I really do love Japan. From some of the stories I’ve heard about Japanese working hours and school discipline I’m not sure I’d feel the same way if I lived here, but aside from the cost it’s a great place to be as a Western visitor. Fairly easy to get around and very friendly people who all seem to want you to like their culture.
Anyway, here I am in Hiroshima lounging around in my Yukata in a fairly traditional room in a cheap hotel. Should you ever come here then I’d recommend it, the place is called ‘Minshuku Ikedaya’ and it’s great for under $40 per night. It’s a little strange though, there’s a mix of about 50:50 Japanese and gaijin (foreigners) here, and the Japanese people mostly wander around in their normal clothes while us gaijin are taking the chance to pose in the traditional Japanese robes which come with the room.
In my opinion this place has the best combination where bathrooms are concerned, Japanese baths and Western toilets. The bath is communal and a lot like the hot-tubs I’ve visited in California. Wash and rinse before you get in, then soak for as long as you can last in the very hot water. Unlike the hot-tubs they aren’t usually intentionally mixed, though Margaux and Cathy (the two Australian girls I mentioned) did say that they had some problems with directions the first time they used one and ended up joining the men… I think I hit rush-hour, as this place only has fifteen rooms and we had about eight guys in the bathroom at once. Anyway, a soak at 40-50°C certainly does wake you up in the morning!
Oh, and air conditioning! Hallelujah to whoever invented air conditioning, because after three or four weeks without it I can see why we need it…
Back to the plot. I didn’t do much more in the way of sightseeing before I left Tokyo. By the time I’d chatted a lot more with the others in Marui House to find out more about transport and suchlike, booked my train ticket, done some laundry, etc, etc, there wasn’t much time left over. I have some ideas of the places I still want to see and should have a week when I get back.
I was able to visit the Imperial Palace Gardens one day, but the sky was cloudy and light rain was falling so I didn’t stay long. I went on to the shrine to the Japanese war dead and the shrine museum. I’d seen that on TV a few months ago in a documentary about the Japanese Kamikaze pilots and there were many displays there about the numerous different suicide attacks. I’d heard about the planes before I came here, but didn’t realise that they also had manned torpedos, suicide motorboats with large explosive charges attached and even men in diving suits carrying bombs on long poles which would detonate if pushed against the underside of a ship. Like most people I’m still astonished by the whole idea. I can understand the reasons, but I’m still amazed that they actually did it.
Most of the museum was in Japanese rather than English, but I was
given a leaflet which explained some of it. One unexpected display was dedicated to the female nurses who had been killed during the war, one of whom had accumulated an impressive collection of pressed flowers, and another included a wooden plaque on which was mounted a bent piece of metal. This was part of a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine and years later presented to the surviving crew members by the survivors of the USS North Carolina, “with apologies for the damage we did when we hit it”.
I was slightly concerned when I was visiting the shrine that I might offend someone whose relatives had been killed in the war, but aside from one strange look no-one seemed to care. About half the people in the museum were Westerners, including Mark from Marui House who also ended up there. I’ve felt the same way in Hiroshima, and a couple of older people seem to have freaked out when they saw me walking along the street.
One major crisis occured when Margaux and Cathy had their money and passports stolen, a real surprise in such a relatively safe society as Japan. They had moved out and were looking for an apartment, but because of the theft I last saw them sleeping on the floor outside the door of my room. They were able to borrow some money so hopefully they’ll be sorted out by the time I get back. Luckily both of them had travelled a lot before so they could deal with having that happen on their second or third day in the country.
I took a look around some of the big shopping areas in Tokyo while searching for Net Cafes. I did find one in the Sony building where the company show off all their new toys, and they even had some computers on display with Net connections but no keyboards so I got to check out some Web sites. The Net Cafe was a lot like the one in Thailand, very flash and no way to use the floppy drives. I’m coming to the opinion that they’re really split into two categories. The cheap ones seem to be run by people who know about computers and realise what I can do with just a mouse and modem, while the expensive ones are run by people who know about Cafes and are very paranoid about the computers – you can’t use a floppy drive in case it has a virus, but you can reformat the hard disk or delete all the files by hand. Luckily I also found one of the former in Shibuya (‘Dream Train Internet Cybercafe’), and it’s damn cheap at only ¥500 (<$5) per hour. They even provide free iced tea.
Japan is very much a cash economy. Few places take credit cards and even when buying a $200 train ticket you usually have to pay in cash. This can make life tricky as banks are only open until 3pm during the week and some to noon on Saturdays, and are about the only place to change money. Very few ATMs will take foreign credit cards and almost none will take foreign ATM cards (the wondrous exception being the 24-hour Citibank machine in Shibuya – Hallelujah). Worse still, many ATMs are in the banks themselves (in Japan just about anything is available from vending machines, including bottles of whiskey, but they won't risk leaving ATMs out on the street) and unavailable outside bank hours.
Consequently you need to sure to always carry enough cash to last a day and preferably enough to last a weekend. I'm not used to carrying $300 around with me in cash, in most countries so far I've been able to take money from my bank account from ATMs whenever I needed it and in China I only spent about $120 total in ten days and rarely had more than $20 cash with me. Should you ever be stuck for cash in Tokyo, the aforementioned Citibank machine is opposite the second '109 Building' after you leave Shibuya Station, and should take most foreign ATM cards. Should you need Internet access, the Net Cafe is opposite the first '109 Building'.
As expected, I gave up and took the 'shink' to Osaka. The trains are very efficient and airline-like, to the extent that your ticket tells you which seat you will be sitting in and there are marks on the platform to show you where the door will be when the train stops, exactly on time. With comfy seats and travelling at well over 100 mph they're pretty good for the price. I even got a window seat so I was able to see a lot of the scenery. Much of the trip was through urban areas, but I saw quite a lot of rice growing and forested mountains. Another TV crew was filming at Tokyo station, but this time I think they missed me.
The ryokan (inn) I stayed at in Osaka was nothing special but OK for a couple of days. I was slightly worried when I arrived because the ground floor was in pieces while workmen renovated it, but at least they didn't make much noise. As there were only two floors this did mean that only about four people were staying there and the bath was out of action. Outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, where most of the gaijin houses are located, the ryokans and minshuku seem to be the best places to stay. Prices vary from about $35 per night to $500+ per night depending on location, opulence and services, but those at the low end are OK.
Getting there took a long subway-ride then walk through a large shopping center, and that made me wish that I could have reduced my baggage-load even more. I'm still tempted to wrap my video-camera up in my sleeping bag and mail both back to my parents. In Tokyo I was using my space blanket (aluminized plastic sheet) for bedding and aside from crinkling a bit at night it seemed to work as well as the sleeping bag but folds up to about half the size of a Coke can. If any of you ever want to make this kind of trip, or if I do it again, I'd recommend just taking one of those (about $10 from camping stores) and leaving the sleeping bag at home.
There have also been odd times during the trip when I've woken up in the morning and wondered what the hell I was doing and if I should just buy a plane ticket back home, and I had some trouble getting out of bed to the airport in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The problem isn't anything like homesickness (I suspect that if I have a home these days then it's the Internet), I think the primary reason is just all the hassle of having to pack and take a bus to the airport, check in, etc, etc. Hopefully that won't be so much of a problem in the future as I'll only be flying every two or three weeks.
This whole trip seems to be split into two chunks, the bits where I have people to visit and the bits where I'm by myself. So far I've been tending to do more when I'm visiting people and I also get a much better idea of what life is really like in the places that I'm travelling to. When I'm by myself I'm often quite lazy and I've probably missed several places that I really should have visited. However, after years of working in an office that's made a nice break.
I do think sometimes that really the people are turning out to be more important to me than the places, because as much as I like history, I'm more interested in seeing how people live in different countries than just seeing old buildings and parks. What I really like is having people around to say 'hey look, this is how we do things in my country – isn't it neat?' I've certainly enjoyed the times when I've been visiting people far more.
In Kyoto I was able to do both. Months ago Shozo, a guy from Osaka, posted to soc.penpals about the club he was running at the university, dedicated to encouraging interaction between Japanese and English-speaking people in the area. He was looking for English-speakers to come along and give talks, but I mailed him and suggested that I dropped by while I was in the area. We arranged to meet up while I was here and he'd show me some of the sights. Osaka was holding a big festival that day but as that meant it would be very crowded we decided to meet up in Kyoto instead. The city is one of the big historical sites in Japan. He seemed pleased because he'd replied to many similar messages from people around the world and now finally one of them had turned up and called him!
To get there I had my first taste of the normal Japanese trains, the express only took about twice as long as the shinkansen and was much cheaper. I'm sure that a similar distance in England would cost a lot more. Kyoto station was just as confusing as Ikebukuro and I was worried that we'd miss each other again, but luckily we didn't. Kyoto itself was very, very hot and at 36°C I suspect it was the hottest place I've ever been.
We visited the movie studios as Kyoto is apparently also the center of the Japanese movie industry and I took a film foundation course just before this trip. The places we were able to visit were quite interesting as examples of old Japanese sets, and we watched as some scenes were filmed for a Japanese Samurai TV show. As we did so I spoke for a while with a Japanese businessman who seemed for some reason to be convinced that coming from England I must be a Knight. I don't think I managed to explain to him that I wasn't!
The souvenir shops were very unusual, selling everything from T-shirts (I was going to buy one but those that I liked were too small) to nunchaku and brass knuckles. I looked around for something I could buy for my parents but nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Shozo bought himself a very nice towel, and afterwards I wished I had too so I could have sent mine back – it's very thick which is nice, but heavy…
We also took a look at one of the shrines near the river. One thing I'd noticed in Osaka was that a lot of people seemed to be sleeping rough – seven or eight spent the night on cardboard on the forecourt of the gas station near the ryokan. More seemed to be living under the bridge in Kyoto. I'd seen none in Tokyo and was surprised to see them out here. I can only assume that either I was living in too touristy a part of Tokyo, or Kansai (that whole area) is just poorer than Tokyo.
There were also a few cormorants out in the water. Cormorant fishing is traditional in this part of Japan. The fishermen tie string to the birds and let them catch fish, then pull them in. The string around the neck prevents them from swallowing, so the fishermen can then recover the fish. Opinions vary on whether they make more money from selling the fish or running tours nowadays.
Fishing does seem to be pretty big in Japan though, most of the times when I've turned on the TV there's been a fishing show on at least one channel. Japanese fishing rods seem to be very high-tech, some even include an LCD readout of the amount of line you've reeled out… The Japanese game shows I've seen seem pretty bizarre, but the ads are the best. I can understand what two or three of them are for, but that's about it.
Back in Kyoto, the Yasaka-jinja shrine was very pleasant, much more colorful than the one in Tokyo, and Shozo and his friend (a girl who stayed with the same family when he was an exchange student in Durham) showed me the correct etiquette at a Shinto shrine. We also stopped for a little while to scratch the temple cat who was dozing in the shade. Perhaps I should have joined him. The grounds were very pretty with large ponds containing fish and turtles.
In the evening we visited a Japanese restaurant where I was able to try various dishes that I'd never had before. The octopus was a bit strange, but I liked the rest. He reminded me that I was eating beef, as I'd forgotten about all the hysteria about British Beef since I'd left the country. I hadn't been eating much over there but was now just treating it as another dish on the menu. Anyway, we were given raw beef tongue and a hotplate to cook it on, and it tasted nice.
I did want to stay in Osaka another day, but failed to communicate this with the staff at the ryokan, or perhaps they had no rooms, so I set off for Hiroshima instead. Turning up at the station there were no seats available for a couple of hours on the normal shinkansen, so there I was supposedly on a budget but zipping along on the 'Nozomi Super-Express' shinkansen, the fastest train in Japan at nearly a hundred and eighty mph. Hell, the difference in price was only about five dollars and at the rate I was going I'd have got through more than that in cold drinks before the two hours were up. I was so hot that I'd drunk six cans in the two hours between leaving the ryokan and getting on the train!
Oh, on that subject I can recommend the 'Royal Milk Tea' and 'Kirin Afternoon Tea' (at least the one in white cans). Both are very yummy, hot or cold. Cold is preferable as drinking hot tea out of a metal can presents obvious problems.
The super-express was impressive. The normal shinkansen engines have a sort of friendly face look at the front. The Nozomi trains look far more businesslike and even threatening, and seem like something out of a Gerry Anderson SF show. Just looking at the first few feet of the train you can tell that they're fast. I really should have taken a few photos but my brain was too fried to even think about it.
The trip was pleasant, but I didn't see much scenery. Part of that was because of all the tunnels along the way and part of it was because I spent most of it talking. Sitting alongside me was Hiroshi Maeyama, a businessman running the sales department of a company making parts for compressors. Bizarrely enough the company he worked for has a British branch in Milton Keynes, only a few miles from where I was working there, so he knew the area. He lived in Chiba. I did mention Gibson's novels, but I don't think he'd ever heard of the guy.
Along the way I mentioned that I'd never had a proper sushi dinner, just on airplanes, and as neither of us had eaten he invited me to join him for lunch after we arrived at Hiroshima. We went to a sushi restaurant in the station and had a very nice lunch there. This time the octopus tasted much nicer, and the meal included other seafood that I'd never tried before such as sea urchin. Although I was expecting to split the bill he even treated me. That was very kind, and I guess I now have my own story of wonderful Japanese hospitality to add to the many I have heard in the past.
Ah well, the beer's run out and the time is nearly 1am. I'll leave this for now and write more about Hiroshima in a day or two! Kampai!