet in Kyoto Station and Kyoto University.
I had my first Japanese breakfast next morning. I have opted for a cup of coffee in most places where it is possible, but this is Miyama - rural Japan, and so breakfast is: miso soup, rice, dried fish, assorted vegetables, hard-boiled egg seaweed and green tea. The Miyama is described in guides as “Miyama (美山) is a remote, rural area in the mountains 30 kilometers north of central Kyoto. The area is famous for its traditional, thatched roof (kayabuki) farmhouses of which over 200 can be seen dotting the countryside. Unlike those found in many other historic towns and districts around the country, the majority of Miyama's old houses survive as residential dwellings where people still live and work. This in turn lends a very nostalgic atmosphere to the area, and gives visitors a chance to experience the traditional, authentic feel of rural Japan.”
We spent most of the day collecting microarthropods in the forest - walking trails and scrambling up and down banks. Then we returned to Kyoto via a marvelous wood museum in the area of Japan that produces the best wood. A single log can cost 10 million yen (about 100,000 sterling). This log would be the centerpiece of a Japanese home and everything would be built around it. It is extraordinary how they shape logs and polish them to total smoothness. This museum was one of the most fascinating places in Japan.
5 October 1997
Guy and I have just arrived in Kyoto and we are staying at this gorgeous hotel - The Miyako. We have an upgraded room with a beautiful view of the city. When I wrote last I was in this amazing golf resort in the mountains around Kiso Fukushima in the Central Japanese Alps; as the Guide book says “Kiso-Fukushima is a delightful town in Nagano Prefecture on the railway line between Nagoya and Matsumoto in central Japan. It is located on the historic Edo Period Nakasendo highway between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) and is north of the other post-towns on the Kiso-kaido section of the Nakasendo: Ena, Nakatsugawa, Magome & Tsumago, and south of the equally attractive, though much smaller Narai. Kiso-Fukushima was an important check-point on the Nakasendo and its historic sekisho or barrier station is one of only two on the route. Kiso-Fukushima is located about directly half-way on the Nakasendo from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. This area is close to Nagano where the winter Olympics will be held. I had a beautiful room with an amazing view in the morning to Mt. Ontake, an active volcano in this region. Its Japan’s 14th highest mountain and is revered. The peak is at 10,000 ft and was touched with snow. I walked down to the golf club before breakfast - the course has automatic walkways over difficult terrain. I triggered one of them by standing close to it, so of course got on. I had an English style breakfast (lighter for me than the Japanese breakfast).
Dr. Masamichi Ito joined us to go to his site in the sub-alpine zone of the Central Japanese Alps. On the way we stopped at the extremely famous wood craft place, where the Olympic medals are being made, see marumata-Japan.com. There was a display of these showing all 25 stages from the wood core, all the lacquering and painting, to the finished medal which has a solid border of gold, silver or bronze - beautiful, very different and the craft is fabulously expensive. Then we went to the subalpine site of fir and hemlock and I showed Dr. Ito how to sample habitats he had not tried before. Of course, most Japanese mite people though I was a male from my publications. Then their reaction is that as a female they cannot learn from me - they all do learn! The exceptional aspect of my host - Dr. Nobu Kaneko - is that he knows we can all learn from each other.
That evening we stayed in an amazing place - an Inn in the mountains started following WWII by an American clergyman. It has its own farm (beef, chicken etc.) and was developed to show Japanese living in alpine areas how to farm as in central Europe. All food is organic and excellent. The Inn looks like an Inn in the Rockies - the rooms are large and both of ours had a view of Mt. Fuji (a total luxury, Japanese wise). My room had an attached room with a working fireplace (even a bigger luxury than the view of Mt. Fuji), so I invited Ito and Kaneko back to my room after dinner for drinks in front of the fire which they started - a very rare treat for them. So Tuesday morning I woke and did my stretches with a view on Mt. Fuji.
That morning they brought me to some other good collecting habitats and we went for lunch to a famous restaurant in the area, owned by a Japanese actor. It was absolutely packed at lunchtime, the souvenir shop was doing a roaring trade. I had the local specialty - fruit tea made from 7 different fresh fruits and pasta - just lovely. Then Nobu and I took the train for Nagoya and on to Yokohama, where the most famous centre of Acarology in Japan is at the University. Nobu is moving here in April and was using this trip to look for possible accommodation. He has a beautiful home in Matsue, a city of 140,000 and is moving to Tokyo-Yokohama with 15-20 million people and where finding decent accommodation is very tough.
Wednesday morning we went to visit Professor Aoki, the doyon of Acarology in Japan at Yokohama National University. He is a gentle charismatic man. We had already mailed him samples which he was extracting, and again I was able to add species to their list for Japan. That evening he and his wife, a beautiful looking woman, my age, but looking much younger in that peerless Japanese fashion, brought us for supper to an amazing fish restaurant. Aoki is a gourmet and the meal brought out all aspects of what Japanese like in a meal: look, colour, taste, texture, feel, sound and smell. Because its Autumn, the colours of the food must be Autumn colours. I ate things I’ll probably never eat again: top shell (conch with hard eyes) for texture, jellyfish for feel, pine mushrooms for smell etc. Believe me the top shell is forgettable but I enjoyed the jellyfish. My one dislike is rice cake - rice that is beaten until the protein is released which has the consistency and taste of tightly woven sponge. Its very gluey and when I swallowed it I was warned to drink lots of beer to wash it down. Its a very popular New Year’s treat but about 6 die annually because it gets caught in their esophagus!
Thursday afternoon I gave a talk to most of Professor Aoki’s students, both past and present. Afterwards he had a party for us in the Faculty Lounge. I was bombarded with questions and of course was the lone female.
I picked Guy up at Narita airport on Friday, and was so looking forward to seeing him. This trip has been amazing but exhausting because I need to speak very clearly and very slowly to all - those elocution lessons are paying off, and I get complements for speaking so clearly. We were going from the airport to the Acarological Society of Japan Meetings at the Edoya Ryokan in Tsukuba, where I was the guest speaker. Fabulous to see Guy who endured the 15 hour flight, then 2 hours by bus to the base of Tsukuba Mountain, then a taxi ride to the Ryokan and then dinner with 100+ mite people sitting cross-legged on tatami mats, with equanimity - everyone happy to meet him. We had a complete tatami mat bedroom, i.e., during the day the room is converted to a sitting room with chairs without legs on the mats and low tables. In the evening the furniture is pushed back and the maids lay out the sleeping pads and duvets. Ryokans are famous for their hot baths and food. When I went down for breakfast most were still in their kimonos after their morning hot bath. Most talks given were in Japanese, so we took the morning to climb Mt. Tsukuba, described as “One of the 100 famous mountains in Japan, Mt. Tsukuba rises 877 meters above sea level (about 2900 feet). It is especially known for its double peaks, Nyotai (877 meters) and Nantai (871 meters). Some call it the purple mountain as unlike most mountains in Japan, which are composed of lava, Mt. Tsukuba is made of granite and gabbro, which is the same as basalt and formed from magma.” Up and down took us 2 hours and we were ready for lunch when we returned. Most acarologists thought we had taken the funicular to the top! I gave my talk later in the afternoon, but Guy was already asleep!
What an amazing trip.