A couple of weeks ago when I visited Kamakura I took these photos of the Yuigahama beach at sunset, after a short rainstorm. The clouds were clearing up and the moon was there, one of my favorite times in one of my favorite places. There were still a few surfers out in the ocean, they must be a hardy bunch!
Yuigahama beach faces south, so it is tricky to photograph during the day. I have so far made many visits to beaches facing south, east and west but I have never spent any longer amount of time on a beach facing north! That is one of the things on my to do list in life. The north coast of Japan is still a big blank for me.
In the autumn or early winter the worst of the summer storms have passed, few people visit the beach and it is cleaner than during spring or summer. I still found one unopened package of Onikoroshi, a supermarket brand of Japanese sake. I am almost addicted to beach combing and whenever I visit this beach I bring a small garbage bag to collect garbage, plastic, pieces of glass and anything that does not belong to the beach. I wish everyone was as manic as me, the beach would be spotless in no time! One short stroll along the beach usually results in a well filled garbage bag that I put in the trash cans near the stairs leading down to the beach. The only thing I never collect is forgotten children’s toys. I always have a secret wish that the child who forgot it will come back and find it again. I wonder if that ever happens in real life?
One of my favorite plants in Japan is the susuki grass (Miscanthus sinensis) which you can find growing wild just about anywhere in Japan (and many other parts of Asia), and due to eager gardeners, here and there in Europe and North America as well. The grass is very decorative and yellows beautifully in autumn, with a soft almost brush like head. There are few feelings that can match striding through a field of this beautiful grass, almost as tall as yourself.
In the old days the susuki was cultivated everywhere. Humans grew it in neat little fields near their houses in every village and villagers would take turns to harvest it and use it to thatch the roofs of everything from temples to castles to simple barns. Anything left over could be used as a simple ingredient for straw figures and as feed for the livestock. The susuki was also the perfect home for the tiny harvest mouse which in turn was preyed upon by the owls that lived near the villages.
In Japanese poetry and folk tradition there is something special about the susuki, it is thoroughly common and very plain looking yet there is a sense that we can find beauty even in something as common as this grass. I have often noted how many people stop and smile while looking at it, in parks and in the wild. Not everyone though. It can be quite tricky to control in smaller house gardens and I have had a few sad moments cutting it back when I volunteer to help friends with their gardening. For me the susuki is as essential to an elevated Japanese garden as the rock, the moss or the momiji.
The best place to see the gorgeous fields of susuki in the Kanto area is in Hakone, up until roughly Nobember. There is a guide to the sadly under appreciated art of susuki-watching here.
I found this gorgeous thicket of susuki growing on a ridge near the summit of Mount Takao a couple of weeks ago.
Two weekends ago I visited the famous Mount Takao, probably the most visited mountai/nature park in Tokyo. People here love seeing the seasons changing so the getting out of the city to watch the changing colors of the autumn leaves is almost as popular as getting out in spring to watch the cherry blossoms. It always feels unreal to visit this mountain as you get onto a normal commuter at the worlds busiest train station, and step off an hour later, surrounded by an almost overwhelming amount of nature.
Among all this nature there is also quite a bit of culture, as the mountain is home of one of the more powerful buddhist temples in Japan, founded all the way back in 744 A.D. The temple’s statues, markers and stones are scattered along the path to the temple and makes for some very photogenic scenery!
Mount Takao is officially just over 599m tall, but in the old days it used to be over 601m. A couple of big earthquakes early last century forced officials to recalculate the mountain and it appears to have shrunk a tiny bit. There botany of the mountain is also quite varied and has been intensively studied, yielding a stunning 63 new plant species first discovered (by science) at this mountain.
Most adults visiting Japan try it at least once – sake (or nihonshu as it is called in Japan these days), a Japanese fermented rice alcoholic beverage made from rice. Even though it is more similar to beer it is often likened to wince, but the manufacturing process is quite different. As you can imagine from something as traditional and steeped in culture as Japanese sake, the manufacturing process is tremendously complicated, it would be impossible to describe it here. In order to understand sake better I took a guided tour at one of the few Tokyo breweries, the Sawanoi Sake Brewery in western Tokyo’s Ome City, Sawai. Since the process involves mostly fermentation of highly polished rice, there is not much to see inside the factory itself, and I can think of few things as un-photogenic as a sake factory, especially since in order not to disturb the sake they prefer to keep it as dark as possible. These photos are actually much brighter than it was in real life, it was very very dark inside the brewery. In the old days the sake was fermented in large wooden barrels but these days metal vats are used. It is said that a big sake drinker who lives to a ripe old age might be able to finish one of these huge vats by himself before he dies. Sake is usually not labelled by the year like wine, but this factory did label their bottles, the oldest I could find in their stores were from 1999.
The brewery was founded in the 15th year of Genroku, under the reign of emperor Higashiyama (1702 A.D.) and started giving guided tours in 1971. Our guide was one a natural speaker and gave us a quick tour of the factory as well as a rather complicated brief on the chemistry behind the fermentation process. Most Japanese were scratching their head as the part, just like I was! The end of the tour was the most popular though – the sake sampling! We were told to pour our own glasses, which most of us did, to the brims. I could see on the sad faces of some participants that they had arrived by car!
You might have seen the round balls made of cedar tree boughs hanging outside traditional Japanese restaurants. They are called sugidama or sakabayashi. They are traditionally made and hung up by the sake breweries as a sign that this year’s fresh sake is ready for drinking. When hung up they are green, but over the summer and into autumn they gradually turn brown and you can tell by the color how fresh the sake is. Sake doesn’t really get old, if store properly, so a brown sugidama is not a bad thing! Quite a few restaurants that have sugidama use the same one year after year, but sometimes you will see a fresh one that is actually green! One thing that surprises some people when they buy their first traditional sake is that what looks like a screw cork is actually not resealable: you basically have to finish a bottle within a few hours of opening it if you want to drink it at its best!
The quality of the water used in sake brewery is tremendously important and we got to see the old well used by the factory, from a cave deep inside the mountain, behind the brewery. Below the cave and the factory there was another outlet for the spring water where anyone is welcome to try it and it tasted fantastic!
The factory is easily accessible from Sawai Station on the Ome line, but the tours are usually sold out on weekends, so it pays to book well in advance.