When All Your Ducks Line Up …

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Obviously a very auspicious day to fly from Tokyo to Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido. First we have to drive from the mountains of central Honshu to Tokyo. This takes us via Suwa, home of the Seiko watch, and Lake Suwa which provides some nice views of waterfowl. The sleepy heads above are Common Pochard and below we have …

Eurasian Wigeon

Eurasian Wigeon

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

and there were plenty of Tufted Ducks, some Mergansers and a Smew or two. And a very sleepy swan …

Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

We were blessed with good views of Mount Fuji as we passed by …

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and the Tokyo traffic was, on this occasion, very cooperative.

Mountains of Central Honshu …

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The two days spent in Jigokudani, the valley of hell, were far too pleasant to prepare me for any future place of residence. Yes it was cold and occasionally snowing but there was so much going on the weather hardly mattered.

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As well as taking several layers of pixels off every passing macaque an eye had to be kept on the sky and the opposite hillside. At one moment a Golden Eagle drifted over at great height before slipping out of sight behind the mountain tops. It re-emerged lower and for a moment seemed to be the absolute master of the valley. Then a peregrine falcon came over the hill above it and stooped viciously down on it. Although it dwarfed the falcon the eagle did not linger.

Careful surveillance of the opposite slope was eventually rewarded with the sighting of a couple of Japanese Serow. This is an enigmatic beast. There are six species of Serow distributed patchily in east Asia. All are in the genus Capricornis. It is an even-toed ungulate which puts it in the same evolutionary ball park as antelopes, sheep and cows but exactly where it fits in the scheme of things has been a little difficult to decide.

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This is mother and young. They feed morning and evening and rest up in the middle of the day. They moved slowly and steadily but are reportedly capable of making a swift and agile retreat when threatened. They inhabit steep forested hillsides in the major Japanese island except for Hokkaido.

They have been over-hunted in the past but numbers are now secure because of conservation measures.

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Jigokudani …

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This was the view from my hotel balcony at Kambayashi Onsen as the sun made its presence felt in the sky.

After breakfast we walked a couple of kilometres up to the valley of hell, Jigokudani. This is a snowy hell with added steam. A mountain stream runs through a steep sided valley, natural hot springs provide the steam. The sun penetrates to the valley floor for only a fraction of the day, we were warmly dressed.

This is the site of the Snow Monkey Park, adults ¥500, children half price. The only place in the world where you can see Japanese Macaques taking a dip in the onsen.

Japanese macaque are found throughout the main islands of Japan, except Hokkaido, and many of the small islands. Studies of them began in 1948 on the southern island of Koshima. Following the troop was impractical because of terrain and vegetation so the researchers used food to bring the monkeys to them. This is especially effective in the winter when the monkeys have a fairly hard time. It became the pattern in Japanese primate research.

Macaques are intelligent creatures, if you present them with food you also present them with some spare time.  In 1953 a young female in the Koshima group, given the name Imo, began washing her sweet potatoes. Her mother picked up the practice. By 1962, about three quarters of Koshima monkeys over two years old washed their food. Imo’s next stroke of genius was to find a way of separating wheat and sand. Drop a mixed handful on water, sand sinks, wheat floats, scoop up wheat and eat. Researchers have seen a number of such innovations and they tend to come from the youngsters.

Way to the north, in the mountains of central Honshu, also in the fifties another troop of monkeys began another novel practice of hopping into the onsen. They didn’t wash first and their toilet habits were less than ideal so they weren’t exactly welcome at the local tourist establishment that they began visiting. So they were provide with their very own spa pool.

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They are fed three times a day, good numbers are present in the winter, fewer in summer.

Hang on to your possessions around the monkeys. I saw several thefts of property. It is reported that monkeys in Mino near Osaka have learned to steal purses and wallets and take out the coins and use them to buy drinks and snacks from vending machines.

Their natural diet is broad, mainly but not exclusively vegetarian. A male weighs 10 – 14 kg, females are smaller at 8 – 10 kg. They live in groups that are day active. The groups are hierarchical, males gain seniority with age, females inherit their status from their mothers. This difference may be explained by the fact that females usually stay in their natal group whereas the males disperse to other groups as they approach maturity.

I spent a couple of days watching the macaques. Adults spend a lot of their time grooming and being groomed, the youngsters are fond of play, squabbles are frequent only rarely getting close to the point where actual harm is inflicted. Mothers are attentive to their babies. Mating gestures, often with the same sex, are fairly frequent and are mainly about showing and acknowledging rank. This though is for real …

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Much of the time it’s all about keeping warm …

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Monkeys …

We had wandered around Matsumoto castle and the adjacent museum and taken a turn around the moat which was, in fact, not a bad spot for finding a few birds.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

Eastern Spot-billed Duck

Eastern Spot-billed Duck

Common Kingfisher

Common Kingfisher

Then we headed for Kambayashi.

We made a brief stop at a mountain pass on the way. Once back on the bus Mineko-san was immediately on her mobile phone, no doubt to alert the hotel of our impending arrival. As always, her telephone conversation was accompanied by much bowing, nowhere in the world needs video accompaniment to the telephone more than Japan.

And beyond her, through the bus window, I saw our first Japanese Macaques. Tomorrow we would get much better views …

Crow Castle …

Japan’s oldest and most splendid castle, Matsumoto.

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Whilst there had been a fort on this site from about 1510, construction of the castle began in the 1580’s and was completed by 1595. It was built of wood and stone by impressed labour. The black walls and roof along with the appearance of wings readied for take-off led to its nickname, crow castle (烏城).

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The castle came very close to demolition in 1872, following the Meiji Restoration. It was sold at auction and was likely to have ended up as firewood with the site redeveloped. Fortunately a community campaign persuaded the local government to acquire it. Substantial renovations have been needed to keep it the splendid monument that we see today. There is an interesting museum adjacent.

Takayama …

Tourist town, shopping fix.

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The old town is certainly attractive. Traditionally famous for carpentry and its festivals, it well deserves its place on the tourist circuit.

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You can sample the sake …

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The Tanuki is especially fond of sake, he wouldn’t be seen without a bottle …

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He has seven more important features

  • a hat to protect against trouble or bad weather;
  • big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions;
  • a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved;
  • an over-sized scrotum that symbolizes financial luck;
  • a promissory note that represents trust or confidence;
  • a big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness;
  • and a friendly smile.

The flowers are optional. Prefer cats? Pop into an antique shop.

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Or find some outdoor evidence of wood working skill.

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The festivals are held in spring and autumn. They are splendid and very popular affairs involving street parades that feature massive carved antique floats. These are manoeuvred ponderously through the streets. These days great care is taken of the floats but it seems that in the good old days it was part of the fun to ram your rivals.

Shirakawa-go …

We flew from the south of Kyushu to Nagoya on the main island, Honshu. Then onto the bus and up into the mountains. It was late afternoon when we arrived at Shirakawa-go, one of a couple of world heritage villages.

As wikipedia puts it …

These villages are well known for their houses constructed in the architectural style known as gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り). The Gasshō-zukuri, “prayer-hands construction” style is characterized by a … roof resembling two hands joined in prayer.

This is the sort of hyperbole that could only have been hatched by a real estate agent and a travel agent over a liquid lunch. But whilst the roofs looked nothing like two hands joined in prayer they were steeply pitched, strongly made and thickly thatched, ideally suited for a region of heavy snow fall. In addition the buildings were large and designed for group occupancy making them more efficient to heat.

Shirakawa-go is tucked away in the mountains where, in time past, growing enough rice to pay the annual burden of tax would have been difficult. Access these days is via lengthy road tunnels. The tax collector would have had a much harder time, perhaps the people here were, to some extent, immune from his attention. There are still some rice fields in the valley bottom but the main industry formerly was silk production.

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It happened that we were there on one of the few nights that the village is floodlit at night. So after a splendid evening meal in a restaurant there we re-emerged and wandered through a quite magnificent scene.

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