Around Japan 2000

Visitor number (since September 2002):

Sleeping in unusual places...

On a cold frosty July morning after no sleep the night before we were finally at the airport, leaving Adelaide for new jobs in China, but with a stop on the way in Japan. However the airline, the now not so sadly demised Ansett, was not sure that they wanted to let us on the flight. The problem being that I didn't possess a visa for HK and only a one-way ticket. After much trauma, argument, brandishing of employment details and determining proof of fiscal status we were finally, reluctantly allowed to board. With scarcely a minute to spare we were left with precious little time for parting platitudes with my poor mother and sister who had got up before the crack of dawn to take us to the airport and bid us farewell.

Once aboard the problems didn't stop there. We had to change flights in Sydney and My wife suffered an horrendous sinus attack as the plane descended. However, the flight to Osaka went well and was probably only around 2/3 full which gave a good opportunity to move around. In our state of lethargy we did little but try to sleep, and when that could not be accomplished we played video games or watched videos. I struggled through 'Poppoya', a Japanese movie based on a famous book about a railway stationmaster in remote Hokkaido. It was a very slow and not terribly enjoyable movie, but as it combined some favourite themes of mine (snow, travel, Japan and trains) I stuck with it. It also starred Ken Takakura, one of my favourite Japanese actors. In the finale it had an incredibly sad and moving ending.


In contrast to what we had just left we flew into an incredibly hot Osaka which, like most of Japan, was suffering under a record heat spell. After cashing some cheques and sorting out our luggage we sent some bags off to Myoko carrying our winter clothes which were certainly not needed anymore (at this stage anyway). We caught a train out to Osakajokoen where we were picked up by My wife's friends Kumi and Yoshihiro. They took us out that night to the entertainment district of Osaka where we ate at an izakaya and ended up the usual way that Japanese dinners end. Quite drunk. For a treatise on this matter click here. Later we all slept in their apartment which was definitely not built with more than two people in mind! Then again I think most Japanese apartments are built that way. Next morning Yoshihiro took us to a local sento (bath house) which was really enjoyable. Given the heat I tried the cold pool for the first time ever which was a refreshing experience. Not quite trusting my luck I decided not to try the 'electric' bath which has a small electrical current running through it. It would be just my luck to have some power surge just after I jumped in and I end up looking a dead Charles Manson on a bad day. Before heading off to Kyoto in the afternoon we had lunch at a local okonomiyaki restaurant.


Kyoto is only a short hop from Osaka. We were intending to stop two nights with Miyako, our ex-homestay student in Seacliff. However she was sick the first night so we found a nice room at reasonable cost near Gion, the old entertainment and geisha area. It's called Annex and we would highly recommend it. Details can be found in the LP guide. After settling in we went for a walk, stopping to buy a bag full of snacks along the way. Much later we realised that we had left the bag in a telephone box. I rushed back and found it sitting untouched on the footpath outside the box. Only in Japan...!

My wife was certainly eating lots of Japanese food. Gorden-don (our teddy) was also becoming famous with several pictures being taken at different locations that have now appeared on his website. The next morning My wife, who is NEVER (and I mean NEVER) an early riser, decided to wake at 4.30am! She then tried to convince me it was 6.30am - which would have bad enough in itself anyway! She later claimed it was just because she was so excited to be back in Japan. The upshot was that eventually we headed out for a walk around 7am through Maruyama-koen (park) and then onwards to some famous parts of Kyoto. It worked out very well as we managed to not only beat the crowds but also the morning heat.

Later we caught a train out to Arashiyama and met Miyako along the way. It was good to see her again. Miyako had never spent time exploring Arashiyama so it was an interesting experience for all of us. After walking over the historic bridge and up through a nice forest we stopped at a noodle house for lunch. Then in was on to the tourist train heading up the gorge, followed by a short bus ride which then led to a boat trip back down the gorge in a traditional boat. Our main helmsman was a wiry old fellow who had been navigating the river for 50 years, starting as a child delivering rice and other agricultural goods downstream. Unfortunately we didn't get his picture, but got one of his two assistants instead.


Two of the Arashiyama boatmen (and Gorden)

Our party possessing the only gaijin that day, we were given the prime front seats in the boat. We finished off the afternoon sitting by the river watching a TV crew film a special. At one time the jovial and largish host wandered over and asked if I was drinking was Heineken beer. He was surprised to find me consuming chu-hai. Later I think we may have flashed across their camera range for a brief moment.

After that we headed back to Miyako's, stopping briefly along the way to collect our bags from a locker. Mr. Nakadai picked us up from the station and took us to their house on a hill overlooking Kyoto. One thing I found amazing is that history is everywhere in Kyoto. At one stage I asked them about the nice, but not outstanding, park at the back of their house. Apparently it was the site of a temple where one on the major characters involved in the establishment of the Tokugawa (Shogun) government prayed for victory in the battle to come. Mrs. Nakadai also told us about several other nearby interesting sites. Later Miyako's sweet grandmother, who lives in the house in front, came past to say hello and give us some omiyage (gifts). We had a lovely meal that night and it was almost like staying in a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn).

The next morning Mrs. Nakadai took us to Eiga-Mura (Movie Town) which is mostly a reproduction old town where most 'period' Japanese TV and movie productions are made. We even got to see one being made and had our photo taken afterward. We also had a photo in period costume. So now we have a photo as Japanese shogun to go with our Chinese Emperor/Empress taken in HK. Despite my doubts it was a fun place to visit and was surprisingly uncrowded. For some reason there were not many people around (for Japan) the whole time we were travelling. It might've had something to do with the heat, or people waiting until o-bon time to travel. The Nakadai family were extremely gracious and generous hosts and very well mannered in that typical Kyoto way.


After lunch it was back on the train heading to Niigata. It was lucky I had been able to charge the tickets to my Visa card (¥22,000 / A$360) as money was flowing out of my wallet much faster then I thought or wanted. Apart from having to spend an hour waiting in the heat to change trains in Kanazawa the trip to Omi was pleasant and we enjoyed the changing scenery along the way.

Kaori Ishida and Takeshi Shimada met us at the station and we were whipped straight off to dinner in Itoigawa with a large remnant of my former adult evening English class (Idobata). Later Akiko Shimada turned up and Takeshi was able to show off his new son Takuro. In the 18 months since we had last visited there had been many changes - some good, some bad. The stationmaster now only remains at his post until 6pm rather than 10pm (which appears to subtly indicate a decline in the viability/status of the town) and several businesses have closed. On the plus side there are a couple of new apartment buildings in the Nabiki area and a brand new house next to my favourite shokudo (Yamada-san's) near the station which gives a different perspective to the area.

The next morning, after an overnight stay with our friend Todd in Joetsu City, we were finally back in Myoko. It was good to see all the family again and the mountains were certainly a cool relief to the last few days. I made my first acquaintance with Saya-chan, my Japanese niece. After some initial misapprehension she took a shine to me which quite surprised everyone. She loved to point at me and say 'niku-san'. My wife and I started teaching her English, including 'ta' for thankyou. She already knows and loves the 'ABC' song. The first night there we had to pay a visit to my favourite okonomiyaki restaurant, Yamagishi. A couple of nights later we went out to a local Chinese restaurant, which apart from appearing to really be more of a Japanese restaurant also ran out of rice!

The Koshien baseball championships were on during my time in Japan. Even if one is not interested in baseball, sociologically these these fascinating. Every year thousands of high schools battle through preliminary matches in a bid to get to the national 'Koshien' championships (so called because of where they are played in Hyogo prefecture). It seems the whole nation tunes into, or at least takes an interest, in the finals. The matches are not always of a terribly high standard. I think what attracts is the notion that these are still indeed boys, young and not yet beholden to the modern sports dollar, reaching a pinnacle in their lives and playing the sport for the sheer love of it. After each game the combatants will take out bags and fill them with soil from the ground. It's almost as if a holy pilgrimage has been made, a mountaintop that most will never achieve again. There are conflicting emotions too - the absolute unrestrained joy of the winners and the devastated tears of the losers. One feels conflicting empathy watching it.

After only a couple of days in Myoko I had to head back down to Takada because Todd was heading back to Canada and wanted me to fill in for a few of his classes. There were not too many and I also got to stay at Todd's apartment in Takada. This afforded me the option of some lazy days where I could catch up some things and also just take it easy, doing things like reading a book. Opportunities certainly not granted readily in recent times. In between and after I headed back up to Myoko when I could. My wife and I had a lovely day at Togakushi in Nagano-ken, seeing some beautiful countryside, undertaking a longer than expected walk up to a temple, exploring a ninja house and some other old places (see picture), along with enjoying a large lunch of famous Tokagushi cold soba noodles.

Around Niigata

When My wife left for Tokyo to do some more study I used the opportunity to do a train trip up through the mountains that I had always wanted to but never got around to previously. I bought myself a local rail pass for the bargain price of ¥2,500 (about A$40.00) and headed north with the intention of completing it all in one day. A couple of hours in, through my mis-reading of the timetable I missed a connection by three minutes at Miyauchi. D'oh! I thought I might be able to do it going another way but then another four hours in a train didn't even turn up and left me waiting a further two hours! Still, the journey on the old diesel powered train (with no a/c!) from Niitsu was really pretty and would be regarded as a 'tourist train' ride in many other countries.

Eventually nearing dusk I got a train to a place called Kitakata in Fukushima-ken. I had decided to get off there and inspect the multitude of old 'kura' there, plus the Kumano jinja (shrine). Kitakata is also famous for it's ramen noodles, but I didn't find that out till afterwards. The last bus had left for the shrine by the time I arrived so after a short walk around town I decided to head out to it by foot. Well, darkness quickly set in by the time I had walked the 6-7km there. Not being able to see much I had to decide what my next plan of action would be. There was no heading home by this time so I thought I'd try walking to Aizubange - about 12km away, and find what I could there. Drizzle, narrow roads, strange noises from roadside bushes and a 7km to Aizubange sign discouraged me from this thought after about two hours of walking.

Fortunately I was able to hitch a lift after about 20 minutes and the kind English-speaking driver dropped me off in Aizubange. To my initial disappointment I found that the town had just finished celebrating it's yearly matsuri (festival). As I walked down the main street I met a cluster of old men still celebrating on a corner. They insisted I sit down, then set about forcing me to consume copious amounts of Japanese sake (not too difficult a job I guess).

With my new found friends - post Aizubange Matsuri

By midnight I decided that accommodation would not be needed as sleep would not be a problem and stumbled down to the eki (rail station) where I slept until 5.00am on the waiting room bench. To my surprise at around 5.30am it seemed half the town was up and about to help clean up. Finally at 6am I was able to get on the train that I had set out for over 18 hours prior.

From Aizubange it was trains (with excellent connections!) to Koide, Muikamachi, Naoetsu, and finally to Omi (my old town). I had arranged to meet the new ALT (Chris) who met me at the eki. We had a bit of a look around town then met up with my friend Yuko who was practising taiko drumming at the local elementary school. I had lucked out - that night was their annual hanabi (fireworks) on the beach! The taiko group was also going to be playing. So instead of an early night I forced myself, by now dirty and smelly, to stay late. We popped past the new ALT apartment in Suzawa which is VERY nice and (as opposed to my former situation) very adequately furnished. It was funny seeing some of my old nik-naks and the like still present.

Hanabi was fun. There was also some fireworks happening up the coast around Nou-machi at the same time so there was much speculation amongst the crowd about which town's was the best. Lots of my old students were there. Some I recognised and many I didn't. Three years makes a lot of difference with adolescents. I met up with Kinya Yamagishi (my old supervisor) and spent the evening with he and his family who insisted on feeding and fussing over me. They asked me to come down for O-bon which I unfortunately had to decline because I would be travelling to Kyushu. Kinya is looking much healthier after his recent sickness. On a sadder note was the news that his father-in-law had died, who had once had me over for dinner.

After more hellos and goodbyes it was onto the late train to Naoetsu. I had expected to be late back to Naoetsu the night before (after the last train connection to Takada had left) so I had ridden to Naoetsu the morning before. After a tiring ride I was finally late back into Takada around midnight. What a weekend! But sometimes adversity brings forth greater enjoyment - and stories....

I spent a few more days helping out at the local eikaiwa. After that My wife and I managed to fit in a few days together, having various meals with family and friends. One night we went up to Akakura for a meal with Mieko. It seemed there that many had fled the heat of Tokyo and other major cities for the mountains. People strolled up and down the main street wearing yukata to the 'click-clack' of many geta upon the road. Earlier in the day we had been for an onsen with My wife's parents, Tadao and Michiko. They also took us to see some land near Akakura that had once belonged to My wife's grandparents. Tadao, being incredibly generous, said we could have the land to build on (see picture) if we ever decided to settle in Japan. My wife was a little cautious as she told me of the deep snow that the area is famous for. We'd have to but snowmobiles for the kids to go to school on apparently. Maybe we'll just keep working on the mortgage at home in Seacliff.

The Three Great Sights?

After that we were to part again for a week or so. My wife to study in Tokyo and me to travel on my JR Pass. I took off at midnight and made it to Osaka by the morning. I spent that day cruising through Okayama, Kurashiki and Miyajima. The first one I wouldn't recommend but Kurashiki was very nice. After sunset I had an onsen on Miyajima then caught a succession of trains through the night to Kagoshima. All up I was to spend three nights out of seven on the train, plus one on a concrete garage floor. In Kagoshima I got caught in the middle of a monsoon and didn't get to see that much. Even the hanabi (fireworks) I hoped to see were cancelled. At one stage I got stuck at a very remote siding on a small narrow gauge line somewhere in the south of Kyushu. The neighbour came out to look at me because I'm sure he'd never seen a gaijin there before. The trip to Sakurajima Island was only memorable for the heavy rain. The same rain caused me several problems over those days with trains either cancelled, late or delayed. One place I particularly liked though was Chiran where there is an old restored samurai street, houses and gardens (see picture). There was light rain on the day which actually added to the experience, and probably kept away some of the tourists as well. It was probably my best 'discovery' of the whole trip.

Nagasaki was much nicer, even though the traffic was insane. I stayed one night there at a very affordable but rundown minshuku. There was quite a bit to see. The best part was the A-Bomb Museum and afterward I was finally able to deliver the paper cranes that had been made by my old Year 9 class from Temple. It was a moving experience experience and I spent some subsequent time in contemplation and prayer.

The student cranes are the large ones right of centre with a big blue one at the bottom

The next day it was back toward Tokyo and, due to the end of the o-bon holiday, the trains were packed tight. After a restless night in the beforementioned garage (because I arrived too late to get somewhere proper to sleep) I set out across the Amanohashidate sand-spit at 5.30 am, then up to the lookout. This was fortuitious as I was able to avoid the large hordes of tourists that always descend on the place. If only I had walked a little further the night before I could've slept on the soft sand of the beach rather than the cold hard concrete of the garage. Still, it was cheaper than a hotel...

The Spit at Amanohashidate

The last leg of my trip took me to Sendai. It looked like I would spend another night out in the open until I was able to locate a Japanese tourist oddity - a capsule hotel. My first experience in one and it appeared to me as more of a bottom bunk in a youth hostel than the small coffin I imagined.

At the capsule hotel - I thought it would be a lot smaller actually...

The next day it was onto the last of Japan's 'three great sights' Matsushima (Amanohashidate and Miyajima being the other two). The cruise was a waste of time and the tower elevator was out of order for a couple of hours which kind of made me wonder what the great attraction to the place was. However I did enjoy the house and temple of Matsume Date, one of the last great challengers to the traditional order of the 19th century. It's quite possible that My wife is descended (through her fathers side) from the one of the samurai of that household.

My opinion on the three great sites. Well, if they called them the three NICE sites perhaps I would agree. But three GREAT sites - I don't think so. Based on my travels over the month I would probably list the three great sites as, in no particular order, Aizubange, Chiran, Tokagushi and, let's say, Omi. But that's four you say? Well, let's not be pedantic shall we...?

From there it was back to Tokyo where I spent one night with an old CSG buddy, Ray. The next day, after a morning riding the new monorail, I met My wife out in Hachioji where she showed me around Soka University. We spent the next two nights at a nice hotel near Ueno. There weren't any sights we wanted to see so we spent time lazing, shopping, and hanging out in a manga and internet cafe. I also cut my first CD in an amusement arcade - "My Way" by Frank Sinatra (what else?).

Yakitori and chu-hai with Uncle Yoshiki

The next two nights we spent in Chiba with Sadako and Yoshiki, eating, singing karaoke, going to the beach, and watching the famous hanabi at Kita-Senju. Finally in late August My wife and I had to part ways once again, this time until November when we will meet again in Shanghai. And no, the airline in Japan did not give me a working over like they had in Australia....