Mandy Bartok currently lives in Kyushu, and she has been a Japan Times contributor since 2009. When not chasing after her exuberant toddler, she blogs about Japan for travelers at uncoveringjapan.com.
For Mandy Bartok's latest contributions to The Japan Times, see below:
May 14, 2016
Despite my short stature, I have to bend nearly in half to enter the underground chamber of reconstructed fifth-century tomb in the Kumamoto Prefecture Decorative Tumulus Museum. The entire tomb is modeled after an actual mound in the nearby city of Yamaga, and inside the chamber, a replica stone altar sits under a rocky dome, bold geometric designs gracing its underbelly. Just above the decorations are a triangular black mouth and a pair of what seem to be scarlet eyes, as if to stare down intruders. To the right, a simplified human figure with arms raised stands against a blood-red background. Life in southern Japan during the third to sixth centuries — with violence and disease as a quotidian struggle — may not have been pretty but, if the walls of the chamber are anything to go by, death certainly was.
Apr 9, 2016
The gray spring clouds have given way to a gentle drizzle by the time I pull my car into a spacious parking lot bordering the Tabaruzaka battlefield. It's fitting weather, considering the massive battle that took place here in 1877 in this rural corner north of Kumamoto city was fought in similar conditions. Yet despite the 17-day conflict racking up enough casualties to mark it as one of the country's most noted battles, Tabaruzaka sits all but forgotten in its idyllic rural setting.
Jan 30, 2016
The winter vocabulary of the majority of Japan residents doesn't include the color turquoise. Or aquamarine, azure or the somewhat intellectually pompous "cerulean." This, however, is the palette I attempt to describe with my husband as we turn our tiny rental car onto the bridge leading to Kouri Island, a tiny speck just off the northern coast of Okinawa's Motobu Peninsula.
Jan 23, 2016
Marred though the view is with power lines and other trappings of modernity, the rainbow that appears at the far end of Tsubame-Sanjo Station seems a rather auspicious beginning. The initial impression that greeted us in front of this largely unpopular station just south of Niigata on the Joetsu Shinkansen line was a panorama of patchy snow, dirtied by tires and car exhaust, pounded down with a light layer of hail. As the clouds break and the multicolor mirage appears, however, I begin to feel slightly optimistic about our escape to snow country.
Jan 2, 2016
The first official gate to the Taikodani Inari Shrine sits at the turn-off to tiny Tsuwano from the circuitous mountain highway that links Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures. The shrine's main hall, however, sits on another peak halfway across town, a good five-minute drive away. I let my car idle at the traffic lights near the valley floor, conferring with my travel companion, Elaine, as to our next move. While the town to our right begs us to walk its lantern-lined streets, the threatening clouds above — a complete surprise in the forecast — encourage us to make the final ascent up to the main parking area of Taikodani.
Oct 31, 2015
I nearly walk by Aomori's Furukawa market on the first pass, expecting something akin to the cacophony of Tokyo's central wholesale fish market (known casually to most as Tsukiji). Sliding open the door to the squat building, however, I am assaulted with the not unwelcome scent of fresh seafood, an encouraging sign that I am in the right place. The ticket booth just inside the door is one more reassurance that this city on the tip of Japan's main island of Honshu still serves up to visitors the freshest fish market-to-table breakfast in the country.
Sep 19, 2015
Despite the fact that we've arrived on a weekend, the parking lot along Kakunodate's river is relatively empty. From our spot under the shady branches, my friends Felicity and Nori and I haul our convenience-store-purchased picnic up to the edge of the walking path that hugs Hinokinai River. The cherry blossoms that make this riverside ramble one of the most renowned hanami destinations in northern Japan have long since deserted the numerous branches. However, the trees' coat of late season green is the perfect backdrop to our impromptu picnic in what is arguably Akita Prefecture's most beautiful town.
Aug 29, 2015
The island of Okinawa shimmers beneath the wing of our plane, a dark green smudge on the azure seascape. I can't see it well, ensconced as I am in the aisle seat, already subconsciously distancing myself from this visit. But my daughter, on the other end of the row, peers out the window with wide eager eyes, hungry for a glimpse of her first home.
Aug 1, 2015
The streets of Arita's Uchiyama porcelain district are mostly deserted this overcast Sunday, a boon for me as I am looking anywhere but at the sidewalk in front of me. My eyes are drawn instead to the parade of restored buildings that front the street, a veritable "name that era" of architectural styles. The edifices here might date anywhere from the Edo Period (1603-1868) to the Taisho Era (1912-1926), but the porcelain vessels contained within have a heritage that stretches back centuries.
Jun 13, 2015
Three meters above my head, the rectangular offering box of Motonosumi Inari Shrine seems impossibly out of my reach. For the 23rd time, I wind back my arm and attempt to lob my chosen donation between the narrow slats. For the 23rd time, the coin takes on a trajectory I'm certain I didn't intend ... and soars over the torii gate where the box balances and into the road.
May 2, 2015
It's late afternoon as my family and I motor into the Iya Valley, a remote region of western Tokushima Prefecture. Billed as many things — a lost paradise, a secret hideaway, a rural escape — by the area's tourism brochures, I find that no adjectives can accurately capture the interplay of light and water here. Sure, the rock formations that comprise the walls of the Oboke Gorge are unique enough to comment on themselves, but there is a magic to the way the fading rays of the sun glimmer on the turquoise water of the Yoshino River.
Feb 14, 2015
Dec 20, 2014
The two sounds occur almost simultaneously: Just as my cellphone alarm begins its melodious chime to rouse me from sleep, the dark clouds above my guesthouse in the town of Tanabe on the Kii Peninsula burst forth with a pounding rain. Within minutes, it's clear that my plans of spending three days hiking the Nakahechi branch of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail have quite literally gone awash.
Nov 8, 2014
We're only a few minutes into our climb up one of Yamagata Prefecture's holy mountains, Mount Hojusan, and already our pace has slowed considerably. Our destination is Risshakuji Temple, more colloquially known as Yamadera (literally: "mountain temple"), a far-north outpost of Tendai Buddhism since 860. To reach the promised vistas from the mountain's peak, however, requires tackling a series of staircases totaling more than 1,000 steps.
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