BootsnAll Travel Network

Archive for the 'Japan without a Clue' Category

« Home

Towards Tokyo

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Ueno Sunset


JR East run double-decker Shinkansen in and out of Tokyo. They seem to move at various speeds: e.g. the 17:44 Max 218 from Utsonomiya to Tokyo would go at a maximum of 218km/h—significantly faster than the train I got on the way up. It pays to note these little details, because the whole of the central area seems to be one big commuter belt.

The train’s layout means that when you sit downstairs, you’re so close to the tracks that it feels like sitting in a racing car hugging the pavement. Or it would do, if the damn track wasn’t walled in by noise-barriers.

I moved upstairs, leaving the backpack in a corner. Although the train was much bigger than the ones I’ve travelled on so far, it was more crowded and I wanted to avoid bumping into people with my pack. Of course the crowds meant that all the window seats were taken.

I excused myself at the next stop and moved back downstairs, worried about my backpack: not that it might disappear, but that it might trigger a terrorism alert. But nobody had taken any notice—and the walls were gone!

Face pressed against the glass, hands cupped to block out the cabin light, I saw Japan streak past one last time, the city lights glittering like jewels against the darkening sky.

I had a lump in my throat. Today was the final day on my JR pass. For a moment I thought about taking the train back out of Tokyo, catching one last exhilarating ride, but all good things must come to an end.

And then it was over, like a dream. We pulled into Ueno Station and a quick glance at the map confirmed that I’d better get off here.

I found myself in the termite hill that is Greater Tokyo.


# # # # #

Tokyo: Ueno Station Area

Nikko: Rain and Shrine

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Nikko: rain and shrine


I was glad for the umbrella I bought on the way: at first it’d just looked like a brief shower, but by the time the train approached Nikko, heavy clouds had closed in from all sides.

They say that, for three days after a Typhoon, the weather is completely clear. Too bad that today was Day Four post-Fitow.
[read on]

Utsonomiya: Coin-locker Conundrum

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Nikko: torii gate


Today was supposed to be an easy spot of sight seeing. Or so I thought.

Nikko was only an hour’s journey away by local train, and I thought that it would be best to leave my backpack at Utsonomiya Station since I’d have to change there for the Shinkansen. There were coin-lockers on every floor, even some that accepted SUICA cards.

The concept is simple: you put in your luggage, push down the lever and press your card to the ‘SUICA’ icon. You then take your numbered ticket.

It’s so simple that even a small child can understand it. Even one that can’t read (Kanji). But not me.
[read on]

Utsunomiya: En-route to Nowhere

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Utsonomiya Station View

09/09/2007 (cont.)

The trip to Nikko took five hours, so perhaps leaving that afternoon had been the right decision. Then again, perhaps not

Up until now, Japan had been one continuous conurbation. But, gradually, the lights outside the train window grew fewer. When I disembarked, an almost eery silence greeted me. No ruffling of steps, no muttering of crowds, no gonging of gongs.

The station had the feel of a small town. Outside, the air smelled of pine trees

Had it been earlier, I might have tried to catch a bus to the nearby campsite, but by now it was dark and the square in front of the station was deserted. The street lights were subdued, giving the place the feel of an English village lit by sodium lamps.

There were no illuminated signs pointing out hotels or restaurants.

I turned on my heels and took the slow train all the way back to Utsonomiya.

Since Utsonomiya is on the Shinkansen line, it should have a station hotel. And since it is still a way to Tokyo, prices should be affordable.

Hopefully, it would also have restaurants. I noticed that I hadn’t eaten enough today. It’s not easy to eat regularly in a country where munching in the street is frowned upon and where there are few places to sit and have a picnic. Consequently, most people tuck into their bento boxes the minute they step into a train, but I hadn’t been in the mood for bento today.Utsunomiya: gyōza meal

The lights outside the train window grew more luminous. And as we pulled into Utsonomiya station, I spotted several brightly lit hotels. I was back in the metropolis.

I found a cheap stuffy hotel with no apparent English name (although it turns out to have a website). The windows in my room did not open, there was no aircon and no fan, but there was a heater. I checked it: it was off, but the temperature in the room must have been in the mid-thirties.

It must have been the first time on this trip that I walked into the street to cool off, but I was pleased with my destination. There was a good choice of food places and I settled for an excellent gyōza set.

Somehow, this was exactly what I needed.

No Nara

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

No Nara

Todaiji Buddhist temple in Nara.
Based on a public domain image.


The train I’d boarded on impulse turned out to be JR after all—the slow train with many additional stops for commuters. The subway uses a different station.

And that was the cause for my troubles.

Today would be the first day in almost a week when I didn’t get to visit at least one World Heritage Site, even though Nara boasts no fewer than eight of them. It does not, however, boast many hotels.

This time, I’d had the foresight to print out a map in the foyer of the excellent Toyoko Inn in Himeji. I didn’t seem to need it as I spotted the ‘Super Hotel’ from the station. It wasn’t open for check-in until 3 p.m., but I could live with that. After all, the Toyoko Inn didn’t open until four. However, the reception wasn’t staffed, and I didn’t want to risk coming back later, only to find it fully booked, with lines of destitute travellers queuing down the street like the homeless in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ which I’d watched last night.

So, map in hand, I went to look for alternatives.

Of the five hotels listed in the area between the station and the park, three didn’t seem to exist and the remaining two were too expensive. But the ‘Super Hotel’ wasn’t listed, so the map wasn’t aimed at budget travellers. I would just have to look around.

The sun climbed into the sky. Before long, rivulets of sweat were streaming down my face and into my eyes. By noon, it was as hot as Bangkok.

I was about to give up when I spotted a sign for the tourist information.

***(Long entry—1,500 words—but worth it if you want to read about me making an arse of myself)***
[read on]

Shin-Ōsaka: In a Loop

Sunday, October 21st, 2007



‘Shin’ doesn’t stand for ‘station’ as I’d mistakenly assumed—unless it refers to ‘Shinkansen station’. This means that Shin-Ōsaka does not equal Ōsaka.

And this is why I couldn’t find the train to Tennoji/Nara.

After circling a few times, I whipped out the phrase book, stared blankly at the transport section for a while, then stepped up to the information counter and said meaningfully: “Nara?”

The poor guy was trying to sink into the ground when he spotted my approach. He ended up scribbling on his pristine timetable, circling Shin-Ōsaka several times with a black ballpoint pen, then drawing a short line to Ōsaka.”Fifteen,” he said pointing at the platform signs. “Fifteen or sixteen.”

He said it in Japanese. I have counted to ten in Japanese for what must be hundreds of times over the years, but trust me not to understand until he scribbled the platform numbers on his timetable as well.

I’m an cretin when it comes to travelling. I constantly get lost. I can’t pick up any phrases unless I’m reading the words at the same time, and if I do pick up a few words, I mis-pronounce them. I’ve given up getting uptight about it and have accepted my role as a gibbering idiot. But I endeavour to do better. Next time.
[read on]


Friday, October 19th, 2007

Himeji Castle


All of a sudden, time started to fly. A couple of friendly backpackers had lent me their Lonely Planet (it turns out that Aster Plaza is listed after all), and I ended up with four or five destinations to choose from, discounting Mount Fuji which is neither snow-capped at this time of year, nor visible in the cloudy weather.

After spending the morning Flickring (I have to grab my opportunities where I can), I settled on Himeji first, which the LP describes as a good base for day-trips as hotels are not too expensive there. Apparently most people don’t stop over; the Shinkansen means that everything is within close reach. If there should be no vacancies in Himeji itself, I could press on to Nara. Best of all there was no need to trudge around for hours to seek shelter: I could simply put my pack in a coin locker, see the sights and move on.

What could possibly go wrong?

I was smiling when the train rolled into the station.

Ah, the Shinkansen. IMGP4217Get this: Japan’s super-fast trains run more frequently than the Northern Line. I have never waited longer than ten minutes for one. And you can set your watch by them, except for the one occasion when there was a four-minute delay.

Well, people get sick and accidents happen, but here’s the secret behind Japanese efficiency (aside from expert engineering): there is plenty of staff around to assist with every eventuality. I’ve seen evidence of it in the footage from the Tokyo Typhoon: lights were flashing and the clear-up was underway while the storm was still going on. So if anyone should have a heart attack on a train, help is at hand immediately and no doubt he/she will be whisked away at the next station, speedily and without fuss. That must have been what had happened.

I was in a good mood. I’d received an email from the editor of the Intergalactic Medicine Show that a story of mine is under consideration, one of the ten per cent or so that make it through the slushpile.

Nothing could go wrong today.

My run of luck continued when I spotted the Toyoko Inn from the station. It was more expensive than the LP implied (by about 20%, but then what’s new) and rooms were not available until 4 p.m., but the receptionist offered to look after my luggage so I made a snap decision to stay for the night.

This turned out to be just as well, although by the time I had walked a few hundred paces down the street I began to have my doubts about Himeji’s attractions. It had to be one of the ugliest towns I have seen, and not just on this trip (but read on!).

The whole place had the charm of an industrial park, and while I’m all for urban wildlife, the way it was overgrown was plain ugly. Aside from the weeds that were sprouting from cracks in the pavement and hiding the footpaths and benches in ‘green spaces’ under hip-high growth, the place was almost completely lifeless. This was probably because the residents had closed shop where they could and got the hell out of there for the weekend.

I couldn’t blame them.

By contrast, Himeji is home to the most beautiful castle in all Japan. A must-see for every visitor. If only I could find it.

I had spotted it from the Shinkansen (that was what had made me come back), but it was nowhere visible from street level. So I ended up trudging for hours anyway—in the wrong direction.

That would explain it: as I gaped at a sign I realised that the Toyoko Inn is at the back of the station, not the front, and I had been further confused by another hotel that was called the ‘Castle Hotel’ although it was about as far away from the castle as you can get and still be within Himeji’s city limits.

I had ended up in the equivalent of the ‘burbs.

Once I turned back, things improved rapidly, but it was a two-hour walk before I caught my first glimpse of the castle.

I got there ten minutes before last admissions.

View at the end of the Street

[read on]

Miyajima: Tripping

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Miyajima: Wooden Horse


By now the experience began to feel surreal. Since I had stopped rushing around the island trying to find the Daishoin Temple, the magic of the place had a chance to get to me. On the way back to town, I barely blinked when I was faced with a life-like wooden horse staring at me from a shrine.

Nevertheless, it was time for lunch. I couldn’t rule out that dehydration and the lack of food were beginning to have an effect.
[read on]

Miyajima: The Shrine Island

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

Miyajima Otorii


I got delayed at the peace museum. By the time I came across the guest books near the exit, it was already half past twelve. But I had to write what I had to write—and I kept it brief—before dashing off to Miyajima Island for a Zen Buddhist tea ceremony.

It struck me that rushing from a peace museum to a tea ceremony was a very Japanese thing to do.

Not that I ever stood a chance of getting there on time. The streetcar map included travel times, and I would be late. But that didn’t prevent me from trying. I walked so fast that I almost broke into a run, and when I arrived at Dobashi station, I was panting and red in the face. There were no vending machines anywhere in sight. With a start, I realized that I didn’t have any change for the fare, only 1000¥ bills. I rely on vending machines to procure change whenever I needed it. Rooting through my pockets, I found a 500¥ coin. They would probably not let me pay with that.

No time to think; the streetcar arrived and I got on. When it pulled up at the train interchange ten minutes later, I decided to stay on. Maybe the driver would be more understanding if I travelled beyond the flat-fare zone and accept my 500¥ coin. But the journey would take a good forty-five minutes, and I realised that I would miss the start of the tour that preceded the visit to the Daishoin Temple. No matter, I could always try to catch up. The monks might be understanding and allow me to attend the tea ceremony afterwards.

It rankled, to be sure. Being invited to one of the once-weekly tours, which are free to foreigners, is a privilege. Numbers are limited to twenty, and I’m sure that the ladies at the tourist information didn’t just hand out these invites to everyone. Thankfully the organisers didn’t know that I was coming and wouldn’t be waiting for me. Unless of course the lady at the counter had phoned ahead…

I banished the thought. She had smiled placatingly when I gushed (“Oh yes, please! I like to go! Can I still book? Can I? Do I need to sign up?”) and told me to just turn up on the day. So as the streetcar jerked back into motion, following in the shadow of the fast train, I settled back in my seat—and discovered a changing machine at the back of the carriage.

While we trundled along the twenty stops en route, I reflected on my morning at the peace museum. The history of Hiroshima as a military garrison town, the decisions which led to the dropping of the bomb and its aftermath were laid out in detailed exhibits covering three floors. I mulled over the effect the visit had on me. I’m familiar with the horrors of the bomb, but this rammed it home somehow.

Who said the cold war never got hot? It was American anxiety about Russian involvement that led to the bombing of Hiroshima, and Stalin’s unilateral declaration of war on Japan on August 8th 1945 that led to the bombing of Nagasaki.

Politics, all politics.

The streetcar pulled into Miyajima-guchi station where I discovered that the fare (270¥) was payable at the exit. At the terminal across the road, the ferry was just leaving. Now hopelessly late, should I do the same?

No, I was almost there. I wasn’t going to give up now.

And I’m elated by that decision. Never mind that got lost in the woods on the way to the temple because I used the wrong pagoda as a landmark: Miyajima is amazing, an unexpected highlight that would have passed me by completely if it wasn’t for the invitation to the tour.

The island looks like a film set.
[read on]

Hiroshima: Reflections

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Hiroshima: Eternal Flame

06/06/2007 (later that day):

The rain kept me inside for longer than my patience would stretch, so when the clouds changed from ominous to merely foreboding, I dashed outside only to be driven into a restaurant around the corner by the next deluge. It was well past lunchtime and looking for local delicacies in this weather had lost its appeal. So I stayed for the time it took to smoke a cigarette and consume a hamburger with teriyaki sauce and rice, using chopsticks.

It was still raining when I left, but I figured what the hell. In a way, the weather fitted my mood.
[read on]