A Travellerspoint blog

October 2005

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)

An astonishing technical marvel and professional rounders...

After finally moving my arse - admittedly only all of 20km - i spent 4 nights a bit further round the coast in a place called Zushi, as guests of two more great American hosts, Casey and Dave.

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For some unknown reason, Yokohama has always had a kind of mystical and exotic appeal and lure to me. Behind Vladivostok (check) and Timboktu (give me time), sure, but then very high on my list of random places i have always wanted to visit for no apparent reason. I think some of it is historical, given its role as the main port for cross-Pacific liners heading off, and my long term idea of going RTW. Which as it obviously precludes any form of flying, would probably entail Yokohama, despite the extinction of Cross Pacific passenger ships that i would ideally use.

So it was with great anticipation that Dave and I took the short journey up to Yokohama. Japan`s second (or third depending upon your point of view) largest city, isn`t hugely well known as it has essentially merged into Kawasaki and Tokyo to ctreate one giant urban mass, generally just known as Tokyo. And whilst not the worlds most stunning place by any means, it certainly didn`t dissapoint my romantic notions as i was half expecting. The city has reinvented itself with alot of new developments since its passing from a major passenger transit point, although it remains one of the worlds largest ports.

The new MM21 area...

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... includes not only Japan`s tallest building, but includes the worlds fastest lift (elevator), a great old dockyard area, what is billed as the worlds tallest ferris wheel (although others also claim this and i can`t be bothered to research if it`s true or not) and an office rip off of Brunei`s famous sail hotel, although in fairness, i haven`t checked which came first.

The dock area is decent to walk around, whilst the cruise ship terminal has the interesting extra of being able to walk all over the grass covered roof for a great view around the harbour. There`s also a fairly large - and on the day we were there, hugely busy, Chinese quarter.

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The MM21 tower itself also has what for me was an amazingly simple technical marvel of the "i can`t belive i`ve never seen that before" kind. I have no idea why it made such an impression on me, but even the simple concept was one i had never considered before. And it is is little things like that which i love Japan for. Don`t laugh. But it was a circular escalator:

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So simple, yet such a new idea to me. It`s great being pleased by such simple and stupid things as it means you never have to set your sights high or get dissapointed!

We also got to witness the ceremony for which i can`t remember the name, but involves shrine touring. Essentially, most neighbourhood`s in Japan have a portable shrine, and once or twice a year, to vast ceremony, all of the men dress up in traditional robes and headbands, get roaring drunk, and then take the shrine on tour.

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The idea being something along the lines of touring the entire neighbourhood to bring good luck, but more an excuse to get drunk, and carry something heavy around in circles whilst chanting uninteligible chants and followed by the old/young and women of the same neighbourhood. Great to watch, although some of the precessions were a tad too unsteady on their feet to ideally be entrusted with carrying a heavy and priceless neighbourhood artefact.

One oddball reason i like this country is this guy:

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The middle of the afternoon, in the crowded centre of a city of 4 million people, and this salaryman has passed out drunk on the pavement with nobody giving him a second look, or attempting to steal his stuff. If you did that in London, for example, you would either be arrested, have crowds of people around you &/or ambulances called, and almost certainly you would wake up without your wallet, phone, bag, and quite possibly, clothes as well.

The following day, we headed back to Yokohama. I am a sports nut, and will watch anything live, and the previous day we had passed the stadium and noticed that it was the middle of a baseball series. And there was no way i could turn down the chance to watch profesional rounders...

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It`s a sport i know little about, except that in the US, some of the players earn seriously excessive amounts of money, and they have a world series* played by entirely US based sides, despite the fact that a large chunk of the worlds best players are Latin Americans, and many of whose sides could probably more than hold their own against the Americans if finances weren`t an issue. An in Japan, excepting maybe Sumo, it`s the biggest sport going, so i wanted to watch a game or two.

The local Baystars against the Hiroshinma Carp was a relatively meaningless game, with both out of running for overall honours towards the end of the season, but interesting for me all the same. One of the most interesting things for me was teh crowd, and i have no idea if that was a standard Japanes thing, or baseball thing, or both. There was no independence at all, with everything being perfectly choreographed to almost be depressing. During the opposition innings, the other set of fans was deadly silent, whilst during their own innings, the crowd followed precisiely the chants and cheers arranged by the "cheer leaders" - a group of late teen guys, who stood aroud the perimiter holding up which signs for which chants should be sung and when.

There was no variety of chants between innings and really, even between the two teams, and no ad-libbing or the like as you would get in the UK or most of Europe. But the most bizare thing to me was that people were paying so much attention to the chanting and singing, that they didn`t actually really watch the game. There was a huge delayed reaction to anything good by tehhome team, and a reaction which only kicked in after a chant had ended, and i found that really odd. I mean,can you imagine fooball fans not cheering a goal under 10 seconds after it had happened, because they hadn`t realised, due to singing `the referee`s a winker (missprint)` or some such?

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Apparently it wasn`t a typical game, with the Baystars 10-1 up after just 2 of 9 innings (somebody got 4 points for hit due to 3 runners, a steeplechaser, the bases loaded and the giraffe hiding in the bushes or something like that). The Carp subbed the sub of the subs - sub pitcher (Cheats - Whats wrong with limited substitutions, or stick with who`s playing and suffer the consequences, a la cricket) and it finished 15-9 - similar to an Aussie batting card during the Ashes, i suppose - and nobody really seemed to care providing that they could cheer and do the duck dance whenever a specific batsman came out. But it was all good natured fun, and i`m glad i made the effort.

I also used Dave and Casey`s proximity to visit Kamakura, another former Japanese capital and one of the alleged `must see`s` around Tokyo.

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It`s a fairly spread out town, containing any number of Shrines and temples (all similar looking to every other shrine and temple in Japan) and gardens, interspersed with assorted other tourist sights and places to try and relieve you of your cash - a Japanese speciality.

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We wandered around a couple of the major temples, and trawlled down the main pedestrian street, with any number of hitherunto unknown and unimagined things for sale and to tempt tourists. Visted a more hidden shrine in the hills, where, legend has it, pilgrims were told to go there and wash their grain before planting it in a Holy spring to ensure a good and bountiful harvest, which would be double the harvest of unwashed grain.

Not ones to miss a trick, the Japanese, at some point some bright spark had pondered whether the multiplication would also worked with other items than grain, and tried washing money. And thus, it became one of Japans leading money washing sites (although different to money laundering, for which you generally need to talk to a Yakuza member or bent lawyer/MP).

Of course i had to partake (why not, i figured?) as one can never have too much cash, especially when travelling, and in an expensive country like Japan, and so i washed some notes. Admittedly i may have tried to push my luck just a little too far by also washing a credit card, but what did i have to loose...

After money washing, we took in Kamakura`s major attraction, the Giant Buddha. Teh second largest Buddha in the world (after the Nara
one i had previously visited), and largest outdoors Buddha. It even had the bonus of being able to climb inside, although in fairness, as you would expect, there isn`t actually a great deal to see or do inside a giant iron skull. Yes, it`s a great head, but to me there`s no comparison to Papa Lenin in Ulan-Ude. Now THAT really is a great head.

Scarily, the huge and heavy Buddha had been moved backwards and off its pedestal by a tsunami a couple of hundred years ago which had demolished the surrounding temple complex. But the fact it is over a kilometre from the coast, and a hge iron structure, and was still moved backwards by the wave shows again the awesome power of a tsunami.
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We finished up with a visit to one of the most picturesque of the temple areas, which includes a shrine for the god of travellers (of which of course, it more or less makes sense for me to pay attention to), pregnant women and dead children. Part of the complex is lined with thousands of small statues and flowers, where grieving parents return time after time to pray for a good afterlife to their sadly departed kids. Whether they have to pay the entrance fee every time, I don`t know, but it really would not surprise me in the slightest.

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The complex also includes some caves, some lovely ponds and garden areas, and a view over the town and out onto the bay. There is also a revolving library, which, legend has it, if you push it round, you will be infused by the wisdom stored within. Of course, i also had to have a push, as i have heard that you can never have too much wisdom, and as i don`t really have any - except of the teeth variety - it seemed a good idea. Again, what did i have to loose?

And after a days temple visiting, and both doubling my cash and credit card bill - in retrospect, that one could backfire on me - and then infusing some much needed (apparently) wisdom and knowledge into my empty cranial cavity, there was only one course of action. A Tofu restaurant. Obviously. And i can confirm that freshly cooked cooked tofu, whilst admittedly warm and fresh, still tastes like, well, nothing really, just as normal tofu does.

Hmmmmm.

And as your all gaining some much needed shut eye (admit it, there`s only one reason anybody would even attempt to read this drivel), i`ll quit now.

I can confirm that I did finally move on, to Nikko and then Central Tokyo, but more on that, including tales of mad yet entrepreneurial homeless people plus choosing to sleep in a coffin, next time.

  • after writing this, my brother (thanks Jeff) informed me that it`s called the world series because it was originally sponsored by a newspaper called "the World". You lean something new everyday. And it proves that i`m not the only one in my family with a recall of assorted obscure trivia which is rarely of no use to anything or anybody.

Posted by Gelli 21:53 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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