A Travellerspoint blog

Ah cr*p. How to be arrested for carrying class 'A' Narcotics

When the second entrance to Korea even beats the first!

A precedent had been set. The last time I had come to Korea was entirely by accident and due to a lack of any other options. As you may or may not recall, it in involved a race around Vladivostok, an interesting bus trip down a dirt road to within sight of the North Korean border, and a long trek on a somewhat, shall we say, delipidated "ferry" down the North Korean coast in a typhoon. It sure as heck had it's moments at the time, but looking back was a great experience and makes a great story. I never figured that my second entry, in calm waters along the well travelled route from Japan, would be anything other than routine. With my history, I really should know better.

And so it was that i spent about 3 hours being guarded in a holding cell, provisionally charged with importing a prohibited class A narcotic. Ah cr*p.

People tell you to ALWAYS check your bags carefully in case they had been tampered with, and to NEVER carry anything through customs for anybody else. In a way, it was the second of these rules that i blatantly ignored, and looking back, I really should have seen it coming. I have had enough trouble crossing borders in the past, and get picked out and checked 'at random' that it is nothing new to me, and I am extremely careful about what I do carry. Except on that fateful day.

And so it was, that after a pleasant crossing from Hakata on a mostly empty boat, I dismebarked in Busan, happy to have left Japan for a new adventure and a chance to actually see some of Korea, and looking forward to meeting up with some friends from my previous visit.

And it was one such friend - she will remain nameless at this point, but I may edit it in if i don't get enough free food and booze out of her as recompense - who dumped me into it. Big style.

She had mentioned that there was something that she loved dearly, and hadn't been able to find in Korea, and that if I happened to come across any on my time in Japan, could I pick some up for her? It seemed an innocent request, and I was happy to look. Searches of Japan failed to find a useful source, but two other friends happily came to my assistance, pulled through, and delivered the stuff to me to bring over.

Passport control was time consuming in itself, mostly because of my lack of barcode and machine readible passport leading to a longer processing time. But they let me in, and even gave my 3 months. My bags went through the x-ray machine without problem, and I didn't even set the metal detector off. And then came the immigration checks. Being the only non oriental on the boat, it was a cert I would be stopped anyway, despite my record, and this duly happened.

"May I see your bags sir?" asks the man. Sure, no problem. "Do you have anything to declare?" he asks. Nothing, help yourself to a look. I handed my immigration card and passport to his colleague for inspection whilst he goes about my bags, and I let my mind start to wander whilst the routine is played out. After a few minutes rumbling through, he pulls out a small carrier bag, opens it and gives me a puzzled look. He prods and sniffs a while, and says something. Two more people come over and inspect the goods, and faces are looking grave in my direction. It is at this point i realise what the offending material is, and think that I should be able to explain ok.

But none of them really spoke English, and the question of "can you explain what this is?" kind of stumps me anyway. I try it's a kind of sweet eaten in the UK and North America, but they ask if it's chocolate (no) or mint (no) and then reach the end of their English without me being able to convince them. You can't get it in Korea, I said, but your welcome to try some. But by this point, the smell is overpowering them, my attempts at an explanation which they would accept are faltering, and the levels of suspicion are very high, so they think i'm trying to get them to take drugs.

It is at this point that the women perusing my immigration card with increasing detail points at something and asks me to explain. This happens often as well. Cartographer isn't really the first word most people learn in a foreign language. Heck, enough native speakers don't know it. I try to explain 'map', and after a few seconds her face changes in realisation. I think, thank dog (i was in one of my dyslexic moments), she knows what i do. She thinks she does. She points at me, shrieks "spy", and then follows a rapid high pitched conversation between the now 7 officials around me, with other passengers wandering through completely unwatched.

And so i'm whisked away to a room and locked in alone, wondering how the hell i've managed to get arrested for being a British spy and in possesion of 2 bags of bassetts licorice allsorts, and 2 bags (the ones which are really causing the problem) of loose licorice sweets and twirls.

This is impressive, even by my standards.

About 10minutes later, some people enter and in halting English - whilst showing me a laminated (it's NOT CALLED PLASTIFY) card with the same writen on - telling me i'm being detained on suspicion of importing a class A narcotic. I'm surprised they don't have one saying i'm being held as a spy or North Korean agent. Or on some other daft charge.

Shortly after, they whisk me to another room and ask me to sign something to say they can search me. I sign. They motion me to take my clothes off, and i'm treated to my first strip search in maybe 3 years, but as it's not exactly a new thing for me, no great problem. I wasn't so keen when they all pointed and laughed, but what can a man do? Still unconvinced, they ushered me to an X-ray machine and I was given the full body X-ray, which was a first. I guess they think i'm transporting stuff inside me as well. Fair enough. But of course it comes negative, and that confuses them. So I am allowed to dress, and then taken back to my holding cell where i'm told that the police will be coming to visit me, and a translater would come soon.

After a couple of hours, there is a commotion at the door. An employee enters, followed by several sheepish looking colleages. He points at me and collapses on the floor laughing (this is also a common afair), and then in perfect English with more than a touch of a Norfolk accent apologises profusely for the 'over zealous nature of his colleagues'. Turns out he had lived in the uk for a few years, and had obviously come across licorice before, and had walked in on them in earnest conference trying to work ot what the hell the stuff was. His colleagues are falling over themselves to apologise and bow at me, and after assuring them that i'm fine and there's no trouble over the misunderstanding (they were just doing their job, saving the Korean population from a highly addictive and subversie substance), i'm then free to go. Strangely, they all refused my offer of a piece of licorice to try...

2.5hours, and I was a free man again. Better than normal, I must admit!

There is only one small footprint to the story, about my subsequently being fondled by a cheery middle aged Korean man on the subway, who had his hand on my crotch whilst trying to talk to me to work out why i seemed to be laughing to myself, but in the grand scheme of things, it's of no consequence, so it shall be left to rest.

This is an interesting country.

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Posted by Gelli 01:15 Archived in South Korea Comments (6)

Contradictions. So many contradictions

Time to leave. Musings from 3 months in Japan.

After 3 months, it was time to leave Japan. And not just because I have to. There is more of the world to see, and if I renenw for 3months, i know I won't leave until the very end.

It really is a surreal place. A mass of contradictions and bizare sights, where you never know what on earth is going to happen next or what you will see. A hugely hi-tech country, but one where things which can be done automatically with ease are often done by humans, or supplemented by them. Where automatic parking garages may have a half dozen paid attendants, just to get in your way, say hello and push up the cost.

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Where jobs which are entirely unneccessary, exists in droves. For example, a traffic light controlled perdestrian crossing, in a country where Jaywalking is essentially unknown, might have 3 or 4 people with whistles and light waving battons to usher you across, in case you haven`t worked out what the green man means. But come night, it goes hi-tech beyond belief, and guys like this appear...

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A country which uses surreal amounts of packaging for no apparent reason, buying something no matter how small or instantly useable without them giving you a carrier bag - often tiny - and extra bits is near impossible, and things are always individually wrapped (e.g. chewing gum) when not needed.

A country where things are so often fake, and deliberately so. Houses are clad with sheets of fake bricks or stones which look fake, and aren`t even realistic (i.e. bricks will be painted on top of each other, not in the normal interlocking fashion), and where things have been made by hand for no apparent reason, despite natural alternatives. A look out tower in a forest over a reservoir, for example, has been made from concrete and carefully moulded and painted to look like wood, despite the fact that clearing the space to actually put up the look out tower would have involved the removal of more trees (of the same type as the fake ones depict) than needed to build it. Why? I mean, Why?!

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Japanese tour groups go at an even bigger frenzy to those seen abroad, and where umbrellas are carried by everybody and are frequently semi leathal weapons, especially in the hands of little old ladies.

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And despite the Japanese being reknowned as major education freaks and doing lots of studying, schools are often scarily basic and outdated, and pupils are forced to go to cram schools to learn what they need to pass the exam (they have 2, one which everybody takes, one for the university they want to go to, and that is it for their entire schooling. Everything comes down to just 2 exams, and which college/uni you go to is hugely important to your future) because they aren`t taught it in schools. Which is why even though everybody has learn`t English for 8 years or more, barely anybody can speak a word - they learn entirely useless and outdated stuff, and only that needed to pass the exam. Not useable English, and essentially no speaking or listening at all.

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Sign in a Kyoto temple garden (any ideas?!)and then in the Sakurajima hostel

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Classic signs from Hakodate. The bottom two are both on toilets...

Seeing children wearing school uniforms is perfectly normal on a saturday, and not unusual on sundays or holidays. Ditto young kids in uniform who still haven`t made it home late into the evening, or even waiting for trains to go to school at 4.50am.

Where men can, and do, pass over drunk and fall asleep in the street. And where men frequently urinate in public without it being considered unusual or attracting attention, especially in the evening, but any other kind of littering is unheard of, and smoking in public is seriously rebelling the norm. And eating whilst on the move, or worse, blowing your nose in public, is considered extremely bad manners. You can fall asleep in the street, or urinate against a public building without problem, but can`t blow your nose.

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In 95% of the country it is impossible to find an address (even for taxi drivers, which is a new concept to me), because addresses are not geographical. They are based on age of the building. So a house gets knocked down and a new one built on the same ground, it gets a completely new address.

Police ambulance with lights and sirens waiting at lights and in traffic quite happliy. They never go past, as i'm sure they are allowed to. They will even stop to let pedestrians cross the road. This is perhaps not a country to need very sudden urgent hosital care if you are more than a block away from the hospital.

It is perfectly normal to leave houses unlocked and cars unlocked with the engines running. People sleep in cars, regularly, with the engines running, and everybody reverses a good metre or so before actually bothering to look behind them. And walking or cycling in the country after dark is seriously dicing with death from drivers who eitehr don't see you to move out the way, or figure than another dead gaijin won't be missed all the much.

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Pachinko, a game which is almost a religion in Japan, despite gambling being illegal. You don't win money, you win prizes. Which just happen to be able to be exchanged in a nearby shp for their monetary value. Pachinko was invented by a guy in Nagoya after WW2 as a way of using up all the leftover ball bearings. Now I may be taking a bit of a leap here, but if you have so many ballbearings left over you have to invent a game to use them in, perhaps somebody was forgetting to put them in things? Like airplanes and armoured cars

The country which gave the world digital clocks, yet seems unable to actually grasp the idea of 24hour time...

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A country where everything costs money, and in allot of cases, chunks of it. Yet homeless people live in tents which could almost be classified as luxurious, taking their shoes off before entering, listening to IPods or talking on mobile phones, and sometimes even running businesses from canvas shelters in parks or along canals. And where seemingly, it's possible to get married virtually without knowing it...

Yet i love it here, and will be back.

Posted by Gelli 20:18 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Anagrams of imperial cities and that G Walker B chap...

Kyoto and Tokyo (again)

I had briefly dropped by Kyoto for a night during my pass, but then shot off again to make full use of the free travel, but not without the plan of ending in Kyoto and having a proper look around.

Kyoto is Japans number 1 tourist destination, and one of the main must-see destinations in Japan. A combination of temples (lots and lots of temples), and allegedly what most people think of when they think of Japan - and no, in this case, I don`t mean either David Sylvian or Ninja turtles - it was somewhere that I had deliberately left until the end. At the start I wasn`t sure whether I would like Japan or not, and as such decided that i`d leave the best until last, to save me getting disapointed after seeing it and just leave. And so, it was the obvious place to end my pass and spend a good few days. Especially with the excellent Irek happy to let me kip on his straw.

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Zen garden, Kyoto

Admittedly It turned out that I actually loved Japan, but I sure as heck didn`t know that at the time, and by the time i got to Kyoto, It was there that I was expecting to be the let down. But it wasn`t. Without wanting to sound like some sort of stat freak, i thought i`d shamelessly steal this overview from another website, called "Kyoto website", or some such, and paraphrase it, very badly. It was the Japanese capital for over 1,000 years, and the heart of culture and politics. Kyoto is mostly unique (i know that it can`t be mostly unique, but i want to say that, so I will) within Japan in that it was virtually untouched during World War II, leaving a myriad of temples, shrines and a castle intact. Admittedly it was only the shortlist of 4 to have the atomic bomb dropped on it - and Nagasaki wasn`t - but was removed near the end for reasons that excape me now. The legacy has been recognized by UNESCO, which has designated seventeen separate sites within Kyoto's borders as World Cultural Heritage sites. In addition, 20% of Japan's national treasures and 15% of the country's cultural properties can all be found in Kyoto, whilst half of all Japanese Nobel Prize winners have been Kyoto University researchers (and no, i don`t know how many there were. But 1 person from 2 would still be half of all of Japans winners).

That was just a waste of space and filler, really, wasn`t it?

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Flame throwers and fire performers, plus Irek and the guys drumming by the river

In all honesty, i didn`t really even do all that much in Kyoto. Staying with the excellent Irek - who some may remember as being one of Ala`s Polish companions who i spent some time with in Siberia - I just wandered for most of a week. More than maybe anywhere else bar Harajuku, Kyoto is great for people watching, and I spent hours just trawling around some of the central areas watching the locals. I even saw some true honest to god geisha`s on their way to appointments (or white girls going to fancy dress parties is possible, I suppose) in some of the back alleyways around Shinjo.

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Byodo-in Temple in Uji City, near Kyoto

I did make an effort to see a few of the most famous sites. During my pass i had spent a few hours in Uji, a small city south of Kyoto, and home to the lovely Byodo-in Temple, which because of my timing I had pretty much to myself which was great. I spent some time around the Jisho-ji Temple, also known as the Ginkakuji Temple or Silver Pavilion (despite not being silver because they forgot), and wandering around the grounds and through the autumn leaves, changing into a multitude of colours, and for which the Japanese are real suckers for. And of course, visited one of the most famous places in all of Japan, the Rokuon-ji Temple, also known as the Kinkakuji Temple or Golden Pavilion (and in this case, which actually is covered in gold), which was certainly nice if not mind-blowingly amazing and filled with more Japanese tourists than i think I have seen in one place outside of Oxford...

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Kinkakuji Temple, also known as the Golden Pavilion

With my normal immaculate planning, I had also cunningly timed my visit to coincide with the visit of some American Bushy chappie. I must admit I would have loved to have seen the expression on his face in the Kyoto state guesthouse - where he was guest of honour at the opening of a new wing - when he was shown his traditional room, completely with tatami (straw) on the floor and thin wispy paper decorations and scrolls, and thats about it. Bush and I have a bit of a history, in that he periodically decides to hold summits or meetings in places where i`m just arriving, and obviously all hell breaks loose. Protests and marches are the norms, as are crazy numbers of police, road and attraction closures, and secutrity checks. Makes life miserable. In contrast to one of my last encounters, in Roma a couple of years ago when he was visiting Pope John Paul II, this time wasn`t quite as interesting. I got stopped by so many police for ID checks that you would have thought that I was going to meet him face to face rather than just get home somewhere a few Kilometres away. In Roma, Together with a few random - oddly enough, Japanese - tourists (i think this was after Tina had left, but i could be wrong. Btw, Helloooo Trondheim), I managed the not unimpressive trick of walking out of an alleyway into a square being guarded by about 6 deep police and hoardes of protesters and welcomers. It took a few minutes before i realised what was wrong. Everybody weas looking away and we were in a calm-ish square gap. And then a helicopter came in to start to land. Yup, we had actually walked entirely unwittingly and without being challenged inside the police cordon. Getting out was trickier, and not the odd policeman gave some extremely strange and startled looks at being passed by a half dozen tourists trying to get out from the area that they were carefully guarding against any entrants. So I suppose many ID checks are not a bad thing. Especially as everybody i seem to meet quickly concludes that i`m almost certainly a spy.

Oh well.

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And I even managed to hook up with my first TPer of the trip. And so poor old Zags is unfortunate enough to join a list containing the likes of Raven, GretaGarbo, Yerman, Lil J (most of whom dissappeared shortly afterwards. I swear it`s a coincidence) and our esteemed leader, the I am. You all have my deep sympathies, but in honesty, it`s all your own fault. Zindy - Zags - is great (unlike most of the rest of you lot...) and we spent a few hours just wandering around at random, watching Japanese people and being bemused.

After almost a week in Kyoto, i took the slow train back to Chigasakai (or rather, many slow trains. But it was dirt cheap) to stay with the wonderful Soness for the last time, for what felt like a home coming. I may have already said this (i can`t remember what the hell i`ve already writen) but Soness`s place has actually felt more like home for some unknown reason that anywhere i`ve actually even lived in donkeys years, let alone visited. Despite Nibbles confirming that i`m allergic to cats and making me stream everytime I visit. Most odd.

I then headed up into Tokyo for the last time to hook up with a couple of people and take a final wander around. Spent 3 nights, and mostly just wandered at random, firstly with Liz, 2 days into her 7month RTW trip (Heck, even i`m jealous, and I`m already on a RTW) from TT. And the deliverer, god bless her, of a new supply of teabags. We took in a Kabuki theatre show, something I had wanted to do, but hadn`t gotten around to before. The show actually lasts for about 5 hours, but tickets are also sold for single sessions, mostly for stupid gaijin like ourselves, who just want to watch but don`t have the faintest idea what is going on. Kabuki is a traditional theatre style, performed entirely by men - originally it had been entirely by women, but some law was passed by somebody relevant a few hundred years ago and so men took over. (That`s why you read this utter drivel, really, isn`t it? My continous cutting edge attention to detail and factual information). Exactly what happened, we don`t really know, but it was the last act, was the ending of a love story, and some people wearing facncy costumes died miserably. Definitely worth a visit.

Took in the metropolitan towers at night again, for another great night view over the city (no Fuji, but at night, i`ll let it off), and spent a day trawling around Harajuku, Meji, Shibuya and other assorted sites, including assorted tiny Galleries in Ginza where Liz got to dress up in traditional Kimono (photos follow) before in collusion with another girl, Mary, and the Hawaiian ambassador (Dwaine - who I managed to talk into heading out clubbing in Roppongi, despite being warned about my Kiki experiences. Which reminds me. That girl is Seriously nuts, and still bombarding me with emails. Even reporting her address as Spam hasn`t helped. If anybody happens to want a not unattractive japanese wife within the next few days, let me know and i`ll arrange for you to get together) decided that we should probably do the cooking thing, poison most of a hostels worth of guests - anybody who ive ever cooked for or seen my attempts can attest at that - and buy what is not, in fact, a large bottle of white spirit, but is in fact a 4litre botlle of Sake. Yup, a 4litre bottle of 25% alcohol for barely 10gbp. And they wonder why this country is full of alcoholics?!

Before I left, I also spent a day wandering around aimlessly with Jon, my old Rugby drinking pal from Copenhagen (watching the world cup in 2003 was not pretty. Time differences and living in a non rugby area mean`t a 4.45am rise, to get a 5.15 train for 2 hours to another country to go to a pub to watch rugby and start drinking by 8am. It dawned on us that it was getting a bit farcial one morning drinking at 7.30am - a Welshman, Scot and Kiwi watching Fiji-Italy with French commentary in an Irish bar in Denmark and loving it). Tradition dictated a trip to the Dubliners for breakfast - my first fry up in many months, and whilst not a classic, the first bacon i`d seen in 5months went down extremely well - although despite it being an autumn international day with some interesting games, we were both too knackered to stay up late enough to watch. I fancied a cup of tea instead. I really am getting old.

And with that, time was running short. And so, I`ve just made the long trek by bus back to Nagasaki (interesting delays in Tokyo due to the arrival of yet another head of state, M. Putin on this occassion), to sort some cr*p out, and tomorrow i head to Fukuokoa/Hakata to leave Japan.

It`s definitely time for me to leave.
And immigration will happily atest to that.

Hope all good, and a few more pics to follow when i`ve left.

Posted by Gelli 19:39 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Running around like a headless chicken, Part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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Kanazawa legs

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.

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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!

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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.

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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...

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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...

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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.

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It exists!!!!

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.

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Mark II "classic" style Shinkansen - Bullet train - in Okayama

First, however, i had a couple of small things to do and take in...

Posted by Gelli 19:37 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Running around like a headless chicken, Part1...

Adventures with a rail pass.

Travel in Japan is expensive. The Shinkansen, whilst quick, is not cheap, and rural travel can be even worse Km for km. Some lovely people (thanks guys!) had carefully arranged for me to have a 3week JR pass, costing some 57000yen (about 300gbp - but when a return Tokyo-Hakata is 47000, big savings), and as such, i intended to take full advantage.

I had a few daft things i wanted to do, and a list of places i wanted to visit, as well as cunning research as to which night trains i could use for free, and other perks of the pass. It might be madcap tourism at its worst, but i was going to get the full possible value out of the pass. What followed actually even involved some planning. Thats how important it was.

As such, i kind of ran around like a headless chicken for 3 weeks.

Some journeys are a simple matter of getting from A to B, whilst others are as much for the journey as the arrival. My departure from Hakodate was both. The train from Hokkaido to Honshu runs through the Seikan tunnel, at 54km the worlds longest tunnel. ALmost laughably, this 17year project had been part of the grand design of Shinkansen lines in Japan and started in the boom. It was going to be the key link between Tokyo and Sapporo, but they overspent so badly on the tunnel that they didn`t have enough money to actually build the links at either end. As such, it will be close to another 15 years, and 35 after opening, before the Shinkansen link is completed. At one time, they considered - seriously - turning the tunnel into the worlds lartgest mushroom farm, before eventually deciding to lay standard Japanese narrow guage tracks through it to link it to the main network. It is at best, underused. A twin track tunnel, we didn`t pass a train in the other direction the entire journey or for a good while at either side. Perhaps half a mushroom farm would have been worth it.

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After arriving in Hachinohe, i finally got my first ride on the Shinkansen, better known in the west as the Bullet train. Translating as New Trunk Line, the Shinkansen is one of the oldest high speed train services in the world, and along with the French TGV, at the forefront of technolgy. Built at standard guage instead of the normal Japanese narrower guage, it is almost entirely segregated from normal traffic, and now runs at over 300kmh. A bewildering array of names, styles and stopping patterns (there are "local" trains as well), the network is slowly expanding out, and will eventually reach all the main cities in Japan, although due to the sheer nature of the geography, the number of tunnels required means that it isn`t being built on the cheap. In fairness though, despite the Japanese being smaller people, they are incredibly roomy (even for gaijin people), well designed and comfortable, whilst as per the Swiss system, spookily reliable and ontime. This is definitely not run under British Rail Standard time...

I headed first to Tazawa-ko, Japans deepest lake, for a relax andwander, then Kakunodate, famous for its samurai houses. It only occured to me after I got there that a house is essentially just a house, regardless of who lived there, and unless the houses had been built in the shape of a samurai, possihbly wouldn`t be quite as spectatcular as i`d hoped...

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Tazawa-ko station dragon, Samurai house in Kakunodate and Buddha statue

From there I headed to Akita, and then down to Tokyo, before bouncing back out to Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, (prettily situated, but more of a winter town) to see the Zenko Ji temple, and then onwards to Niigata, for no other reason than i`d often pondered what it was like, and the fact that it was the essentially unlikely recipient of the second Shinkansen line, due to the fact that the PM at the time decided he wanted to be able to get home quickly...

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The Zenkoji temple in Nagano and the Bandai Bridge in Niigata

In the rest of the 3 weeks, i did a little business in Nagoya, spent a day people watching in Osaka and taking in the sheer mayhem of the place on a Sunday (great fun), continuing my trend of crashing random peoples birthday parties by heading out to celebrate a friend of the great second timne hosts Kent & Amanda. Spent some time in Kobe - which i really liked for an unknown reason - to see the recovery from the earthquake...

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Kobe, with reminders of the devasting 1995 earthquake which cost 6000lives, and the rejuvanted bay area

... and finally got to see the island of Miyajima, which i had missed out the first time due to the Hiroshima typhoon. It was absolutely worth the effort. The Island is home to the Itsukushima Shrine and Tori, which make up one of Japans "big 3" views (everything in Japan is rated for one reason or another). The Tori is built in the bay, which means that with the tide out, it looks like the shrine is floating.

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Not quite as floating as it would be if the tide was in...

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Of course, being a mountain, i had to climb it. It was a wonderful day, and as nobody else actually bothered to climb it properly, i had the entire ascent through a forest and rocky outcrops all to myself, which was wonderful. Admittedly, the two routes i had wanted to climb had both been washed out and were closed due to the said typhoon, but it was great nether the less. If anybody can explain why I have started getting so into climbing mountains, please feel free. Use of wet fish to be slapped across the face is welcome as well.

The view from the top was fantastic, with Honshu, and the bay/mountains in a long arc on one side, right around to Hiroshima, and the Inland sea, and any number of it`s small islets out the otherside. If I would have had more time, I would have stayed there for hours just gazing. But time I was short on, and i`m ashamed to admit that I cheated and took the cable car back down. Actually, it was just as well that I did, because the top cable car station was somewhere I hadn`t previously passed, and I wouldn`t have bothered unless short on time. And thus I saw monkeys. IU`ve never actually seen wild monkeys before, so to see so many of them just running around and jumping/screaching at each other (and the odd tourist) was great for me to see, although there was at least one or two somewhat confused deer amongst them, who obviously weren`t entirely convinced that they weren`t monkeys themselves...

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View from the cable car on the way down, and this kind of ascent on the second of two seperate cable car rides needed to reach the summit (or bottom) is probably why nobody else actually bothered to climb it by foot...

And just for the sake of it, pics of two of my favourite random bits from Miyajima...

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... the shrine of tinned oranges, and, bottom, Japanese tourism at it`s very finest! Just this one sign more or less tells you everything you need to know about Japanese tourism, and probably half explains the whole Europe in 10 days group trips which are so wildly popular amongst Japanese.

The second part of my headless chicken* impression follows shortly, but in the meantime, that`ll do.

((*and because i know at least a few of you will think it, my headless chicken impression does not mean that I have birdflu....))

Posted by Gelli 04:26 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Hakodate, of signs and breaking track records

After a couple of enjoyable days spent in Hakodate, it was finally time to start my rail pass. Hakodate is one of the original ports opened up to trade after the end of the Japanese isolation, and many of its key attractions are things like "western style houses" and "former British consulate", which perhaps have less appeal to myself than Japanese people...

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Having said that, the old core of Hakodate is a cool place, and I instantly liked it. Of course it helped that there was a hill to climb - and a big one - Mount Hakodate (cunning name), which has fantastic night views in particular, which as well as a panorama of the city and bays, shows the scarily bright lights of the off shore fishing boats, with small individual boats being brighter several miles away than the city itself. Another obvious bonus was the presence of a brewery, and after being `good` across all of Hokkaido and its many breweries, i felt compelled to try. And despite trying to make entirely non Japanese beers, their ale and weissbeir were more than creditable, and their Kolsch (a special style of beer only made in Koln which I happen to love) was also excellent. And as their menu shows, they don`t mess about with their drinking in this area...

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Why British pubs don`t sell whisk(e)y by the half bottle, i`m not entirely sure!

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Despite the hostel being the most expensive hostel in Japan or my trip in general (about 20gbp a night) Hakodate also had two other wonderfully redeeming features. The first was a velodrome, where i went and watched a few guys training before curiosity in the gaijin took over and i got a crowd of curious Japanese track cyclists asking questions about why I was there. Track cycling is big in Japan (not Alphaville, no), and the first Japanese sportsman in any sport to make 1billion yen career earnings was in fact a track cyclist. After a bit of coaxing, and too much meriment, i got conned into having a ride. What I hadn`t told them before was that i have done the odd bit of riding in my past, and i got incredulous shreeks all around (and free life membership to the Hakodate RC) when in my first timed flying lap i shaved a scary 2.7seconds off the quickest time of those present. In a sport which frequently comes down to hundredths of seconds, thats a big gap. Strangely, they weren`t so keen on me trying a standing start lap time afterwards, but great fun was had. The first time i`ve riden on a proper banked track in several years.

Hakodate`s other major bonus feature to me, was a huge number of daft signs. I love stupid signs, and take lots of pics of them. And Hakodate, seemed to be a good breading ground, especially for questionably translated ones...

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The first one wins prize for most useless sign in a while, whiolst the other two could almost make sense until you realise that they are both attached to toilets...

And with that, it was time to start my rail pass and leave Hokkaido.

Posted by Gelli 02:42 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hokkaido. Aka, hitching with mad old Japanese people...

It was an uneventful journey, although it felt strange to be on such a long ferry trip (18hours) for an internal journey, and not having to show any ID etc to get onboard. The ferry was utterly empty, with maybe 30 passengers on a boat designed for 800, and i got a free upgrade to a real bed (although oddly enough, nobody else seemed to)

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Arrival in Tomakomai Port. I`d finally made it to Hokkaido

You would probably have thought that if you are going to spending 18 hours essentially alone on a ferry, that you may take the opportunity to read up on where you were going, and come up with some kind of idea as to where to go when you arrive. But of course, i didn`t.

So mostly by default, and partly by luck, the first place i went was Toya-ko. And i loved it. Near the south coast of Hokkaido, it`s a volcanic lake surrounded by mountains, and wonderfully picturesque. Out of season, there was nobody around, so it didn`t feel overly touristy, so i had the place to myself, to a point.

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The best thing about Toya-ko are Showa Shin-zan and Usu-zan, which luckily enough where close to where i was staying. Usu-Zan is a volcano which definitely still rates on the active scale, with several erruptions in the last century, and the latest barely 5 years ago. Yet, in true Japanese style, they had quickly rebuilt the tourist facilities and cable car, and it was once again open for business. I walked as far as i could, and then got the cable car up to the top. Not only was it a strangely glorious day, but the view was sure as heck worth it, despite my dissapointment at not being able to walk the whole way.

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And despite the fact that virtually all of the Japanese tourists barely stayed up for 15 mins to have their pictures taken before returning to ground, it`s possible to walk a good way around the crater, and just gaze at the constant steam and occassional strange noise eminating from this very much living hunk of rock. You rarely get the chance to walk around live volcanoes, and particularly here away from the tourist groups, it was a strangely spirtual experience. And just thinking about the sheer power of the lump of rock makes you realise just how insignificant i really am.

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Barely a few hundred yards away however, is the much more impressive Usu-zan. It`s impressive mostly for it`s life story. In 1943, it was just a flat vegetable field. Potatoes, i belive. By 1945 it was a 402metre high lump of rock, which to this day constantly steams, hisses and grumbles without ever having done anything more except make the locals wonder what the heck it`s going to do next. Yet, in less than 2 years, the ground raised almost 400metres, which is impressive in any book.

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Showa Shin-zan, and from the top of the neighbouring Usu-zan volcano

But the thing i love most of all is that not only is it still owned by the postmaster who owned the field before, but when it first started errupting and growing in 1943, the Japanese governmet actually requested that the postmaster keep the whole thing quiet (so it wasn`t taken as a bad omen in the war), but even better, that he find a way to hide the magma/volcanic glare of the neighbouring Usu-zan so it couldn`t be used by enemy aircraft to pinpoint their location. Yes, the government really did ask a single citizen to cover over and hide a volcano. And i just love that idea!

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Lake Toya-ko

Spent some time wandering along the Lake, and around town. It was a great and wonderful stary sky (not quite up to Baikal standards, but close enough), and something which I am an absolute sucker for. And it was that night that I discovered that Japanese are really scary drivers. Walking along in the dark, with a torch waving in front of you, not a single driver seemed to see me until about 5metres away, causing several late jumps into ditches (i was well prepared), and actually being hit by one van who didn`t even realise he`d just broadsided me.
Public safetly announcement - don`t ever walk around in the Japanese country side with using army spotlights. And whilst I`m at it, if anybody can explain why the heck EVERY SINGLE DAMNED Japanese person reverses backwards about a metre before turning around to see what`s behind them, please, please let me know. I`ve come close to being hit on a couple of dozen occassions, and twice on avoided it by thumping hard on rear windscreens as they came towards me. And I`m somebody that tends to be quite aware of my surroundings and is always looking around at what might happen, so i can see that there is somebody in the car and am prepared in cae they do start to move (a legacy of being a cyclist in the UK, where you normally have to assume that you have a large target painted on your front which all car drivers naturally aim for). It seems that the entire country is unable to grasp the basic concept of looking behind you before you start to reverse.

I then hitched my way in 4 rides (the last involving a long wait)over the lovely Nakayama pass through Shikotsu-Toya National Park to Otaru, a port on the northern side of the stragely West of Hokkaido, West of Sapporo, in the first of a long string of generally very old, smilie and very friendly, but, shall we say, a tad on the erratic side driving wise, old ladies who stopped to pick me up over my time on the island. I went to Otaru mainly because people raved about a section of canal there with old buildings, and how amazing it is lit by gas lamps at dusk. I got there not long before dusk, and headed straight out that way. And could barely stop laughing. This amazing canal was an entire 300metres long (in total) and this `special` part barely 100m. And whilst it did back onto some warehouses (Ooooh), and was lit by gas lighting, they didn`t mention the main road with electric lighting which ran alongside it, thus kind of negating much of the intended effect. It was pleasant enough, but not exactly a highlight i would suggest to be added to any world tour...

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For all the hype, this doesn`t quite live up to it...

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Steam Powered clock in Otaru

Having said that, the city itself wasn`t unpleasant to just wander around, and the canal did at least give me another perspective onto the wonders of the Japanese tourism world.

From there i headed into Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, and at almost 2million people, Japans fifth largest city. Founded less than 150 years ago, the entire city (like many on the island) was designed and laid out by American planners, meaning it is a true grid system with everything is numbered by blocks instead of addressed. Being a non-flyer, and hence not having ever been to the US or other similarly influenced cities, this was my first large scale experiemce of a grid city. And i must admit, whilst i do like Sapporo and the feel it has there, the grid system i struggled a tad with. Because it`s all blocks, there are few natural landmarks which mean`t i found orientation trickier than i probably should have (doing it by visual orientation alone, instead of using the block names), and in addition, the sheer number of traffic lights and amount of time needed to cross the city - because your always waiting at more damned lights - was slightly irritating.

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The Sapporo TV Tower, the cities most famous and obvious landmark

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Odori, the central boulevard which divides North and South

The most interesting thing i found about Sapporo was, entirely unlike anywhere else i`d seen in Japan, there was virtually no temples or shrines at all. In fact, i didn`t see a single one in 3 days of wandering at random, although i`m sure that a couple must exist somewhere. I also liked the fact that where the subway comes out in the suburbs, above ground, and then above the roads on a kind of viaduct, it is STILL fully enclosed. Why you need to have a roof on it to make it a tunnel, i`m not sure. It`s not as if there has never been a successful fixed-rail transport system open to the elements ever in the world or anything.

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Parking Quad bikes outside the shopping centre whilst you get your groceries. A new idea for me, especially in a big city in summer

And i also had to work VERY hard not to get married. I think i`ve possibly mentioned that in Roppongi one night the previous week, i had got talking to a random girl. Just friendly talking, with no intention of anything else. It transpired that she was from Sapporo and shortly returning up here, and on discovering that i was shortly heading to Hokkaido, she said to let her know when i got to Sapporo and she would happily show me around and i could crash at her place. Great stuff!

Until that is, she met me off the train. Being met was no problem, it was more the fact that it was kind of how I imagine somebody greeting their husband at the dock after they have just safely returned home after 5 years at war, during which she hasn`t seen you, and your child has been born. Holy cow. This girl was nuts. I could have probably coped with (very) warm and friendly welcome if she hadn`t then immediately dragged me off to jewellers shops. And after pointing out a few which had been rejected, at the third one i was pulled inside and introduced to a very enthusiastic jeweller who produced our - already paid for - engagment rings (!) and wanted to measure my finger to make sure it was the right band size.

Off topic for a minute - Aldo, Matt and Slobo. I`ve no idea if you were involved in this one in the slightest (and my gut reaction says no) and if it`s another attempt to marry me off for whatever the heck reason you keep trying (if anybody knows what the exact terms of THAT bet are, and is prepared to annonymously spill them, please do. Two incredibly well planned fake weddings and a couple of otehrs stopped early, have started to make me wonder what on earth is at stake on this one), but if it was, i`m impressed at how you managed this one. I didn`t even know where i was going, let alone told you lot, so if you go to Kiki, fair do`s. I`ve said it before and I will again, but you guys are damned good at this, and unnervingly so. It doesn`t feel like your normal style, but it wouldn`t really surprise me. But having said that, neither would it surprise me if Kiki is just a randomly screwed up and desperate Japanese chick. Apparently 28 and not married is cause for desperation in this country.

Back on topic - I somehow managed to steer that one aside with non commital "needing to think about it" nonsense, and also cr*p about being "tired" and left the shop without rings (or a Rich shaped hole in the wall where i`d ran) where upon i tried to get my bearings a bit and work out what the heck is going on. I`ve been in the city less than an hour and with somebody i`ve known a week and seen for barely 2 hours, and i`m already having to avoid marriage. Why me?!

Kiki suggested that we should go and get something to eat and talk a bit. I figured there was no harm there, and i may get chance to discover what was going on (and if it really is another one of Aldo`s patented wedding bets), so accepted. And it would have been fine if i hadn`t been taken to a private room in a restaurant where 17 of her family and close friends were waiting to celebrate our wedding the following day.

The Japanese are an interesting group of people, but it`s worth taking more care than normal around them, as things seem to be able to spiral very quickly on utterly insignificant comments, whatever the heck i said.

After a few days in the big city, (staying a hostel, trying to avoid Kiki and not really sure what was going on) i got myself a 5day Hokkaido rail pass, and went out to try and see some of the island. I had already had to scale back my ambitious ideas considerably, as i have realised that otherwise i will still be in Japan in 6 months time, which at this time i can`t really afford, and in addition, much of the things i want to see are outdoorsey, and not the same in a Hokkaido winter. Plus it might be a dangerous place to stay. I have no immediate plans to get married yet again.

I headed first to Erimo Misaki, the cape in the extreme South East of the island via a tiny train along the coast for several hours, a bus and some hitching. It`s a true `end of the world` type place, and i loved it. Amazingly, the weather was holding, although i didn`t manage to see any of the famed Kuril Seals which congregate at the cape, and the wind tunnel (obvious really, as it`s famed for being the windiest place in Japan) built into the cliffs was shut because it was out of season. I had fancied trying to stand in the wind tunnel, but sadly had no choice.

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Nothing out there now until America

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Not a road sign that you tend to come acroos that regularly on a commute to Aylesbury or Kristianstad...

That evening, i had the most extraordinary stroke of luck, of a kind which restored my faith in the Japanese entirely, and in Hokkaido was in no way unusual. After trying on 2 occassions to check in to an open hostel with no staff, and me kind of waiing like a lemon, a car pulls up, and a smilie Japanese lady waves at me to leave my stuff and get in. As i`m already at the hostel, it`s a tiny village miles from anywhere, i couldn`t work out exactly where we were going, but figured i had nothing to loose. A few minutes later as we pulled up alongside a grim looking set off locked garages, I was pondering if this was indeed a correct outlook. Was i about to be robbed, tied up in a garage or thrown off the cliff? Or maybe all 3. But no, one of the garges opened, and revealed a group of 10 or so Japanese, happily BBQing away inside, a huge variety of meats, veg, and fresh (still alive in cases) seafood.

The saw a gaijin, all cheered and i was literally dragged in to this garage, and force fed the most amazing food, quantities of draft beer (from several kegs, all of which eventuially got emptied - one guest was an Asahi salesman) and Hokkaido whiskey, whose existence i hadn`t even known about, but was very creditable, and courtesy of the liquor store owner, also present! It was a fantastic evening, more so for being unexpected, and despite being given probably 50gbp worth of food and drink (Hokkaido crab in particular is an expensive delicacy), they refused any kind of payment. The most amazing people, despite only one speaking more than 10 words of English!

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Some of the most amazingly hspitable people i`ve come across this trip, BBQing in a garage at the end of the world

The following morning, after only just being able to pay for the hostel (she tried hard not to accept), i tried to hitch north to Hiro`o and Obihiro. Hokkaido is dead easy to hitch around, but one thing that is needed when hitching is cars. I was passed by 4 in 90mins, one of which pulled into a field 200m ahead anyway, and another who gave me a lift for about 3km until he too turned into a field. I ended up walking all but that 3km of the 11km or so to the next village, in surprisingly decent weather and despite slight annoyance at no cars, very pleasently, although having said that, signs like...

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... this one aren`t the most comforting when you are utterly alone in the middle of nowhere with no humans anywhere nearby, especially coming up to hibernation time with the bears out actively foraging. At the next village, i tried to hitch out again, but despite lots of vehicles moving around, none left the village and all were in the middle of collecting newly dried seaweed or taking seaweed to hang or lay out to dry.

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After another 90mins or so, i gave up and caught one of only 3 buses a day up the coast to Hiro`o, along a barely used coastal road which was virtually entirely being redirected through tunnels and under cliff stregnthening work (to combat rock falls due to the high winds etc). Admirable, yes, but it must have cost them an absolute fortune (some of the tunnels were 7 or 8 km long) with no chance of ever recouping even a small fraction from it.

Had spent much longer getting to Hiro`o and the rail line at Obihiro than expected, so headed straight through Kushiri and Tora in Akan Nat Park (where i`d planned to stop), and spent the night in a bus shelter not entirely dissimilar to this one...

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... which had doors, a bench, lights that could be turned off, a water tap and even toilets. Not a bad place to spend the night at all, especially for free. And even more impressive as a structure when you consider atht it is in the middle of fields/woods, miles from anywhere and only gets 2 buses a day anyway! An interesting night, although it took a slight twist when (scarily) one of the side windows was ripped straight out by the wind, and, still flying, dissppeared a few hundred metres down the road, and never to be seen again. Oddly, it was the far window, so i was still protected from the wind and weather by the remaining window, but it did prevent me sleeping too much or deeply in case of further, urm, house improvements occured!

It was around that time - and i guess the same night - that the rain god Kevin and Solene had been camping in nearby Shiretoko. After a couple of hours of a horrible rain and wind storm, with their tent was flapping a tad more than it probably should, and the one next to them had a pole snapped by the wind, they gave up and went and paid for a cabin instead. I theorise - its a stretch, but a fairly decent and reasoned one - that it is this change of plan, and knocking down of the tent that calmed the weather and stopped the bus stop being blown away from over me. Thanks guys!

I had reluctantly decided that i would have to drop Shiretoko, newly made a UNESCO World heritage site, bears and all, and also Daisetzun Nat Park, Hokkaido`s largest, due to lack of time and lack of a car or bike to get around. I will return, with camping gear to do it preoperly one summer, or at least i hope i will. And it could easily be tagged on to my Baikal-BAM-Sakhalin trip. Hmmmm. I did however, get to see Mashu-ko, a small lake with lava island in the middle surrounded by an erie kind of mist, and viewed from near vertical 300m high plus cliffs. The water is also scarily blue and transparent, with allegedly a 35m transparency depth, one of the deepest visible depths in the world. Depressingly and annoying, i have no photos of it, because my batteries dies that morning without me having any spares. They`d only been in 2 days. Grrrr. Stupid 100yen shop batteries.

Headed via the Abashiri, the picturesque Sekihoku line and the islands second city of Asakihawa onto a night train to Wakkanai, at the Northern most tip of Hokkaido, and hence fulfiling another long term and obscure goal (namely, to vist Wakkanai). On a clear day, you can see Russia`s Sakhalin island, and it was here that i was originally expecting to arrive in Japan, by ferry from Sakhalin, before, as previously noted, time got the better of me, and Sakhalin had to be reluctantly dropped.

Left Wakkanai almost immediately on the 2.5hr boat ride to Rebun-to, one of two small islands off the NW coast, in the middle of nowhere. Watched in amusement as everybody else (200 odd) on the ferry decended off onto tour buses for world wind tour of the island before heading to the second of the islands, Rebun-to barely 4 hours later. I spent a chunk of a day on each, just wandering and wishing i had more time and the weather was better, as it was too cold and wet to do lots of hiking. I resumed my relationship with the birds on Rebun, by being cr*pped on by no fewer than 5 birds (there`s a feck of allot of seaguls and crows on the island), and also became tourist attraction and photograph #1 for loads of Japanese, when on my way to catch the (extremely choppy) ferry to Rishiri i was caught in the most amazing vertical rain storm. On arrival at the terminal, i just stood there laughing and looking like a severely drowned rat, stripping off my clothes - within reason - and wringing them out (enough water to float the Queen Mary), and having to pose for several pictures with assorted old Japanes folks and me wringing out my socks. I don`t know if it was because i was white or wet or both, but i still found it a bit odd, if also quite funny.

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Japanese tourists being just that, and decending onto coaches following people with raised umbrellas for a worldwind tour of the island, plus some of the scenery and start of the changing colours of the leaves (a huge deal in Japan, especially Hokkaido where people come in their droves to see the colours) on Rebun-to (middle) and Rishiri-to (bottom)

Spent a few hours in Wakkanai between arriving back and getting the night train to Sapporo, during which i singularly failed to find somewhere warm and welcoming to sit and dry off and have some noodles, although did climb to the peak to look out over the black world.

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From Sapporo, headed round about via Biei and Furano (two more well sited places just aching to be used as a base to explore Daisetzun, which i couldn`t) to Muroran on the south coast, where i did not alot except wander at random and relax in the care of my wonderful English host, Jude. I hadn`t realised just how much i missed British company and their humour/outlook on life whilst on this trip. Got conned into going bowling again (almost as bad as in Chelyabinsk), climbed a couple of times to Cape World, another end of the world type place, but one with some interesting maps - professional curiosity, of course.

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In fairness, would anybody really miss South America and Honshu etc, if they were moved to the antarctic... And (bottom) it`s actually a phone box

Predictably, also met up with my stalkers Kevin and Solene for maybe the 5th time randomly whilst in Japan, when they also came to stay at Jude`s, had some amazing sushi and talked to some Korean navel officers in Japan on training (no, no idea, either).

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With assorted Gaijin after bowling, and then with my great host Jude and stalkers Kevin and Solene at Judes place

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The scenic view of Muroran, not excatly a great tourist mecca, but still a good place to just relax

Also spent a couple of hours one afternoon looking out over the cape pondering the futility of it all, after hearing the sad news that Zak Carr had been killed aged 30 after being hit by a car in Norfolk. I`m not a stranger to death, but hearing that somebody i had raced with and against (normally not very well, as he was a Junior when i wa a Juvenile racer, and he was damned good) had died in training hit me quite hard. An international, holder of several national records and recently working as a pilot for the Olympic disabled team as well as being a damned good bloke, always with encouragment for us youngsters, even when blasting past at a stupendous rate of knots. A sad loss indeed.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/norfolk/4351294.stm

And something that immediately makes you realise that you need to enjoy life whilst you can, because you don`t know when it will be taken from you.

Posted by Gelli 22:02 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Yellow Paint and Jabba the Hutt

This is a random entry for no apparent reason, as i`m not saying anything of interest to anybody, myself included. You may as well just skip this one, as it`s just going to be a big dissapointment if your expecting something even vaguely readible in which to read whilst avoiding work.

After almost a week in Tokyo, it was time to move on. That I will
return, is a cert, and I will on this trip as well as hopefully in the future. With luck, even get the opportunity to live here for a few months or so at some point. But for the moment, it was time to leave, to rest my brain and try and take in the enormity and sheer overload of images I had accumulated in my time there.

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I had booked a ferry from Oarai (about 2 hours North East of Tokyo) to Tomakomai on Hokkaido, for the oddly bargain price of only \4300 for an 18 hour trek, for the following week, which gave me 5 nights to play with first. My idea was to head back to Chigasaki for a night and drop my (old) bag off with Soness, before probably heading to Hakone for 2 or 3 days for some trekking, country sight seeing, and hopefully to finally get a glimpse of the elusive Fuji-san from one of its main vantage points. But of course, it didn`t work that way.

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The Japanese eat stuff like this - whatever the heck it is - for enjoyment

It was really strange, but being back in Chigasaki at Soness and
Nibbles` place felt like being home again. Doubly odd for me, in that I don`t really even HAVE a home at all, and have never really felt like I have that one place that is "home". Yet somewhere I hadn`t even been for a week felt like I had returned home. Human beings, feelings and reactions are strange indeed.

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Most countries have Ice-cream vans. Japan has the sweet potato man and his truck

For reasons that now elude me, after playing the role of collection person at the station for a new arrival (Garrett, a cool Colorado guy in Japan for a week as part of a 12week RTW trip, for free), and then as a guest in a game of guess the gaijin`s profession for an English class (the number of 5 year olds who would guess at cartographer must be relatively small), i seem to have ended up becoming a decorator.

Yeah, i know, i know.

It was almost an unmitigated distaster, although not quite. I tried damned hard to make it one, but never really could achieve the effect i had hoped for. And amazingly, somewhere near the end, it almost came together and a wonderful sand covered gloomy brown hallway became an acid overdosed, dear god don`t look if your hungover bright yellow hallway. And remarkably, the windows and floor didn`t even get re-coloured either (i should probably have unhung the fleece from the wll first, as it doesn`t look so good with a bright yellow back), although i think that a month later i will still have some interesting lumps of yellow skin.

Very strangely, i actually enjoyed doing something that could be construed as being normal. It`s strange, but being constantly on the move - as i have been for years - means that i find strange enjoyment in the novelty factor of doing utterly stupid and mundane things. Washing up is no big chore to me, because i rarely have to do it. And something like decorating is just a whole new wow factor. Plus the fact that if i really f*ck it up, i can easily just run away very quickly to another foreign country and never return to Japan.

I also finally, and more or less incontrovertably proved that i am allergic to cats (thanks Nibbles). I have thought it possible for a couple of years, but only now really proved it. Moving around so often and quickly means that there are always lots of potential other factors that could be playing into it. But i`m now certain that I am, although it seems a bit daft to me that i`ve got to 26years old before i actually realised it. Such is life.

This really is a dull entry, isn`t it.

It was also at around this time that for some strange reason i seem to have been talked into making a life sized Jabba the Hutt outfit to wear for Halloween. How THAT one came about i`m not entirely sure, and how the heck i can produce such a thing on the move, i`m not sure, but it sounded like a challenge. And the idea of wearing the costume for a 75min commute on the train/metro through Tokyo rush hour traffic just did it for me. That is one stupid thing that i really just want to do. With luck, more on that concept later.

If successful, maybe i can even go and join the superhero guy in Harajuku one sunday.

Did take a typically well planned day out to Hakone with Garrett, leaving at such a time that the full circuit wasn`t really practical, whilst also picking a mostly overcast - turning a bit grim day so there was no chance of a view of Fuji, despite it (allegedly) being Right there. Poo. Spent a few hours wandering around the open air modern art museum, which was not uninteresting, and included a decent sized Picasso section, but compared to the expected chance to see Fuji, it didn`t live high for me.

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Spent another couple of days wandering around Tokyo at random, including cunningly managing to crash yet another birthday of a random stranger (I`m getting damned good at this. My timing is so often atrocious, that its good to finally find something i seem to be able to time to perfection), by turning up at one of Soness` friends, Charles, birthday do, at a wonderful Brazilian BBQ restaurant. I`d never been to a Brazilian place before, but remember Miha and Katja near the start of my trip talking about their recent trip to Brazil, and how they had more or less just ate meat the whole time as was so damned good. If the stuff actually in Brazilian is anywhere near as good as it was there - and i would expect it to be much better - i`m sorely tempted to just give up my trip now, s*d the no flying thing and jump straight on a plane to Rio. And the fact that it was all you can eat and drink as well didn`t really harm matters...

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Shibuya at night, and the worlds busiest pedestrian crossing. Feck me, there`s allot of folks cross at Shibuya!

Spent the night out in Roppongi, on an all nighter at a club as per everybody else, partly due to the fact that there is no way home, so all clubs are timed to close at either last train or first train, more or less. I cunningly paid for 2 drinks, only realising after we had left the club that i had been given a receipt thingy on entering the club which i had pocketed with my change, which on inspection turned out to be 2 drinks tickets. Such is life. The club was a kind of depressing meat market, being well over 3/4 white folks, with the rest made up of Japanese girls seemingly on the hunt for a white boyfriend. And it was to one of these (although i didn`t think she was so much out for a white boyfriend as much as someone to talk English with), Kiki, that i ended up talking to for a while. Turns out that she was from Sapporo and shortly heading back there, and on hearing of my imminent trip up to Hokkaido, told me to give her a call when i got there and i could crash at hers and she`s show me around. And people told me that Japanese are notoriously reluctant to invite people into their houses. Admittedly, as i would later discover, there was a slight catch involved, but that`s part of the following tale.

And with a ferry to catch, yet again i finally got around to moving my arse, and so trekked right across Tokyo to Oarai on the NE coast, and onto a - remarkably cheap by Japanese standards. Transport is hugely expensive, except, it seems, ferries. I paid 4000yen for the 18hour trek, which is less than the cost of a couple of hours by train, and 28000 it would cost by train from Tokyo.

And thus, i headed to Hokkaido.

Posted by Gelli 22:01 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Early fish and sleeping in a coffin

Finally, Tokyo

By any definition, Tokyo is a big city. Counted as an urban area
alongside Yokohama (4million) and middling Kawasaki (1.2) plus all the rest of the continuously built up area, it comes in at over 30million inhabitants. It goes on as far as the eye can see in all directions, with the obvious exception of the Tokyo Bay area. Although the entire coast area of the bay is, of course, built up. Perhaps oddly for a city of such size, fame and importance, there is actually very little in the city that is a true "tourist" attraction. Most cities have an iconic building or feature (or more than one) that instantly springs to mind when mentioned – the Eiffel Tower, Atomium, Colloseum, Statue of Liberty, St Basils Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Peoples Palace, Parthenon and Opera House and Bridge, for example – but Tokyo lacks that one specific feature that you instantly think of. But what Tokyo lacks in instantly recognizable features, it more than makes up in depth and variety of images.

Like the rest of the country, if not more so, it is a mass of
contradictions. I have already mentioned how I instantly fell in love
with the city after randomly coming across this guy...

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...in Harajuku on my first full day in the city. Harajuku on a Sunday is like that. Hundreds of punks, goths and dozens of people dressed in alternate looks, either going about their normal business or simply meeting up with friends and enjoying themselves. Harajuku itself is also home to the Meji Shrine, one of Tokyo`s major religious sites, and astonishingly, one of the countries few free Shrines and temples. Whilst the area was in a lovely forest, and the temple itself certainly attractive enough, the thing I remember most is the wedding parties. Several traditional weddings were taking place, and the wedding parties were all stopping in the main square to have their pictures taken. Fair enough, but it was a bit sad (I thought) that so many random tourists – both westerners and Japanese – were also barging in their way to take photos of the happy couple, generally getting in the way of the real foreigner, and turning their "big day" into a tourist snap event. They must have known what would happen, getting married in an open and famous temple on a weekend, but even so, a tad odd.

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I had earlier walked around the Imperial Palace grounds, again free,
and been a tad disappointed as they had consisted as much of simple
grass lawns and trees than much of anything particularly spectacular.
Admittedly in such a overgrown and jam-packed city (and, indeed,
country), finding the space for an area of pristine lawn is a major
achievement, so I suppose it`s not without merit. The funniest for me
was before entering. I was looking at the back of the Palace from its
main available view point when a Japanese guy came up, and asked in
good English if I could take his photo. No problem. Until I realised
that what he actually meant was that he wanted to take a picture of me in front of the Palace. To this day, I have no idea why. In other
parts of Japan, maybe Gaijin – foreigners – are that unusual to be
photo worthy (and certainly worthy of regular pointing and laughing by kids. I just point and laugh back, which they seem to enjoy, but
confuses the hell out of them), but certainly not in Japan, and I was
far from the only Gaijin present at that point anyway. Oh well.

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I spent a night in Roppongi Hills, paying a chunk (not well planned,
as some are free, although I didn`t know it at the time) to go up to
the 53rd floor of the new tower block to its 360 viewing platform. The only single person their, I felt instantly conspicuous at being alone amongst all of the courting couples, and somewhat out of place, but it was worth it. At night, the view over Tokyo was even more impressive than a later one I took during the day from the Metropolitan Govt building (looking for Fuji as much as anything. Still not even a glimpse or suggestion of it`s existence). At night, the sheer amount of lights make the city disappear even further into the distance. The Yokohama tower, 30mins away is visible, as are an array of lights around Tokyo Bay proving it to be a continuous built up area, even though it`s not so visible during daylight. The views were amazing, and the sheer scale of the city, opened up in front of you were just plain scary. Anybody visiting Tokyo, really should go for a night panoramic view somewhere as a high priority.

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Roppongi Hills Tower

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Tokyo Tower at Night

I was staying in a hostel in the Asakusa area, in the North East of
the city, right across the river from the golden sperm building
(that's sure as heck what it looked like), which is actually the Asahi brewery. Asakusa is one of the more bohemian and traditional areas in itself, and I spent some time wandering through the Kaminarimon Gate, along the enclosed Nakamise market street and around the Sensoji temple area, Tokyo`s largest temple, and the Asakusajinja shrine. Whilst the temple – and preceeding gatehouse – was indeed very impressive, they were very similar to all of the other temples and shrines I have come across in Japan, and I think that I`m starting to get - well, something. Not sure if it`s really bored, blasé, or something else – about Japanese temples, as they all seem extremely similar to me, despite the beauty of the general design. Even the 5 story pagoda seemed nothing special, being perfectly reminiscent of one I`d seen at Nara amongst others. The vending machine offering 1 litre cans of beer, bottles of wine, sake and litre bottles of whiskey (!) was an eye opener though!

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As the hostel was within spitting distance (depending upon your saliva dexterity and distance training) of the pier, it seemed daft not to take a river cruise down the Sumidagawa river – hands up who knew that Tokyo was on a river and what it was called before they read that?! –The trip gave another perspective to the skyscrapers and skyline of the city, weaving past many of them before finishing near one of the central financial and business districts, but not before weaving past some odd looking buildings squeezed into strange shaped plots, and also giving me the first real look at some of the homeless population.

I already knew that Tokyo had a large and surprisingly thriving
homeless population, but wasn`t entirely prepared for the logistics of it. Perhaps not unsurprisingly in the capital of the worlds second
largest economy, the homeless people in Tokyo were amongst the most
organised and prosperous I`m ever likely to come across. They had
either blue tarp shelters or genuine tents, pitched along the
sidewalks and banks (often under elevated freeways or bridges for
protection), many of them astonishingly large, and all of them
uiniformly well kept. It was not unusual to see them pegging out
washing, and to have new bicycles (or even scooters) locked up
outside. And one guy was listening to an ipod whilst typing on a
laptop.

Some of them even run small businesses from their tents, or so I have read. Homeless, maybe, but living in more spacious
accommodation than many Tokyites have, and in a more central area,
whilst not having to pay all the normal bills and transport costs.
Being homeless in Tokyo is arguably even a clever decision, especially given the numerous (and spotless) public toilets and drinking fountains around – and that is true for the whole of Japan, although curiously, finding a hand dryer is astonishly difficult right across the country – and availability of Onsens and the like for bathing.

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I spent some time trawling around Akiharbara, the now world famous
electronic discount area of Tokyo, with hundreds of shops selling
gadgets and gizmo`s of every possible size, shape and variation,
including those to fill needs which you wouldn`t even have dreamt
existed, let alone that you needed filling before seeing them. More
amazing to me than the large and export aimed shops (oddly, electronic equiptment is not particularly cheap in Japan, despite so much of it originating here – it`s main point is that it is on the cutting edge, and gadgets are tested locally before being set on the world) were the vast alleys and boutique filled shops of hundreds of smaller retailers, selling all manner of assorted odds and ends, spares, accessaries, and obscure cables, fittings and DIY odds and ends for every conceivable – and most unconceivable – need, kind of like a Maplins megastore of extreme proportions.

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Took several trawls through Shinjuku, the "new" centre of Tokyo on its Western side, with a large entertainment and electronic district,
alongside the Metropolitan Government buildings (comparing those twin
towers to London`s City Hall gives you an idea of the enormosity of
the place) and concentration of other skyscrapers. It`s probably here
more than anywhere else in the Metropolitan area that Tokyo is most as expected and envisaged. It was to me. Claimed as the busiest railway station in the world (including metro), which may or may not be the case – several others claim it – it`s certainly hugely busy at all times, and the sheer number of people around makes your head swirl! On top of that, the sheer noise levels, constant shouting and screaming by shop keepers/salespeople (with megaphones), trying to lure you into their shops with numerous special offers, and endless confusion and movement can`t help but get to you of affect you. Amongst other things, I managed to get myself a bag (a 26l jobby) which should finally replace the sadly departed Karrimor which died before the trip, and whose lack of a useful replacement has taken me through 4 bags on this trip to date! With luck, my bag problems are now no more. Is that a corner changed, we wonder? Or more accurately, we hope.

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Although a 4am finish isn`t necessarily the most conducive time for
getting up at 5am to go and look at fish, I managed more or less,
providing that you substitute 5am for 6.20… The Tsukiji fish market is another thing which I think should feature highly on any future
itinerary. The main wholesale market for the Tokyo area, and place
where all of the previous nights catch gets sold off and then shipped
out to the restaurants and shops to be turned into Sashimi, Sushi, or
other fish products. It`s huge, mad, and chaotic. But get there early. By 8 or 8.30am, there are as many tourists in the market than traders, and the majority of the frenetic activity, and certainly the largest and most colourful of the fish have long since been taken away. I made it by around 7am, which was already a bit late, but in time to see some of the huge tuna (over a metre and half long, carried by 4 or 5 men, and cut using chainsaws), and any number of colourful and amazing looking fish and other marine life - barely dead, and shortly to be turned into the freshest seafood and sushi in the world. How there aren`t more accidents of the crazy motorized carts used to move fish around at high speed, I don`t know, but watching them zip around alone was enough to fill you with awe. I`ve been to wholesalers before, but the sheer scale, speed, ferocity, noise and atmosphere of Tsukiji was just astonishing. I bought a couple of bits, and then some really fresh sushi from a stall on the fringes, and retired for one of the freshest – and fishiest – breakfasts I`m ever likely to have.

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Whilst I decided against visiting any of the numerous museums in the
area, I did take a trek around Sendagi, Yanaka Ginza (where in the
middle of all the hustle of the city there is an oddly quiet and
undisturbed shrine, the Nezu Shrine, hidden away in the back streets)
and then through Ueno park, one of the largest central parks and
Tokyo`s oldest. Ueno park includes a zoo, amusement park and many
other things, but I was mostly taken by the huge reeds and water
lilies in Shiriobazu Pond, as well as the ginormous carp. Even more
impressive, was the virtual city of homeless people in the park,
cunningly camped out between the trees and bushes, so in places barely seen at all, whilst rarely intruding wherever they were. More tents and blur tarp "houses", but again spotless and well kept, and showing signs of unlikely prosperity!

I also finally crossed off another one of my "must do when in Japan"
list, by spending a couple of nights sleeping in a coffin. In
actuality, they are called capsules, and are found in capsule hotels,
but they may as well be paid coffins. Developed in the 70`s, they are
yet another uniquely Japanese idea, and one which perhaps
unsurprisingly has taken its time to be adapted elsewhere around the
world. Often located in entertainment districts or near to stations,
their original – and still oft used – concept had been to provide a
cheap and simple place for drunk businessmen to spend the night after
they had missed the last train home. And this is still their primary
role, meaning that only a few (and often only at weekends) accept
women as well. Whilst most capsules (and hotels) differ in details,
the general idea is uniform. Like in so many Japanese buildings, you
leave your shoes by the door and change into some slippers. Then after being assigned a coffin, you go to the changing room where you leave your bags in lockers, and – normally – change into the provided
pyjamas (which generally resemble kind of two piece green hospital
outfits). Towels and basic toiletries – I got some soap, a razor, and
a toothbush with toothpaste cunningly already applied – are also
included for your use. You can either then shower/bath or take
advantage of vending machines and the basic communal facilities if you wish, or head straight to your pod.

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Pods come in two different varieties, end loaders, where you go in
head first, and side loaders, where one end of a side is open, and you go in that way, as I had to. My hotel had two layers of pods, although some have more, with about 20 end loaders on one wall, and 6 side loaders on the other. In the pod, which is a plastic moulded design, you have a Mattress, sheet, pillow and blanket, plus a console moulded into the side near your head, and a TV affixed to one corner of the ceiling near your feet. The door is covered up by a simple wooden roller-blind style door, which keeps out a surprising amount of noise and cool air from the air-conned hallway. The console contains the controls for the TV (I had one channel, plus three pay per view, almost certainly porn, although I didn`t try them out), a radio receiver, controls to dim the lights, and an alarm clock. Simple, but effective.

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Whilst I expected the coffin to be small and cramped (or
claustrophobic), in reality it wasn`t all that bad – It was, at a
guess, almost 2 metres long, so more than long enough for most gaijin, and probably a metre wide and high, meaning that you could sit up quite comfortably to watch TV etc if you so desired. My floor never really filled up, so a very decent nights sleep was had (one of the generally quoted problems with the capsules is that you can be easily kept awake by stumbling or snoring drunken Japanese, due to the open plan arangment), although I was disturbed by a number of alarm clocks going off at unseemly hours of the morning...

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In addition to the capsules and expected toilets/sinks, there are
showers, often a bath or onsen to soak in, smoking areas, and in a
number of cases, common areas with more TVs and inevitable assorted
vending machines. Although times vary, most have check in times of 7
or 8am onwards (and don`t get crowded until 12 – 1am) and check out by 9 or 10am, after which prices for extra 15mins rise dramatically.

As an experience, I would highly recommend it, and whilst conditions
and individual nights obviously vary wildy between hotels and nights,
for Yen3000 (about 15gbp), it was an excellent nights sleep and not too expensive. And I`ll sure as heck stay in another one before I leave this country.

Posted by Gelli 21:59 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Another place of Temples and ramen with the Yakuza

Nikko, Bob Sapp and another rainy day.

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For one of the worlds most highly advance countries, there are certain relatively simple and to my mind - and that is saying allot - basic concepts which the Japanese have yet to fully grasp. Like the 24hour clock. Such signs are in no way uncommon, and the highest i have seen so far is 27:00.

Oh well. They always say that there isn`t enough hours in the day...

But i`ve digressed without even starting.

I headed North, through the Tokyo mass, to Nikko, generally regarded as one of the three absolute unmissables - with Tokyo and Kyoto - on any Japanese itinerary. I lucked out in my first Japanese attempts to hitch, by getting a lift from closer to Tokyo than i really should have been able to direct to Nikko. Say what you like (and many people do, frequently), but Canadians - or Canukistani`s - do have their uses.

Nikko is basically, a shrine Mecca. Some of Japan`s most important and beautiful shrines and temples in a wonderful national partk setting, which probably would have been much more stunning (and for which i will go back to see in all its glory if at all possible) if it wasn`t wet, grey and quite miserable. A sudden change from the glorious weather up to that point. I discovered why it was so miserable on my second night, when with a cool mexican guy i met in the hostel, we wandered into a restaurant in town and straight into Kevin and Solene. Who i had come across for the third time in under 2 weeks, and still seemed intent on stalking me. In fairness, I have had stalkers in the past, and even now still get my random silent phone call and hang up person on a very regular basis, but I didn`t mind too much in Kevin and Solene`s case, as i actually quite like my stlakers and get on well with them. And the weather was bad because they were camping, and Kevin putting up a tent works the same way that rain gods work in much of the world.

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Despite the rain, which wasn`t really conducive to trekking, and hence made me decide to stay away from Lake Shuzen-ji and the area around it as i`d originally planned, Nikko was lovely. Busy, but not too bad, and the temples (a world heritage site) - despite an overload of temples in Japan - were definitely worth the effort. I`d love to see it in decent weather, and apaprently when the autumn leaves change colour (a couple of weeks from now) it is even more amazing. Must see whether i can fiddle a return trip on my way back south.

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From Nikko, i headed out early the next morning (typically, in glorious summer sun) over a wonderful mountain pass down to Ashikaga. I hitched out of Nikko with no problem, and got dropped off over the mountain pass at the top of the valley by a stunning reservoir which i was going to just gaze at for a while before continuing. But i had reckoned without the Japanese whatever, as the very next car to pass, barely 60seconds after being dropped off, stopped and offered me a lift. It was a new experience to be picked up as a hitch hiker when not actually trying to hitch. But i`ve hitched enough before - and bearing in mind i`m currently travelling without my faithful hitching companion, Erik, a lifesized inflatible camel - to know that if a good lift opportunity comes along, you should take it as you have no idea if you will get another opportunity for hours. The guy and his silent (i think) father were friendly enough, but his entire grasp of English was used on constantly telling me how he had no friends, which as a hitch hiker conversations like that always worry you slightly. You never know if you going to be taken somewhere unknown, chained to a wall in a cellar and become the guys friend. It`s happened before.

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And so it was that i arrived in Ashikaga after barely 2 hours, after expecting a 5 or 6 hour journey. Ah well. My host was another cool American, Chris, who uses the cunning technique of avoiding parking tickets by placing an obvious English language LP of Tokyo in his windscreen instead of a ticket. Wandered around Ashikaga a bit (mostly of no note, except as home of Japans first ever school), and then took a trek up to a stunning local reservoir (people camping underneath an old concrete dam...), where i made a stunning and typically Japanese discovery. There was a small look-out post over the reservoir, and despite it being in a forest, and more trees needing to be removed to make space for the tower than needed to build it, the tower had been made out of concrete, carefully moulded, coloured and weathered to look like wood. And it really did. So in the middle of a huge forest, the man made structure is made out of concrete to look like wood. Not wood, as they would do anywhere else. Which of course, set off a long trail of thought about what else was fake. We more or less decided that the entire forest, and surrounding mountains were probably man made as well. And the most scary thing, with this being Japan, is that it`s actually the sort of thing that they would do, and so definitely possible...

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My time in Ashikaga was short (there was no reason to hang about), but we spent the evening in a fantastic Ramen shop - essentially Chris` local pub - eating some great ramen, drinking sochu and watching K1 ultimate wrestling with the local Yakuza (mafia), and the huge American Bob Sapp being destroyed (and made to look like a midget) by some 8ft plus even scarier Korean guy. How a country which produces so many midgets can produce somebody like that, i have no idea. The following morning, we left at some stupid hour to go to one of Chris` schools for sports day. School sports day in Japan is a big deal, and all the kids (up to about 10 years old) were really up for it. And somewhat happy to see Chris and random gaijin person, who they decided to start hitting, kicking, poking et al. in affection and/or mischief. It must be great to teach little kids in a langauge they don`t know, and whom you can`t caommunicate with. Unfortunately, the weather didn`t do it`s thing, and despite being told at about 6.30am that it was on, by 8.30 it had been cancelled, much to eveybodies disgust. Because, despite it being saturday, everybody stayed in school for extra lessons. The kids hated it, parents all went home (not sure if they were happy or not), and the teachers sucre as heck hated it. What a crazy country.

And so, with nothing else to do (except wanting to maybe sleep), and no reason to stick around, i headed off. And thus, after a couple of hours, virtually a month after arriving in Japan, and 3 weeks later than expected, i had finally made it to Tokyo.

But more about that to follow.

Posted by Gelli 22:39 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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