Monday, 11 April 2016

Hamamatsu: everything there is to do in Hamamatsu

And so, having determined to make the most of my brief stay in Hamamatsu, I proceeded to boldly do, if not everything, at least a significant proportion of the things you can do in Hamamatsu proper when your Japanese is only tolerable.

Quite a large proportion of these, it turns out, are going to Hamamatsu Castle.


It was a pleasantly cool morning, though it would get hotter, and the sky was a gorgeous blue. I decided to begin by wandering gently towards the castle, but having no particular rush to get there, I looked around and tried to soak in the city a bit.

Now I must confess that, in general, I'm well past the stage of finding Japanese cities generically interesting. They're not novel to me any more - at least, I've got used to both the generic suburbs and the generic city centres, as well as common types of building. The excitement of seeing them that existed when I first arrived has long worn off.

On the other hand, I don't have the same interest in them as I might in a British city. Ironically I think there's an uncanny valley here. When a city is new and foreign and fresh, it's interesting because of its novelty - all the things you aren't familiar with. At the other extreme, when you've lived amongst a particular style of building for decades, you've so much experience of so many thousands of exemplars (whether that's individual buildings, street layouts, city organisations etc.) that you can draw comparisons, spot local variation, and generally evaluate as part of a rich context you've built up. You also build up knowlege of how those things relate to history and technological development, social factors, and other interesting points to consider.

When you've spent a mere few months in small parts of a small number of cities, the gloss of novelty is gone, but you haven't yet built up the context that makes differences meaningful. Now the tall tiled apartment block just looks like a manshon and they all look pretty much the same, don't they? Oh look, there's some sort of traditionalish restaurant with wooden facing. Hey, a temple.

Which is to say that I think Hamamatsu probably has a slightly unfair deal here. However, I did stop to appreciate some specific buildings and views that I'd like to share with you. Just things that tickled my personal fancy.

If you want to play along at home, here's my route for the day!

And now, more in my popular series of "leaves on roofs".

This building is almost entirely made of corrugated iron, and it was more striking in person. I kept expecting it to make a noise in the breeze, but there was no breeze, and it was eerily silent. Amongst all the concrete it seemed strangely dated, rugged and individualistic, turning a defiant face to the city.

The Iron House and the temple can be found here on Google Maps.

There were long rows of flowerpots outside a manshon near the castle.

The House of Vines

So I paused for a drink in a car park, and then I saw it: the House of Vines. If ever a building was taken from a survival horror game, this was surely it.

I have to say, if you haven't spotted this already, I do find something fascinating about industrial and similarly brutal architecture. The heavy rust of the fire escape - and the fact that it seems totally useful for escaping fires, although on reflection it might just a way up to the roof - combine with the hungry encroaching vines to give it a real sense of decay and doom.

Mind you, in spring it's probably covered in leaves and quite pretty.

Despite my best efforts, I was not able to find this sinister house again. It may have been a ghost. If anyone knows Hamamatsu and can find it, let me know!

The House of Vines turns out to be just outside the City Central Library (浜松市立中央図書館).

I was struck by this juxtaposition of relatively traditional house (not visible!) with Japanese garden, and a tower block, against the ocean-like sky.


I was captivated by a cluster of conifer bushes; something about the radiating shapes and the contrast between vibrant green and soft, speckled egg-like brown.

The castle grounds

Eventually, I made my way to the castle sometime in mid-morning. Like most castles in Japan, it's surrounded by a small park.

In this case, apparently there's been enough antisocial conduct that they need to implement by-laws for cherry blossom viewing. Rules include a ban on reserving spots in the name of companies or anything other than an actual person; I would guess some enterprising pest has been trying to reserve and then rent out good spaces, but it might just be that individual companies have been booking up the best bits of the park for company picnics, and excluding ordinary people. Bonfires are also forbidden in favour of gas burners. Companies are forbidden to trade in the park; I imagine otherwise people would come to sell food and beer. And of course, you must clean up after yourself and take your litter home (since there will be no public bins whatsoever, possibly in the entire city).

Sakurage VIII: Revenge of Bride of Cherry Blossom

Don't pretend you didn't know it was coming.

A lot of blossoms had already fallen here, and there was a delicate carpet of pink.

I thought these stones looked like little islands adrift in a pink sea.

A great scarlet horror arises from the depths, breaching for a few brief seconds before sinking back into the unknown abyss of the cherry ocean.

A noble ant scurries tirelessly amongst the crags.

Hamamatsu Castle

The castle dates from the early 16th century, though most of it was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration; what you can see is the surviving stone base with a concrete replica of the tower, built in 1958. It has a little museum inside, like most castles.

The "wooden" rails are artistic concrete; not bad.

Exploring textures

I really like the mottling on these stones for some reason.

This interestingly-contorted tree trunk protruded from the walls.

A small shrine in the grounds. I don't know much about this, unfortunately.

The tower

The castle part of the castle is, to be honest, a bit underwhelming. It's a nice enough spot though, I can see myself coming here to chill.

View vaguely south-east

A view of the tower and courtyard

Views from the tower

Looking east from the tower...

...and looking south

Supposedly, in the center of this photo, you can see Mt. Fuji.

I remain unconvinced, to be honest.

View over the cherry park

The flags

This is the flag of the castle itself; I'm not sure what the red one was, something to do with the city, possible a cultural or historical trust flag?

A quick description of the tower, for the interested.

The tower museum

The museum had what I now think of as the usual stuff. Japanese museums are keen on models of the city at key historical periods (as are many museums here) and I find them quite interesting. I personally tend to find it striking just how far the city has transformed, although perhaps this is substantially down to the radical shift in Japanese architecture.

I don't pretend to be any kind of expert, but the introduction of Western-style architecture seems to have caused a sudden explosion of high-rise concrete building at a time when this seemed new and exciting, and none of the issues we associate with it now were really at the forefront of anyone's mind. Moreover, the traditional short-lifespan buildings and the devastation of the war left a fresh canvas for completely redesigning cities, whereas most Western ones had more surviving old architecture. So Japanese landscapes transformed, in a way others I've seen mostly didn't, from scattered low-rise buildings to a forest of concrete fingers. I think. I might be wrong.

Armour of one of the nobles who lived here.

A guide to armour parts.

Remnants of an afternoon

I spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering in the castle and then the park, and headed back towards the station for lunch; I'd seen a grilled eel restaurant (located near the station the other night and was keen to try it.

Drink up! Enjoy refreshing times!

A nice, tasty meal with a token amount of vegetables. I never did work out where vegetables enter the Japanese diet, except for explicitly ordering tempura-battered vegetables.

Wandering the streets

My after-lunch plan was to wander around the area a bit, consider visiting the science museum, and then walk by the river and parks. Nothing too strenuous, it was getting hot.

The science museum proved easy to find, but not particularly comfortable to get to - there were a lot of side-streets to wind through, with no pavements. I was listening to various podcasts as I wandered along and enjoying the breeze.

When I arrived and inspected the museum's notices and so on, it seemed like this would be basically a child-friendly museum where you can learn a little bit of basic science by playing with foam balls, air currents, water flows and so on. Fine, but I've done all that sort of thing before, and I wasn't sure I'd get much out of doing it again but in Japanese. I just wasn't in the mood, it turned out. So I turned away and kept going, then took a walk along the river flowing gently north.

It looks like I didn't feel the urge to take many photos along this part of the route. Most of it was either side streets or a very similar-looking stretch of river. It's one of the nicer ones, because this river does actually have a few bits of vegetation here and there, which is relatively unusual. Thank you, Google.

As it was really quite hot, I decided to stop for a Pokari Sweat (sadly, no sponsorship deal offered yet despite my plugging...) at a 7-11, before turning down Akutodoori Park (which is to say, "ACT Road Park", named for the Act Centre, of which more later). Not much of a walk by my standards, but hey, I'd been wandering around all day in the heat.

Down one side-street I found an unexpected church. This is, of course, a dedicated wedding venue, but boy is it elaborate.

Akutodoori Park is a long stretch of vaguely parky substance, stretching North-South from the Act Centre up to Shizuoka University of Art and Culture.

I don't know about anyone else, but when I pass a university a small part of me is always seized with a desire to study there, and sets me wondering what fascinating things I would learn. Ah, the lives that might have been... I don't know why it's universities that set me off. And I work in universities, so I mean, it's not like I'm not constantly surrounded by university stuff, which frankly is fairly similar in the various institutions where I've worked. But still. Part of me still believes in the magic, instilled long ago by contemplation of a several-foot-tall heap of prospecti filled with glamorous pictures of happy teenagers discovering the world, in the days when all the world conspired to convince me that here and now was my future unfurling, and the decisions made now would shape all the rest of my days.

And wryly though I might write that (impolitely long and convoluted - my apologies) sentence, my studies led me on the path of languages and thence to Japan, while my degree was the prerequisite that landed me the first in a succession of university jobs, so they weren't wrong.

The park wouldn't really fit any of my usual criteria for "park", but heck, it's some grass, I'll take it. I needed a sit-down anyway.

Eventually I made my way down to the ACT Centre, a big performing arts venue. I had a look around at what was on, but as far as I could tell there was nothing to tempt me. This was a recurring feature of my time in Japan, on both occasions so far.

This gigantic wire french horn statue is outside Act City, a big events venue near the station. I thought my brother would like it.

So, I read for a while, sat in a cafe writing blogposts and emails, and wandered over to the station again to seek out a restaurant to grab some food.

And with the onset of night, having spent a couple of hours of the evening sitting in Starbucks where I could actually use the wifi - time to get back to the hotel.

Setting things straight

Poor old Hamamatsu didn't get much of a look-in, really. To some extent, it was always going to be a more sedate break between two very busy cities with a lot of tourist pull; that was the plan.

One of the key factors here is that Hamamatsu tourism is actually primarily focused on the enormous lake ten miles to the west, which is home to watersports, temples, nature walks and so on. However, to take advantage of it I'd really have had to work this out and plan it ahead of time, travel ten miles first thing in the morning and then spend the day wandering around a completely unknown stretch of possibly-countryside?

In my experience, unknown countryside is not very amenable to the tourist in the first place; couple that with my total ignorance of rules governing countryside conduct in Japan and it's a recipe for trouble. More generally, a lot of my enjoyment of the British countryside comes from the freedom to walk about, but I'd have no idea what footpaths existed and I bet there isn't a Right to Roam in Japan. Walking along some pavementless tarmac strips near a scrubby field doesn't sound fun.

Otherwise, wandering the streets of a town near a built-up lake looked (from my Googling) indistinguishable from wandering the streets of a town less near a built-up lake. I mean, this ain't Grasmere. And I wasn't looking for watersports. Like many activities, it didn't sound very much fun for a lone traveller.

In fairness to myself, I'd planned the last week of my trip rather at the last minute, and didn't have much time to research.

It looks as though I missed out on a couple of largeish parks, and numerous temples. I'm not exactly cut up about either; parks are nice but I've seen plenty. I'm told there's an apiary somewhere, which I'm sorry to have missed because I'm curious about that (it's actually 20km away, and appears to be basically just a honey shop with some bees, though that's based 100% on the photos I could find!).

There are at least two small caverns: Ryugashido and Washizawa Fuuketsu (鷲沢風穴). Let me first say that Ryugashido has the most terrifyingly early 90s website I have seen in many a year, complete with visitor counter (man, those were cool once). The two caves are close to each other, and a very long way from Hamamatsu; at least, I consider 20km to be "not actually in Hamamatsu, like". They're probably interesting, although again, I have seen several caves of varying size and interest, so it's not going to be a high priority to travel 20km out of my way to see another small and averagely interesting cave by myself.

Something I do slightly regret missing is the Unagi Pie Factory (Eel Pie, that is) because I'm interested in industrial things and in food. On the flipside, Google thinks it's a supermarket and I do wonder... I suspect from the website that the visiting part may only really be intended for children on school trips and so on.

Hamamatsu has a zoo! I like zoos. I have heard about Japanese zoos and visited a Chinese zoo. As an animal lover I have no regrets whatsoever about omitting this from my schedule.

Finally, there's things like a tall tower where you can get a view of the city (very common in Japan, it seems) and some kind of vaguely historic railway. Probably an enjoyable relatively relaxing experience, though not I think as cool as a steam railway. Also miles away.

Basically, I did about as much as I reasonably could, given I'm one foreigner on my own on a citybreak arranged at short notice with no transport. But you could probably do better.

If you do go to Hamamatsu, drop by the Starbucks in Kajimachi and say you were directed there by a long-haired foreign guy because their staff were really friendly and chatted to me about my visit. I can't deny that I think some of it may have been bafflement as to why anyone (at least, anyone apparently without local connections) would be taking a holiday in Hamamatsu. But mostly they were probably just nice.

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