Saturday, 25 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XIII: Tokyo! (2)

After a day of wandering around the city together, S and I decided to split up. We are both very individual and independent people and after two weeks of virtually constant company, it was time to do some exploring on our own. The next two days we hit Tokyo separately, each indulging in our own interests and curiosities.

I went to two different big toy stores and bought silly stuff. I checked out the latest at the Sony building. I tried to explore the bookstore area but got stranded in a Precious Coffee Moment. (The books were all Japanese anyway.) I had a seriously overpriced tea and cake at a tea shop in Giza.

It was in Shinjuku where I encountered the other Tokyo. Following the recommendation in the Lonely Planet I checked out the large shopping area and the department store (where I was again one of the elderly generation). Then in my usual wandering mode I took a few turns just to see where they would lead me, until I started to attract a few strange almost-looks. (By that time I had learned to recognize the not-quite-looks the Japanese use for things out of the ordinary.) Ah. I had wandered into a, shall we say, less reputable business district. Lunch hour coming up, the streets were starting to attract clientele with limited time and specific appetites. Time to wander back to the main street.

Still on my list: manga! ( I had spotted a manga store and headed in that direction. I was the only westerner in the shop but I was used to that by now. Anyway, all the books were in Japanese so that was small wonder. With all the time in the world I decided to just browse the shelves a bit looking for interesting imagery. I had just found an interesting looking comic book that appeared to be about traditional Japanese culture (it was hard to tell because the books are all sealed in the store) and one Sweet Sixteen kind of periodical. I decided to buy those as keepsakes of Japanese culture. On the same shelf were cute books about cats and what were obviously children’s comics. Funny stuff.

And so it was a wee bit surprising (shall we say shocking?) to turn around in the aisle and find myself face-to-face with some of the weirdest and most explicit hardcore porn I have seen yet. I will not describe but suffice to say that this Amsterdam girl turned red. Opposite the kiddie stuff, I just didn’t see it coming. Later on I found out that small sections of ‘erotica’ are scattered around the store at the oddest places. My guess is that this is done to avoid aficionados being labeled as ‘the guy who is always in that corner’ but I’m not sure.

By the way, the people in the store there with me were just your average Japanese, both men and women, and the books also included literary works and even DIY manuals. Not all were comic strips either, most were simply books – in Japanese of course. I wouldn’t have you thinking that Japanese are all smut-reading perverts. But this encounter might explain why the people on the underground all have paper covers from the bookstore around the books they’re reading. I fear you don’t always want to know what is inside. Having said that, the Sweet Sixteen comic I bought also has some fairly explicit scenes, ‘my first time’ style. Nothing is really shown but a few strokes of a pen do away with the need to spell it out. It could be that buying exactly those was just my luck. Or that the sexuality so not present on the streets and in dress and general communications, has found an outlet in graphic design and literature, even for teens.

The bow that the (impeccably uniformed) shop girl gave me was the lowest I had seen yet.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XII: Tokyo! (1)

There is something special about Tokyo. It is something different. It have tried to pin it down but so far with little success. To me the city felt strangely light, not only in terms of glowing screens and ads and lamps because in that sense it is not very different from other cities like New York. Unlike New York, Tokyo seems to have a strange kind of weightlessness that was, to me at least, unexpected.

The city has roots that go back to the shogun era. It was established as the nation’s capital in 1603. Very little to nothing of that is visible in the streets although some traces of this history are still there. Ueno Park, for example, is the hill where the samurai made their last stand – and lost. The final battle is depicted in the film The Last Samurai although by all accounts the character portrayed by Tom Cruise in that film was in real life an old and obese man who had to be carried around in a sedan chair.

Mostly, however, Tokyo is very here and now. The streets are spacious and modern and are still lacking trashcans while soda machines are a little less present, at least in the city centre. Our friends’ apartment is in the hippest neighbourhood in Tokyo, close to many high-end shops like Gucci and Ralph Lauren. More interesting are the many smaller and infinitely more fashion-conscious and drop-dead hip shops just behind the main street. Average age on the street: 19? Ladies and gentleman, I was old down there! And criminally unhip, with my slacks and surf shoes, simple shirts and tank tops.

What I needed (at least!) was a hat. Or some leggings. Or at least something vintage-looking, apart from my elderly frame. Failing that I might have explored my goth side or go completely in the other direction and dress sticky-sweet with lace, fruit prints and parasol. In either case don’t forget the stockings (knee or overknee) and petticoat. I’m not a huge fashion shopper but I could have gone all-out because there were so many shops to cater every taste. Even mine. S bought a lovely sundress.

When walking further into town we suddenly found ourselves on the famous crossing at Shibuya station. At the green light hundreds of people will mix into the crossing, forming a veritable soup of human traffic until everyone has reached the other side (or at least a side) and the crossing is once again clear for traffic. It is an image everyone knows (it is in the film Koyaanisqatsi) and pretty much stands for the mechanical urban living, the hive animal that is Man.

Of course it is different when you are on the ground. It always is. There are magazine stands and drugstores. There are schoolchildren playing with their mobile phones and women busy looking fashionable. There are salary men and bums and general hangers-on, like us. All of us are different, all of us have a life, a heart and a mind. Standing there at the iconic crossing at Shibuya, one is again reminded that we are not a mechanism. Not a cog in the machine but each of us an entity in its own right. In Japan no more or less than elsewhere, even if society seems to emphasize conformity and adhering to the rules more than elsewhere. We are all just people.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part XI: Nikko

A long train journey across Kansai, through Tokyo and onwards led us to Nikko, about two hours north of the capital. Because of this proximity to Tokyo Nikko is a popular day trip for Japanese and foreign guests alike. We stayed at the Nikko Park Lodge where we encountered the most international company so far with hardly a Japanese in sight. Nikko Park Lodge is run by Buddhist monks who have a staff (volunteers? apprentices?) to take care of e.g. the front desk.

We skipped the early morning yoga practice (seven to eight – way too early for us) and one of the monks pointed us in the right direction for the main heritage sites. They were, again, stunning. It is so amazing how Japan has managed to hold on to its cultural treasures. Many of the really old art and architecture was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration (1868) and a great many sites and works were severely damaged by the many earthquakes that Japan suffers, some quite heavy. Many treasures made it through, however, or were restored beautifully.

Nikko is a real treasure trove of Japanese history with temples and shrines and woodcarvings to last a lifetime. We saw the stables of the sacred horse. We saw the sleeping cat. We saw the three Buddhist monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). We saw the sacred bridge that is only to be used by the emperor and his generals. (Oh and the sweeper who we saw cleaning the bridge.)

What we also saw was schoolchildren in great shoals (herds? packs?) sprawled around the sites. Especially where the school photographs were taken and large groups were directed by a busy photographer; all children standing in lines, boys to one side and girls to the other, all of them solemnly bored out of their skulls as is fitting for teenagers when visiting historic sites. The multitudes of black and white school uniforms was dazzling to behold.

In one of the temples a very serious affair was going on. A group of business people, mostly young man and a few women, were standing outside with solemn faces, obviously waiting for something. (Their turn?) In the temple about twelve pairs of feet were visible, one woman’s, and a priest was performing a ritual. We couldn’t exactly see what was happening and it was not an occassion to crane your neck to see. Judging by the serious faces of the waiting young professionals it was a career-deciding event. We sneaked by and left them to it. Poor guys.

In the evening we left for Tokyo, city of 12.5 million, and the final stop of our adventure. Tokyo deserves a whole new entry of its own in the Diaries. Tune in again later!

Japan Diaries, part X: Leaving paradise

Another entry about Shirahama? Yes, because the guest house Mifune deserves it. On the first morning we had already decided to stay another night and seeing how our hosts didn’t understand a word of what we were saying we had looked up “to leave”, “tomorrow” and “Tuesday” in our phrase book. It worked wonders, they were delighted. At first we thought they were stressed. We had to change rooms! The Americans had left and we had to move into their room. Ah no, we said, the room we have is fine, great, marvellous, arigato. The hostess kep insisting until we realised that it was her best room, and refusing was actually rather rude. And so we gratefully accepted and waited while she scurried about like an ant to get it all ready.

The other room was also a fine room, the wash stand was slightly newer, otherwise there was little difference. Except that at eight in the morning the next day (my friend was washing, I was in my jammies) there was a knock at the door. I opened it, hastily putting on a kimono. It was the hostess, speaking Japanese at me animately and pointing at herself (Japanese point at their noses if they indicate themselves) and downstairs. “What does she want?” my friend asked, around the corner. “I don’t know,” I said. “Does she want us to pay now?” S said. “Do you want us to check out?” I asked the lady. She hesitated, shook her head, and beckoned some more while speaking Japanese at me. “Oh well,” I told S, “I’ll just go with her.” “Good plan!” said S. And so I put on my slippers and went downstairs, only to find a full breakfast waiting for us. Ah. The special room came with special breakfast.

We left our bags in the ryokan (“May we leave our bags here until the afternoon?” – “Aaaah, aaaah, nono.” – “(He doesn’t understand) Um. Backu-packu. (point) Here. (point) One o’clock? (point at watch) – “Ah! Haihai!”) to enjoy some more sunshine and Shirahama before the long train journey to Nikko. While S lounged on the beach I made spirals in the sand, spotted some little crabs on the rock and found a half-closed shrine just off the beach. As I said, I like exploring.

At one o’clock the lovely host couple took us to the train station in their car. As we were bowing (low!) the woman received our little gift of ceramic clogs from Holland with a smile and said “You (point). Come (beckon). Back?” YES, next time we are in Shirahama, we will definitely come back to Mifune!

Japan Diaries, part IX: Shirahama

That night we moved the table to the corner of the room, pulled the futons out of the closet and slept under the ink drawing and tiny pay tv in the alcove. Next day: beach day! Shirahama is on the coast of the Pacific (HI HAPPY!) but in the shelter of the curve of the land. Besides, the beach is in a bay. Result: relatively warm water. The sand on the beach is bright white (1) and the scenery is stunning. The best thing was that we were there outside the season. Apparently during the holiday season Shirahama is packed with (Japanese) tourists, you can hardly reach the water for people, and loud music is blaring over the beach. Not so in late May, early June. It was quiet with only a few small groups of people scattered around the pristine beach. Maybe half the shops are closed but how many shops does one really need anyway? It was beautiful. We bought our breakfast from the surprisingly outgoing (for a Japanese) cookie baker across the street and spent the day marvelling.

Apart from lounging in the sand and easing in the water we wandered around for a look at the cliffs and a splash in the famous age-old onsen by the ocean front. As we approached the onsen stall we were quickly told that today entry was free. And so we put our valuables in a locker and headed for the curtained-off onsen. One side for women, one side for men. Which one? Peaking stealthily under the curtain we saw a pair of very hairy legs, hopefully a man’s. Luckily by then the proprietor had noticed our hesitation and, accompanied by some sniggers from his regulars, steered us toward the right section.
(Please note that this is not a picture of the public onsen we were in! This is just a funny guy advertising a hotel.)

A few moments later we found ourselves in a natural hot spring, surrounded by naked Japanese women of all ages, soaking in the warm water with the sun on our faces. The open ocean on the other side of the rocks. Our European bodies drew a bit of attention but the reception was very friendly and pleasant. Nakedness can do that, when there is nothing to hide. The most shy visitors were the younger girls. Skins all young and smooth, everything in shape but oh so insecure. Now my body doesn’t belong with the elderly women yet but by gods, at least that is over with! The older ladies were chatting as if over a cup of coffee.

In the evening we set out to find ourselves a simple meal and ended up in a restaurant on the edge of town. Specialty: lobster. So much for a simple meal. S tried to play safe (and failed), I decided to have the speciality. Just as S was explaining to me that she doesn’t like her food to be too recognizable, the cook came up to our table and pulled a live lobster out of a bucket. Pinchers and legs rattling against the plastic about 50 cm from where we were. I have to say we both jumped! Quickly nodding approvingly (Hai! Arigato!) to get rid of the cook and his unlucky friend, we both got the giggles. It was good lobster.

(1) It turns out that the original white sand of Shirahama washed away some time ago which is why new sand was imported from Australia. We were sitting on Australian sand in Japan.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part VIII: Coming home

Time to relax! After the busy streets of Kyoto and the overwhelming beauty of Nara it was time to soothe body and soul with a bit of proper vacationing. We had originally planned to travel on to Nikko and hit the mountain hiking trails but decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather in the Kansai region and head down South to Shirahama, on of Japan’s popular beach towns.
Since we lounged a little longer in the morning in a Kyoto coffee shop to do some people watching, it was already evening when we arrived in Shirahama. We had not been able to secure a room for the night yet and we were quietly hoping that the local tourist office would still be open and able to help us out. No such luck! All closed, no wonder at nearly eight in the evening. Whoops!
The accommodations listed in the Planet were all full, closed or expensive. But S did some minor burglary by sticking her arm through the gate of the tourist desk and managed to get hold of a list of hotels and ryokans. Hurray for S and her long arms! We called Mifune, a ryokan with in-house onsen (hot spring). My phone conversation with the proprietor went something like this.
- Haihai.
- Kon Ban Wa! Do you have a room for tonight?
- Ah. Aaaah. …
- Do you speak English?
- Ah. Oh. Iie. Nono.
- (oh dear) Twin room? Tonight? (1)
- Aaaah. Nono. Where?
- We are now at the station. Ekki. Do you have a twin room for us?
- Ekki? Aaah… Now?
- Hai. Arigato. Do you have a room?
- Aaaahm… Takusi?
- Arigato, we will take a taxi.
- Haihai. [mumble mumble – he hangs up]
To S:- I think we have a room.
Save some cash, take a bus. I know! Let’s ask the station staff. Six (...) station attendants, one chief and three map books later we had a bus line, the name of the bus stop in Japanese and phonetic English, a map, a drawing of how to get to Mifune from the bus stop and a whole lot of relieved faces that they’d been able to help us. Nearly missed the bus; trains may stop within an inch of their designated halt but bus stops in Japan are an approximation. As we walked up the street from the bus stop there were two people standing in the street. It took me a few moments to realise that they were waiting for us. Mifune? Hai, Mifune! Looked like we were home.

Mifune is run by a married couple, somewhere in their fifties, who do not speak or understand English. And who are unbelievably kind and hospitable. That two girls from Oranda suddenly came to their doorstep was a bit of a shock. More so because they were already hosting an American couple that night. This must have been very special because they told us about it six times or so.
The room was wonderful. There was tea. We were shown the onsen (which caused the whole house to smell slightly of rotten eggs) plus sitting-down showers (customary in Japan) and immediately made the mistake that evening of using the men’s bathroom. But nobody walked in on us so it wasn’t all that bad. Still bad enough for the host to tell us the next day though. We never saw the legendary American couple.

(1) Twin room in Japanese is ‘tuwin rumu’, very convenient.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part VII: Nara

Nara is the prettiest thing. It was the first central capital of Japan and there are still many buildings that show the historic roots of the country, like the influence of the Chinese on the national culture. Besides, it is beautiful. All the buildings are beautifully kept in the extensive grounds and there is plenty of woods around to cycle through. And so we took the train from Kyoto for the day to visit. We rented bikes at the station and cycled our way down the main touristy street to the central park.

It is a pleasure to move around by bike. We Dutchies are already used to it so the biking itself takes little effort. It is a convenient, noiseless, and quick way to get around, quicker than walking anyway. Plus you get to see and experience much more of the surroundings. Not only does the pace allow for more looking around than on a coach or car, it also leaves you open for smells and sounds and other sensations (such as swallowing bugs…) that you would otherwise miss. Also, on bike it is possible to see much of the sights in Nara in a single day. That would not be possible on foot.

First stop: the five-storey pagoda. Awe. Added benefits: the octagonal shrine opposite it which is extremely charming, plus the deer that wander around the park. In the past the deer were considered holy animals because they were believed to be messengers from the gods. And so it became custom to feed them, and pet them, and they stayed in the park. Nowadays they harass visitors for food – a right claimed by any domesticated animal. They are charming creatures and besides, seeing little kids toppled over by eager deer is just funny. (No children were hurt during the making of this diary entry.)

Next stop, and the next, and the next: beautiful temples and shrines. Absolutely wonderful heritage sites. We also found a botanical garden in which plants were grown and displayed that were mentioned in ancient works of poetry. All originally Japanese plants, flowers and trees, in a beautifully laid garden that followed the rules of Japanese landscaping art. This of course includes a carp pond. There were little boxes with bags of carp food for sale for 100 yen. I bought one and unknowingly threw some of it in the water.

Forget piranhas. Piranhas are sissies, wet ones with teeth, compared to the gobble-up power of the common carp. They were struggling to get as close to the side of the pond as possible, fighting over a single morsel of food, mouths wide open. They seemed wide enough to swallow us whole. The throng was so thick that occasionally one of the carp was forced upwards by its fellows and found itself on top of the other fish, out of the water. It had to wiggle its way over their backs to get to water again. We were relatively safe (I think!) but you wouldn’t want to be an insect in that pond.

We had visited one beautiful temple, a big wooden building built on the side of a hill. It was awe-inspiring and we had heard about a giant Buddha. Unfortunately we could only see the outside of the temple because visitors were not allowed inside. Oh well, we said, we have seen so many beautiful things today that missing this one Buddha is not going to put us down. And so we went back to our bikes, only to discover on the map that this was not the hall of the Buddha, that was further down. It was almost five so we needed to get moving to see that! Hey, if there is still a chance to see this wonder, we go for it! We raced down.

The hall containing the Buddha is the largest wooden structure in the world. The original (the current one was rebuilt in the 18th century) was 1.5 times bigger even! Inside is a bronze Buddha, adorned with about 130 kilos of gold, and it stands 16 metres high. It is flanked by two more statues of god(desse)s. You can take a walking tour around the temple which allows you to see the Buddha from all sides, and there are a few more enormous statues of warrior gods to admire.

It is difficult to describe with words the beauty of buildings, structures, art. I could go into metaphor or talk sizes and colours but it will leave you with no idea whatsoever what it is like. Maybe the best way to describe it is by telling you what it did to me.

As I entered the hall of the Buddha it was a bit dark compared to the bright daylight outside. As my eyes adjusted properly my jaw dropped. I looked at everything in the temple with deep astonishment. The scale of the hall and the Buddha in it seemed to me to press upon the world, drawing all perception to that point. Moreover, it wasn’t until I was three quarters round the temple that I remembered to close my mouth again. I must have looked really charming.

In this temple, for the first time, I bought a little talisman to help wishes come true. It is very pretty.

Please forgive the picture quality of the Buddha. By this time my camera battery was low so I took some photos with my phone instead. I hope my friend’s pictures are better.

Japan Diaries, part VI: Soundscapes

Usually I have a specific music to go with a vacation. It is the music I listened to while I was there and it linked itself inseparably with the place. The alien landscape of Bryce Canyon or Joshua Tree NP will never be the same without The Last Temptation of Christ (Peter Gabriel), Brazil is forever tied to the Fugees (OohLaLaLa!) and Amy McDonald makes me want to put my feet up on the dashboard as we cruise along Highway 101 down the California coast.Japan does not have a specific soundtrack to me. We were backpacking so there was no car stereo and anyway I noticed that I constantly and actively used all my senses while I was there, not to miss a single thing. My ipod must have felt sorely neglected.

An advantage of soundtrackless traveling is that local sounds and musics have more access to the mind. The shops and department stores use general internationally marketed music, with a preference for ‘soft’ western-style music like gentle soul (I heard Rotterdam heroine Giovanca in trendy LOFT department store!) or non-offensive jazz like Billy Holiday. And yes, in hip youth culture shops expect some J-Pop although not as much as you might expect. And on the boat in Hagi we heard Japanese folk songs through the speakers. Very pleasant.

The most memorable musics I heard in Japan, I heard in temples and shrines. It was played during rituals and not performed for an audience, at least not a secular one. Usually the rituals (and music making) took place in the inner sanctum of the shrines and while you can certainly peek inside through the opening in front of the central altar, it was not something we did often during rituals. There is something private about those and it seems inappropriate for non-believers to just lean in to have a look at those drums. Even (especially?) when they are ethnomusicologists.

The good thing about music is that you don’t need to see it to enjoy it. We have heard drums and flutes and double reeds. In the mountain town of Tsuwano we heard long stretches of drumming that speeded up to a climax, only to start calmly again. In the almost deserted temple grounds it was a beautiful sound. (I was lucky enough to capture it on video.)
Once we saw part of a wedding ceremony. Two men (priests?) took place opposite the happy couple (my wedding dress was a poor affair compared to hers) and played flute and sang while two temple maidens performed a highly stylized dance. It was an extremely serious occasion with solemn faces.

More grounded, earthly somehow, are musical instruments when they are not played. Without their sound they become more material things but things that possess a certain potential. A lot of potentiality. I like looking at drums and bells, strings and brass horns. The large brass bell in the silent zen temple possesses a promise that is intriguing. Same for the drums in the shrines but also the shamisen and koto we encountered in a small shop in Nagasaki. It was a tiny shop with two old men in it eating lunch so I didn’t dare snap a picture. But I did snap this one: ukulele specialty shop in Tokyo. Ukeleles! I didn’t hear them in Japan but in my mind they are now forever tied to Tokyo.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Japan Diaries, part V: Kyoto

Kyoto is one of the world’s cultural capitals. There are numerous cultural heritage sites, determined as such by Unesco. I had heard about Kyoto and formed picture of my mind, as one does. But Kyoto at first sight is just like any other Japanese city: suburbs with tower blocks, industry and grey inner city filled with traffic and people. In fact, a lot like other cities in the world. While at the same time undeniably Japanese.

How so? The street signs are all in Japanese of course. Secondly, almost everyone in the street looks Japanese. This may seem very obvious but I come from the Netherlands and I live in an area where white European ethnicity is a minority. In the Rotterdam underground the people around me are from all over the world, skin colours from extremely pale to dark black. In Japan we really stood out. Especially my blue eyes and light brown curly hair drew attention. The population of Japan is much more homogenous. Thirdly, temples and shrines are a natural part of the package: small shrines would be embedded in shopping arcades or on street corners in residential areas. Fourth, the architecture of freestanding houses often includes tiled roofs with ornamentations that are unmistakeably Japanese. Finally, there are no trash cans in Japan. Nowhere in the streets. There are vending machines for soft drinks (ice coffee!) every fifty yards but public places to get rid of the cans and bottles are extremely scarce. Yet the streets are clean and tidy. Either everyone throws it away at home (which I suspect) or Japanese eat PET bottles with their sake.

But: Kyoto! There are more interesting things to tell about Kyoto besides the absence of trash facilities. (For example stores advertising with “Enjoy your life! Enjoy your socks style!” but even that is beside the point.)

Did you ever read Memoires of a Geisha? (I only read the book, didn’t see the film.) It is set in Gion, the old entertainment district of Kyoto. The narrow streets, the tea houses, the riverside? Now I’ve seen them. They were different then I had imagined of course, and I didn’t really see the inside of a tea/sake house. They are pretty closed, introverted institutions, probably focusing more on exclusivity for specific (regular) customers than on attracting a more general audience. But still: the tiny streets lined with wooden houses and shop fronts, kimono shops (and accessories), specialty shops for fans and wooden slippers, the works – all there.

In Holland traditional wear is a tourist affair. No so in Japan! Especially in Kyoto there are many women in the street dressed in kimono. Colourful, beautiful patterned, with folded obi or a big bow on their back, on slippers or heels. Like everyday wear, no dress-ups. And women of all ages, and not just in Gion but all over the city. We were delighted.

At the end of one street we encountered a large temple complex. Temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto) are pretty easy to find in Kyoto because they are everywhere. This was a Zen Buddhist temple, the oldest in Kyoto, and by the looks of it a pretty wealthy one. It was open for visitors. So we bought a ticket, left our shoes at the door, walked into the temple complex, and left the real world.

I like deserts and seas because they possess a kind of emptiness that is soothing. This was a cultural, cultivated emptiness. Rooms consisting of little more than measured tatami mats, dark wooden beams and paper or light wooden screens, with one painting on a screen or on the paper wall. Gardens of a few rocks and white pebbles raked into patters. And other gardens with the moss carefully maintained with tweezers (I saw!) to make them ultimate reflections of the nature of the universe. Could be the universality of nature, one of those. I felt I was floating around the temple. In the end we came to the great hall where the ceiling was covered with an enormous painting of two dragons, to watch over the Buddhist teachings. They circled in my head for a long time afterwards.

Japan Diaries, part IV: HARRO!!! (Hagi)

We went to Hagi and did it again. When we arrived at the tourist office to ask for directions to the ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house), it turned out that it was not in Hagi. It was in Tsuwano, where we were supposed to be going the next day. My friend had booked it when we were in Nagasaki. She was determined to find a good place to sleep that was not in the Lonely Planet and after much searching she had found Hoshi Ryokan. Charming place, not cheap but also not too expensive. Turned out it was in the LP, but for Tsuwano. Where it is located.

We ended up in a business hotel in Hagi with the unparallelled name Royal Intelligent Hotel Hagi. (Yes, we have a picture of me doing the Thinker by Rodin at the front entrance.) The hotel itself was nothing special except for the lack of intelligence in the rooms, shown by an automatic light in the entrance near the door. The light had a motion sensor but it was not adjusted properly which meant that it switched on every time S turned around in her sleep. Or what was left of her sleep. Vely interregent. We stayed there only one night and left for Tsuwano (and Hoshi Ryokan) the next day. But first we explored the town.

Hagi is described as a ‘charming castle town’ in the Planet and that was what drew me to there in the first place. It turned out that S had been drawn also by the prospect of the beach but the weather did not permit lounging in the sun so we explored. Hagi at first looked a bit bleak, an average provincial city where people just live and work and nothing else much. We decided to rent bikes and check it out anyway. Wowsa! Hagi is not just a provincial town, it is a provincial town with massive historical roots, going back to the age of shoguns and samurai, and much of that is still visible.

Hagi played a pivotal role in the turn of Japan from the shogunate (17th to 19th century), an age of martial rule, to the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when the emperor’s power was, well, restored. Before that time, however, the castle lord of Hagi ruled in the area and had gathered around him a score of samurai. The castle was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration but some of the samurai houses are still there. As are many old wooden merchant and artisan houses in another part of the town. It is the old Japan from Seven Samurai, it is amazing. (If you haven’t seen Seven Samurai, shame on you! Go see it now before you get hit by a bus and it’s too late. You don’t know film if you don’t know Seven Samurai.)

As we biked around we repeatedly ran into large groups of school children, ages about 12 to 16. They would invariably greet us with a happy “HARRO!”; I am still sorry I didn’t ask them to pose for a picture but their teacher looked so stern, I didn’t dare mess up her schedule.

Hagi is on the coast of the Sea of Japan. How cool is that? For someone carrying a Dread Pirate around, it is pretty damn cool. We decided to take a boat trip on the river and a bit on the sea. But we needed to find out first how long the trip would be. We weren’t going to spend three hours on a boat that day. Finding out the duration of the trip proved to be a bit of a challenge though. We spend over 5 minutes trying to explain the question. Yes, we knew it was 1200 yen. And yes, we understood that we could leave at 1 o’clock. But how long? Where is that phrase book when you need it? Well, in the lockers at the station that’s where, but luckily I had peeked into it that morning to learn a bit more Japanese words. And I had read and subconsciously remembered ‘pun’ for ‘minutes’. So after S and I drew a picture of a boat leaving and then arriving with a clock with an arrow around it, and I heard one guy say to another something like yon ji pun something in my head went “!” – I recognized something! Forty minutes? Hai, forty minutes. Hurray! Me so proud.

The boat trip was lovely. The biking was wonderful. The ice coffee with cake was marvellous. The train ride to Tsuwano, first along the coast and then into the mountains, was fabulous. And so we arrived in Tsuwano where the English-ish speaking hostess picked us up from the station. The ryokan was beautiful and peaceful, a pot of tea was waiting for us. Everything was alright. The following morning we were woken up at six by the hostess’ family life. Even that was alright.

Japan Diaries, part III: Getting around

The Lonely Planet says it: Japan is one of the easiest, most convenient and safest countries in the world to travel. (They also note: except for the language.) They are right. Forget driving, there is a tightly-knit railway network across the country consisting of one national system, Japan Rail or JR, and a few private lines. With a JR Pass you can freely use virtually every rail line in the land, from high-tech bullet trains (shinkansen) to tiny local trains that stop at every town, hamlet and huddle of houses.

As for convenience: enter the Japanese people! Every major station has a ticket office where seat reservations are issued for the main lines. Upon request (“I would like to travel from here, Nagasaki, to Hagi later this afternoon”) the attendant will immediately present you with the best connections and print out the reservation tickets for you in the process. Want to go later? Earlier? No problem, we’ll do the whole thing over.

Luckily with city names and times (point at watch, stick up fingers) mastery of Japanese is not required because even at the ‘international points’ English is no lingua franca that works. Maybe with ‘international’ they mean that some employees understand Chinese or Korean? Same goes for the Tourist Offices in the smaller towns though. We have found that ‘Tourist Office’ is likely to be the full English vocabulary there. Awesome.

In the smaller stations, particularly in the country, there is no international point or reservation desk. But there is invariably a helpful young man at the ticket window (usually with a nervous look on his face but that could be just for us) with a couple of large timetable books and a computer. Works too.

The trains are comfortable. The trains are clean. The trains are quiet. And the trains are always exactly on time. I believe the margin is said to be 20 seconds and I believe it. We have seen one instance of a delay (5 minutes!) and witnessed how this put all personnel on edge. The driver made up for the delay upon arrival which means that there is room in the schedule. Amazing. (Dutch railways! Listen up!) We would determine our position by the minutes of the clock: “are we there yet?” – “nope, another 3.25 minutes to go”.

Oh and the trains stop at exactly the point where they need to, aligning the numbers on the platform with those on the train doors within inches. People (business people, ferocious looking youngsters, vacationers, everyone) will form a neat line on the platform minutes before the train rolls in and patiently wait for people to come off before stepping on board. For someone from Holland, I can tell you it is a sight for sore eyes. (Dutch commuters! Listen up!)