More adventures with a rail pass. And lots of KM
I also spent a bit of time around Tokyo (although criss crossed through it on numerous occassions for no logical reason unless you happen to follow my logic), where I reluctantly had to shelve my grand Jabba the Hutt plans due to lack of time and preperation space. But I will - categorically - produce and wear a Jabba the Hutt suit to a fancy dress party somewhere as soon as I next get set up living somewhere. It is now second on my life`s goal list to commutiung into the centre of London on a camel, and leaving it tied up in Oxford Street. I made a quick return to Zushi, for Dave`s (who hosted me on the way up) great 30th birthday do and made a brief trek onto the US Yokosuka base there for no apparent reason.
I went down to Iseshi, Shinto`s most Holy shrine, south of Nagoya (not far from Suzuka) to pay my respects and take a look at something which I had been remis in doing in the previous 2.5months in Japan. Japan is at least approximnately a Shinto country, a religion that i know nothing about and hadn`t paid much attention to in the previous part of my time here. And so, I had to do something about it. Ise was actually wonderful, and an extremely pleasant surprise. It has two main shrines, Inner and Outer (Naiku and Geku), and the Outer shrine in particular was great. For one main reason. Entirely unfathomably (to me), it was virtually deserted. A trickle of independent tourists being the only passers through、and fantastically not a single umbrella wielding crazed Japanese tour groups.
The shrine itself was also impressively plain. Nothing fancy, just a wonderful outer garden area around a lake, and then a large but simple wooden shrine. Apart from Imperial family members (not me, and not working on it) and top ranking shnito priests (probably an unlikely career move), the shrine itself is actually closed off from the outside world anyway, meaning that only the outer Tori and gates and a courtyard are open. But it felt extremely humbling. And i`m not even religious (i subscribe to the Scott Adams "religion was invented by women to try and stop men doing things and having fun" theory). The Inner Naiku shrine, 4km away, was admittedly more touristed - allot more - and more set up for them, but still lovely situated and plain wood as opposed to garishly decorated, and I was very glad to have visited.
The Holy white horse (it is a real horse, honest), somewhat bored with life at the Ise shinto shrine, and Japanese workers being a tad optimistic...
I also headed up to two old cities North of Nagoya, Kanazawa and Takayama, both of which I had heard much about and people had said they were lovely old unspoilt Japanese cities, which to me was kind of worrying in that places describe as unpoilt and traditional normally have hoardes or tourists and tourist paraphinalia spoiling them and making them not traditional. You know what i mean, even if I don`t. Astonishingly, bith were actually lovely, and Takayama in particular, refreshingly unspoilt, although admittedly touristy. Not desperately intrusively, but still there. Oh well.
I headed north again upto Sendai, to go and visit Matsushima, somewhere else high on my list. Matsushima is another of Japans wonderfully ranked "top 3" sights, and is basically an archipelago of Rock formations randomly appearing of the coast. Stunningly, I happened to be there on a perfect day, weatherwise, so took the boat trip around which baring the inceseant loud Japanese commentary (another 10 minutes, and I would have jumpe overborad. And no, I can`t swim) was great. They really are a large number of simple rock outcrops with trees on, just dotted at random around, and I loved it.
Matsushima town itself was predictable, although a nearby Island, Fukura-jima, linked to the mainland by a 240m wooden bridge (and actual wood, not concrete pretending to be wood) had been turned into a lovely arboretum and park which i happily killed a couple of hours wandering around.
I also finally got to Shikoku, the 4th of Japans major islands, and the one least known or visited. Unfortunately I din`t have time to do much that I wanted to, but got to see Takamatsu (fairly non) and Kotohira, the obligitory place I had to visit due to the Kompira-san shrine, high on the mountain side and allegedly on the top of a 900step or so climb, and I couldn`t possibly pass by a long climb, could I?! To be honest, despite the huge amount of fuss Japanese make about how hard it is, and everybody using staffs for help, it wasn`t particularly hard. Admittedly i have had a bit of practice in climbing of late, but providing you get into a rhythm and sort your breathing, climbing isn`t too hard. I passed a good few people struggling on the way up, including several groups of school kids on their hands and knees and didn`t need to understand any Japanese to realise that the gapes in amazement and giggles were at this strange gaijin almost running up 2 at a time without sounding like he was about to pass out. I even continued straight up past the main shrine to the snmaller Inner shrine, a good 600odd steps further on. Oddly, and probably only in japan, the main shrine, 800 steps up the side of a mountain is a shrine dedicated to....seafarers. The fact that there is a shrine on an Inland sea isle barely 0.3metres above sea level odedicated to the mountain gods as well, just seems wrong. I`m not suggesting that it was a f*ck up of Puerto Rican proportions, but...
I also got out to Uchiko, West of Matsuyama on the Western edge of the island, who`s selling point was an allegedly photogenic street of Edo period houses which apparently needed several hours to explore, but had seen everything and was mostly unimpressed within an hour. Matsuyama however, was wonderful. Shikoku`s largest city was very laid back and a great place, and oddly had reverse discrimination on accomodation, meaning a saving of over 100yen for foreigners and I would happily have stayed around for a good few days. Home of a fantastic old castle, the wonderful Dogo Onsen, one of Japans oldest and most famous, and as seems to be the way, another Japanese holiday. Which obviously meant huge numbers of great street performers and dressed up people doing traditional dances. Great stuff!
Street performers on the japanese holiday and the Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama on Shikoku island
And i spent another few days in Kyushu, getting down to Kagoshima, via the wonderfully unconnected section of Kyushu Shinkansen (they built the bottom half without actually remembering to start on the top half) to the "Naples of Japan". Actually, i wouldn`t argue with cappling Napoli the "Kagoshima of Italy", but i rarely have a say in such matters. As you`d probably guessed by the comparisons, it was a large sh1thole. Ok, not quite. It`s a large ferry port, and is watched over by the fantastically active Sakurajima volcano, on a spit across the bay. It was on an island in the bay until 1914 when it decided to blow up a bit, filling in the 400m wide, 70m deep channel to the mainland on the other side of the island, and encroaching half across the bay towards Kagoshima. And so, the city seems to be constantly in the haze, but sitting on Sakurajima island that night, the only guest in a 300bed concrete hostel, and just gazing across the bay to the city, it was fantastic and somewhere i would move and live in an instant.
Sakurajima volcano from the shuttle ferry to Kagoshima. And whilst the japanese have a hard problem prouncing "R" and "L" in English, writen down shouldn`t be quite so hard...
I also visited Kumamoto, a really chilled city, with another great castle, and containing a 9th story bar covered a foot deep in sand (you come out of a skyscraper covered in sand. It`s most odd), and contained a surprisingly large number of gaijin, virtually all of whom were stunning blonde females, and I have no idea why. And finally, I did another of my must-do`s. And obviously fulfilled my years need for Vulcanology by taking a trip across the Aso Caldera, a stupendously large volcano caldera. Despite still being active houses railways, highways and large towns. Just standing in the middle, gazing all around at the "new" peaks (3 of which are highly active) and just looking at the sheer size of the damned crater makes you ponder our insignificance with reknewed interest. Humans can blow things up. The planet can make a crater 60km+ across, just like that. It probably wouldn`t have been a good place to have been when it did last went KA-BOOOOOM...
Incredibly, I even got to see the elusive Fuji-san. Once in 3months doesn`t prove to me that it isn`t a fake or that it doesn`t go on tour, but it does occassionally go where it`s supposed to be.
By the end of my pass, i`d racked up over 17000km in 3weeks, covered the entireity of every Shinkansen route (a random aim of mine) and significantly more than the Yen value of the pass. I would guess 8 or 9 times more. And I was starting to definitely tire. I knew that it was about time to leave Japan, and arrangements were started to be made.
Mark II "classic" style Shinkansen - Bullet train - in Okayama
First, however, i had a couple of small things to do and take in...