Bark Park

by Momo the Wonder Dog

I got my first ride in K's new car on Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, it was a ride to the vet to have him look at my left ear which has gotten infected. I'm always scared when going there, but it wasn't so bad after all and I got medicine to make my ear get better.

I take the powdered medicine twice a day with my food. PandaB and K weren't sure how to give me the morning dose because I often just save my breakfast kibble for later in the day. Then PandaB thought of plain yogurt, which K usually has for breakfast. I like it! A lot.

It's no wonder then, that Wednesday morning when PandaB came to tell me that we were going for another ride in the car, I tried to hide in my doggy house. I thought they were taking me back to the vet.

Wednesday was a national holiday - Showa Day. It used to be Emperor Showa's Birthday (known to westerners as Emperor Hirohito), but then they changed it to "Greenery Day". Later they moved Greenery Day to May 4th and made April 29th "Showa Day". Humans are so confusing. Anyway, it was a holiday and Pandabonium and K were taking me to a park. Woof!

I was not impressed with the new car. I still rode as I always do - curled up at PandaB's feet. I don't like looking out the window, it makes me dizzy. The new car smells funny too. K says all new cars smell funny for a while. Snort! Wake me when we get there.

The car's navigation system got us there in just 20 minutes via a route that my humans hadn't thought of. It was kind of weird hearing a strange woman's voice from a speaker telling K when to turn the car. The park is called Suigo Prefectural Forest Park and my humans first found it a few weeks ago. You can read about that here: A Walk In The Woods

It has lots of paths, a lake, and more trees of more varieties than a dog could dream of. There are big grassy areas too. There were other doggies, men fishing on the shores of the lake, and some even in the lake. PandaB said the trees had a lot more leaves than they did just a few weeks back.

Chlidren were playing on the grass too, but it wasn't at all crowded.

We walked the whole length of the park and saw an ancient burial mound and rested a while on the grass. The next picture was taken right after I surprised K with big doggy kiss on her face! Tee hee.

Then we walked back a different way through the trees. It was warm and I was doing my best to stay in the shade. Time flew by and soon, it seemed, it was time to go home. After a morning of walking, I was ready for a rest.

Thanks K and Pandabonium. That was awesome. I hope we can go there again soon.


Cherry Blossom Insight

As mentioned previously, K's Toyota is 15 years (and two months) old and has lots of city-driving kilometers on it. We've known for quite a while now that it's useful life was nearly over, so we've been looking at a replacement. After researching and test driving cars for a year and a half, we finally put in an order for one in early March. Due to labor cut backs caused by the economic situation, it would take several weeks to produce. Last Sunday, we dropped off the venerable Toyota for recycling and picked up our new Honda Insight hybrid. At the time we ordered it there were about $1500 in government incentives involved, but then, in response to the economic slump they decided to offer an additional $2500 for people who scrapped a car 13 years or older for an efficient new model. Good timing.

The Insight is almost exactly the same width and length as K's 1994 Toyota Ceres, but a little added height, hatchback shape, and clever interior layout have created a much roomier car.

K had Monday off so we took it out to run some errands in Kamisu City, stopped for lunch at our favorite haunt (Wordsworth - I had pasta with urchin, scallops, and asparagus that was soooo good, but which will, no doubt, contribute to my expanding waistline), and then headed north to Naka City, north of Mito, our prefectural capital. The destination this day was Shizu Shrine (no Momo, it's Shizu, not Shih Tzu) and neighboring Shizumine Furusato Park which has some 370 cherry trees.

Together with Shizu Pond, which is across the road from the entrance to the shrine (and frankly isn't much to crow about), these sights are on the list of Ibaraki's 100 best. Sometime I'll have to check off the Ibaraki 100 sights we've visited. The day had started off pretty sunny, with just scattered clouds, but by the time we reached Naka City, it was mostly cloudy.

While the cherry blossoms of many trees in Japan are long gone, the trees at Shizumine Park, while past the peak, still had lots. Why? Because most of the trees there are yaezakura - a late blooming variety with multiple layered blossoms.

K parked in a lot across from the shrine. Happily, the parking lot was nearly empty. The Insight has a rear camera and when one selects reverse the view behind the car is shown on the navigation screen on the dashboard along with grid overlay lines to make backing into a parking space a snap. (Reminds me of the '2001: A Space Odyssey' shuttle docking sequence at the orbiting space station.)

The shrine's first sets of steps aren't at all daunting, but that view is deceptive. At the top, one is greeted by - of course - many, many more steps. (Pant, wheeze - man, I need more exercise.) As we climbed the steps, a hawk was calling from high above in the ancient cedars, perhaps laughing at me.

Shizu Shrine was once one of the three most important in Eastern Japan - the other two being Kashima Jingu and Katori Jingu - as the Mito clan which ruled the area were its patrons. The buildings were consumed by fire in 1841 and rebuilt.

Inside, one can see the large round mirror in the honden (main hall). Mirrors are a common object of worship in Shinto shrines. This one is on a partition of clear glass, allowing one to see much more of the interior space than visitors do at most other shrines.

The park next to the shrine is fairly new, with many water features, a large round stage, and playground in addition to paths among the cherry trees. Admission is free (though parking will cost you ¥500 ~$5.00).

There were food vendors along the main path and we shared some fried sweet potato strips - sort of like French fries, but they leave the skin on and roll them in sugar - too much for our taste. I much prefer a plain baked one, which are often sold as a snack in Japan.

The trees are lighted at night and there were several of these bamboo lanterns about, which are topped with shoji paper decorated with leaves. Wouldn't they look nice lining a walkway?

It was a long drive home. Coming back took about an hour and a half or so, but the Insight proved to be very comfortable, and quiet. The seats have good back support. What about fuel efficiency, you ask? Well, K was learning to follow the lighting cues of the Insight. In "Eco mode" (which tells the computer to control the variable transmission accordingly and activates a special display system), when you drive efficiently, the background to the speedometer glows green. If you are too quick with the gas it turns blue-green, and if you really step on it, it turns blue. The computer keeps track and rewards you for being easy on the gas and smooth on the brakes with a display of leaves - the more leaves, the better you've done. Actually, this would be a good system to have any car, not just hybrids, to encourage less polluting, more fuel efficient driving habits. [By the way, my view is that NO car is "environmentally friendly" - that's just marketing spin. Some cars are just less environmetally-UNfriendly than others. The less we rely on cars, the better.] I jokied with K that in future models, instead of color changes, they should give drivers who use too much gas an electrical shock. ;^)

The estimates that the EPA assigned this car in the USA (40 city/ 43 highway) are WAY out of wack with reality. That might be realistic if you drive mindlessly with the eco mode off. Several professional tests by car magazine editors have shown rates in the mid 60s in terms of miles per gallon, and new owners are experiencing not much less than that under real world conditions.

We put a little over 180 kilometers (112 miles) on the car Monday and finished with an average fuel use of 24.1 kilometers per liter. That's 56.7 miles per gallon. Not too shabby for the first time out. We went about twice as far on a liter of gas than we would have in the older car. Way to go, K!

For a cool interactive demo showing how the ECO Assist system works and the results of three types of drivers - aggressive, hypermiler, and average - visit this Honda page: ECO Assist Demo


Beach, Bath, and a Makeover

Sunday turned out to be a big day for me. After my morning walk, we got into the car and went to the beach at Kashimanada Seaside Park. I didn't want to go at first as I thought they were taking me to the Vet again. After a while I realized we were going the opposite direction from the Vet and just settled down for the ride.

I hadn't been to the beach in ages. October of 2007 in fact! (which you can read about here if you missed it: Cool Salty Air. The weather was perfect at 21° C or so (about 70° F) with a gentle breeze off the ocean. There were lots of other dogs around, but the park is so big I never got very close to any of them.

Pandabonium brought his new camera to try out. It's a little Pentax Optio W60 that is waterproof so he can take pictures while sailing. He said Uncle Francis (aka FH2O) down in Borneo is getting one too for kayaking.

I had my portable water dish with me and some treats. Pandabonium and K stopped along the way to pick up bento lunch.

They have some cool climbing equipment there and a big long slide. Lots of kids were playing on that.

The grass had just been cut and I got a lot of clippings and weeds stuck in my long hair. K had to brush me when we got home.

We walked along the boardwalk. It goes up high and through the tops of pine trees. I didn't like it much. I wanted to be on the ground. K and Pandabonium seemed to enjoy it though.

Perhaps the best thing about today was all the attention I got. Walking up the long hill to the car, I got tired and hot and so they took turns carrying me most of the way back to the car.

On the road home, Pandabonium stopped to take a picture of a big mast of koinobori - carp streamers. We have some of them in our neighborhood too, but this one had eight streamers! The top streamer has the family crest on it, the others represent the sons in the family. They are flown in April and May for Children's Day, which is a national holiday. Nowadays, many people - like our neighbors across the street who have two girls - fly carp streamers for daughters as well as for sons.

No sooner had we gotten home, than K brushed me out and put me back in the car. This time they took me somewhere I've never been before - a doggy hair salon! I was nervous at first and didn't want the lady there to touch me, but she seemed nice and so I let her pet me and hold me. But after K and PandaB left, when she put me on the table I started squirming around and trying to bite at her. She almost called K to come get me and cancel the whole thing, but she kept working with me until I calmed down.

First I got a nice warm bath and shampoo. Then she dried me with a hair drier mounted on a big metal arm. It was pretty scary looking to me, and loud. After that she cut my hair - a lot! I never have liked having my hair cut, even by K or Pandabonium. Finally, she used the blow drier again while brushing and combing me out. At first I gave her a hard time when she put a bow in one of my ears, but then relaxed when she tied one on the other ear. I guess I could get used to it all.

I have to admit I like my "makeover" (even with bows in my ears), and it sure will be more comfortable in the warm weather.

K says I'll go back now every two to three months keep my fur neat, trimmed, and clean. I'll still get baths at home, of course.

Well, what do you think of my new look?


A Walk in the Woods

While researching information about Katori Jingu, I ran across a reference to a forestry project in adjacent Itako City. A few years ago, the prefecture developed lands around an old fishing hole - Daizen Pond - and nearby ancient burial mounds to create a forest park and wildlife habitat. Volunteers from the city of Itako planted cherry trees in two small groves (the Emperor and Empress even planted one) and reforested much of the area with wild cherries, oak, birch, pines and other trees.

Last Sunday was overcast again, but warm, so we decided to check it out.

What we found was a beautiful nature park with wood chip-paved walking paths, an interesting variety of trees, lots of birds, a natural pond for fishing and superb facilities including an outdoor concert stage, large open grassed area, and two buildings for holding educational programs.

The park is about half a kilometer wide and three times that long, with paths that meander around the pond and through the woods. Half of the park surrounds Daizen Pond, and the other half is designed around five mounds or tumuli.

As usual, we were late starting out - Sunday is a sleep-in, linger-over-pancake-breakfast kind of day for us. We should have brought a lunch or stopped to pick up bento lunches on the way, but although not doing so shortened our visit, it turned out just fine, as you'll come to learn.

Looking through the trees to the pond below. Sounds of wild doves and uguisu (Japanese bush warblers) filled the air.

The cherry blossoms were past their prime and the other trees were just opening their budding leaves. Still, it was quite a beautiful sight, with subtle contrasts between the trees. Yamazakura, or mountain cherry, is a common wild cherry tree here. They do not have the dense clusters of blossoms of cultivated tress found in most parks, and the flowers have a single layer of petals, but have a beauty of their own for all that.

The delicate blossoms of a Yamazakura - mountain cherry tree.

A suspension bridge spans one arm of the pond, offering nice views of the pond and surrounding trees.

The paths are made of a wood chip paving material that is held together by a urethane binder. It has a nice feel under foot and keeps the chips from becoming scattered or too quickly invaded by weeds.

This floating dock offers a spot for fishing without disturbing the habitats of ducks along the shore. Fishing is also allowed from rowboats. There were two men fishing from rubber dinghy when we were there.

Wild flowers, wild herbs, and naturally sprouting seedlings - we saw oak and pine - line the paths. There were lots of small butterfles - we saw white and yellow cabbages mostly, and a "Beni shijimi" called "American copper" in the US.

The Suigo Prefectural Forest Park sits in the middle of the 5 km wide strip of land that separates Lake Kitaura from Lake Kasumigaura. It is only 5 miles, as the crow flies, from our house, yet we had never been there before. The website announces the activities planned for each month and a blog - HERE - has lots of pictures of past events and volunteer efforts at the park.

After a couple of hours, we had barely seen half the park and worked up an appetite for lunch. We decided to leave and return another day, perhaps in a month or so, after more of the foliage had filled in. We learned that dogs are allowed, if kept on a leash, so next time, Momo the Wonder Dog can come along. Think of all those trees, Momo!

This is the main entrance (above picture). The hall features lots of activities for kids as well a venue for lectures and starting point for guided nature walks. That's K's burgundy colored Toyota. I put in in the picture as it is 15 years old and will be recycled soon.

We made our way down to the center of Itako City - famous for its Iris Festival - and found a great restaurant with a view of the Hitachi-tone river, which empties Lake Kasumigaura into the Tone river which in turn leads to the sea. A century or so ago, most transport in the area was by boat on the rivers and canals.

The restaurant is called Nigumi and is run by the chef, Wakamaki Eiichi, who is well known for his skill in making sushi and has won prizes for his bamboo leaf cutting art skills (the art is known as "baran" here). He is also licensed to prepare and serve the poisonous fugu (blowfish). As he worked, there was an "enka" singing contest on the television above the bar. Enka music is sort of the Japanese equivalent of country and western in the US - not that it sounds anything like it, but it is full of love songs, broken hearts, and almost yodel-like voice inflections at times. I happen to like it. In moderation.

(pictures above and below are from the restaurant website)

We passed on the fugu this trip - though we did come home with a fugu lantern that Mr Wakamaki had made - and instead had an excellent lunch of chirashizushi (liternally, scattered sushi), which is a mix of sushi rice, egg, nori seaweed, cucumber slices, etc. topped with sashimi. K had the special -a mix of various fish and roe, while I had fatty salmon on mine.

Mr. Wakamaki showed us a video of his appearance on television a couple of years ago during which he demonstrated cutting bamboo leaves into decorative patterns for sushi platters as well as entire pictures for hanging on the wall. He seemed to light up when K told him we had enjoyed eating at the historic restaurant in Itako called "Wakata", which Moody wrote about on his blog last year. He was eager to talk about his craft with appreciative customers.

The Nigumi restaurant website, with pictures and menus, is here: You can even order a fugu lamp or bamboo cutting artwork from the site.

A model of a hobikisen net fishing boat like those which used to ply lake Kasumiguara

Fugu lamp.

Mr. Wakamaki also has a blog you might want to check out, since it shows many of his fantastic food/art creations for all special occasions - from birthdays to weddings. (scroll about halfway down to see some amazing displays of sushi and sashimi.

After lunch we walked along the banks of the Hitachi-tone Gawa. The cherry trees there were just past peak with petals coming down in little "sakura fubuki" (cherry blossom snow) flurries. Perhaps the cooler air from the lake and river allows them to bloom a little later or longer.

Close your eyes....."there's no place like home, there's no place like home"....

Soon it was time to head home and tell Momo the good news about the forest park. The day had started out overcast, but gradually cleared up except for a lingering haze in the air. The temperature had hovered just at the edge of comfort, so that we were often removing or donning a light jacket. In other words, another wonderful Sunday outing filled with pleasant surprises within a short distance from home. To paraphrase a modern Hawaiian saying, "lucky we live Ibaraki"!