Sunday, January 5, 2014


The lighthouse at Tomonoura.
If you've seen the animated feature film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, then you'll be vaguely familiar with Tomonoura.

For it is a slightly-modified animated version of Tomonura that appears in the movie.

Situated midway along the Seto Inland Sea, Tomonoura was a major port in the Edo era (pre-1868), as it was as far as a sail-powered ship would get on its east-west (or west-east) voyage before losing the help of the tide.

So Tomo was where ships would berth to wait for the tide to change before continuing their journey.

And, in an era when Japan was shut off from the rest of the world (even shipwrecked foreign mariners were summarily executed), Tomonoura was one of Japan's few ports that were conditionally open to outsiders.

It was a "diplomatic" port, where envoys from China and Korea would stay when travelling to Edo (Tokyo).

But with the advent of steamships, Tomo was no longer a necessary port and it was bypassed for the neighbouring railway-accessible cities of Fukuyama (of which Tomo is now an outlying suburb) and Onomichi.
Tomo-no-Ura's harbour.

So progress has largely bypassed Tomo over the last 150 years, leaving its horseshoe-shaped harbour as the only surviving example of a "traditional" Edo-era Japanese port.

Today, Tomonoura's harbour is a fishing port, with the fleet mooring largely on the eastern edge of the harbour to divest their catch into a small industrial complex that feels to itself be half as old as time and, apparently, the "home-away-from-home" for many of the town's local cats in quest of an easy meal.

And Tomonoura is, I happily discovered, the home of Homeishu -- which, I'm told by someone near to me, was first brewed in the building where I first met my wife.

Ota House.
Ota House is a former sake brewery/storehouse/retail shop in the middle of Tomonoura, right behind the harbour's central jetty.

The building is listed as an Important National Cultural Site, and is stilled owned by the Ota family, which began brewing homeishu in the early Edo period.

Ota House dates back 260 years, and its attendant complex was built over a few decades, with its newest buildings being storehouses built in the late 1780s.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Island of Rabbits

"Would you like to come with us to Rabbit Island?" asked the Girl of Enduring Beauty.

And so began my visit to Okunoshima, a tiny island in Japan's Inland Sea, with the Girl of Enduring Beauty and her children.

Okunoshima was once a top-secret military site -- so secret that it was removed from the maps -- where poison gas was made in the 1930s and 1940s.

It isn't, one would think, the sort of place to go for a day-trip with children.

But that was before the rabbits took over.

In 1946, Allied occupation troops destroyed Okunoshima's poison gas factory and released the island's surviving laboratory rabbits into the wild.

Those rabbits did what rabbits do, and today Okunoshima is home to thousands of flop-eared rodents, earning it the nickname Usagi Shima (Rabbit Island).

We hired bicycles from the island's hotel and explored the island, stopping to play on a small beach where the only footprints were our own.

Nearby, behind a tall earth bank, stood the grim, ivy-covered ruins of the island's power station -- used to produce electricity for the gas factory.

But the Girl of Enduring Beauty and her children -- like many pet-less Japanese -- are cravers of all things cute, so the big attraction for them was the rabbits.

And although the rabbits are wild, they're used to humans and will approach you in numbers for a free feed.

Visitors are allowed to pet, handle, and tire themselves out chasing the rabbits.

Okunoshima is a National Park, where dogs, cats and Holy Hand Grenades of Antioch are strictly prohibited.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

First Snow

"It is snowing."

I had flown north to see her for Valentine's Day, and had got to Fukuyama late the night before.

So I slept late, and was woken at 8.28 by the beloved sending me a text message telling me what the day's weather was like.

And so it was that, half-way through my 46th year, my first direct experience of snow was through the window of my business hotel in central Fukuyama.

For me, it was all new and magnificent, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the brisk, chill air.

For the beloved, it was all familiar and cold, and she wanted to spend as much time as possible in the warmth and air conditioning of a Fukuyama shopping centre.

I had just travelled 7700km to be with the beloved. I didn't want to go to a shopping centre.

I wanted to drive to Onomichi.

"My car does not have snow tyres, the roads are dangerous, and you're not used to driving through snow" she said.

So we went to the shopping centre.

The next day wasn't snowing, but Monday's snow was still thick on the ground in the hills behind Fukuyama. I felt like we'd just driven into Fifth Heaven, but the beloved started to wonder about my sanity when I asked her if "we" could make a snowman.

"We should have done this yesterday, when the snow was fresh," she said as I let her make the small (45cm tall) snowman in the carpark at the Miroku no Sato amusement park.

She gave him two twigs for arms, fallen leaves for eyes and a mouth, and a fern frond for a 'necktie'.

He looked really cute.

We went to visit him the next day, but he wasn't so cute 24 hours later.

He had started to melt. He had fallen over, and had lost his arms, eyes, mouth, and necktie.

For a snowman, life may not be nasty and brutish -- but it certainly is "short".

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two weeks in July

July 16 2010

Dawn in Brisbane feels bitterly cold in midwinter, and the security delays for international flights in the modern paranoid era means that a mid-morning flight requires a pre-dawn departure from the house.

So it was that I was rugged-up for winter when I boarded the JAL Boeing for a nine-hour flight to Tokyo.

This proved to be a mistake, for we arrived just on sunset in the mid-summer, and the outside temperature was over 30 degrees Celsius.

At midnight.

Hotter in the daytime at Narita.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Monday, July 6, 2009

A personal rock concert

Nagoya's Kanayama Station is not the station to catch the Shinkansen from: you need to go to Nagoya Station for that.

And that's where I was headed, but accidently got off the train from Chiryu one station too early, at Kanayama.

Beside Kanayama Station is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the distance one can see the neon sign advertising a love hotel called the "Hotel California", and the station's forecourt on a Sunday is a place for music.

Rock bands, formed by high school students, gather in the forecourt of Kanayama with their electric guitars, electric keyboards, microphones, amplifiers and portable generators to serenade the passing crowds, sell their self-produced CDs and hopefully get discovered and become famous.

Beside the stairs leading down to an underpass, two lads were jamming quietly, and as I thought they sounded pretty good and their CD only cost 1500Y (about $12), I decided to buy a copy.

The entire band, and their roadie (which was Mum) came up to the collapsible table to thank me personally, then the two who were jammig picked up their guitars and started playing seriously.

Just for me.

One reason for my trip was to see Keiko Masuda in concert in Tokyo: a concert I didn't see because it had been sold out before I had a chance to get a ticket.

But my consolation was my own personal concert in the heat of a Nagoya railway forecourt in the midsummer.

Just around the corner were two other young hopefuls with a drum kit, an electronic keyboard, a portable gennie and a selection of original and catchy tunes.

I believe I must probably be the only person in Brisbane -- maybe even the only person in Australia -- with a Kara Furu Pop CD in their collection.

Although they play different varieties of J-pop from one another, both groups deserve to go quite a bit further in the Japanese music industry than the forecourt of the Kanayama JR Station.

And no, I didn't stay at the Hotel California. Although I've heard it's a lovely place, I was a bit worried that I'd never leave...