Moving right along …

Our stay in Kyushu was at an end.

The scenery had been beautiful, the weather atrocious. Our leaders, Mark Brazil and Mineko Dohata, by being flexible with the timetable, had done a sterling job of providing the best experience available in the prevailing conditions.

A degree of cohesion was emerging within the group. We had been trained to extract our own lunches from Japanese convenience stores with the minimum of wasted time. This was a great adventure since none of us could read the labels! Amidst the dazzling array of multi-coloured shelves Mineko-san flew around keeping meat products out of vegetarian shopping baskets and wheat away from the gluten intolerant. Taking pot luck with the soft drinks gave some very interesting results. But chocolate is chocolate anywhere, the ideal lunch.

The crane centre at Arasaki was a highlight for McGee the birder but a dismal failure for McGee the photographer. From the ground, fencing and distance gave poor results, from the roof the angle was poor. Seventeen thousand cloacae and 34,000 feet plus rain had made a mess of the background and the rotten light made the flight shots grainy. The surrounding fields would have been a better option but for the rain running down your neck.

But it is what it is, and everything seemed so much better in the onsen which had quickly become a daily ritual.

Time had come to fly north. The hotel staff turned out to wave us on our way. They stood in the rain, bowing and waving by turns until the bus was out of sight.


Of Temples and Shrines …

The majority of Japanese, these days, are not deeply religious. Most, if pressed, might identify as Shinto or Buddhist or both.

Shinto has been in Japan for as long as the Japanese. It is an animist religion, has no founder, no holy book, no place for conversion. It values certain virtues (conforming to the way) and recognises divine spirits, kami, that may reside  in animals, trees, mountains, streams. And surely, in a land so prone to earthquakes, landslides, avalanches and tsunami an offering or two to placate the forces of nature could not go astray.

Buddhism arrived in the 6th century AD. Although much richer in intellectual tradition it also stresses the importance of living in the appropriate way. It doesn’t come with an all powerful god that must be obeyed. Since it came to Japan via China it also came with a goodly overlay of Confucianism.

It made for an easy mix and match style of religion which was embraced by the governments of the day. Indeed, a quick rewrite of the descent of the imperial family history and government and religion are melded, obedience to government is obedience to the will of the gods. The rule of the state was referred to as matsurigoto, a word very close to that for religious ritual – matsuri – that was used to refer to both government and worship.

It was during this period of integration in 7th and 8th centuries that the  the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, gained greater prominence and was proclaimed the ancestor of the emperors. The first emperor, you will recall, was named Jimmu, a Buddhist name that would not have been current back in the time of his rule.

The religious calendar was an important part of political practise, observance of appropriate ritual ensured that the kami looked after the people, and that the people obeyed the government. Places of worship were all embracing with regards to Shinto and Buddhism and the kami could be regarded as transformations of the Buddha.

This cosy relationship of religion and state got a bit of a shake when the Christian missionaries arrived. The new religion wasn’t a comfortable fit with the old and was soon outlawed. Buddhism was promoted by the government and gained greater authority for a while.

The Meiji restoration (1868) brought back the emperor and of course his divine descent. The pendulum swung back to Shinto. The government set about separating the two religions, Buddhism was sent back to its temples and Shinto ruled in its shrines.

This is a shrine in Izumi …


Beyond the torii gate, draped with the plaited rope (shimenawa) and strips of white paper in the form of lightning bolts (shime), is the shrine.  On the right before that is the fountain (temizuya) …


and the view from there of the shrine partially obscured by abandoned (mis)fortunes.


The Japanese are likely to celebrate the birth of a baby or get married with a ceremony at a Shinto Shrine. Other times they may make a brief observance at the threshold, no need to go in and endure a two hour mass.

When it comes time to depart this earthly realm it is likely to be via the Buddhist Temple. This one is also in Izumi …


and has this beautiful garden. The blossom is already on the trees. It’s mid February – the season is well ahead of the calendar this year.



Izumi Fumoto …

Matsudaira Takechiyo (1543-1616) was born at a time of great turbulence. He was the son of the daimyo (feudal lord) of Mikawa of the Matsudaira clan. The great clans were in intense rivalry, intrigue and murder were the order of the day with open warfare from time to time.

In 1548 the Oda clan invaded Mikawa. Help was sought from the Imagawa clan. And granted on condition that the 5 year old Takechiyo was sent as a hostage. The Oda clan got wind of this arrangement and kidnapped the boy en route. His father was called on to switch sides but declined.

This could easily have been a premature end for the man who would come to be known as Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun. But his life was spared, the Oda found another way of dealing with his father who was dead within the year.

Ieyasu spent the next few years as hostage to the Oda, who were defeated in time by the Imagawa. From age nine to thirteen he was a hostage of the Imagawa. Released he slowly rose to prominence. By 1600 there were two great groups in contention for overarching power in Japan. At the battle of Sekigahara 160,000 men faced each other. Ieyasu, leader of the Tokugawa defeated the Western Bloc to become the military ruler of all Japan.

The Emperor named him Shogun in 1603, he retired from the title in 1605 in favour of his son, Hidetada, but effectively retained power until his death. He set in place a system that would endure until 1867, the Tokugawa Shogunate. A period of internal peace, political stability, and economic growth but also a period of rigid social control and isolation from the rest of the world. The capital was moved to Edo which we now know as Tokyo hence an alternative name for the Shogunate, the Edo Period.

There were four social classes, samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Whichever class you were born into set the boundaries for your entire life. Eighty percent of the populace were farmers. The samurai became the bureaucracy and were supported by a levy on agricultural production. As the economy flourished it was the artisans and merchants that moved ahead. Eventually the internal inequalities combined with external forces to bring about the disorder that led to the Meiji restoration.

So here we are in samurai quarter of Izumi in the south of Kyushu on a rainy winter day …



During the Shogunate this place was of strategic importance to the Satsuma domain.  For administrative purposes the domain was divided into blocks called tojo and at the centre of each tojo was an administrative area called fumoto. The Izumi Fumoto was built about four hundred years ago and has changed little in outward appearance. Neat streets lined with river stone walls, samurai gates and manicured gardens are preserved but this is still a residential neighbourhood. A few of the houses are open to visitors. This is inside the Takezoe Residence …



On the street we encountered this young lady on her way to a ceremony to celebrate her twentieth birthday. She was only to pleased to pose for us …

Kimono (1)

and on her kimono – cranes. May her wish be granted.



One Thousand Cranes …


In Japanese folk tradition, the crane is a symbol of fidelity, honesty, health and longevity. A crane will live a thousand years and if you fold a thousand paper cranes one will carry a wish to heaven for you. That wish may well be for a long and happy marriage.

At Arasaki in Kagoshima prefecture you have every chance of finding just the right crane to entrust your wish to. It is the wintering place for perhaps as many as 17,000 of them. The majority are Hooded Cranes, almost all the rest are White-naped Cranes. Both these species fly north via the Korean peninsula to nest in swamps in continental Asia.

Hooded Crane
Hooded Crane
Hooded Crane
Hooded Crane
White-naped Crane
White-naped Crane
White-naped Crane
White-naped Crane

At Arasaki there is a visitor centre with an outdoor observation deck. Grain and fish are put out for the cranes. They are quite a tourist attraction but the birds are assured of a little peace by fences that keep out the people. Some fields are kept flooded, the cranes always spend the night standing in water.

They start to arrive in mid October, start to leave in February and are gone by March. Numbers have risen over time from less than 300 in the late 1940’s to 17,005 (an unlikely degree of precision) in 2015. That is very likely good news for cranes although there are now fewer of them wintering in other locations.

The pair bond is maintained during the winter and last year’s young stay with their parents until it’s time to go north again, so as you watch what can seem like an amorphous mass of birds you soon start to pick out adult pairs that may have one or two youngsters with them.

At times they are a fairly noisy bunch and as spring approaches they start to dance and display.


Just occasionally you can find a Sandhill Crane or two. Their breeding ground is further north and most cross the Bering Strait to winter in North America but a few come south to Kyushu. I was also lucky enough to see a Common Crane that had wandered east from its normal range. It was keeping company with a Hooded Crane, the two species do occasionally hybridise.

The donation of free food attracts a few other birds as well. Black-eared Kites, Grey Herons, Eastern Rooks, Daurian Jackdaws and Common Starlings (not at all common in Japan) all drop in for a feed.

In the marshes not far away we encountered nine distant spoonbills. Seven were Eurasian Spoonbills, two were Black-faced. This was indeed a treat, the Black-faced Spoonbill is rare and endangered (and new to my list).

… only 999 to go.

Satsuma-imo …

Kyushu, being the most southerly of the main islands of Japan has the mildest climate. This is where the Japanese sweet potato, satsuma-imo, grows to perfection.

At a view point overlooking Lake Miike we came across this guy.


I like to ask permission before taking photos of people in the street. Not only was he happy to oblige, the sweet potato man gave me some to try. As a kid I really liked to eat chestnuts roasted on the coals of an open fire. The satsuma-imo brought those memories flooding back. The texture is similar and the taste is delicious. My face must have lit up.

Good karma. Within minutes he had sold a bagful to our little band of tourists.