My Umbrella

The simple question from my work colleague was “where did I get my umbrella?” It might look like an ordinary, cheap looking, clear plastic, black ribbed and black handled umbrella. But that umbrella is a link to disaster, resilience, hope and friendship.

Here is the story of my umbrella.

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Miffy Cafe brings smiles in Kamaishi

Fair to say that I am not a fan of theme cafes. But the unmistakable line visage of Miffy adorning a cafe in far-off Kamaishi took Veronica and I back to those days some 30 years ago when Dick Bruna’s classics were a favourite in our household. We just had to go in.

That simple outlined image of a rabbit, often depicted with intense colour, associated with parent’s reading and children’s laughter. What a juxtaposition for Miffy to be in front of us here – a place of death and destruction, an engulfing tsunami etched in survivor’s memories, forever captured on video and seemingly endlessly repeated.

Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture was severely impacted by the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The physical impact is still being repaired with massive reconstruction efforts on land and in the harbour. And no doubt the psychological impacts remain, maybe never to be fully healed.

So what a delight to pop in to Miffy Cafe late on an April night just before closing. The whole cafe is themed around Miffy, including a menu of Dutch favourites. Being so late, we were lucky enough to be able to chat at some length to staff and to the passionate young cafe manager, Nobuyuki Owada.

Nobuyuki, a Kamaishi local himself, believed his store had a place in lifting the spirits of Kamaishi, where many had witnessed and experienced the tsunami’s devastation on that afternoon of March 11, 2011. And we had to agree with him.

We can only wish he and his staff, and Kamaishi as a community, strength in re-building and moving forward.

Visitors are slowly returning to the hard-hit Iwate Prefecture from within Japan. The Miffy Cafe is also gaining a solid reputation as a destination for local travellers international visitors like us, who until recently were not very common. So put Iwate Prefecture, Kamaishi and Miffy Cafe on your next itinerary.

See Miffy Cafe Kamaishi on Facebook and Dick Bruna Japan on Facebook.

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Cafe Ryusenkei replaces a faster music life

So this is Cafe Ryusenkei, an American Airstream caravan from the 60’s transformed into an intimate, mobile cafe fitted out by award-winning designers. Moving from place to place, a calendar identifying the next port of call.

Beyond the mantra of ‘all travel is good’ there can be a 30 minute experience that lingers way beyond others. And Cafe Ryusenkei at Sounzan in Hakone is just one of those. And what makes it more memorable in a time where travel can be managed to the minute, and us travelers never are unwired from our phone or tablet – Sounzan was not on the day’s plan. And certainly the delightful conversation that ensued was unexpected.

The grey mist floating about the silver cafe van provided a mystic, maybe haunting backdrop. The small menu board inviting us in for a hot meal and drink. With only a few seats inside the van, the intimacy is relaxing and seems to draw out conversation.

The cafe of style is run by Tomohisa Gora, clearly a man of fashion, intelligence, business acumen, love of music and vision. Our short conversations focused on Tomo (surely I can call him that, I have known him for all of 30 minutes). Many questions were earnestly answered, with great thought, and often with a finger tapping on his chin – reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. Was this his business? how did he get the caravan? Why here in Sounzan? What was your career before this?

Tomo spent most of his career in music production in Japan and overseas and has now retired from that intense business to become Cafe Ryusenkei. Veronica and I found it difficult to comprehend such a contrast of livelihoods between the former and latter Tomo.

Check out where Cafe Ryusenkei is next. Here is the link to Cafe Ryusenkei on Facebook.

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Putting Hiraizumi on your itinerary 

A few hours north of Tokyo is the recently registered World Heritage Site of Hiraizumi that is recognised for its remarkable buildings and gardens that directly express Pure Land Buddhism.

I know little about Buddhism and less about the ancient connections with Japan as we now know it. The central place of Hiraizumi in religious and cultural history is highlighted in the fantastic Hiraizumi Tourism Association website.

So if you plan to head north past Sendai, maybe heading to Morioka, Aomori or over to Hokkaido – I would absolutely recommend a visit to Hiraizumi.

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Remains of the Stay

Traveling brings with it an accumulation of momentary conversations and connections. Relationships that are never developed, and highly unlikely to be rekindled. Like a variant on Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantastic book The Remains of the Day.

I smile to myself at times, reflecting fondly on those moments. I think I am a better person for having met otherwise random folk. On the other side of the world, maybe someone is mirroring those memories. I hope so.

There are too many of these instances to document. Making writing interesting about seemingly insignificant travel events relies on the context of being there at the time. A few though stand out for me, shaping an overwhelmingly positive set of experiences in half a dozen short trips to Japan.

So to Yau, Yoshiko and Yuri – I have not forgotten and here is a short version of your story that makes travel both a privilege and joy.

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Posted in Disasters, People, Small Towns and Villages, Temples and Shrines, Volunteer Guide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Finding old Tokyo in Nippori

Ueno Park is a significant draw card for visitors, for its museums, galleries, zoo, temples and quiet contemplation. Just to the north of the Ueno Park precinct is Nippori, an old part of Tokyo that has history, culture and a beautiful park that doubles as a cemetery. Or should that be the other way round? Nippori is definitely worth exploring on foot.

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Ok. Ok. I am wearing tights.

The universal snow symbol near Akita was a good clue that Kakunodate was not going to miss out on the upcoming cold snap. Predicted light snow from Tuesday when i was arriving, through till Friday AM, with the wind chill dropping to -12 Tuesday and rising to a great -5 by Friday.

When I got to Kakunodate it was actually a blizzard. Fantastic for this Australian used to heat and bush fires. White everywhere. I am not one for moping around the hotel foyer. I have traveled too far for that. So on with every piece of clothing and get amongst it.

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