2011/12/24

Winter Solstice

The "reason for the season" is of course the Winter Solstice. We've turned the corner from the days getting shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, and hence forth we will get more sunshine (for a time). Celebrations lasting a few weeks help us get through the darkest of times (literally speaking) and different religions find various reasons to celebrate, but basically they do so, I believe, at this time of year to help us all get through the lack of sunlight. For me, vitamin D supplementation and a dose of wide spectrum artificial light each day does the trick.

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One celebration we partake in around the Winter Solstice each year is a special dinner at Wordsworth Restaurant. This year it was extra special, as the restaurant was damaged by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, but has survived, as have we. (Life goes on, despite the odds.)



This year's menu included Bagna Calda, Parma ham with mozzarella and tomato in pumpkin sauce, foie gras, seafood salad, soybean soup, baked stuffed Homard lobster, pasta with greens, and for desert, apple compote with cookies and chocolate.

PandaB does not eat foie gras (click here for why) and a very special thing happened this year. The waitress came to our table before we began our meal and asked if I would like a substitute instead of foie gras. They had remembered my preferences! So while they served K the foie gras, they brought me a special dish of baked turban sea snail in olive oil with chopped greens, covered with tiny croutons. It was a delicious alternative and I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness of Wordsworth in offering it to me.

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After dinner we went down to Kashima Jingu train station to see the light display.

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All the best from Pandabonium and K this Winter Solstice season - no matter how you celebrate it - and may 2012 bring us all peace and understanding.

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All living beings, whether weak or strong,
in high or middle, or low realms of existence,
small or great, visible or invisible, near or far,
born or to be born.
May all beings be happy.

-A Buddhist Metta

2011/12/13

There Are Rainbows

Our friend Sandra on Maui sent us this photo the other day.

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Enjoy some Hawaiian music with the rainbow. Here is George Kahumoku Jr - with "Hawaiian Lullaby"



A hui ho.

2011/12/11

Syzygy



We watched the total lunar eclipse last night. It started at about 22:00 our time and we watched until 23:45 (when we were getting too sleepy to continue). As the moon was nearly directly overhead, we soon tired of straining our necks, so we spread a blanket on our pebble drive and laid on our backs to view it.

Skies were thin clouds broken to scattered at first, but it later cleared. Due to a rain storm that passed recently, the air was very clean and since we're in a relatively rural area, there was not much in the way of light pollution. It was a little chilly out (about 39°F), but we were dressed for it.

It was the most beautiful sight either of us has ever seen in the night sky. Jupiter was out too and with binoculars we could see some of its moons. When a large patch of sky was clear, the stars added to the spectacular show - the moon was in Gemini with the Pleiades (Subaru in Japanese), Taurus with its red giant, Aldebaran, and Orion offering a lot to enjoy with the binoculars. (Nikon 10x50mm 6.5° field of view).

As Martin mentioned to me in an email today, with the moon fully eclipsed, it looked very three dimensional against the backdrop of stars. I think the brightness of a full moon normally makes for too great a contrast for us to see it as a sphere.

I didn't get any pics with moon partly in shadow, as early on I didn't think they would come out at all (I haven't had much luck photographing the moon). Later I decided to give it a go anyway. I took several pictures, but only a couple of them were worth saving - they were ones taken with the camera on a tripod and tripping the shutter with the timer so as not to vibrate the setup. Canon Powershot S3 IS was on full zoom. Not an astronomer's choice of equipment, but good enough pics to jog my memory of this event in the future.


As I walked back to the house to go to bed, I turned to take one last look, and as I did so, a meteor streaked across the sky to the southwest. Perfection.

Until next, sweet sailing.

syzgy: Astronomy . an alignment of three celestial objects, as the sun, the earth, and either the moon or a planet

2011/12/04

Almost As Good As S...ailing

It looked like it would be too windy for us to go sailing today, and besides, after the rain we've had it was a full morning of catching up on laundry, with warmer weather and crystal clear skies.

For lunch, we treated ourselves to Wordsworth Restaurant in neighboring Kamisu City.

I had spaghetti with oysters in a spinach cream sauce, topped with salmon roe.

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Oishii.

K went for the pasta soup with seafood. Scallop, clam, oyster, mussel, crab, prawn and squid.

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So good. Or so I was told. ;^) K finished the whole thing.


No, we don't usually eat out twice in one week. We'll need to take a break from it, as we're thinking of having the special Xmas dinner at Wordsworth again this year.

2011/12/02

Lunch With The ATM

No, we didn't have lunch with an automatic teller machine...

Kimie had a day off in the middle of the week, so we went to Mito City for a little year end shopping. We got there after noon, so parked at Keisei department store for lunch. The top (9th) floor features several restaurants, and our favorite* one specializes in tofu and yuba.


In addition to western style and Japanese style dining areas, they have a long table - perhaps 20 or more feet - facing the outer glass wall of the building. It is made of one solid wood plank, about three inches thick. The view is to the north and on a clear day, one is treated to the mountains of north Ibaraki and of Tochigi - one being Mt. Nantai in Nikko National Park, some 40 km distant. Closer in, at just two blocks away, is the "ATM" - Art Tower Mito with its 100 meter (328 ft) tall geometric spiral tower made of titanium.

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Art Tower Mito has an exhibition hall for contemporary art, a music theater for classical performances, such as those by the Mito Chamber Orchestra (Seiji Ozawa, musical advisor), and a drama theater in which Acting Company Mito and other groups perform. The lobby connecting all three has a German designed pipe organ made with American oak that has 3,283 full stop pipes. It was built by two Japanese craftsmen who studied in Germany and achieved the designation of master organ builder.

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Pipes!


The tower itself is, as I mentioned, 100 meters tall. This was done to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mito becoming an official city in 1889. Inside, there is a circular glass elevator which takes visitors to an observation room at the 86 meter level.

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The restaurant has a wonderful buffet, but we opted for a teishoku (set lunch), which starts off with a basket of fresh tofu to which one can add sea salt and or shoyu, and a bowl of yuba. Yuba is a favorite of mine, in all its many forms. It is the film skimmed off the top of the vat when tofu is being made. Delicate flavor and silky smooth texture lend it to several uses in Japanese cuisine, especially the dishes of the Buddhist "Shojin Ryori" vegetarian tradition. Shojin means "to pursue enlightenment" and ryori simply means "cooking". So Shojin Ryori is not just vegetarian food, it is a Zen Buddhist practice, and it dates back to the 13th century. But I digress a long way, as we were not eating an entirely vegetarian lunch.

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The teishoku tray we ate offered mackerel, tempura, steamed veggies, sashimi, miso soup, rice, pickled veggies and a desert.

After shopping at Keisei, we went down to the Mito train station and picked up a few more items in the shops there. There is a new coffee house at the station - Saza Coffee. The company grows its own beans in the Americas and Africa. They've been around for over forty years (starting out in Hitachinaka, northern Ibaraki. We have been served the company's iced coffee at the yacht harbor, but the Mito shop is new. Anyway, Kimie had wanted to try it last time we were up there, but on that trip, it was getting late in the day and I declined. So I owed her. This trip I just had iced tea (I can't drink coffee in the afternoon or I stay awake at night), while Kimie had her coffee and a slice of cheesecake.

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Saza!

It was a nice way to end the day before heading home.

* (Actually, I've never eaten at any of the other restaurants up there, as their focus is on foods I'm not interested in - Chinese, Korean, beef, pork, oysters, etc. ).

2011/11/17

Morning Cup Of What?

We enjoy a cup of coffee with breakfast - nothing unusual there. Even though it costs more than what is offered in the grocery store, I often buy roasted beans from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopa, or other exotic countries, through HonuKATOCOFFEE. We grind them up ourselves as needed, for a fresh flavor.


Honu Kato Coffee offers some nice combinations for about $9.00 per pound


Recently, Kimie read about a very special coffee from the Philippines. It is called "Coffee Alamid" or "Civet Coffee" and locally as "Kopi Luwak". The price is an eye opening US$394.00 per pound! Who needs caffeine? If that doesn't wake you up, you're either one of Wall Street's 1% or you need to check your pulse.


What is especially odd to me is the reason for this huge price difference. You see, the Alamid, Luwak, or Asian palm civet, is an animal found in the Philippines which plays an important role in the production of this coffee. Civets are nocturnal mammals that like to eat the fruit of the coffee plant for its pulp. Their bodies have enzymes which allow them to digest it. Their digestion chemically changes the coffee bean making it lose its bitterness. They eliminate the beans, which - I am not making this up - people search for and gather to make into Civet coffee.

After a thorough washing (I should hope) sun drying and roasting, it is ready to package.

I'll pass (so to speak).

2011/11/10

Tanbo Art

Tanbo is the Japanese word for "rice paddy". In 1993, in the center Aomori, the northern most prefecture on Honshu, the people of Inakadate Village created "Tanbo Art" by growing pictures in rice paddies using different strains of rice that have various leaf coloration as their palette. They hoped to increase commerce by drawing attention to the village. They plant the art in front of the town hall on which they built a castle-like viewing tower. The idea was a success, with over 200,000 visitors coming to see the Tanbo Art each year.

I posted about the Tanbo Art back in 2005 - http://pacific-islander.blogspot.com/2005/07/rice-paddy-art.html - during my first year of living in Japan.

Tanbo Art has not been without controversy. In 2008, in an effort to cover costs, the village revitalization group who are responsible for the art, planted advertisements at the base of the pictures - one for Japan Airlines, another for a local newspaper. The town government was so angry that they threatened to no longer lease the land for the art in following years. After a vote by the townspeople, the rice seedlings for the advertising portions were removed.

This year, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami gave a new focus for the art and the messages grown in the rice.


The above picture is of Kaguya-hime, a princess from the Moon and the main character in Japan's oldest novel Taketori Monogatari, "The Bamboo Cutter's Daughter". She is shown being returned to the Moon at the end of the story. At the bottom is written : "Gambaru Japan!!" a common expression which has become the nation's post 3/11 slogan. It means "Do your best, Japan".


The second picture is of the Bamboo Cutter and his wife and the glowing section of bamboo in which, as the story goes, the princess arrived on Earth as a baby. Under it, it says "please think of others."

I also happened to write about the novel on my blog in 2007, as I have a beautifully illustrated and translated book of it. The original novel dates back to the late 9th or early 10th century. At the time I wrote that post, Japan had just launched a moon exploration probe named "Kaguya" after the Moon maiden.

That post is here - http://pacific-islander.blogspot.com/2007/09/moon-maiden-takes-flight-princess.html and if you haven't read it before, I hope you'll do so and find it interesting.

For more remarkable images of Tanbo Art, just search for it in Google Images.

2011/10/24

Parlez-vous De Crevettes Bleues?

Stormy weekends have kept us off the water. We consoled ourselves with food. Yesterday, I took Kimie to lunch at a new restaurant in town. The food (Japanese style) was OK but we missed Mama's Kitchen.

Then, in the afternoon, we received a cold package delivered to our door. It was from our friend who runs a ryokan hotel to our north. A box of Pacific blue prawns (called Tenshi no Ebi - angel prawn - in Japan) from New Caledonia, a bottle of sweet red pepper sauce, and wonton sheets to wrap around the meat and fry in sesame oil.

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We'd never tried blue prawns before, so Kimie prepared some for dinner. So many ways to cook them - pan fried, tempura, wonton, sashimi, soup.... Kimie kept it simple and pan fried some with mizuna (a leafy green vegetable) garlic, salt and pepper.

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Before cooking, they look silvery blue. She saved the heads for later.

I didn't get a picture of the cooked prawns - we were too busy eating them. They were so flavorful - the best prawns I've ever tasted - with an excellent texture. New Caledonia has been farming blue prawns for decades now. Their local species were not adaptable to aquaculture, so they brought in this one from Mexico. Unlike many farmed "fish", these prawns are not fed land animal by-products, hormones, coloring or antibiotics. They are raised in a way that does not harm the surrounding mangrove forests.

The Pacific blue prawns are grown on Pacific islands. New Caledonia is one place, Fiji is another. Development work is being done in Hawaii. Other than the superior flavor, the water that is used on island farms is free of viruses. Polluted water can be a big problem for prawns grown in some other countries.

Today, we had the heads in our ramen (noodle soup). The wonderful prawn flavor was infused into the ramen. I did manage to take a picture this time. The prawn heads turned an otherwise ordinary dish into a savory delight.

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Délicieux!

2011/10/16

Japanese Women Are Burning Their Bras!

It's true. In recent years Japanese women have begun burning their bras.

This isn't a feminist protest, this an ecologically more responsible (and private) way of disposing of old bras.

In Japan, burnable garbage is placed into translucent plastic bags which in turn are put into neighborhood wire bins for collection so that non-burnables (which are handled separately) erroneously mixed in with burnables can be spotted before creating a problem in the system.

Unfortunately, that means personal items such as undergarments may be visible before the bag is collected. Many women are embarrassed by the thought of their bras being seen by others or even snatched by a pervert, and so cut them up into small pieces - not easy as many of them contain wires.

From this

In the last few years major underwear makers in Japan started programs to recycle such items and they offer opaque bags for women to use with the recycling program. And instead of just being incinerated, the bras are recycled into what industry calls RPF - "refuse paper and plastic fuel".


to this.

The fuel is burned in boilers and power generation plants. It is a fraction the cost of coal, burns more cleanly, and produces less carbon dioxide. There is such a growing demand for RPF that one company is expanding their bra collecting efforts to Taiwan.

So, two um.. thumbs up for burning your bras, ladies... after you're done wearing them, of course.

source: Recycling bras kills two birds with one stone - Kyodo News

2011/10/12

Full Moon At Hinuma

Tonight (October 12 in Japan) there is a full moon. It will be a "Hunter's Moon" - the farthest, and thus smallest, full Moon of the year. I hope the weather cooperates so that we can view it.

I was surprised to come across this woodblock print of a full moon over Lake Hinuma (1946) by Hasui Kawase 川瀬 巴水 (1883-1957):


I had no idea that Lake Hinuma, where we spend so many days sailing each year, was ever the subject of a woodblock print - let alone by such a famous artist. Kawase was one of the most prolific Japanese artists of the early 20th century. In all, he produced 600 landscape prints, but also other works. Unfortunately, most of his early wood blocks were destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

He was part of the "shin hanga" (new print) movement. Unlike Edo Period woodblock artists who designed, cut the blocks, and printed their own art, shin hanga artists split the tasks between artist, wood cutter, and printer, and gave credit to each for their contribution to the finished product. Shin hanga artists also worked to create more limited edition pieces which were not to be mass produced like the famous ukiyo-e pieces were.

Kawase's subjects were mostly landscapes, and the places he chose to depict were not famous places in Tokyo and evirons, but rather picturesque rural areas which still had the appeal of being more natural and undeveloped parts of a rapidly changing Japan. He traveled far and wide and sketched his impressions, returning to Tokyo to create the resulting prints.

Well, I must say that it is those same characteristics (more natural and less developed) which led me to settle in Ibaraki and to choose Lake Hinuma as home for our sailboat Bluesette. Full Moon At Hinuma captures well the serenity we find there.

Enjoy the moon.

2011/09/15

Hatari!

by Momo of the Jungle (aka Momo the Wonder Dog)

Every day is an adventure!

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One of the routes I take on my walks is now a jungle, thanks to lots of summer rain. There are beautiful flowers (from close to the ground to reaching two meters ore more into the sky), great heaps of tangled vines, and tall, tall, grass.

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I like to chase the animals I come across, such as grasshoppers, birds, lizards, and snakes, although PandaB puts a quick stop to it when it comes to snakes since some of those might be venomous. I haven't seen any lions or elephants.

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Here I am on "safari":



I hope you are getting out and having a great adventure every day, too!

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trivia: Hatari means "danger" in Swahili and was the title of a 1962 adventure movie which starred John Wayne and Elsa Martinelli.

2011/08/21

Cooling Off

Last Thursday the temperature reached 38°C (100° F) here as a high pressure area lingered off shore of the Kanto region. During the previous week, over seven thousand people suffered heat stroke in Japan and a few died. Earlier in the month, former Japan international soccer player Naoki Matsuda died, at age 34, two days after suffering a cardiac arrest during training.

One 75 year old man died as he was waiting for an electrician to install an air conditioner in his apartment scheduled for the following day. Not having air conditioning or even a fan, he had suffered heat stroke events in previous years and had decided to do something about it. A day late.

We don't use air conditioning, but have plenty of electric fans. We just stayed indoors with windows shaded by awnings and fans blowing - reading, taking naps, and sipping cold mugicha (roasted barley tea). A tenugui (printed cotton towel) helped to mop our brows - or sometimes we wore one with a cold pack in the folds.

Me wearing a tenugui at Lake Ashinoko in 2007. That's Mt. Fuji that you don't see in the background. If you want to see it, visit this post: Pirates of Ashinoko


Since it was cooler on the patio than in the house, Momo slept under the bench on the front porch which has been cloaked in sun tarps that cut the temperature considerably. I also cool it by wetting down the ground in front of it using a sprinkler. At times, she even has a fan to move the air out there.

Meanwhile, at the zoo, a distant cousin, an orangutan, had a similar strategy. We've never visited Tama Zoo, but we hear it is great, with animals exhibited in natural habitats...



"Laugh with glee at a chimpanzee, he reminds you of someone in your family" - lyrics from "Never Smile at a Crocodile" ~ Disney's Peter Pan (1953).

The weather changed drastically on Friday, with rain bringing much lower temperatures 22° C (71.6 F). Quite a drop! Momo, with her summer cut, found it a bit too chilly for her, and spent today in her indoor cage.

The coming week will see slightly higher temperatures , but cloudy weather will keep it reasonably comfortable (29° C).

We have another trip coming up - heading north on the newest Shinkansen train (the only way to fly) for a couple of days in the Tohoku region - yes, the area worst hit by the Great Earthquake and Tsunami of 3/11. Stay tuned...





2011/08/15

On Course

I like food as much as sailing, so perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that the blog "Proper Course" was about dining etiquette.

I don't know if this is considered "proper" for a sailing blog, but we had no sailing pics today for the Sweet Bluesette blog. Perfectly fine here, "of course".

We had thought of sailing with Martin (see Viking Invades Hinuma about Martin) and his brother who is visiting from Sweden, but they made other plans (a baseball game at Tokyo Dome). Good call, as the day was a hot one and the trains and roads they'd have to ride to get here were crowded with Bon season travelers.

Then we were going to take our niece to lunch as she returns home tonight and her mom had to work today, so she had naught to do. But then her grandmother brought her sushi, so lunch with us was off. Another change of course.

We decided to go to lunch on our own, to one of the many Italian places we like - Trattoria Buona Fortuna. The set lunch sounded good. We were warned it took an hour or more, but that just made it more appealing to us as we could linger in the air conditioned restaurant longer while outside the temperature was 93°F and the heat index was hitting 100°.

So, today we just have food pics. Choose your favorite course - proper or otherwise.

click on a photo to zoom in


Lovely appetizer plate of veggies lettuce and potato salad topped with prosciutto, followed by spaghetti with eggplant and tomato sauce, trout stuffed with mushrooms, and bread with olive oil.

Dessert was ice cream with caramel sauce, two cakes - one made with earl grey tea, the other with green tea and chocolate chips - and a small pastry.

We did dilly-dally, and spent a good hour and a half (or more - I lost track).

2011/08/13

Full Moon Tonight

There is something special about a full moon, especially in August. In the northern hemisphere it is harvest time, for Buddhists it is Obon - a time to express appreciation for those who have gone before us - and everywhere it marks the endless cycles of life and love. Or perhaps it is just that a full moon gets our attention by reflecting the sun so brightly and we stop looking down at our earthbound workaday lives, and start looking up to the heavens and are inspired by what we see.

Here is Imai Miki singing "Moonlight Lovers"....



"Hey, boys & girls, don't be afraid, look at the sky
Can't you see the full moon? Tonight's the night"



2011/08/09

Let Me Take You Up

'Cause we're going to Lavender Fields.

Nothing is real...



and nothing to get hung about...



Lavender fields forever...


We flew to Hokkaido in an attempt to beat the heat. Momo the Wonder Dog stayed in an air conditioned doggy hotel while we were away. It was only a few degrees cooler in Hokkaido, so Momo got the better of that deal. We did see some beautiful scenery. It was my first flight in almost 7 years, my first domestic Japanese flight, and Kimie's first ever domestic flight as well. (Normally, we take the Shinkansen). And our first time to see Hokkaido. It seems so big! About the size of the State of Maine. It is 20% of the land area of Japan with only 4.4% of the population.

We were gone a week and saw lots more than flowers. Waterfalls, lakes, horses, sea ports, an Ainu village, and more. For those who are interested, see all the pics plus videos and comments, at this page on Picasa: Hokkadio 2011.

Lavender fields forever.



*top photo: John and Yoko, Sean and (?) at Fujiya Hotel (Hakone) in 1978. 2nd photo - Pandabonium and K, same spot, 2007.

2011/07/22

Head In The Clouds

Sometimes I look up into the sky and just say, "wow".

I saw this in the sky this afternoon.

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2011/07/09

Up A Lazy River

at the Itako City "Ayame Matsuri" - Iris Festival -
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Iris Festival "Abassadors" greet guests


Long ago, the Tonegawa river flowed through Tokyo and into Tokyo Bay. It's course was never steady and every big storm brought floods and course changes to the river. So, about 400 years ago, Ieyasu Tokugawa (the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate) began a project called the “Eastward Transfer of the Tonegawa river”, which changed the river's course eastward to the Pacific Ocean just south of what is now Kashima City. The project helped to protect Edo from floods and aided the development of agriculture in this area. It was also designed to offer protection against invasion from the north.

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Itako grows one million iris plants with five hundred different varieties


This also resulted in a waterway that allowed fish and rice from what is now Ibaraki Prefecture to be shipped by boat to markets in Edo. The lakes, canals, and rivers were the major means of transportation. Itako city, located where lakes Kitaura and Kasumigaura empty into the Tonegawa river, became a transportation hub, in turn creating a tourist trade.

Map from this great travel site: Let's Travel Around Japan!

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One can take a ride up the Maekawa on a robune (oar powered skiff).

Today, transportation is primarily by rail and truck, but the days of poling and sculling boats through the canals and rivers are not forgotten. They are celebrated especially during Itako City's Ayame Matsuri - Iris Festival - during which people come by the busload to take a step back in time, enjoy viewing a million iris flowers along the Maekawa, listen to ancient music, watch dancers, and take rides in traditional "robune" - boats powered by a single sculling oar mounted on the stern. The oar, called a "ro" is common to Japan and China and consists of a curved handle connected at a pivot point to a horizontal oar blade.

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Our oarsman learned to do this at age six and has carried on for seventy years since then. He said that it takes a few months to learn to use the oar effectively, but poling with a bamboo pole is more difficult and may require three years or more to master. The volunteers who do this during the festival agree to make ten trips a day with eight people in the boat.


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The tour boat businesses have long since switched from using bamboo poles, to small outboards as the primary source of power (though poles are still kept on board). This was in part due to the dredging of the Maekawa which made part of it too deep for poling. Many of the women who run these boats have been doing so for over 50 years.

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Happily, there are younger people ready to carry on the traditions.


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Women in traditional yukata with woven hats and baskets tend to the iris plants.



The iris festival dancers wind their way through the iris beds. The dance uses gestures from ancient times common to local festivals and Japanese Buddhist Bon dances which take place in August.


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At lunch we had a view of the Hitachi Tonegawa river which connects lake Kasumigaura with the Tonegawa river.


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Unagi - broiled eels served on rice - is a very popular treat throughout Japan.


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The eels hatch in waters off the Philippines and swim up rivers in Japan.


After lunch, it was time for a wedding...


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At an Itako style wedding, the bride and her parents form a proccession through the iris gardens, and board a specially prepared robune which contains a hope chest of sorts as well as symbolic gifts of rice and sake for the groom. The groom waits downstream as the bride and her parents float past friends, relatives, and other well wishers. Watching this has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right, so the city and tour companies provide actors to play the roles on days when there is no actual wedding scheduled. This day, we saw the saw the real thing.

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These days, the great waters of the Tonegawa river system are used primarily to provide drinking water to large parts of Tokyo and the Kanto Plain, as well as flood control and recreational boating. But who knows? As the global energy crisis continues to emerge, perhaps these rivers and canals will find their past role as transportation "highways" revived. In the meantime, festivals such as the Ayame Matsuri give us a glimpse of the past in a fun and beautiful way.