A Travellerspoint blog

November 2005

This isn't even a real entry as it involves no traveling

Please, please, no more Sherbert dip requests....

It is with great joy that it appears that so many of you seem to actually be reading this damned thing. It actually even makes it feel vaguelly worthwhile, despite the fact that I was only ever really doing it for myself. But still.

Such has been the overwhelming response to a couple of recent issues, that i figured I should be lazy and answer a couple of recurring questions here instead of individually by email.

1. For those interested in the current status of Kiki, the Japanese girl who tried to marry me, here goes. Although I don't remember it, it appears that I thought something was up from the first time I met her, as I seem to have given her an email address that i only use for random signups, and as such don't check with any frequency. And so it was that 3 weeks or so after the episode in Sapporo, I checked the account, to discover that I had been receiving an average of about 8 mails a day from her, mostly consisting of variants of "I really miss you", "Where are you" and "when are you coming back. I need to reschedule the wedding" as well as a more or less constant updates about what has been going on in her life. It peaked at 31 emails about 3 days after I ran, and even now i'm still getting 5 or 6, despite reporting her email address as spam...

As far as I know, she doesn't have any of my normal email addresses, or this blog address so hasn't yet traced me any other way, especially now that my Japanese phone number is dead (whoever ends up with THAT number, could be in for a fun time...). I will warn you all now that in such an instance and she finds me here, I will instantly leave all trace of my Gelli being and disappear. I might return under a new guise, possibly called Beverley from Australia or some such, but I probably won't actually tell you all in case one of you is an informer.

On a side issue, if anybody (male) - who i know or otherwise, but the later would be preferable - happens to have an urgent desire to get married, and would consider a not unattractive and actually quite intelligent 28yr old Japanese girl, with a strangely psycotic and unhinged streak, please let me know and i will arrange an inroduction.

2. I know that you all think that you are the only one to come up with it, but whilst the first quip about Sherbert Dip was mildly amusing, the following 70 odd requests (plus a few from people wanting other sweets, but not having the foresight to ask for Sherbert dip) got a bit boring. Lack of useful variety to make it interesting, I must admit.

But for the record, No, I will not be bringing anybody tubes of sherbet, as strangely enough, the idea of carrying around tubes of white powder isn't overly attractive or clever to somebody with my record for getting stopped at customs/immigration etc. And yes, that does also rule out bags of sugar, salt and flour amongst many others. Any other requests from people missing stuff, and in places that I might be going, i will quite happily entertain, but only if substance is deemed inoffensive enough by me.

3. For the rest of you who emailed to ask what the feck liquorice actually is, it's a kind of sweet eaten in the UK and North America (and others), and in the form I had it in which caused a problem - the 2 bags of bassets allsorts were ok - was pick and mix black sweets. I'm trying to get hold of a pic of the offending stuff to post here, but until then, this might (unlikely) be of some use http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquorice

licourice.jpg
Some of the offending candy...

And that's about it.

Pathetic I know.

It includes nothing of interest, and no word of my travels and further exploits. Tough.

I will regale you all with tales from the start of my second Korean odyssey very soon, but until then, i'll leave you with the word that I am happily in Daegu at the moment, enjoying the wonders of South Korea and awaiting the pleasure of the Chinese consulate in Busan almost certainly currently declining my visa application due to a previous recent narcotic offence...

Hope all good, and Happy Thansksgiving/Advent/Lucia/End of term/finish of the RouteMasters or whatever else anybody is currently using as an excuse to celebrate with large quantities of alcoholic beverages.

Posted by Gelli 21:13 Archived in South Korea Comments (2)

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.

licourice.jpg

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.

DH0001241.JPG

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...

DH000116.JPG

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?!

DH000147.JPG

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.

DH0000261.JPG

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.

DH0000472.JPG
DH0001091.JPG
Sign in a Kyoto temple garden (any ideas?!)and then in the Sakurajima hostel

DH000063.JPG

DH000062.JPG

DH000058.JPG
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.

IMG_1764.JPG

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.

DH0001952.JPG
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...

IMG_1769.JPG

DH0000032.JPG

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.

DH0000421.JPG
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?

DH0001271.JPG

DH000125.JPG
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.

DH000130.JPG
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...

DH0000242.JPG

DH0000312.JPG
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.

DH0000432.JPG

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.

DH0000831.JPG

DH000081.JPG

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.

DH0000751.JPG

DH000086.JPG
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.

DH000182.JPG
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.

DH0001662.JPG

DH0001731.JPG

DH0001771.JPG

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!

DH000141.JPG

DH000143.JPG
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.

DH0001044.JPG
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...

DH0001091.JPG

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...

DH000100.JPG

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.

DH0000621.JPG
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.

DH0001343.JPG
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.

DH0000501.JPG

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...

DH0000492.JPG

DH0000431.JPG

DH000044.JPG
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...

DH0000402.JPG

DH0000333.JPG
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...

DH0000051.JPG

DH000001.JPG
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.

DH0000291.JPG
Not quite as floating as it would be if the tide was in...

DH0000071.JPG

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...

DH0000141.JPG

DH0000091.JPG
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...

DH000018.JPG

DH0000261.JPG
... 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)

(Entries 1 - 9 of 9) Page [1]