Not content with one holiday in March, I went for two and what a contrast. From the cityscapes and bustle of Japan to the practically deserted gleaming white sands and turquoise seas of Scilly, admittedly with a bit of hailstorm dodging thrown in. It appears that the constant of the UK, Holland and Japan was the wind!
My final morning I took the Ginza line for the last time to Ueno, and mooched around the park once again, taking my last fill of sakura. At 06:45, it was a grey day, but either still, or already, I wasn’t sure, people were hanami’ing, or picnicking under the trees. It wasn’t exactly pretty here for photos, since there were barrels, barriers and bins for the festivities, but in those short few days the blossom had opened much more and did look pretty special. It was a shame I missed blossom totality by such a small margin, because I’m sure seeing it smother places like Shinjuku Gyoen must be incredible, but at the same time, I felt lucky to have seen it at all.
Then from Ueno, the Express to Narita and back to Bristol via Amsterdam. My mum recalls being able to swap the backs of train seats from one side to the other to choose your group of four and whilst some trains in Japan had that, it was also possible to actually swivel the seats to achieve the same.
I guess travelling between the heavily populated major cities of a country by train is not conducive to necessarily seeing lots of beautiful countryside, and indeed much of it is not exactly pretty. The backdrop of green covered mountains is constant, punctuating the very flat largely urban plains. Sometimes this is cultivated fields, but mostly a sprawling mass of electrical wires and low level housing. I think my prior vision of Tokyo was akin to that of Hong Kong, of skyscrapers shoehorned together, but nothing was further from the truth. The district centres might be high rise, but the boulevards are wide and not more than a few streets away you were in the suburbs, with narrow lanes of houses, one car and whatever patch of land or yard, utilised for some kind of greenery, whether that be spring flowers or immaculately topiaried trees, clipped into pleasing forms.
Somewhat incongruously, for a country that takes not disturbing others with noises or smells very seriously, it was a surprise that the stations have fake bird song, the trains play quite a long jingle prior to landing at stations and the toilets have a running water privacy option.
There are drinks vending machines dotted around in the most unlikely places; a backyard near the immense bamboo groves, in the middle of what looked like community land, not commercially growing perhaps, but larger than allotments and on dark back streets. I saw no chocolate or crisp style machines as we have on the UK, but I did see an ice cream machine! Supermarkets and convenience stores sell the same drinks products – a whole plethora of teas; jasmine, green, peach, black, European, coffees, black, black with sugar, with milk and sugar, and these come cold and hot within the same machine, in metal screw top cans or plastic bottles.
The little parcels of joy I liked so much, were seaweed covered triangular shaped sticky rice blocks, with a centre of different flavours such as pickled plum, fried chicken (this was my favourite, was the first one I had and I never found it again), wasabi and seaweed, bonito flakes, salmon and tuna mayonnaise. These were ideal travelling companions, since they were cheap, plentiful, could be stuck in a pocket and despite being meat or fish and rice, didn’t appear to require refrigeration. And of course, they could be easily inhaled whilst standing or sitting shiftily out of the way, since eating and drinking on the street is considered impolite. Bearing in mind I eat anything, I was rather unadventurous in food terms and really only stuck with foods I could understand, or which travelled well, which was a bit of a shame. I saw what I can only describe as a chicken brûlée which looked incredibly appealing, but thought it unlikely to last until the next day on the train.
I treated myself not quite to a bento box, but to a plated meal of battered pork with rice and curry sauce on my five hour journey from Miyajima back to Tokyo. This was the only place that shop keeper politeness was not as it had been elsewhere. Erosion perhaps from the high percentage of tourists at what is considered the place to see in Japan. The food was bagged, but left, there was no tray for you to put the money in, and the change was one handed back, a spoon and fork provided instead of chopsticks and I was moved on with no polite words.
Most often, the politeness and helpfulness of the people is something to be noted. In shops, the usual experience was that my purchase was bagged with care, the handles put together and handed to me with both hands to easily take it, I placed my money in the tray, I received the change with both hands, thanking them with an enthusiastic ‘arigato gozaimasu’, an exchange of smiles, and a small bow. By the way, if in doubt smile and bow, smile and bow. One of the messages on the underground was about manners. Good manners, good Tokyo.
I tried to speak Japanese on all my interactions mixed with some hard core miming if required and it seemed to work. People showed patience and genuinely seemed happy to assist. Even if you simply looked lost at a station, someone would ask if you needed help and not just the numerous ‘helpers’ at stations, the airport, or main attractions. And everything was made smoother by things like this. Marks on the platform tell you where your car will stop and queue lines are marked. The trains stops exactly at these points and not only leaves at the designated time, but arrives at the designated time. It is simply how it works. At no point did you feel you had to allow extra time for delays, or doubt your travel, it was all as it said on the tin and provided you could manage to walk the distance to a different platform in three minutes, you could rely on this connection time.
Japanese people tend to dress smartly, especially the older generation. Simple elegant lines, without frills, and coats which are somehow too big, yet which don’t drown their small frames. Older women certainly manage to wear younger style clothes, without seeming like mutton dressed as lamb. At 5’4″ 25 years ago, I was the mean height of women in England. Now probably a bit shorter and with time elapsed, I’m sure that average is much taller. A friend commented if I felt tall here and yes I did. The Japanese on the whole seem to be smaller than Europeans in every way. The women in particular tend to very slight, but whether that is through marketing or natural build it’s hard to say.
I was stood over the shoulder of a seated man on one train and couldn’t help reading the paper he was studying, which stated that physical inactivity was the cause of so much disease in the west and to me it is notable that the Japanese do not shirk exercise. With long distances between train lines in underground stations, a lot of walking is involved even on public transport. I followed the same through route as a very small elderly lady, who was hunched over her wheelie case, and boy was she shifting- I had a job to keep up with her!
Likewise the cycle culture. Everyone seems to have a bike and cycling within Tokyo certainly wasn’t dissimilar to Copenhagen, though both are very flat cities I will add. And with infrastructure in place for cycling. And the right attitude. I can’t help but think more people would cycle in Britain if it didn’t feel so dangerous. The only exception being mums on the school run with a baby on the handlebars and a toddler on the back, storming the pavements on their e-assist steeds. Beware the mothers on bikes!
Would I go there again? Yes, like a shot. I knew ten days was too short, but ten days was still ten days and it was a trade off between time and money. What would I bring back with me if I could? The seemingly genuine friendliness, curiosity and politeness of the people, the little parcels of joy I enjoyed so much, and lastly heated toilet seats. Who knew that something so frivolous in my view, could be just so, well… nice!
A tram ride from Hiroshima to Miyajima port, then a 10 minute ferry ride, took us to Itsukushima, or Miyajima Island, home to the Great Torii Gate, part of Itsukushima Shrine.
Deer roam freely on the island and as in Nara are keen for any food, but not outrageously so – seeing them on the beach was a little strange however. We wandered along the front, up to a tall red pagoda, then back down to the torii and sat and gazed at it for a while, watching eagles in the distance following fishing boats, vying for scraps. The Shrine beside us, moreso to me than the gate, seemingly floating on the water at high tide.
I left my companion just before 2pm (she is carrying on through more of Japan, across to China and then back across on the Trans-Siberian railway!!) and took the ferry back across to the mainland, purchased food for the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo, via Shin-Osaka, then caught the train this time, back to Hiroshima.
Back in Tokyo it all felt familiar; the JR Yamonote line to Ueno, Ginza subway line to Tawaramachi, then a quick shop for more food and my final ‘parcels of joy’, the little rice triangles, from the Rox shop and finally to Bunka, to the less posh hutch.
The smell of spring flowers was noticeable as soon as we stepped off the bus from the station and whilst I had found Kyoto bitterly cold, Hiroshima was thankfully warmer.
After finding the hostel, we walked along to the peace park and started with the exhibition hall, to learn about what happened to the city at 08:15 on 6th August 1945. I was struck by the description of one elderly lady, who described Hiroshima as being made up of only three colours, brown, black and red. Her father was a priest and so she’d seen paintings of hell as a child, but at least they had a bit of green in them she said!
We sat for a time in the memorial where 140,000 names are represented by individual tiles (70,000 people were killed instantly), visited the A-bomb Dome and saw strings and strings of brightly coloured paper cranes, hung as decorations, and eventually found the bomb Hyper Centre, marked simply with a plaque against a wall.
Somehow we’d forgotten how moving Hiroshima was likely to be.
The overwhelming message seemed to be the wish to educate people of the pure inhumanity of nuclear weapons; that the suffering didn’t just end with burns, that the radiation caused far longer lasting illnesses, and to try and promote peace in our time and ultimately rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether.
It seemed fitting that we then walked up through the torii gates of Tosho-gu Shrine, to the bulbous gleaming silver roof of the Futa Peace Pagoda, which we’d seen in the distance earlier from the bus. There was something very spiritual climbing up through torii gates set within the trees, albeit to the distant drums, chants and cheers to the ‘Carp’, the local team in the baseball stadium! The views were phenomenal, yet served to remind us just how widespread the carnage must have been.
We had our only real meal out here in Hiroshima and sampled the local dish, which is okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake sandwich, with a filling of shredded cabbage, beansprouts, onions, seaweed, egg, pork and a sauce which tasted like plum. This is all cooked on a massive hotplate in front of you, after which you can slice sections off using a large metal spatular and then commence battle with chopsticks.
Another early start in order to get the train to Nara Park, and so worth it to beat the crowds. We were able to view the enormous statues within Great Buddha Hall, Todai-ji, in relative peace and to soak in the atmosphere. Japan is used to regeneration, often owing to fire or earthquakes and this building is no exception. The wooden structure was last rebuilt in 1709 and until 1998 was the largest wooden building in the world, despite being 30% smaller than the building it replaced! The giant statue (at 15m tall and weighing 500 tonnes) was originally finished in 751, although there have been recastings over many centuries.
As the bus loads started to pour in we headed outside for a little deer bothering. They were very tame and gentle; the slightest crackle of anything though, their ears pricked up and noses turned to bags or pockets in hope. From the deer, we visited Yoshiki-en Garden. This is free for foreign tourists and less popular, but a rather sweet garden and for us, quiet was great.
Nara is where you can watch traditional mochi being made and it has become a bit of a spectacle at Nakatanidou shop, with the makers pimping their synchronised mallet performance with some karate chops and appropriate sound effects!
On the way back to Arashiyama we stopped at Kyoto station to book some seats for travel for the next few days and to add to our collection of station stamps. These ink stamps are at tourist attractions and stations and are a rather nice graphic thing to collect, but I was rather sporadic, collecting only really at stations.
An earlyish night with some sake and a ‘pot noodle’ ** at the hotel, a brief plan for the next couple of days and then a bag re-organise and bed in the ‘posh hutch’.
** As an illustration of eagerness to help and adherence to protocol, the receptionist saw that I couldn’t use the hot water jug for my noodles and practically ran over to assist. She then came back a few seconds later armed with cling film, which she placed over the pot to replace the foil lid I had discarded. She then advised I had to wait three minutes exactly, synchronised watches and repeated the precise time I was to remove the film! To be fair, she had my measure, as soon as she saw I couldn’t work the water jug…
Another early wake up, so decided to make the most of it and visit the bamboo groves less than ten minutes walk away. It’s the sheer height which takes your breath away and this morning in the strong wind, they were also knocking together like some massive chime.
We explored the local area, then walked to Daikakuji temple, to wander around Osawa pond. It is more renowned for Autumn colour and the 3000 lotus flowers were more like brown stumps, but still looked quite spectacular. The twin ticket also allowed us access to Giouji Moss Temple, which was a little bright green oasis, with more bamboo at one end and a lush moss carpet where you would usually expect to see grass.
We then visited the Inari shrine to the south of Kyoto, which has immense torii gates winding up the hillside. These are very impressive, but there were just so many people, we decided to bail and headed for Gion, the geisha district around dusk. Round lights outside various door fronts are meant to indicate geisha are present and clearly there were a few around, but none for us to see.
Back at Arashiyama, we stopped at the Kimono Forest, which is made from kimono silk lined perspex pillars, lit from the centre and forming an avenue. The whole effect is beautiful and reminiscent of both the bamboo forest and of the torii gates.
From Shimoyoshida to Otsuki, Hachioji, Shin-Yokohama and eventually Kyoto, my hutch has been upgraded somewhat. Regulation pyjamas and TV! Leaving a cloud covered Mt Fuji behind at 9.26, we finally arrived in Arashiyama, Kyoto around 3.45, starting on the Thomas the Tank engine and friends train and ending in our first Shinkansen bullet train, with its slightly duck billed nose. According to my maths we averaged 129mph, but whilst the exaggerated camber suggested speed it didn’t feel that fast.
Arashiyama has a very touristy vibe to it and perhaps the equinox is a celebration day because there was lots more parading by the local youffs. We took a recce walk to the bamboo grove, but it was getting dark and we got slightly thwarted by a train cutting through the middle so went and got food instead. An early night to recoup.
Another gorgeously sunny Tokyo day started with a smooth train ride to Shimbashi from Tawaramachi, followed by a 30 minute walk to Hamamatsucho Monorail to meet my travelling companion for the next 4 or 5 days. I am joining her for the beginning of her bigger trip, but for logistic purposes, went out slightly earlier.
After a slightly nervous hour, where I was actually able to offer directions to some lost tourists, she made it to the arranged spot. We’d first thought to meet in Shinjuku train station, until we read that it was the busiest in Japan and various blogs said in no uncertain terms, do not attempt to meet anyone here. Ever! And once we got to Shinjuku, we saw exactly why. It is vast and not just horizontally, but vertically too.
Navigating the subway this time though was easier and we managed to get to the Japanese Railway main lines and through the ticket queue to catch one of the slower trains to Otsuki from Shinjuku. On the way, you could just catch glimpses of Fuji-san between buildings, with even better views from the mountain train from Otsuki to Shimoyoshida. The town has a slightly frontier/wild west feel about it, with dilapidated and boutique side by side, except for the impressive sight of Mount Fuji at the end of the street!
The hostel is traditional in feel, with tatami mats and mattresses on the floor, slippers for ground floor and separate slippers for the toilet. Sliding doors, curtains, wood, white ceramic and plants create a slightly bohemian atmosphere.
Chureito Pagoda is perched on a hillside and looks across the urban sprawl of the town towards the mountain. The view from it is well worth conquering all the steps. Mt Fuji last erupted in 1707 and has become an iconic symbol of Japan, perhaps owing to its symmetrical shape and at nearly 3800m is the highest point in Japan.