Japan trip, day 6 – Inuyama

I woke early on Monday morning having set two alarms – I wanted to make sure I was up at 6.20 for the monk who was coming to collect me for morning prayers at 6.50am.

Thankfully I made it off the tatami floor and got dressed and washed (at a sink) before I was called. I and the other people staying at the temple (a mix of Japanese and a couple of French people) were taken to a small building, took our shoes off and sat on benches in front of a shrine, with the chief monk (I can’t remember what you call them!) sat with his back to us, facing the shrine.

With a bell ringing, and cymbals being rubbed together, the prayers started. It was a lot of chanting which I couldn’t understand but we were given a sheet explaining and translating one particular section. The other monk present spoke English and invited us at one part of the ceremony to drop three pinches of special incense into a bowl in front of the shrine, after kneeling down in front of it. I was the only Westerner to do it – I didn’t want to come all that way and not take part in some small way.

After that it was breakfast time – held in the same room as dinner the night before, it was again vegan, and tasty.

Breakfast done, I felt I’d seen everything in Koyasan that I’d wanted to see – and aware I had a four and a half hour journey to my next destination – I wanted to get going.

I was heading from Koyasan via Osaka to a small town called Inuyama which I’d read about. I was particularly going to see an activity which is practiced in a few places in Japan, but apparently Inuyama was the best place to go to see it in action.

After several train journeys, including the lightening fast Shinkansen from Osaka to Nagoya,I arrived in Inuyama. I’d booked myself in at a modern ryokan which from the outside looked like a hotel, but had japanese style rooms. I’d recommend the Geihanro if you’re ever in town! I faced a long and very sweaty walk to the hotel, and when I arrived I was told my room wouldn’t be ready for another hour, so I went for a quick wander and checked out a very posh but stuffy hotel just along the river.

After finally getting in to my room, I had a shower, which I was grateful for. My reason for being in Inuyama wouldn’t start until about 6.30, so I went to explore Inuyama Castle. One of the oldest surviving feudal castles in Japan, it was built in 1537, and is one of only four castles in Japan to be dedicated as a national treasure.

Inside were four storeys with very steep staircases. You could look out windows that hundreds of years before people would have been peering out looking for enemies approaching. The best thing about the castle was the view from the top though.

After a quick visit to the town’s museum (all exhibits in Japanese so didn’t learn much) I headed back to the hotel and met Mr Hiro Oya. He works at the hotel and had helpfully booked me in for the ukai I was about to see after I’d sent him an e-mail from the UK he was really nice and helpful.

The boat picked me up around the front of the hotel and we floated up the River Kiso in the darkness, only illuminated by the lanterns swinging from the roofing. After a quick tour, we met up with two other boats on the river, and waited…..

I’d come to Inuyama to see a tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Japan – cormorant fishing, or ukai. Basically it is using birds to catch fish. Fishermen take the birds out on a boat with a fire lantern – the fire attracts the fish to the surface. Then cormorants, each with a string around its neck dive into the river. The fisherman seems to control them somehow as they duck and dive under the water.

Seeing this up close was just amazing. The fishermen undoubtedly had learnt their trade and trained their birds well. It was just like something out of a film. If a bird looked like it had got lucky, the fisherman pulled it in and massaged its throat until it coughed the pristine fish up. Presumably they’d then be washed and sold.

We watched spellbound for about 20 minutes as the birds dove under the water’s surface. It was just incredible to see and something I’ll never forget.

Is it cruel on the birds? I don’t know really. They would live for 4-5 years if they were wild, but these birds that had been trained would live until they were 15 or 20. Of course you could argue that’s not much of a life, but I presume they’re well looked after when they’re not doing their thing for 20 minutes each evening. I hope so anyway.

After the boat dropped me back at the hotel it was time for dinner. I’d been recommended to try a local eel delicacy by Mr Ora but (un)fortunately that restaurant would be closing for the night soon. Instead I headed to Mantovana, a small Italian restaurant I’d noticed earlier in the day. Mr Ora said the chef had trained in Italy but had limited English, but I thought I’d get by with my limited Japanese as well!

When I arrived a shopkeeper I’d met earlier in the day was eating at the bar, and was deep in conversation with the chef and waitress. There was only (now) four of us in the place so I sat at the bar and eventually managed to order garlic bread and a pasta dish.

We soon started chatting in a weird mix of Japanese and English. They wanted to know where I came from, where I’d been in Japan and so on. I found out the two ladies had been to Rome and Finland and Paris. Then we got on to the subject of food and I explained I loved Japanese food and made bento boxes for lunch. They asked what kind of things I put in them, and the subject of umeboshi or pickled plums came up. They are an acquired taste – sweet but incredibly tart at the same time. It’s like sucking on a lemon. The shopkeeper disappeared out the door and came back ten minutes later with a pack of umeboshi for me and the staff. It was really nice of her.

The food was delicious, and trade was beginning to pick up by the time I left to go back to my hotel – I had another long journey to make tomorrow. The best part of the evening though was when the whisky drinking chef asked if I knew 24 the tv series. “You look like Jack Bauer” he said. Result!