Saturday, October 29, 2005

Bonus Japan photos

Some bonus photos of the Japan trip, which seems like a while ago now but still lives in the memory. This is a night view over Shinagawa with the railway station in the foreground, and the Tokyo Tower rising like a shaft of light on the far left. This was the view from our hotel window.

This gives an idea of the scale of a typical gatehouse at a Buddhist temple, in this case Engaku-ji in Kamakura, about an hour south of Toyko. Made entirely from wood, slotted together without any nails, the temple was spread over a large area. Designed to be enjoyed in peaceful reflection, any quiet was drowned out by the loud grating of cicadas in the trees.

Buying sweetened bean paste in the market at Nakamise-dori, Asakusa. At least I think that's what it was - it was very good. Chewy dough-like balls on skewers, coated in some sugary powder, traditional Japanese snack food.

Your author relaxing in the ryokan in Kyoto, wearing the typical Japanese robe, or yukata. The woman on my left is the server, who every other night (there were two of them and they worked alternate nights) set up our dinner and brought in all the various small courses. This gives a good idea of the basic style of furnishing that roykans have.

Another photo of yours truly looking at the Bridge to Heaven in Amanohashidate in the appropriate way. The netting was there in case you overbalanced and went over the edge, I think. As I said before, it really didn't look like a bridge ascending to heaven - but maybe I wasn't imagining it hard enough...

Also at Amanohashidate, this was on the roof of the small ferry we took back from the base of the viewing platform to the railway station at the other end of the sand spit. The wheel wasn't connected to anything, presumably it was just for tourists to take pictures of each other looking daft - so I was only too happy to oblige.

Picture-postcard view of a fountain, this one in a Shinto cemetary in Kamakura. The water slowly flowed along each successive bamboo section, before dripping into the stone containers. We weren't sure if it was for drinking, or another of the many purification troughs that are positioned outside temples/shrines for you to cleanse yourself before beginning to pray.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Windy Lytham

An old boat rusting in the mudflats

For some reason the weather (which I haven't mentioned for a while) went crazy today - sunny all day with temperatures of 21C even in Northern Scotland, setting all kinds of UK records. Apparently the Highlands of Scotland were warmer than most of the Caribbean - albeit a hurricane-lashed Caribbean - which is still fairly impressive. So taking advantage of the evils of climate change, I headed off for a day out somewhere random. Not entirely random, but I got to the train station and had a look at the departure screen to pick somewhere to go. Ironically the first destination on the monitor was Edinburgh - I should have been there today but for a mild problem with finding somewhere to stay until after the weekend. After that came Blackpool North (Blackpool has three railway stations - as far as I know only London has more in the UK)* but of course I was there only the other day. Next up, proving my point, was Blackpool South - but on the way the train was calling at a variety of small coastal towns that sounded a decent bet, so I chanced my arm and hopped on that one.

I got off at Lytham, which together with it's close neighbour St Annes forms another of the old-style resorts on the Lancashire coastline from Southport through to Blackpool, Morecambe and beyond. Once again the memories of childhood days out came back to me - and I'm not that old - but the front at Lytham was exactly as I remember. Maybe the whole of the Lancashire coast is marooned in the bountiful tourist days of the past. Having said that, the combination of a nice day and half-term school holidays meant there were people everywhere. Unfortunately there was also a screeching wind, that fair ripped off the mudflats and over the coastal path. Lytham sits on the Ribble Estuary, the river that flows through Preston, and is at the mercy of the onshore winds that tend to buffet the casual visitor on a regular basis. It was good news for some though, and a couple of hardy kite surfers were out on the narrow channel hurtling along behind lofty crescents of coloured material. Birds were taking advantage too, and I watched as a grey kestrel hung almost motionless in the fierce wind, scanning the reed banks for small animals, before quickening my pace and heading back for the shelter of the station.

*feel free to prove me wrong, enthusiasts...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Lancashire Riviera

The churning seas at Blackpool

I hadn't been to Blackpool for almost ten years, which for a proud Lancastrian like myself is something of a scandal, as only the Scots go to Blackpool more often than us locals. I'm not sure why that is - but the souvenir shops there stock Scottish football merchandise, so there must be a lot of visitors from North of the border. People obviously buy the t-shirts of a cartoon man in a Celtic kit urinating on a Rangers kit (and vice versa), otherwise they wouldn't be on sale in all the souvenir shops lining the seafront. I certainly heard plenty of Scottish accents while I was walking around - the first I'd heard for a long time, of course.

The world's biggest/slowest trams

It was great to see that Blackpool had hardly changed at all since I was last there. After walking out of the station and through a grimy underpass the first thing I saw was a middle-aged man vomiting in the street, with shoppers deliberatly ignoring him as only British people can. I ignored him too, and walked along a street to the beach, passing charity shops and others selling novelties, souvenirs and tea - the three cornerstones on which Blackpool was built. I reached the front and crossed over the famous tram tracks - Blackpool trams have to be the largest in the world - one rumbled past me at 3mph which looked like a Boeing 747 without the wings (and had a large advert for a strip club on the side). Here the biting wind really stung, so I went into the amusements on the North Pier to escape.

10p pieces defying the laws of gravity

Again, the old North Pier looked exactly as it did when I used to go there as a boy - even the arcade machines were more or less the same. I couldn't find Operation Wolf though, which was a real shame - one of those dancing games with the footpads had taken it's place near the main doors. A crowd had gathered around two girls playing it, who were grimly holding on to a bar whilst marching along to steps displayed on the flashing screen in front of them. They must have been enjoying it, but really didn't look as if they were. As I wandered around looking for ways to rid myself of 10p coins (again, Blackpool doesn't seem to increase prices over the years) I realised that the last gaming arcades I had been in were the incredible multi-storey ones in Osaka. The other side of the world, but I was struck by the similarities - the serious faces of concentrating gamers, the resigned look of the serial fruit machine addicts, and of course the grapple-arm machines so beloved by arcade goers in both countries. The other Blackpool institution are the 'balancing cliff-top' machines, where dropping a 10p (or 2p) into the continually advancing and retreating layers causes those at the edge to be pushed off for you to collect (or not, in my case).

Donkey rides on the beach

The wind was ripping in from the Irish Sea, causing the brown sea to foam as it rolled over the sand. A sewage-laden microbe paradise it may be (bacteria come to Blackpool on holiday too), but the beach there looks really good. A few hardy souls were down there, including the ubiquitous donkey rides. I can't recall ever having been on a donkey at Blackpool, but there can't be a more typical English seaside pastime. Eating chips out of a deckchair in the rain, maybe, I suppose. No rain the day I was there though, as the strong wind soon blasted the clouds inland and the sun came out. I walked parallel to the sea, taking in the classic Blackpool landmarks - the tower, piers, trams, etc. I passed the un-fun-looking Funland, which proudly boasted that their cups of tea were 'still only 10p'. I noticed they also did fish, chips, peas, bread and butter and tea for a not unreasonable £1.99. This is one reason why Blackpool is so popular.

Blackpool's North Pier, built in 1863

The biggest reason though is that if you go on holiday there you know exactly what you're going to get. The resort town has practically the same things to do now as it did 20, 30yrs ago - and in some cases exactly the same things. Why go somewhere foreign where the food is different and you can't understand the language? When you book a holiday in Blackpool you know you'll be getting fish and chips, cheap beer, candy floss and funny plastic hats. The town can be summed up by a leaflet I was given on the North Pier. Despite now being owned by 'Leisure Parcs Ltd', the 142yr old pier has been maintained in order to keep the essence of romance and history that makes it so distinctly different. So too Blackpool - a resort well over a hundred years old purposely kept as it is - because if you come once and like it, chances are you'll be coming back...

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Final Four - 4

Green Park, London, in the Autumn sunshine

I suppose that's more or less it. Back in the UK, only two weeks until I go back to work, and all the travelling is over. My flight from Seoul Incheon to Heathrow was as uneventful as you can hope for, and before I knew it I was on the Tube, being jolted around as the train rattled across London. It was good to be back on the tube again, but you certainly notice the bumpy ride when you've been spoiled by the smooth running of transport in Japan. It was also good to be back in the cold - dull, grey Autumn weather had taken over and it was as cold as I'd felt probably since I was in New Zealand in May. I spent about a week in London, and had a couple of touristy days walking around parts of the city. It's great to be back in the UK, despite it meaning the end of my travels. Sitting on a bench in Green Park watching the holidaymakers filing towards Buckingham Palace I was able to do a spot of reflecting on the mammoth distances I'd covered over the past twelve months. Technically I've still not yet finished, as I've got to get back to Edinburgh where it all began, but after having visited four countries in four days I'll take at least a couple of weeks before I get back there. Of course, there's only one place you need to come to find out how I get on...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Final Four - 3

No photos for me to upload for this leg of the journey - when I arrived in Korea I had no idea what to expect of my overnight layover - but in the end it turned out well. After the plane landed - a 10hr flight from Sydney - I went through the usual immigration/customs stuff and gave my voucher to the Korean Air service desk at the terminal. I'd predicted that it would be an airport hotel us layover passengers would be plonked in, and I was right - we got on a bus and were driven for about 3mins to the Hyatt Regency Incheon Airport. I suppose it was a bit far-fetched of me to hope we'd be bussed to central Seoul so I could have a wander around and see a bit of Korea, but seeing as it was all free I'm not complaining.

When I booked my ticket here (and it seems like 5yrs ago that I did) I got the cheapest (of course) flight I could find from Heathrow to Sydney - and Korean Air had a crazy cheap deal, so I signed up for that. Only downside was a long layover at the airport on the way back - but I've slept in airports before so I knew I could do it again. When I went into the Korean Air office in Sydney to reschedule my ticket home, they told me I'd be put up in a hotel and driven to and from the airport, free of charge. Fantastic - much better than a bench at the airport. As it turned out, it was much much better (I'm writing this at an internet terminal waiting for my flight to London). The Hyatt is a typical swish hotel - just the same as the fancy hotels I'd been enjoying in Japan for the last couple of weeks.

Problem was, Incheon airport is built on an island off the Western coast of Korea, so by the time I'd checked in and had my free dinner (very nice it was too) it was almost 9pm and I had no time to try and escape to the city. I didn't fancy walking around the airport boundary fence, or swimming for the mainland, so I just stayed in the hotel room and used as much free hotel stuff as I could. This morning, it was a free breakfast buffet and the bus back here for my flight. So not as exciting a stopover as I'd hoped for - but considering what I got for free it was extremely good service. I guess I've been flying with budget no-frills airlines for too long. Anyway, it's another whopping flight soon and then in several hours I'll be back in Europe - my third continent in three days. Just look me up in the dictionary under jet-setting...

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Final Four - 2

The gleaming Opera House - 11th October 2005

So this is my final day in Australia. I arrived at about 7am with no problems from Narita, and got the train back to my old flat - after I moved out to go to Japan they managed to fill my room. I dumped my stuff, had a shower, and went out to do some basic jobs like close down my bank account. The weather was perfect - 26C and sunny - a classic Sydney day. I used to watch TV programmes where people talked about moving to Australia because (in part) the weather was so much better. I scoffed at the time, of course, but when you're over here and it's sunny, warm with a light breeze every day for two weeks it's just great. Not good for the water situation, of course, but for those of us on a limited timescale it makes a huge difference.

The Harbour Bridge with ferry underneath

I walked around to the Opera House and the Botanic gardens one last time. It was lunchtime, so the footpath by the water that winds around to Mrs Macquarie's Chair was busy with joggers, escaping the office for some temporary and frantic exercise. The Opera House was glistening in the sun, as white as I've seen it. I then got a ferry (the Charlotte) across the harbour to Milson's Point and walked back over the Harbour Bridge. I'll definately come back - but for now that was a fitting end, I think. Tomorrow morning it's back to Asia and an overnight stop in Korea.

Last look at the Opera House...for now

I'm not sure how I can sum up and entire year into a snappy paragraph. I think the posts I've been producing are a testament to how much I've enjoyed coming over here. The decision to uproot and move to the other side of the world is a huge one - even if I had the safety net of a one-year visa and my old job guaranteed when I got back. The challenge of fitting into a new city and culture where I didn't know more than a handful of people was greater than I imagined - but I never found it hard. I think that was in part due to the Aussies, who are to a man and woman the nicest bunch of people you could meet. Their relaxed attitude to life - even in (by their standards) hectic Sydney helps you adjust. Plus the relative ease I had in getting somewhere to live, and then a job, also helped. I really landed on my feet with the flat, it was a great place to live.

So that's it - the end of the best 12 months of my life. Well, not really the end, as I won't be back at my desk until the 7th of November, and there's a bit of travelling to do first. I've loved writing this blog, hopefully you've enjoyed reading it - thanks for all your comments. Rest assured I'll keep on writing DUaB after I get back to Edinburgh, I'm sure I can find something to write about. But for the Australian part of my trip - that's it...


Monday, October 10, 2005

Final four - 1

This is the crazy travelling week, that signifies the end of my twelve months away from the UK. Today was my last day in Tokyo - tomorrow I fly to Sydney, where I've got roughly 24hrs before I fly to Seoul, South Korea. After 18hrs there I fly to London the next day. So that's four cities in four days, on three continents, including Asia twice. I've no idea how many thousands of miles that is - if I was planting trees to offset my carbon emissions this week I'd be reforesting half of Amazonia. When you think that the first people that came to Australia from the UK took years of bouncing around on wooden ships, my upcoming travels seem incredible - in the next four days I'll be covering the same distance those Elizabethan mariners covered over the course of their careers, if they were lucky enough to get to the end. I've just got to sit in a seat and read the paper. Still, that's progress.

Fuji TV headquarters

My last day in Japan was another wet one. We were reasonably lucky with the weather - we had three wet days out of 15, so it's not too bad. Unfortunately we only had one day of sun - all the others were overcast, grey and humid. But there's not much you can do about the weather. After visiting a Japanese internet cafe - with individuals cubicles containing a fast PC, reclining seat, footstool, slippers, safe, TV, and PlayStation 2 - we took the Toei Oedo line subway to Shiodome. Again, it looked like the entire line was brand new, at least either that or they keep it utterly spotless. At Shiodome we transferred onto the Yurikamome monorail (another rail-based transport system we used on this trip) to Odaiba Island. Odaiba is all built on land reclaimed from the Tokyo Bay estuary, and is home to dozens of massive, astonishing buildings, like the HQ of the FujiTV empire pictured above.

Geo-Cosmos at the Miraikan, Odaiba Island

We got off and visited the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation - Miraikan. It's a hands-on science museum with displays on the human body, space, biology and chemistry. The undoubted highlight is Geo-Cosmos, the world's first spherical LED display unit. Essentially it's the equivalent of a wall of TV's, but very small TV's, and arranged in a sphere. It displays the Earth from space, other planets, and global weather systems. You look at it by lying down, and staring up at the changing colours. As we watched, the scientist clicked a button and the global weather patterns for a couple of weeks ago appeared, and we all watched Hurricane Katrina roll into the Gulf States of the US. He then went on to display rising sea and land temperatures - it was incredible.

Otorii of Miyajima, at night

After that we zipped back to Shinjuku where I picked up my bags and dashed for the Narita Express (the same way we started the holiday), saying goodbye to my father as I went. He's got an extra day on his own in Tokyo before flying back to the UK. Thanks so much for letting me show you Japan Dad - I loved every minute of it. I sat on the Narita express watching the neon-lit suburbs flow past the window with a huge smile on my face. Japan is an amazing country - expensive, but down to earth - fast, but traditional - anonymous but friendly. I could go on, but I'll leave it there. It's a stunning country of contrasts, and anybody lucky enough to get the chance to go should get there and give it everything they've got - it won't disappoint.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Nothing to see here

A cable car looms out of the mist

As I mentioned previously, the Japanese are justifiably proud of their transport system. Once you can work out where you want to go, the journey is always accurate and on time. You just have to look at a station platform to see the pleasure Japanese take from the sheer act of travelling (I mean day trippers here - commuters in Japan are like commuters pretty much everywhere). Lined up at the appropriate spot for their seat allocation, clutching bento boxes and weak cold tea drinks, the respect they have for their transit systems is in marked contrast to those of UK travellers - they really have a sense of pride in their railways, for instance. As a result, the journey can seem as enjoyable as reaching the destination - they really are great travellers. With this in mind, Japanese transport companies (and there are many) have come up with special ways for their customers to travel. Things like super executive coaches cruise the roads, 'Romance Cars' give lucky passengers a driver's-eye view of the railway, and there are special circular routes that give views of a large natural attraction (like Mount Fuji) from a number of different forms of transport.

Dad doing a crossword on the cloudy cable car

The last one of those is one that we indulged in. We bought a 'Hakone Free Pass' - which despite the name cost Y5,500 (GBP27). This gave us unlimited hop on-hop off use of eight different kinds of public transport running in a circular loop near Mount Fuji, that took a whopping 11hrs to complete. We started at Shinjuku, and spent two hours on a rattling commuter train to the small town of Hakone-Yumoto. The actual Hakone loop started there, so really the ride from Shinjuku was an extra (if you like commuter trains). At Hakone-Yumoto we changed to the Tozan train - a steep three-carriaged tram that rumbled slowly up the hill. Apparently this stage of the journey was full of wonderful forest and mountain views - but the whole vista was hidden in a thick layer of grey cloud, so we couldn't see anything apart from a few trees. At Gora we changed again onto what the Japanese call a cable-car, but we would call a funicular railway. This took 9mins to ascend the hill, where we got on a ropeway (cable car) for thirty minutes. That's a long time to spend on a cable car - but halfway along at the high point of the mountain voyage (Owakudani) we had to get onto a smaller cable car and trundle along again.

Waiting in the rain to board the pirate ship

By this time the cloud had become all-enveloping, so we sailed through a cloud that was grey in every direction, like being inside a dull bubble - with no idea of the views we were missing. Actually that's not strictly true, as at every stop we saw magnificent posters of the very same cable car cruising past picture-postcard views of Mount Fuji, and Alpine-esque views. We had to be content with seeing Fuji-san this way, as we could have been pulled along within inches and not seen it. At the end of the cable-car section we transferred onto - of course - a pirate ship, and set off on a jaunty 30min cruise down Lake Ashi - again, shrouded in cloud and rain. Still, it was a pirate ship, at least. At the end of the Lake was a bus waiting to transfer us back to Hakone-Yumoto and the 'Romance Car'.

The Odakyu 'Romance Car'

Yes, the thought of another two hours in the commuter train gave us the idea of upgrading to the 'Romance Car' and zipping back to Shinjuku in style. I'm still not exactly sure what is romantic about it - but the driver sits upstairs at the front in a Boeing 747-esque cockpit, leaving the front of the train un-obscured for the passengers lucky enough to be sitting in the glass-enclosed nosecone. Amazingly, we were some of those lucky people, and spent a fun hour and a half looking out of the front and imagining what it would be like to drive. This is the appeal for the Japanese, of course - and helps explain why train-driving simulations are one of the most popular computer games series here. It goes back to that love of travel - it's the same reason why train staff are immaculately presented and have a genuine pride in what they do. When the system runs that well, it's only natural for the people that use it to enjoy it also - no matter where they go. That rubbed off on us, too. For although we essentially spent 11hrs on a moving conveyor belt and saw next to nothing of what we came to see - we still enjoyed it. It was because the Japanese were enjoying it, they came for the ride as much as the views - and who were we to disagree?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Playing together in the sea

Manta Ray at Kaiyukan

The tagline for Kaiyukan - Osaka`s Aquarium - is that visitors can 'enjoy the animals as if they are playing together in the sea'. Well, I`ve been to many aquaria in my time, and never felt that about any of them. Although many of the exhibits at Kaiyukan were good, I only felt like jumping in because of the masses of schoolchildren around. It seemed like every school in the Kansai had planned an outing. Now I`m all for kids learning about marine life - it's how I started after all - but when each tank has three rows of kids in front of it you lose enthusiasm pretty quickly. Instead of lots of small-sized tanks with many species, Kaiyukan has gone for the large tank = big impact method. Some really are incredible - the central tank is a whopping 9m deep (30ft) and houses, amongst other things, a whale shark. Roughly 15ft long, the poor thing cruises round in a circle followed by an ever present flotilla of smaller fish.

The Japanese Giant Spider crab

The aquarium also had about a dozen dolphins in a tank, two 5ft long Aleutian Sea Otters, three species of penguins in a special Antarctic chamber (with real snow falling), and all the other usual aquarium suspects. My favourite - and if you know me this won't come as any surprise - were the deep sea crabs. Not just any crabs either, but Giant Spider Crabs - the first time I've ever seen them alive. Most had hand-sized bodies and spinldy legs a few feet long, but there was one monster the size of a bsaketball that had legs as thick as my forearms. Goodness only knows how old it was. They moved around really slowly, as if in slow motion, and the tank was perfectly lit to give them a ghostly, alien appearance. This one tank made up for all the razed schoolkids before - it was incredible.

Hikari Rail Star Shinkansen - a thing of beauty

Later that day we left Osaka and headed for Tokyo. One incident that happened to us serves as a useful example of the Japanese pride in customer service and willingness to help. We used an automatic ticket machine to buy a one-day subway pass - but when we tried to use it the inspector at the ticket barrier looked at his watch and took them off us. The last time something like that happened to me, it was on the Budapest metro and I was fined for having an invalid ticket - so when he marched us off to the 'Station Master`s Office'I was wondering what was going on. Inside were a number of officials, and one took the tickets, opened up what looked like a petty cash box, and counted out what we had paid for them - which he then gave to us. He put on a peaked hat, and motioned for us to follow him outside, so we did. It turned out that we had paid too much for our tickets - on Fridays a special offer meant they were Y200 cheaper. The ticket guard had noticed this, realised it was Friday, and asked the station master to get us the discounted tickets to which we were entitled to. He led us to the ticket machines, and took the correct money. pushing the buttons and giving us the tickets. All this because we had inadvertantly paid Y400 (GBP2) too much for our subway passes. Would this help have been given anywhere else? Somehow I doubt it.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

From old to new

Miyajima from the ferry, with red torii visible

I opened the blinds of our ryokan this morning, to the sight of three foxes sitting in the grounds of the temple over the road. Black and brown - instead of the European red and white - foxes in Japan are seen as sacred, but are also believed to be able to posess people by entering them under their fingernails. At any rate, presumably they had free run of the temples on Miyajima - as do deer and monkeys - although we didn't see any of the latter. I enjoyed staying on Miyajima - at the risk of descending into travelogue cliche it was good to see a bit of the 'real Japan'. As our ferry cruised slowly across to the mainland, our departure signified the end of our week-long stay in ryokans, and back to hotels.

Osaka Castle

Not that I was complaining - I'm used to $20 hostels with one shared shower for 25 people, so to stay at places like the SwissOtel Osaka was a real pleasure. Staff were still incredibly subservient, but instead of a couple of kimono-clad old ladies there were dozens of attentive Japanese in white gloves and uniforms. Our 22nd floor room looked out over the expanse of concrete and neon that was Osaka. We visited the castle, Osaka-jo, a concrete reconstruction of one of the great Shogun-era fortresses. The displays inside were wonderful, and did a great job of getting across how central the castle was to the many battles of the time. Designed to be impregnable, it lasted for only 32yrs until 155,000 samurai destroyed it, under the command of that man again - Tokugawa Ieyasu. There were a few handwritten letters by him, signed in 1615, the year of the 'Spring Battle' of Osaka.

The Ebisubashi area of Osaka at night

In the evening we wandered around the futuristic Minami (South) area of the city. We ate Okonomiyaki, sometimes referred to as 'Japanese pizza', cooked on a grill plate in front of us by two chefs. We were the only people in the restaurant, and it was really good food. Afterwards I had a walk around the Dotonbori nightlife district, which was a rampant culture-shock compared to the previous night`s solitude on peaceful Miyajima. Dotonbori is all neon, flashy shops, pachinko parlours and gaming arcades. Famed for the large neon signs and gaudy atmosphere, the best example is the crab restaurant Kani Doraku - to advertise it's wares there is a 20ft high mechanical spider crab above the entrance - and tanks of the unfortunate crustaceans with short futures just underneath.

I like Osaka - it felt like a city that hadn't become touristy or Westernised. Of course there were Western restaurants and shops, but it felt different to Tokyo (although I love both). I went int oa few gaming arcades, which all seemed to follow the same general pattern. On the ground floor were those fairground machines where you have to manouever a wonky grapple arm to pick up a prize - only they were completely modern and there were dozens of them. The prizes were still cheerfully crap though - toys, action figures, packs of baseball cards. I've yet to see one with a better prize than the one I saw at Portobello in Edinburgh with packs of 20 Benson and Hedges wrapped with a five pound note. Mind you, I'm guessing each place knows it's target audience.

Upstairs were smoky gambling areas, mostly electronic horse-racing simulators. Tired-looking men were sitting there using the touch-screen monitors to place money on the outcome of a computer game. In the basement level the entertainment was strictly for girls - everything was pink and there were photo booths everywhere. Apparently the thing for teenage Japanese girls to do, these booths (roughly twice the size of passport photo booths) served a similar purpose, only less functional. Each had a choice of funky backdrops, and mirrors galore. I'm not exactly sure what happens inside the curtain, but looking at examples on the outside the girls essentially make themselves up and take pictures of each other. Judging by the crowds, it seems incredibly popular.

The giant crab at Kani Doraku

The final nightlife aspect I looked at but didn't sample was pachinko. Not because I didn't fancy it or wasn`t looking glamorous enough, but because I hadn`t a clue what was going on. Pachinko is played by feeding steel ball bearings into the top of an eletcric machine, and collecting any that make it to the bottom. The more balls you get, the bigger your prize. The parlour I went in was an amazing assault - massive, loud, utterly confusing. Rows of these plastic machines stretched off in every direction, with people mutely watching their balls drop, as it were. I recognised the dead-eyed stares of serial addicts from my visit to Las Vegas. The noise was incredible - the metallic clattering of countless balls was deafening, but it was almost drowned out by the electronic jingles each machine produced. Coupled with loud J-Pop muzak, and the whole experience was amazing. I just wish I could have had a go - I sat down at a machine, but the instructions were all in Japanese and none of the numerous slots were taking my coins. Still, it was good just to take it all in, and if I wanted to end on another travelogue cliche I could say that it summed up Japan quite well - being a baffling assault to the senses, yet interesting and compelling - but I don't, so I won't.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


The A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

I don`t think it`s possible to enjoy a trip to Hiroshima, unless you deliberately avoid any atomic-bomb related sites. You could just treat it as a vibrant, busy city and spend time in the shops, parks and galleries. But, of course, sadly Hiroshima is far more than that. As long as we have a recorded history the city will be associated with one awful moment on the 6th August, 1945. At 8:30am an American bomber dropped the first nuclear weapon ever used in wartime, aiming for the distinctive T-shaped Aioi-bashi bridge in the west of the city. They only just missed - the bomb detonated a few hundred metres to the south-west, at about 500m off the ground. Directly underneath was the three-story Industrial Promotion Hall, a lrage domed building by the river. Everyone inside was incinerated immediately, but the ruined structure somehow survived. Renamed the A-Bomb Dome, it was left as it was to remind people of the destruction of the attack. It was our first port of call, and a sobering introduction considering what was to come.

The memorial to Sadako

Over the river is Peace Memorial Park - a once-busy residential area on a triangular island. Almost totally obliterated in the fireball, today it is full of trees and memorials to the people that died there. 25,000 Korean POW`s were imprisoned near the river when the bomb exploded. They were all killed, and there is a memorial to them - only recently relocated from an out of the way location. We saw children praying to the memorial to Sadako - a 10yr old girl who survived the blast only to develop leukaemia. She started folding paper cranes in the belief that if she folded 1000, she would be cured (the crane being the symbol of longevity). She died before she could complete them, but her classmates folded the rest for her.

Model of the size of the Hiroshima atomic fireball

Children were everywhere in Hiroshima. Like Miyajima the day before, there were hordes of kids in matching uniforms all being marched around by teachers. Inside the Peace Memorial Museum they were everywhere, acting pretty much like kids on school trips anywhere. Of course, this wasn`t anywhere, this was a museum depicting the effects of a nuclear holocaust. It was without doubt the most harrowing thing I`ve ever seen. From the detailed series of meetings taken by Allied leaders to select a bomb site (Churchill wanted to drop one on Germany, but the Americans persuaded him that the risk of the Nazis obtaining the secrets of the bomb if it failed to go off were too great to risk, so Japan was chosen), to the model and photographs of the aftermath, it was just awful. But it`s something that you need to see. Everyone should be made to go there - especially world leaders. The pitiful sight of scraps of blackened clothing next to photographs of real children were too much for me. Stories of kids setting out for school on a normal day only to be atomised without warning are bad enough - but when there are photos of those young children with a solitary belt buckle or charred tricycle it becomes too much. But it really does its job - it convinces you (if you needed any convincing) how awful nuclear weapons are, and how awful war is. I just wished the schoolkids who were there had paid more attention - but then the thought of being caught up in that horrific scenario is as remote for them as it would have been to those children setting out for school on the 6th of August, 1945.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

To the island

Your author in the ryokan, Kyoto

Our longest stay in one place came to an end after five nights in the ryokan in Kyoto. After one last trip up and down the eleven sets of escalators at the jaw-dropping station it was back on the Shinkansen and off to Hiroshima. Tokyo is a great city, but Kyoto seems more like a typical Japanese city - at least my perception of what a Japanese city might look like before I came here and saw one. That's not to say I prefer Kyoto - I like them both for different reasons. There's nothing of the action-packed megacity in Kyoto. Slowly walking around the temples, shrines, and narrow backstreets is by far the best way to see it. It`s possible to get a small idea of what Japan used to look like, something that is very hard in Tokyo. It is a wonderful place to explore, and if you only have time for one city in Japan - it has to be Kyoto.

Shinkansen lining up at Shin-Osaka

A mere 15mins from Kyoto is Osaka, where we changed onto another shinkansen heading west towards Hiroshima. The mightily impressive fast trains have their own private track, so can run at super speeds neatly spaced at 10min intervals. The JR Rail Pass we had was incredible value - for the price of one return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto (you really do pay for the premium travel experience), we get unlimited use on all JR trains, shinkansen (apart from the mega-fast Nozomi type) and ferries, for two weeks. All you have to do is flash the passport-sized bit or card and walk through the ticket barriers. I can't recommend them enough.

O-torii at Miyajima at low tide

At Hiroshima we changed to a local train and got off at Miyajima-guchi where a JR-owned ferry to 10mins to cross the short stretch of water to the island of Miyajima. We opted to stay on the island rather than in a hotel in Hiroshima, and it definately paid off. Our ryokan was small and basic - much less than the one we had left in Kyoto - but it reflected the small island perfectly, and had everything we needed. Miyajima is heavily forested, and apparently has excellent walks - although there were notices up that one of the main trails was closed due to a typhoon-caused landslide. The low grey cloud hung on the serrated hilltops, and light rain fell as we made our way through the small town to the main attraction. Originally the entire island was sacred, and commoners who wanted to go there to worship the God of the Sea weren't allowed to set foot on the land. So in 593 the priests built a shrine over the water on a series of linked, covered boardwalks to ensure pilgrims could safely visit without causing trouble for them by touching the land. But how would the boatloads of worshippers be able to pass through a torii gate in order to enter? Well, build a giant torii in the bay, so they could row underneath it as they approached. This was done, and the floating torii of Miyajima became one of the most famous sights in Japan - in fact, it's another of the "Three Great Views".

...and at high tide

It is extremely impressive, standing anchored in the mud about 50m offshore. We managed to see it at both high and low tides - the former being more visually spectacular, but the latter enabling us to walk over the mud right up to it. It really is colossal - 16m high, 10m in circumference (the main pillars). The familiar vermillion colour really stands out against the sea and mountains. The present torii was built in 1875, and the base of the pillars were surrounded by coins dropped as offerings. The mud was also home to countless small crabs, snails and hermit crabs, which I spent a long time watching scuttle around feeding as they went. Oh - and I also saw a hand-sized giant centipede in a pedestrian underpass, and the world's largest wooden rice scoop (7.7m long, 2.5 tons), so all in all it was a pretty successful day.

That evening in our ryokan we were treated to Kaiseki - a Japanese banquet. Many courses, small amounts, but amazing food. I kept a list of what we ate, so here it is...

1. Small fish fillet, one prawn, small pickles
2. Miso soup with two tiny prawns and fish chunks
3. Sashimi - mackerel, octopus, squid
4. Giant marine snail mixed with avocado served in the shell
5. Cold bacon on ice with a sesame dressing
6. Entire small fish, deep fried
7. Rice and more soup
8. Tea
9. Green tea-flavoured ice cream

Monday, October 03, 2005

The oldest capital

Kofuku-ji temple pagoda peeking over the trees

The second most popular tourist attraction in the Kansai region (after Kyoto) is Nara. In early Japanese history the country had no permanent capital city. With the death of each Emporer the capital was moved accordingly. Only the influence of the new Buddhist religion spurred reforms that led to the establishment of the first permanent capital in 710 - and the place they chose was Nara. However, only 75yrs later a lowly priest managed to seduce the Empress, so it was decided to move the capital again - to put the female royals out of reach of the randy clergy. So Nara lost out to Kyoto, which became the seat of power until Tokugawa Ieyasu moved it to Edo, as I mentioned previously.

Kazuko and me at Kofuku-ji

In Nara we hired a volunteer 'Goodwill Guide' - members of the tourist information service that act as free guides for tourists. Ours was a kindly middle-aged lady called Kazuko, whom we had arranged to meet at the station. She spoke excellent English, and it turned out had visited the UK twice so she could specifically go to Edinburgh - albeit because she was a mad-keen fan of Harry Potter, and wanted to see where they were written. I tried to be as polite as possible about this - I can't stand that bloody wizard. Still, she knew a reasonable amount about Edinburgh so we talked about that for a while.

Nara's main historic sights (and there are plenty) are located in a large park at the foot of a hill. Having Kazuko with us was great, as she explained in detail about everything we saw. The hill, Wakakusa-yama, is ceremonially burned every January to purify the soil - but Kazuko also said it was so the monks can`t hide up in the bushes and indulge in 'unholy deeds'. It seems their reputation has remained over the centuries. The park is home to over a thousand deer - thought to be the messengers of the Gods and therefore devine. They wander around nonchalantly eating leaves and chasing tourists foolish enough to buy 'deer crackers' for Y100.

Todai-ji - the largest wooden building in the world

We walked through the Kofuku-ji temple enclosure, most of which had been destroyed by fire over the years - but there was one remaining small, dark wooden building dating from the 8th Century. At the other end of the scale, size-wise, is the astonishing Todai-ji - the largest wooden building in the world. The current one, built in 1709, is actually one-third smaller than it used to be. It`s hard to get across the sheer scale of the place - it was just incredible. Inside is one of the largest bronze statues in the world, the Great Buddha - or Daibutsu. Kazuko explained all about the history and religious meanings behind the statue which was 16m high and weighed almost 450 tons. To one side of the statue is a small hole in one of the massive wooden supporting pillars. Apparently the same scale as one of the Buddha`s nostrils, if you can fit through you will achieve true enlightenment. Predictably, it was the kids who were going for it - I didn`t fancy my chances. I guess I`ll have to become enlightened by some other means.

Nigatsu-do, and the flaming balcony

We finished the walk by stopping at a large, blackened, two-story building called Nigatsu-do (February's Hall). Every March (not February), the monks go through an initiation process where they carry enormous flaming torches around the city. These things are the size of small trees, and are hauled from Todai-ji to Nigatsu-do. Here they climb up to the balcony (causing the roof of the wooden staircase to blacken) and wave the burning torches off the verandah. Apparently firemen are on hand - but incredibly people gather underneath the temple and wait for the flames - if you get dripped on by embers you'll have good health for the rest of the year, although probably not immediately. I asked Kazuko if the temple had ever caught fire as a result. "Oh yes," she replied cheerfully. "But they rebuilt it, of course".

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Bridge to Heaven

Amanohashidate - the bridge to heaven

The Japanese are fond of compiling lists of their most highly-prized national assets. Helpfully written as a series of top-threes, there are the three greatest castles, gardens, moon-viewing locations, Hello Kitty theme parks, etc - and sights. Being fond of the odd sight I managed to fit two of the three 'Great Sights of Japan' into the trip, and the first of those we visited today. The town of Amanohashidate is a two-hour train ride north of Kyoto. This was good in itself, as it allowed us to see rural and coastal areas of Japan we would normally blast through on the Shinkansen. The actual town of Amanohashidate (which I discovered has the same telephone dialling code as my hometown in the UK) is divided into two parts, almost 4km away, on opposing sides of a coastal bay. What splits the halves is what people come to look at - and in an unusual way (but more of that later).

The town`s name means 'The Bridge to Heaven', and the connection between the halves is the bridge - a long, narrow sand spit covered with almost 10,000 pine trees. Unfortunately we arrived in the rain, and walked through the soggy streets to the start of the sand spit. Looking at the shops on either side of the road, the main industry appeared to be drying seafood - every one had a rack of flattened, crispy squid and fish. One had a large, translucent, octopus dangling from a coathanger, swinging around in the breeze looking more like an octopus-shaped kite than the real thing.

Ice-cream or squid on a stick? Tough choice...

It took about 45mins to cross the sand spit, walking along a gravel path that ran up the centre. The rain eased the further along we got - but the people didn`t. There was some kind of sponsored walk going on, so we walked against a continual flood of people all the way. Either side of the bridge boats cruised up and down, ferrying people around who wanted a more direct route. They docked at the far end of the spit, in front of the Kono Shrine. It seemed to be a shrine that worshipped turtles, as several of them were sitting in a watery pit at the main entrance. At the other end of the shrine enclosure were more dried squid shops and a funicular railway to a viewing platform at Kasamatsu Park. We rode to the top - sadly the individual seat chairlift was out of action. The view at the top was well worth the effort - and by this time the rain had stopped.

Dad looking at the Bridge in the proper way

The sand spit cuts across the bay on a diagonal, and although the surrounding hills were obscured by cloud, we could see the whole thing. The correct way to view the Bridge to Heaven is 'Mata-nozoki' - by turning around, bending over, and looking at it between your legs. If you do this the spit is supposed to resemble a bridge climbing the sky to heaven. Well, to me it looked just the same, only upside-down. The blood rushing to your head might be a clue as to why some people think that it looks like a bridge to heaven, but I really couldn`t see it. It was great fun though, and good to see everyone having a go, young and old. After descending the funicular we got a boat across the water and caught a train back to Kyoto.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The flashy and the simple

The Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji

It seems that the desire to outdo your neighbour is a pretty universal thing. Whether it's buying a fancier car, having an extension built, or covering your temple with gold, getting that edge over your rivals is something that is sought the world over. When Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu planned a retirement villa in 1397, gold was the obvious choice for an outside colour scheme. Constructed on a reflecting lake, the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji is one of Japan's best-known sights. As expected, everything in the temple grounds is simply yet perfectly arranged, to maximise the visual impact. The care taken with these historic sights is wonderfully obsessive - at every temple or shrine we've seen countless gardeners, crowd directors, cleaners, and ticket inspectors. What we often can`t find are information guides - my Lonely Planet devotes two paragraphs to Kinkaku-ji, and there were no English maps available so we were reduced to wandering around guessing as to what it all meant, which was sad as the temple was breath-taking. The one piece of information I did find out was that the current temple above was built only in 1955 - a monk so obsessed with it's beauty burned it to the ground in 1950, presumably to stop others from looking at it.

The Zen rock garden at Ryoan-ji

The frustrations that we felt at Kinkaku-ji are universal at Ryoan-ji. The highlight of this Zen temple (founded in 1450) is the garden. Not just a regular garden, Ryoan-ji has the quintessential Buddhist rock and gravel garden. About the size of half a tennis court, the garden consists of 15 rocks adrift in a sea of carefully-raked gravel. The Japanese don't know what it means, as the designer - who remains unknown - never explained what the meaning was. One thing that is apparent is that no matter where you stand, you can't see all 15 rocks - at least one is always hidden.

Detail of a wall at Nijo Castle

The next stop for me was Nijo Castle. I'd wanted to look at a non-religious old building - and Nijo-jo was constructed in 1603 by one of the most infamous of all Shoguns - Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa came to power in 1600 and moved the capital to Edo (present-day Tokyo). He introduced a strict regime, took control of ports, mines and cities, and closed the entire country to foreigners. For the next 268yrs Japan developed in complete isolation. Any Japanese who ventured abraod were executed immediately if they returned.

Obviously being an important figure Tokugawa had his enemies. He met rival warlords at Nijo Castle in specially-designed rooms. You can walk around (but not inside) these today, and see exactly where these supressed nobles knelt to pay their respects to the Shogun. Wary of assassins, Tokugawa had the floor constructed so that every footstep produces a squeak. Tiny hooked pins under each floorboard rub against eachother, making it impossible to creep silently through the corridors - they are known as 'Nightingale' floors. Also in the castle are fake sections of wall made from thin paper that show the shadow of any would-be assailant, trapdoors in the ceiling for armed guards to leap from - and in the long meeting hall itself, the Shogun would sit at the far end next to a secret door. Inside were heavily-armed Samurai, ready to spring from hiding and defend their master from any surprise attackers. These methods must have been efficient - as despite a life filled with bloodshed and slaughter, Tokugawa died of natural causes in his sleep, aged 74.