This is going to be another long one, I’m afraid. I’m trying to improve my ‘writing for the Web’ style and produce shorter paragraphs, which are supposedly easier to speed read (especially on a screen) but I don’t know if I’ll succeed.
I have, however, made it so that the entry fills a wider area once past the sidebar. I’ve also introduced the ‘Contents’ on the right-hand side so that you can jump directly into a part of the entry further down. I hope these developments help with the general readability of the travel log—as always I welcome your comments.
Japan was the land of the setting sun as my flight from Taipei landed on Wednesday of last week. Sitting on the bus into Tokyo from Narita airport (a 90-minute journey), I was able to remark how it much more resembled a city like Sydney than other cities in East Asia—there were wide roads and wide pavements, and they drive on the left! Japan is an hour ahead of Taiwan (GMT+9)—it’s funny to think that I’m now an hour ahead of Perth (which doesn’t have daylight-saving time, although it is summer), and only half an hour behind Adelaide (which does), in spite of still being so far away (it’s a long way north).
I had a whole day in Tokyo the following day, so I arranged to convert my Japan Rail Pass ‘purchase order’ (which you have to get outside Japan) into an actual Japan Rail Pass. This piece of folded card has a validity of 21 days (there are 7- and 14-day options as well) and can be used on just about any Japan Railway (JR) services in the country. The only exceptions are the very fastest of the bullet trains (the ones which make the fewest stops, the Nozomi; the other bullet trains I have been able to take have been fast enough, however, on which more anon) and the various railways in different parts of the country which are run by private enterprises other than JR.
The pass wasn’t what you’d call cheap—nearly £300 GBP from a travel agent in London—however I understand that it more than pays for itself once you’ve been on a few bullet trains (Shinkansen) because of the elevated costs for individual tickets. I can make reservations for free on trains where reservations are available (this is normally a charged-for service on ordinary tickets) and the JR network is extensive.
I didn’t do much else ‘proper’ in Tokyo that day except wander around extensively. I got lost because of the poor maps in the Rough Guide to Japan—while it’s almost certainly a better guidebook than the Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan was (with better accommodation listings and better descriptions of individual sights), the maps aren’t as useful, in spite of the positive claims quoted from various reviews of the guide book on its cover.
Japanese Jingles and other brief (ha!) observations
We interrupt this travel log entry to play a short jingle of our own composition—it’s only five or six bars long, and we think you’ll like it. As far as I can tell, the Japanese love their little corporate jingles, especially when it comes to transport. On buses, subway trains, overground trains, bullet trains, at stations—everywhere you go, in fact, you won’t be far from a jingle of some sort.
I think the jingles differ for the various railway lines—there was one used on the bullet train line I’ve travelled on, and a different one for the limited express service through the mountains to Takayama. In the latter instance, it was a ditty of a few bars with an electronic harpsichord melody and a line of counterpoint underneath it. Very nice to listen to, but it begins to grate somewhat when you hear it after every station and before every announcement.
Rather more annoying is the “ding–dong” I’ve been hearing all over the place—first at Nagoya station. This is a sound like a nasty electronic doorbell, but amplified so that it can be heard over a greater distance. It just keeps sounding constantly—“ding–dong–ding–dong etc.”—and for a long time I could not understand why: it just seemed to get under my skin and force my teeth grinding together. I think that it must be as an aid to the blind—from what I’ve seen, it is sounded at the top of stairs and escalators and at entrances to subway stations, or at least this is the way in Kyoto where it’s used far more extensively than elsewhere I’ve been so far. It is a sound which buries deep into my skull, impeding the passage of clear thought. Most annoying is where the sound is long and drawn out: “ding”—ah, silence, a blessed relief—“dong”—well, it was nice while it lasted. But enough of this. “That way madness lies.”
Trains and railway stations
So, anyway, it’s my intention to get as much use as possible out of my Rail Pass. To that end, I have now been on seven trains—three bullet trains and four ‘limited express’ services, and am now sitting writing this on my fourth bullet train, which is different to the three that preceded it in that it is a ‘Rail Star’ service which seems to have plusher seats.
All of the trains have been comfortable, and for all trains except local services you can make reservations in advance: there are separate carriages with reserved and un-reserved seats, which limits the awkwardness of having to kick people out of the seat you’ve reserved. If you haven’t got a reserved seat, you shouldn’t be in a reserved carriage even if there are apparently seats to spare there.
The bullet trains are certainly fast: there are no two ways about it. They also stop for a very short time at intermediate stations—the electronic display board inside the carriages, which displays Japanese and English alternately, says that “The train will shortly be making a brief stop at X”, and it’s not wrong there. If you’re not ready to get off by the time the train stops, there’s a good chance you won’t be getting off there.
All of the trains are satisfyingly punctual, as they are renowned to be. Indeed, getting on to the limited express train (not a bullet train) from Takayama back to Nagoya I concentrated on the digital clock at the end of the carriage. We were due to leave at 8.48, and sure enough as soon as the clock had clicked over to that time, we were moving. Scheduled to arrive at Nagoya at 11.17, we pulled alongside the platform at 11.16. Let’s not forget that there was a thick covering of snow at Takyama, with more falling and railway ploughs at work; however, this was no impediment to the proper running of the railway service. Yes, the service is quite expensive, but it’s efficient and reliable. In the UK, railway fares are just expensive.
I love the way that the staff are all decked out in smart uniforms (gold buttons, peaked caps, polished boots, and all that, not a red polyester suit in sight): it gives the impression of a serious ‘imperial’ operation in spite of what might be considered at first a somewhat off-putting appearance. The ticket inspectors, upon entering and leaving a carriage bow towards their customers, and when they’re actually going to inspect tickets (which is presumably part of their job description somewhere), they make a little speech to their captive audience. I suspect that they’re probably saying something along the lines of, “My name’s Gary, and I’m going to look at your tickets”, but I have no way of confirming this.
The stations, at least in the cities, are also very impressive. It seems that JR has put a lot of development into their station complexes, which are clean and smart, and often have department stores, shopping malls, food courts and hotels attached. Although the shops and hotels have the JR branding discreetly visible, they all seem to be operated by separate concerns (presumably with a cut of profits going to JR). Snaps to JR for making their stations so pleasant to wander around (although there’s a distinct lack of public seating areas), and I don’t think that the stores’ prices are too overpriced because they always seem to be packed with happy Japanese. Sounds like a good way for the railways in the UK to make some money for good developments.
A nation of smokers
Never before had I realized quite how many Japanese smoke. I suppose that the development of a predominantly anti-smoking culture in many occidental nations has rather obliterated my memory of the time when you would go into a restaurant and be asked whether you want to sit a smoking or non-smoking area. Yes, I know it still happens, but that’s now the rarity whereas, as far as I can tell, here it is the rarity for a restaurant to be entirely non-smoking.
I don’t know what percentage of the population smokes (you see, I haven’t got researchers doing the back-end work for these articles), but the smoking rooms at the railway stations always seem full, and there are still smoking carriages on the trains. I find sitting in cigarette smoke a very unpleasant experience, and I appreciate the fact that so many public areas are designated smoke-free, but I appreciate the fact that those who do choose to smoke in the West feel alienated as a result.
My Japanese is pretty limited, though I can see how it would be an easier language to learn (at least the basics) than Chinese—I think the sounds are more clearly defined, and it’s comforting that meaning is derived from words rather than from syllables. The fact that there are three different writing systems at work is confusing however. There are (adapted, as I understand it) Chinese characters (kanji), then there are two separate phonetic alphabets—Katakana, which has squarer letters and is used for the phonetic representation of foreign and incorporated words in Japanese, and Hiragana which is used for native Japanese words. Hiragana can be combined with kanji or it can be used instead of it to represent the sounds of the kanji characters.
At first, the transition from Taiwan was a little confusing—while traversing Tokyo station looking for my train to Nagoya, a railway official approached me to offer to help. He looked at my reservation ticket and pointed me to the right platform, and I proceeded to thank him in Chinese! That was cringingly embarrassing.
When you enter a restaurant and are greeted, the waiter often shouts news of your arrival before you: “There’s another one to slap on the nosebag and chow down here, chaps!” Very often all the other staff would immediately stop what they’re doing to contribute their own appreciation that you’ve chosen to eat at their establishment rather than at one of their competitors’ in the vicinity. The first time this happened to me, I was a little (read: very) embarrassed but now I’m prepared.
Nagoya: the Armpit of Japan?
My main reason for going to Nagoya was in order to get from there to Takayama, which I was assured was well worth the visit (it was). The guidebook freely suggests that Nagoya doesn’t have that much to offer—after all, its “real attraction is as a base from which to tour the region.” That said, the guidebook suggests going to the Tokugawa Art Museum. Well, I arrived in the early afternoon, left my bag at the station and got a map from the information office.
Foolishly, I didn’t get out the guidebook again (although I still had it with me), and assumed that the map would provide me with the information I needed. The map recommended the ‘City Art Gallery’, so off I went there. This turned out to be a rather limited selection of fairly modern pieces of art, some done by Japanese artists in France and, for good measure, some done by foreign artists in Japan. It really wasn’t that enthralling, and it wasn’t what the guidebook suggested. Curses.
After I’d ‘done’ the City Art Gallery, off I went to look for the Toyota Museum of Industry and Technology. Nagoya is a city of heavy industry, and its biggest corporate resident is Toyota (who started off by making weaving machinery). The tourist map I’d got showed me which subway station to go to for the Toyota museum. I got there, and there were no signs indicating which exit I should take, so I worked out where I was on the map (or so I thought) and set off down the road. Well, it turned out to be a fairly miserable area, and the icy cold wind was blowing something dreadful. I also discovered that the map I’d been given was distinctly lacking, in that it only gave names to very major roads.
Back to the subway, and I thought I’d finish the afternoon by going to look over the city from the observation deck of one of the pair of towers which are built over the railway station. This was advertised on the tourist map (and was mentioned in the guidebook), and evidently I’d forgotten (or blocked out) my experiences from the observation deck of Taipei 101. I wandered around the complex for about 20 minutes, unable to find a sign to a lift to take me to the viewpoint. With no result, I went back to the information office in order to be informed where to go. I asked the chap and he said, “Oh no, the observation deck was closed last year.” Infuriated, I was glad that I was leaving for Takayama the following morning. If Tokyo is like Sydney, Nagoya is like Birmingham—a city where you’d go to change trains if your journey demands it, otherwise you stay well away. (Oh, there’ll be letters.)
Takayama, snow galore
When arranging my reservation from Nagoya to Takayama (which I did at Tokyo), I was told that the three trains which ran around my preferred time (late morning, early afternoon) on the Saturday were all full. I didn’t appreciate the full import of this comment, and simply asked to take one of the few remaining seats on the 9.36 train.
Well, the train was packed, as expected. However, what I didn’t expect was that all these Japanese on the train were going to Takayama, just like me. It really is a tourist haven, and I suspect that these were Japanese going for a fun weekend break, because they knew that the snowfall this year has been much heavier than usual.
We all poured off the train at Takayama two-and-a-half hours after leaving Nagoya—the train had one more stop, but it was all but empty when it pulled out of Takayama. Curiously, in spite of the fact that there were huge numbers of people coming in all the time, the town never seemed crowded. Certainly, there were other people, but as I say, never a surfeit. I got a map from the tourist information booth outside the station, where I was also pointed in the direction of the inn where I’d made a reservation to stay. When I got there, the rooms weren’t ready (it was now 1pm), but I was told I could leave my big bag until I came back later on. The Rickshaw Inn also serves as a substitute tourist office, and so the girl was able to suggest a good place for me to have lunch.
As you can see in the photos, the snow was as thick as the other tourists had presumably hoped. The paths and pavements were in some places cleared of snow (by the local residents or business-owners), but in others, no effort had been made in that regard. The thick snow and the heavy pedestrian traffic of course meant that the snow had compacted into deep ice, and so I had to tread gingerly. Not only did I not want the embarrassment and pain of slipping and landing on my back (which I saw several other people do) but I was at that moment carrying both my computer and my camera strapped to my back, and so such acrobatics would have proved expensive and difficult. Normally, I’ve taken to locking my computer in my main bag when I’ve got to a place, but obviously that wasn’t possible since I hadn’t yet moved into my room.
I had a very tasty lunch of noodle soup made with the local speciality, soba noodles (made with buckwheat, unlike the more usual udon noodles) in soup. After that, I was ready to explore the town. There is a large area which has been kept as ‘traditional’ as possible, although there are signs on the shop fronts and so on. Nevertheless, the houses haven’t been razed to make way for modern developments, and it made a good way to spend a couple of hours. However, it was of course bitterly cold, and there was a chilly wind.
One thing which was being pushed by the tourist office (it is barely mentioned in the Rough Guide) was the fact that a group of local sake distilleries was taking it in turns to provide tours for the town’s visitors. I thought that this would be a good thing to see, and worked out where I was on the map. I found a sign that pointed the four directions of the compass, and could see from the map that I needed to go north. Well, I spent a good while looking, with no result. I became more confused when it seemed that the signs to definite landmarks (e.g. the railway station) didn’t correspond with the directions I expected them to be in.
When I got into the inn, I discovered that the map was oriented with North on the left, not at the top according to the convention. The moral of this story, boys and girls, is to check the orientation of a map before you attempt to use it. I have since discovered that many Japanese tourist maps are oriented differently to the Western convention. Indeed, I have looked at Japanese and English tourist maps for the same city side-by-side, and they’ve looked completely different—the Japanese map is oriented in whichever direction the cartographer has seen fit, while the English-language one follows the North-at-top convention.
Hida Folk Village
The following day I got a bus from the railway station to the ‘Hida Folk Village’, which is a couple of miles from Takayama. There, there are myriad traditional houses and buildings which have been preserved: they all come from around the Hida region (an agricultural region which includes Takayama) and have been moved to this ‘folk village’. All but one are open to the public to see inside. There were wood-fires burning in the houses—not just to add to the authenticity of the place, or to warm up the tourists, but, as various signs said, to help preserve the wood with the smoke (not one house had a chimney).
Finally at the sake distillery
That afternoon I was back in Takayama and eventually found the sake distillery for which my search had been fruitless the day previous. I went in, and was immediately given a bowl of something or another. It was sake, but it wasn’t clear—it was hot, and had a consistency of gloopy rice, with the smell of spirituous liquor coming off it. It was like drinking an alcoholic rice pudding.
I was teamed up with a Flemish-Belgian couple, and we were led away as our own little group by a woman whose English was (while better than my Japanese) limited. Nevertheless, she showed us around the place and explained what was going on. Interestingly, even in these factory surroundings we had to remove our shoes to put on plastic slippers. As always, these plastic slippers were about five sizes too small for me, and so they pinched my feet and I had a time keeping them wedged on.
At the end of the tour, we were served sake from the distillery, and were presented with a little sake cup each. Then, one of the more senior distillery workers, whom we’d encountered earlier in the tour, shuffled up and handed over a separate bottle “specially for the gaijin (foreigners)”. This, he explained through the interpretations of our guide, had just finished being distilled five minutes previously.
Of course, the intention was for us to go back to the front and buy bottles of the stuff (the tour had been conducted for free), but although I considered it (from a sense of duty, you understand), I knew that the complications were too great. I had (have) very little room in my bag, and if the bottle were to have broken, I would have rued the day. I knew that I was going to be sending a parcel of various things I’ve finished with back to Witney from Kyoto, but I wanted that to be free from the burden of duty (which unaccompanied alcohol would not be, of course), and anyway, the problem of the bottle potentially breaking in transit still stood. Thankfully, the staff weren’t at all pushing their product, so I was able to leave the distillery intact.
That evening I had the other local delicacy, Hida beef. I didn’t realize that the restaurant I was going to was in fact marketing itself as a French bistro—I had this beef in the form of steak, and it was very tasty. The restaurant, while very comfortable (it reminded me of one of those joints on Little Clarendon St. in Oxford) had excruciatingly slow service. There was one waiter who, while painstakingly polite, wasn’t very attentive—there were only about six tables in the room, but judging by the way he was serving, you would have thought that there were sixty.
Kyoto: it poured, and how
When I got to Kyoto, capital of Japan 794-1868, on Monday, it was raining quite hard. Sadly, I didn’t have my pH-testing kit to determine the rain’s acidity (you see, that’s a joke). Anyway, I went into the city to arrange to see some of the sights controlled by the Imperial Household, for which you need to get a permit beforehand. This is essentially just a boringly bureaucratic formality, but if you haven’t got a permit, you’re not in a tour group. If you’re not in a tour group, you’re not getting in, mate.
I arranged to go on the English tour of the Imperial Palace the following morning, and to see the Sentō Gosho, a fine garden within the park of the Imperial Palace. I would also go and see the Imperial villa at Katsura (on the south-western fringe of the city) the following day. I always intended to make a day trip from Kyoto to Nara on Thursday, before leaving for Nagasaki on Friday. After leaving the Imperial Household agency, I pounded the streets a little to get a feel for the place, and I was also looking for a cinema with the hope of seeing the recent film Memoirs of a Geisha. I never found any cinema—the Rough Guide only hints where there might be one, rather than making any definite promises.
The Imperial Palace
I turned up the following morning the prescribed ten minutes before the tour of the Imperial Palace was due to start. The tour group, about 20 people, was an interesting mix, including middle-aged English ladies and a couple of young French families. The father of one told me that they lived in Korea and that they were in Japan on holiday because of the lunar new year celebrations in Korea.
You really had to listen hard to our guide around the palace, because her intonation was very Japanese. It was very easy just to block her out as speaking foreign, and this, coupled with the fact that it was still raining (we only toured the exterior of the buildings, never going inside) meant that I didn’t get as much out of the tour as I might have done. However, it was certainly a fine set of buildings, and the various gardens we were led through were very handsome, as I hope you can see in the photos. At various points, the guide referred to the ‘Imperial Paris’.
The tour ended at 11am; I was due to go to Sentō Gosho at 1pm. I decided to walk up to Shokokuji Temple, which is very near by. It is a large Zen Buddhist temple, and is very important in that it has a large number of sub-temples (which I’m going to call ‘suffragan temples’) dependent on it. This is a large temple, set in fine grounds with gardens and various rooms with good wall-paintings.
No, the real problem arose when I tried to get out of the place. It would seem that I left by a different way from that by which I’d come. I got very confused, couldn’t work out where I was on the map, and seemed to be walking further and further from my destination, seemingly into the hills! It got a little bit silly, but eventually I saw some shops which I’d seen earlier on, before this temple-bound jaunt. When I got to the grounds of the Imperial Palace, I found that I had about five minutes before my tour was due to start, so I picked up the pace. I didn’t get there in time, so that put paid to that.
Rain Stopped Play
On Wednesday the rain was coming down harder than ever. I was due to see the grounds of Katsura Villa at 10am, and the bus chucked me out by the side of a road which had no pavement, where there was a sign indicating that I should walk for about a mile. I started off down the road, getting splashed every time a car passed, and fearing for my life because not only was there no pavement, but also the road wasn’t particularly wide and there were steep drops on either side. About twenty minutes too late I came to my senses and realized that this was no weather to go for an hour-long tour of a villa’s gardens conducted in Japanese, so it came to me that I must cut my losses and turn about.
As you can see, this rain had rather an abysmal effect on all my sightseeing in Kyoto, where you expect to be able to wander through and marvel at temples and gardens without fear of being soaked to your very core. As it was, I had a rather disappointing experience. I’m currently considering going back to Kyoto before returning to Tokyo, but that is only one option of many.
Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto, and is only 45 minutes’ journey by train from Kyoto, which is why it was so easy to see Nara on a day-trip. The sights are all also grouped together fairly close. The sun was shining, and the weather was fine—at last, after all that rain—so I was rather less disgruntled than I had been the previous few days. In many ways, Nara is what you expect Kyoto to be: whereas Kyoto has of course been extensively developed, with the result that it is much like any other modern-day city, Nara is now only little more than a large town, and the area around the main sights is well-preserved, and set in impressive parkland.
Anyway, I got a lot done, as you can see from the photos. Here’s what I saw:
Gangoji temple—a fairly secluded temple, away from the other main sights. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on: there were a lot of people putting up some sort of bamboo structure around many of the buildings.
Kofuku-ji (including the five-storey pagoda and the Tokon-do golden hall)—this is quite a major temple, which is particularly well-known (apparently) for its collection of Buddhas in the Tokon-do hall.
Nara Park—the park is impressive, not only because of its great extent, but also because of its collection of semi-wild deer, which roam freely!
Himuro shrine—this was a little shrine along the road, replete with paper prayers tied around the trees.
Todai-ji—this can probably be considered the ‘main’ sight of Nara. Todai-ji is an enormous temple, the largest wooden structure in the world. It was crawling with tourists, and apparently it gets even busier at the weekends.
Shoso-in—this shrine is at the top of the hill overlooking Todai-ji, and affords an impressive prospect over the whole town.
Kasuga Temple—I was looking at the photo of the stone lanterns on the front of the Rough Guide at lunchtime, and when I got to Kasuga I flipped the book over to reveal that, yes, that photo was taken here. The sheer number of stone lanterns is quite impressive, although there’s a lot more going on inside the temple itself, including zen gardens and large rooms.
The Botanical Garden—exactly what it says on the tin, with piped Japanese music to boot.
Conclusion and Questions
Well, that’s all for now. ‘Not a moment too soon’, I hear you cry. Seriously, if you’ve got this far, congratulations. I have a few questions. If you can answer any of them, please do so in a comment.
Will my next entry, on my time in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, be more than 5000 words in length as this one is? [Clue: I hope not, for my sake as much as yours.]
Did you spot the reference to King Lear? How about to Legally Blonde 2 (a little less obvious—if you spotted this one, you’d have been reading impressively closely; with apologies to Thomas)? Did anyone spot both?
Is the verb ‘to be’ the only verb in English in which the form for the 1st person singular (I am) differs from the 2nd person singular and 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons plural (you, we, they)? I don’t know why this came to me on the train the other day, but so far I can think of no other example.