number (since September 2002):
in unusual places...
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
Three Great Sights?
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.
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
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
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
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